Waving the white flag…or not

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Hebrews 11:6

When life wriggles out of my grasp for control, I can never decide whether to fight or surrender.  Am I allowed to pray with fists clenched and heart wrestling just as desperately as Jacob did with God, or should I open my hands and say with Nebuchadnezzar, “[God] does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.  No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35).

One of the most striking memories I have of visiting the Holy Land is scrambling up a rocky hill strewn with ancient pottery shards to visit Penuel, the probable site of Jacob’s wrestling match with God.  Before this visit, I had imagined the struggle of Genesis 32 taking place on a calm, flat riverbank, followed by a long, cool walk (limp?) in the desert moonlight.  Nope; no mercy for Jacob and his dislocated hip here.  Penuel is one of many steep hills crowded together in the arid landscape. The air feels oppressively dense and shimmers with heat.  I barely made it up one hill in great shape with two working legs.  I remember panting at the top of the hill, squinting at the Jabbok River winding through the hills like a tiny silver snake, and thinking, Would I have had the guts to take hold of God here?  To not let him go until I got a blessing?  To keep moving and trusting after he hit me where it hurts? 

At this point, I think not.  Great loss can make us feel so small before God.   After the miscarriage, I sometimes feel like I have shrunken to something barely visible while God has grown so large, I hardly recognize him.  In my smallness, I can never hope to decode his plan, let alone see the good in it. So how do I respond to the tragedy?  How do I pray? A dismissive “Your will be done” seems like a one-dimensional, dishonest, cowardly reaction.  On the other hand, pounding on the door of Heaven demanding blessing seems rebellious and irreverent.  So how do I talk to God right now?  How do I navigate the balance between surrendering to his will and fighting for his blessing? 

I searched the scriptures and was encouraged see that the men and women of the Bible set precedents of both surrender and fight.  I have more than a lifetime of work to do before I am a true Biblical scholar, but I’ll share some thoughts on two examples here:

Surrender: Job (see also Abraham, Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar, Mary, Paul…)

Fight: Canaanite woman (see also Jacob, David, the prophets, bleeding woman in Luke 8, widow seeking justice…)

After losing his family, possessions, and health, Job raises his voice to defend his own righteousness (yikes) and asks the dreaded “why” question (understandable).  “God’s response?

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.  Who marked off its dimensions?  Surely you know!  Who stretched a measuring line across it?  On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7).  God continues with three chapters of unanswerable questions like this, and I shrink along with Job just reading them.  In the end, Job is the one who must answer to God, not the other way around. Job says, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know…Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3 &6).  After Job’s humble acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty, God “restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).  Surrender precedes the blessing.

Job’s situation reminds me of Paul’s letter to believers in Rome, in which he asks the pain-inducing question: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?  ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purpose and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20-21). 

These passages are difficult, even unpalatable to the post-Enlightenment mind.  But they are part of God’s inspired Word; I can’t ignore them.  So far, it seems like the correct response to adversity is to open my hands, empty myself, and blindly accept whatever God brings my way.  But is that the whole story?  If I characterize my response to life with this kind of wimpy surrender, I’ll become passionless, lazy, joyless.  And I must consider the other examples, such as the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.

She asks Jesus to heal her daughter.  Well, she doesn’t just ask.  She kind of yells at him.  At first, “Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us’” (Matthew 15:23).  I’m picturing her following Jesus and his guys down the road, calling out over and over for Jesus’ attention and healing.  As a non-Jewish person and a woman, in this socio-historical context she is considered one of the lowest of the low, with no right to even speak to a rabbi, let alone this rabbi, let alone ask him for something, let alone ask him for a miracle.  But she apparently doesn’t care!  She keeps following and yelling and making a fool of herself until finally, Jesus responds to her raw determination.  It looks like he is testing her:

“He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’
The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said.
He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’
‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’
Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment” (Matthew 15:24-28).

I can’t help but love this woman.  Her moxie is out of control.  She doesn’t get the honor of being named, but she gets the honor of commendation from the Messiah.  Why?  Her faith.  She is so convinced that Jesus can heal her daughter that she refuses to quit asking until he gives her what she wants.  She fights for her daughter, and fight precedes the blessing.

BUT. Was it really surrender that preceded Job’s blessing and fight that preceded the woman’s blessing?  Now, the epiphany: neither surrender nor fight caused God to respond with blessing.  Job could have surrendered with faithless motives, just as the woman could have fought for her daughter out of fearful motives.  Instead, God taught Job to trust him, to have faith in God’s plan and power.  Instead, the woman received her reward for the faith she showed in Jesus’ power to heal. FAITH PRECEDED BOTH BLESSINGS. 

Clearly, God is impressed with faith.  He is the source of faith, after all (Romans 12:3).  And he responds to it with blessing.  But faith is tough, so it’s encouraging to remember that God also has mercy on those who lack faith.  He could have killed whiny Job or arrogant Nebuchadnezzar on the spot, but instead he taught and restored them.  He could have fired Moses for lacking confidence, Gideon for delaying, Elijah for giving up.  But instead, he gave Moses a partner, Gideon a sign, and Elijah a still, small voice.  (Check out Exodus 3-4, Judges 6, and 1 Kings 19 for the full stories.)  Heck, Samson was a self-satisfied, egomaniacal jerk who listened to pretty much nothing God asked of him, but when Samson humbled himself and trustingly asked for help, God STILL used him to defeat Israel’s enemy. 

I’m starting to get it now.  God rewards submission to his sovereignty motivated by faith that he is good even when we can’t see it.  But he also rewards borderline-irreverent, courageous prayer motivated by faith that he will bless us because he “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), and because he loves us.  Maybe both surrender and fight are correct responses to adversity, as long as they are faith-motivated.  If I don’t surrender, I have no peace.  If I don’t fight, I have no purpose.  I don’t want to wear timid “surrender” as a mask for laziness or unbelief, nor do I want to wear action-packed “faith” as a mask for fear or arrogance.  My action or non-action, working or waiting, struggling or surrendering, must be motivated by humble faith that God (1) is ultimately and rightfully in charge, and (2) rewards the faithful in his time and way.