What Are You Resisting?
One of the most helpful spiritual questions I was ever asked is this: “What are you resisting?”
I can’t remember where I first read or heard that question, Pema Chodron maybe? Something Buddhist, I’m sure.
But it has remained in my life as one of the most fruitful seeds of prayer in the midst of pain or anxiety I’ve ever found.
What is it that I’m resisting?
The question has the power to stop me in my tracks in real time, in the very moment of my being angry at the world.
And asking the question also asks a second, implicit question: and why are you resisting it?
The subsequent questions ask themselves.
Is it worth resisting?
What would happen if you let this go?
Is what you’re resisting truly a threat to you, or simply an inconvenience, a discomfort, an irritant?
I’m usually awakened at that point to how easily and completely I’ve given myself over to the traditional three corrupting influences of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and by that I mean my selfish desires, my loud body and its preferences, and my cranky, needy ego.
I’m usually resentful of a phone call I need to make or a meeting I have to attend, unable to accept that I really will feel better if I eat well and exercise, or mad at my perception that someone is treating me dismissively or condescendingly.
What am I resisting? Trivial, trivial things.
And in the process I am resisting the glimpses of God that God is always ready to reveal to me in the midst of my trivial circumstances, if I would only open to them.
What are you resisting?
Sometimes it’s bigger than the everyday annoyances.
You can almost hear Jesus asking Nicodemus the question in our gospel today.
Nicodemus is confounded by Jesus’ teaching on being born again, on being recreated by the Holy Spirit.
There are hints that he is trapped by a kind of literalism: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Few of us would make the same mistake—we understand that Jesus means being reborn in a mystical, spiritual sense.
But I think it’s possible we make the exact same mistake Nicodemus does, not with birth, but with death and with resurrection.
We’re happy to take part in baptism as a spiritual rebirth, but we’re going to go ahead and outsource the Cross and the Tomb to Jesus. He can take care of that for us.
But this pesky question will not quit!
What are we resisting?
Why do we follow Jesus into baptism, but falter and turn back, standing comfortably and worshipfully away when it comes to crucifixion and resurrection?
We’re actually robbing ourselves of life-giving spiritual energy here.
Suffering will come in our lives, there’s no question about that.
But it can be meaningless suffering, brought about by our own stupidity, random circumstances, or the simple indifference of the world, or it can be suffering given deep spiritual meaning.
One of the major purposes of Jesus dying on the Cross was to be in complete solidarity with us in our suffering.
He is there waiting for us to come to him and say, “This is awful. I need you help me get through it. And I’m willing to be changed and opened by it. I’m willing to accept death on this Cross with you so that I might be led to Resurrection.”
It’s that last bit that we refuse.
Many of us go to him in our pain, but we have not had the courage to say yes to death, whether it’s the death of an agenda or a grudge or even the false self itself.
And so we remain on the lonely fringes of Calvary, wracked with pain, but clenching closed against it.
The call is to open ourselves to the necessary deaths in our lives, mirroring our Savior who hangs before us on the Cross with his arms stretched wide open to pain, to life, to death, to love.
The spiritual life is always about risk and entering the unknown.
Self-satisfaction and complacency are the enemies of depth.
As St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel famously says, “To come to the knowledge you have not you must go by the way in which you know not. To come to the possession you have not you must go by the way in which you possess not. To come to what you are not you must go by a way in which you are not.”
This isn’t just mystical gobbledygook.
It’s a direct echo of what Jesus proclaimed, what Nicodemus feared, and what Abraham risked in our lesson from Genesis.
“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’…So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”
Abram, (later Abraham), set out on a journey into the complete unknown, on the strength only of his perception of God’s call.
How often have we been brave enough to do that?
How often do we understand that this is not just for the rare major change or decision in our lives, but can and should be a regular feature of our everyday prayer?
I am so guilty of praying in mental ruts.
And while there’s something to be said for a tried and true spiritual discipline, if it lacks the imagination and expectation of my being taken somewhere I cannot even recognize, it may be more me-driven than Holy Spirit-driven.
And Abraham’s story also reveals to us that all of this matters for more than just ourselves.
It’s so easy in these conversations of risk and depth in the spiritual journey to become completely self-absorbed (another of my perennial sins).
But notice that Abraham’s call is not just about himself. “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” God says.
We set out into the unfamiliar frontiers of spiritual growth not just for ourselves alone, but for our fellow travellers.
Remember that at any given time that you are feeling open to growth and risk in your spiritual life, someone else is so swamped by dirty diapers or office political hell or a bedside cancer vigil that spiritual growth is his or her absolute last priority.
That person needs you.
That person needs your courage and your willingness to grow deeper in love.
And on that day when you’re the one who can’t believe you just got a DUI or looking at a resignation letter you are afraid to submit or planning a funeral in numb shock, that other person will be answering the call to an unknown land of prayer whose central landmark is an empty tomb.
And so the question returns: what are we resisting?
Ultimately Jesus’ call to be born again is a call to follow him through death to resurrection.
We all know birth is a painful process, why should rebirth be any different?
It may come in a shattering conversion experience, or it may be in decades of a subtle wearing away of our hardness of heart by the gently relentless Living Water.
What are we resisting?
Any time we’re resisting suffering, we’re resisting birth.
Any time we’re resisting the unknown, we’re resisting growth.
Any time we’re resisting death, we’re resisting resurrection.
So let’s drop the armor of resistance we have so faithfully carried all these years.
Without it we are vulnerable, exposed, but light enough to be carried by the very breath of God.
And then we will know Jesus’ words to be true for ourselves: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
May it be so.
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