St Teresa of Avila: “Oh my Lord, when will You stop scattering obstacles in our path?”
Jesus: “Do not complain, daughter, for that is how I treat my friends.”
Teresa: “If this is how You treat your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!”
(Some poetic licence taken in recreating the dialogue, but it holds true to the original story. Have a read here for a more complete account.)
I was told this story many years ago, and it has grown in it’s meaning, depth and significance for me over time. As I have grown further (sometimes feels like regressing) in my walk with Jesus I have been able to hear the story from different and deeper perspectives – and my life is all the richer for it.
I was thinking of this story this morning as I lamented to God on a particular part of life. Lament is such an underutilized and under-recognised element of relationship with God – I highly recommend plumbing the depths of what it has to offer. For soul searching, gut-wrenching genuine prayer there is little that can match it. Anyway, I digress.
I grasped hold of Teresa’s words to complain that not everything in my life was turning out the way I desired or expected. To be blunt, I wanted to know whether God was still on-the-ball and operating with a full deck. Did God still know what He was up to? Why, if I am His friend, are some things the way they are?
I caught myself in the moment wondering what God’s response might be to my “courageous” words I aimed at Him. Much of my previous experience of God’s people (and their religious institutions) has attempted to continuously reinforce that God is this completely Holy being– read: does not make mistakes; is always perfect; is beyond questioning and much more. I have grown to find that an increasingly frustrating relationship to be involved in.
In the human-to-human sphere I can’t stomach relationships where one party is always right and the other the slower, duller, less competent one. There is a reciprocity of love in relationship that makes all healthy relationships survive. It is the same with fault, apology and recognising blind spots. Any healthy relationship (friendship, familial or romantic) must be between individuals that accept they cannot be right all the time and must be open to different perspectives, and to disagreement. This for me seems to be most painfully obvious in friendships. Friendships where there is never any disagreement, any tension, are not honest. Like romantic relationships, we cannot be so alike in our friendships that there is never a topic that doesn’t cause dispute, a word that doesn’t hurt, an idea with which the other may not disagree. Courageous friendships face that reality, process the difficulty and emerge stronger because of it.
And so I return to Teresa’s dialogue. What has been particularly enriching for me over time has been two elements of this story.
Firstly, she does not seem afraid to share honestly with God. There is no doubt in my mind of her connection with God, love for God, and desire to serve God. Her honesty cannot contradict these!
Secondly, her willingness to chastise God for the way He acts. She looks at the situation, assesses it and renders her judgement. If You (God) weren’t so difficult with Your friends then You would have more of them. I have often felt the same.
What is interesting is that there is no response from God recorded to finish this story. Job, in my understanding, has a similar ending. Twice God speaks to Job, twice Job answers. Each time God seems to be stretching to prove His Almighty stature, each time Job answers in an ambiguous manner which is neither acceptance nor outright disagreement. Job isn’t taking God’s speeches lying down though. (Here is a great resource for taking this idea deeper – Click this link.) God does not answer Job for a third time though. Does God accept Job’s position? Does God accept Teresa’s rebuke?
So how would I characterise my friendship with God? Do I quietly acquiesce to all that God has to ‘say to me’? Or are there some things that upset me, anger me, depress me… the list goes on. And, what do I do with those parts of our friendship?
I am trying to take my lead from Teresa (and, in fact, from Moses and Abraham too). I will argue, protest, criticize and debate. I will express myself to the fullest I am able to in frustration, disagreement, and heartfelt sorrow. I refuse to accept that my position in this friendship is one where I must simply accept what is, and capitulate to what will be. I must quickly include here that I am not simplifying a deeply mysterious and mystical union and reality. Do I dispute God as Holy? No. Do I disagree with God as perfect? Also no. But, equally, there is something going on here that requires the dynamism of friendship – some disagreement, some push and pull. Perhaps God does want me to engage with Him the way Abraham, Moses, Job and Teresa have done. I am going to take that risk, because to not do so seems to be a very anemic version of friendship – and I won’t settle for that.
And what will God do in return? Well, watch this space – we will see…
(Teresa of Ávila was a Carmelite nun who lived in the 1500’s. A phenomenal Christian mystic and writer on prayer.)