The church I attend reserves a brief time in which people in the pews can voice aloud their prayers. Over the years, I have heard hundreds of these prayers, and with very few exceptions, the word polite applies. One, however, stands out in my memory because of its raw emotion.
In a clear but wavering voice, a young woman began with the words, "God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?" The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in seats. "And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn't want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you, God, that you didn't give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul."
Of all the prayers I have heard in church, this one most resembles the style of testy prayers I find replete in the Bible, especially those from God's favorites such as Abraham and Moses.
Abraham, a man rightly celebrated for his faith, heard from God in visions, in one-on-one conversations, and even in a personal visit to his tent. God dangled before him glowing promises, one of which stuck in his craw: the assurance that he would father a great nation. Abraham was 75 when he first heard that promise, and over the next few years, God upped the ante with hints of offspring as bountiful as the dust of the earth and the stars in the sky.
Meanwhile, nature took its course, and at an age when he should have been patting the heads of great-grandchildren, Abraham remained childless. He knew he had few years of fertility left, if any. At the age of 86, per his barren wife Sarah's suggestion, he followed the ancient custom of having intercourse with his wife's servant to produce an heir.
The next time God visited, that offspring, a son named Ishmael, was a teenage outcast wandering the desert, a victim of Sarah's jealousy. Abraham laughed aloud at God's reiterated promise, and by now, sarcasm was creeping into his response: "Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?" Sarah shared the bitter joke, muttering, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"
God responded with a message that to Abraham's ears must have sounded like good news and bad news both. He would indeed father a child, but only after performing minor surgery on the part of his body necessary for the deed. Abraham becomes the father of circumcision as well as of Isaac.
That pattern of feint and thrust, of Abraham standing up to God only to get knocked down again, forms the background for a remarkable prayer, actually an extended dialogue between God and Abraham. "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" God begins, as if recognizing that a valid partnership requires consultation before any major decision. Next, God unveils his plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, notorious for their wickedness and moral pollution of Abraham's extended family.
By now, Abraham has learned his role in the partnership, and he makes no attempt to conceal his outrage. "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the judge of all the earth do right?"
Then ensues a bargaining session much like what occurs in any Middle Eastern bazaar. What if there are 50 righteous persons in the city, will you spare it? All right, if I can find 50 righteous, I'll spare the whole place. With a jolt, Abraham remembers who he's bargaining with—Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes—but proceeds to lower his request to 45 persons.
Forty-five? No problem. May the Lord not be angry. … Now that I have been so bold—Abraham bows and scrapes, then continues to press. Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? Each time God concedes without argument, concluding, "For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it."
Although ten righteous people could not be found to save Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham got what he really wanted, deliverance for his nephew and grandnieces. And we readers are left with the tantalizing fact that Abraham quit asking before God quit granting.
What if Abraham had bargained even harder and asked that the cities be spared for the sake of one righteous person, his nephew Lot? Was God, so quick to concede each point, actually looking for an advocate, a human being bold enough to express God's own deepest instinct of mercy?
As Abraham learned, when we appeal to God's grace and compassion, the fearsome God soon disappears. "The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion" (Num. 14:18). God is more merciful than we can imagine and welcomes appeals to that mercy.
Arguing with God
Skip forward half a millennium when another master bargainer appears on the scene. God, who has "remembered his covenant with Abraham," handpicks a man with the perfect résumé for a crucial assignment. Moses has spent half his life learning leadership skills from the ruling empire of the day and half his life learning wilderness survival skills while fleeing a murder rap. Who better to lead a tribe of freed slaves through the wilderness to the Promised Land?
So as to leave no room for doubt, God introduces himself via an unnatural phenomenon: a fiery bush that does not burn up. Appropriately, Moses hides his face, afraid to look, as God announces the mission: "The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."
Unlike Abraham, Moses turns argumentative from the very first meeting. He tries false humility: Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh? When that fails, he marshals other objections: I don't know your name … and what if the Israelites don't believe me … I have never been eloquent. God patiently answers each one, orchestrating a few miracles to establish credibility. Still, Moses begs off: O Lord, please send someone else to do it. God's patience runs out and his anger flares, but even so God suggests a compromise, a shared role with Moses' brother Aaron. The famous Exodus from Egypt thus gets under way only after an extended bargaining session.
Moses puts that knack for negotiation, that chutzpah, to a supreme test sometime later when God's patience with the tribe truly has run out. After watching ten plagues descend on Egypt, after walking away from slavery scot-free and burdened by plunder, after seeing a pharaoh's state-of-the-art army swept under water, after following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, after receiving miraculous supplies of water and food (some of it digesting in their bellies at that very moment)—after all that, the Israelites grow afraid, or bored, or "stiff-necked" in God's diagnosis, and reject it all in favor of a golden idol made for them by Moses' sidekick brother, the very Aaron God had recruited by way of compromise.
God has had quite enough. "Let me alone, so that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make you into a nation stronger and more numerous than they." Moses knows well the destructive power God can unleash, for he has seen it firsthand in Egypt. "Let me alone," God says! Moses hears that remark less as a command than as the sigh of a beleaguered parent who has reached the end of a tether, yet somehow wants to be pulled back—in other words, an opening stance for negotiation.
Moses rolls out the arguments. Look at all you went through delivering them from Egypt. What about your reputation? Think of how the Egyptians will gloat! Don't forget your promises to Abraham. Moses flings down a sack of God's own promises. For 40 days and 40 nights, he lies prostrate before the Lord, refusing food and drink. At last, God yields: "Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way." Moses proceeds to win that argument, too, as God reluctantly agrees to accompany the Israelites the rest of the way.
Sometime later, the tables have turned. This time Moses is the one ready to resign. Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? And this time it is God who responds with compassion, calming Moses, sympathizing with his complaints, and designating 70 elders to share the burden.
Moses did not win every argument with God. Notably, he failed to persuade God to let him enter the Promised Land in person (though that request, too, was granted many years later on the Mount of Transfiguration). But his example, like Abraham's, proves that God invites argument and struggle, and often yields, especially when the point of contention is God's mercy. In the very process of arguing, we may, in fact, take on God's own qualities.
"Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance," writes Archbishop Richard Trench. "It is laying hold of his highest willingness."
A Strange Intimacy
Were Abraham and Moses the only biblical examples of standing toe-to-toe with God, I would hesitate to see in their grappling encounters any kind of model for prayer. They rank, however, as two prime representatives of a style that recurs throughout the Bible. (Perhaps this very trait explains why God chose them for such important tasks?)
The arguments of those two giants of faith seem tame compared to the rants of Job. His three friends speak in platitudes and pious formulas, using the demure language often heard in public prayers at church. They defend God, try to soothe Job's outbursts, and reason their way to accepting the world as it is. Job will have none of it.
He bitterly objects to being the victim of a cruel God. Job speaks to God directly from the heart—a deeply wounded heart. He nearly abandons prayer because, as he tells his mortified friends, "What would we gain by praying to him?" Yet in the ironic twist at the end of Job, God comes down squarely on the side of Job's bare-all approach, dismissing his friends' verbiage with a blast of contempt.
The psalmists likewise complain of God's absence and apparent injustice. One psalm attributed to David captures the spirit:
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.
A litany of protests in Psalms and in the Prophets remind God that the world is askew, that many promises remain unfulfilled, that justice and mercy do not rule the earth.
A wrestling match also occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus struggled with God's will and accepted it only as a last resort. Later, when God chose the least likely person (a notorious human-rights abuser named Saul of Tarsus) to carry his message to the Gentiles, a church leader voiced dissent: "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem." God cut this particular argument short: "Go! This man is my chosen instrument." Several years later, the same man, now named Paul, himself bargained with God, praying repeatedly for the removal of a physical ailment.
Why would God, the all-powerful ruler of the universe, resort to a style of relating to humans that seems like negotiation—or haggling, to put it crudely? Does God require the exercise as part of our spiritual training regimen? Or is it possible that God, if I may use such language, relies on our outbursts as a window onto the world, or as an alarm that might trigger intervention? It was the cry of the Israelites, after all, that prompted God's call of Moses.
Like Abraham, I approach God at first in fear and trembling, only to learn that God wants me to stop groveling and start arguing. I dare not meekly accept the state of the world, with all its injustice and unfairness. I must call God to account for God's own promises, God's own character.
I used to worry about my deficiency of faith. My attitude is changing, though, as I begin to understand faith as a form of engagement with God. I may not be able to summon up belief in miracles or dream big dreams, but I can indeed exercise my faith by engaging with God in prayer.
I recall a scene from very early in my marriage. We were visiting friends out West who had arranged for us to stay at a four-bedroom guesthouse that had no other occupants at the time. Over dinner, some comment hit one of us the wrong way, and before long, a marital spat had escalated. We sat up late trying to talk it through, but instead of bringing us together, the conversation only moved us further apart. Aware that I had a business meeting the next day, I stormed off from our bedroom to another one in search of peace and sleep.
A few minutes went by, the door opened, and Janet appeared with a new set of arguments supporting her side. I fled to another bedroom. The same thing happened. She would not let me alone! The scene became almost comical: a sulking, introverted husband running away from an insistent, extroverted wife. By the next day (not before), we could both laugh. I learned an important lesson, that not communicating is worse than fighting. In a wrestling match, at least both parties stay engaged.
That image of wrestling evokes one last scene from the Bible, the prototype of struggle with God. Abraham's grandson Jacob has gotten through life by trickery and deceit, and now he must face the consequences in the person of his hot-tempered brother, whom he cheated out of family birthrights. Ridden by fear and guilt, Jacob sends his family and all his possessions on ahead across a river, with elaborate peace offerings to mollify Esau. For 20 years, he has lived in exile. Will Esau greet him with a sword or with an embrace? He shivers alone in the dark, waiting.
Someone bumps him—a man? an angel?—and Jacob does what he has always done. He fights as if his life depends on it. All night the two wrestle, neither gaining the advantage, until at last the first gleam of daybreak brightens the horizon. "Let me go," the figure says, reaching down with a touch so potent it wrenches Jacob's hip socket.
Staggering, overpowered, scared out of his wits, Jacob still manages to hang on. "I will not let you go unless you bless me," he tells the figure. Instead of wrenching his neck with another touch, the figure tenderly bestows on Jacob a new name, Israel, which means "God-wrestler." At last, Jacob learns the identity of his opponent.
A little later, Jacob sees his brother Esau approaching with 400 men and limps forward to meet him. Their own wrestling match began before birth, a tussle in utero. And now the moment of truth has arrived. God-wrestler holds out his arms.
A contemporary Jewish author, Arthur Waskow, wrote in his book Godwrestling that wrestling feels a lot like making love—and like making war. Jacob felt some of each, making love and making war, with the elusive figure in the night and with hairy Esau in the day. From a distance, it's hard to distinguish a stranglehold from a hug.
God does not give in easily. Yet at the same time, God seems to welcome the persistence that keeps on fighting long after the match has been decided. Perhaps Jacob learned for the first time, that long night by the riverside, how to transform struggle into love. "To see your face is like seeing the face of God," Jacob told his brother, words unimaginable had he not met God face to face the night before.
Although Jacob did many things wrong in life, he became the eponym for a tribe and a nation as well as for all of us who wrestle with God. We are all children of Israel, implied Paul, all of us God-wrestlers who cling to God in the dark, who chase God from room to room, who declare, "I will not let you go." To us belong the blessing, the birthright, the kingdom.
"Prayer in its highest form and grandest success assumes the attitude of a wrestler with God," concluded E. M. Bounds, who wrote eight books on prayer. Our no-holds-barred outbursts hardly threaten God, and sometimes they even seem to change him.
As the touch on Jacob's hip socket proved, God could have ended the match at any point during that long night in the desert. Instead, the elusive figure lingered, as eager to be held as Jacob was to hold.
This excerpt has been adapted from Philip Yancey's latest book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Zondervan).
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