The Lord turned to him and said, “Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian. It is I who send you.” But Gideon answered him, “Please, my lord, how can I save Israel? My family is the lowliest in Manasseh, and I am the most insignificant in my father’s house.” “I shall be with you,” the Lord said to him, “and you will cut down Midian to the last man.”
Judges 6: 14-16
“Go with the strength you have . . .” Many years ago while I was caring for my mother who was suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease, I received a word of advice I have never forgotten. “Remember, you’re in this for the long haul.” In many ways, those are the last words one wants to hear in the initial stages of a long struggle. As a 20th and 21st century American, my cultural formation sees difficulties as crises to be managed and overcome. In the face of every difficult human experience we are always looking for “closure.” We seem to refuse the reality that “closure” on one experience of human struggle merely opens on another. In our constant pursuit of “closure” we seek to return to the illusion of a life dissociated from the core components of the human condition.
The great wisdom traditions see life very differently. The first Noble Truth of the Buddha is that all human life is suffering. The emblem of passing from suffering to life for the Christian is the Cross of Jesus, the very source of life and hope. To carry our cross means to live out our life as it is given, in all of its joy, pain, and suffering. All of those years ago, I was being reminded that what my mother would undergo during these last 20 years of her life, as in a different way what I would undergo with her, was not an interruption of life but rather was our life and our call. As St. Catherine of Siena put it: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way’.”
To “suffer” our life, however, is not a passive endeavor. It is rather our very call to act in and for the world. This is what we hear in today’s reading from Judges. At every moment of life we are possibility and limit. The angel of the Lord tells Gideon to “Go with the strength you have . . .” Our limits, in fact, define our possibilities for service. When I was told to remember that I was to be with and for my mother for the long haul, it was a caution to work in accord with “the strength you have” and not waste my energies on attempts at premature “closure”. I was using much of my energy to fix things, or at least to re-establish my idea of the “normal”. But the call was to enter a “new normal” and to give what I could, as I could in response to the summons of the moment. It required a trust in God that could be confident that what would be asked of me was only that for which I had the strength.
There are things we cannot do, and then there are things we think we cannot do. The gap between what the Lord is asking of Gideon and who Gideon sees himself to be is illustrative of this ever-present tension. Gideon believes that because he is the most insignificant member of the lowliest family he could never be asked to save the people. The angel, however, tells him that what is needed is not who he thinks he would need to be, but rather the strength that he has. So often, we fail to do what we can because of our “ideas” of what is required for the task at hand. We fear that in our limits and fallibility we shall fail. Scriptural faith is precisely the trust that what is asked of us at a given moment is what we, with our strength, can do. What is beyond our strength is not being asked of us.
Whatever our situations, the moments of our lives today are calls to act, to do what we can to save our people. It may require overcoming the resistances of our laziness, our discouragement, our self-depreciation, our dislike of another. It may mean completing a difficult task without recognition or appreciation. Whatever life asks of us this day, it will require of us to go out of ourselves and to our world with the strength we have.
Which person who has some experience of spiritual matters would desire that an angel come from heaven in order to make known God’s will, when it is possible to know it by following the ordinary way? . . . God does not have to give an account to anybody of His actions. If His Majesty wants to use an ordinary, simple and uneducated person — yea, a sinner; if God wants to make this person turn toward Him in view of a special work; if God does not take the direction which people think He usually follows — in all this His Majesty is completely free and nobody is entitled to disapprove God’s actions, let alone oppose them.
from a letter of T. J. Ryken,to G, N. Hermans, 14 November 1844.G