Gideon said to the angel of the Lord, “My Lord, if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are his wondrous deeds of which our fathers told us when they said “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” For now the Lord has abandoned us and has delivered us into the power of Midian.” 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.”
Judges 6: 13-14
And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.
Matthew 19: 29
As spirit, we human beings are distinguished by what Adrian van Kaam calls our “transcendence-ability.” To be fully and distinctively human means that we are always outgrowing ourselves. As truly as the way we outgrew our new Easter clothes every year during our growth-spurts, we continue to outgrow throughout all of our lives our current form of life in favor of a more authentic one. Despite our desire to the contrary, we have no settled home in this life. In spiritual terms we could say that every time we think we have found the answer to who we are and to who our God is, we are inevitably disillusioned by the constant changes and losses that will always beset us. It is not difficult for us to identify with the experience of Gideon. He and his people, who were told of how God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, now find themselves enslaved to the Midianites. The power and strength of the Lord who rescued the Hebrews from Egypt now seems absent as they are, once again, brought low in the world.
Van Kaam tells us that we are formed as human beings by a process of differentiation and integration. New experiences and new insights in life will at times come together in such a way that we experience an integration of our person, a new current form of life which “feels” to us to be more ourselves than we have ever been before. At such moments we have the welcome experience of “self-possession.” We sense within ourselves a potency to give form to our life and our world that is a true expression of our own true life call.
Lest, however, we forget who we most deeply are, circumstances and other people will always remind us of our own limits and incompleteness. Usually when we are feeling most potent, something or someone will enter our lives and, as Theodore James Ryken described it, “put us in our place.” That experience may well first come to us as humiliation. Our pride form, that wants to have it right and to control reality, will be devastated by the reminder of our own smallness. Whether we like it or not, at this moment the new form we had so valued will begin to differentiate itself. Those aspects that most reflect the truth of who we are will remain, but those who by their very nature were accidental and provisional will fall away. In scriptural terms, we shall be reminded that the form we had assumed is not where we are to permanently “pitch our tent.” The greater our attachment to the differentiating current form of life, the more traumatic will be its loss. The more we pridefully and greedily hold on, the more the differentiation will feel like a humiliation, if not a death.
This is what Jesus means when he says that the person who “has given up” all for the sake of his name will inherit eternal life. Eternal life, our true spiritual identity, can never become identified with any current form of our life, and so obviously with nothing that we think we possess. All forms rise and fall. We recognize the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks as we live the rise and fall of these forms with humility and detachment, and even more importantly with faith, hope, and love.
The human way, however, provides no short cuts to the developing of such spiritual dispositions. For us, loss is darkness and pain. In the Christian tradition this is what is meant by accepting and even embracing the cross of Jesus. We make a great mistake when we spiritualize this call and attempt to make it, in the words of Rowan Williams, ”some kind of constructed self-immolation.” The acceptance and embracing of the cross is rather the acceptance of life as it comes to us in its rising and falling of forms. it is allowing the people, events, and situations of our own life to draw us, by formation, reformation, and transformation into the “eternal life” that Jesus promises.
In the moment of his life that today’s scripture describes, Gideon experiences that “the Lord has abandoned us and has delivered us into the power of Midian.” He has been brought low and feels powerless in the face of the experience of abandonment by God. Yet, it is in this very moment that the Lord says to him: “Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian. It is I who send you.” Although he feels powerless, God tells him that this is precisely the moment that he has the strength to go and fulfill his call.
Our sense of potency is not the same as God’s. As Paul says in many ways, it is when we are weak that we are strong; it is as the death of Jesus most fully enters into us that we are able to serve the life in others. When he hear the call to dispossession, such as Jesus issues in today’s gospel, we tend to think that what is being asked of us is passivity. We tend to understand integration as a time of activity and differentiation as a time for passivity. Yet, to receive fully what God is doing in our lives at moments of differentiation requires of us intense spiritual activity. As Jesus says in today’s gospel we are not just to suffer the dispossession, we are to “give up” those things to which we cling. We are to co-respond with the action of God in our lives at each moment. We are not to attempt to grasp and hold on to what we have until God, through the exigencies of life, rips it out of our hand. We are, rather, called to hand it all over in expectation of what is to come. This is what van Kaam calls “transcendent form potency.” Far beyond our potency to give the form we would give to the world is our capacity to respond, to co-respond to God’s creative work and love in the world. To live with faith, hope, and love is to enter, and to serve, the realm of eternal life, the life into which we and our world are constantly being called and formed. The first condition, however, is that we free ourselves of the weight of those possessions which are holding us back.
Our healing lies in obedient acceptance of God’s will; but this is no bland resignation. It is a change wrought by anguish, darkness and stripping. If we believe we can experience our healing without deepening our hurt, we have understood nothing of the roots of our faith. Jesus’ obedience in the circumstances of his earthly life, in temptation and fear, “with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7), is what opens the long-closed door between God and our hearts, and, although that door is now decisively open, all must still pass through it to make the reconciliation their own. They must now “obey” Christ, surrender to the patten of his sacrificial torment and death—not in some kind of constructed self-immolation, but in response to the trials encountered simply in living as a believer, living in the insecurities of faith, “the conviction of things not seen.” It is an acceptance of the hidden God and his strange work, the God who is only attained through stripping and the purgation of his “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:27). We go to him, as did the saints of the old covenant, by going out—out of the camp, out of the city (Heb. 13:12-14), beyond the settled and the ordered, to the place where Jesus died in his night, his desert.
Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, pp. 20-21