The rich young ruler in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17–22) came running to Jesus, running to engage him, running to ask his most important questions. No wonder “Jesus looking upon him loved him” (v. 21, RSV All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.). Yet the young man walked sadly away. And Jesus let him go.
What is this ambivalence in us that, on the one hand, we are strongly attracted to God, yet on the other, we pull back away from him? What is it we fear so much that we will turn from the Life-giver rather than face our fear or our pain? What is it that causes us to walk away from the answer to our deepest questions? Tragically, this is our story—longing, ambivalence, and frequent pulling away.
Movies and novels play out the same plot. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They want to be together forever. But she won’t say yes. Or he suddenly changes his mind and takes a job in another city.
She’s wanted to be a doctor all her life and works through university for years. But then when it comes to final exams, she doesn’t sit them. Or gets sick. Or has an accident just before her final interview.
It is a story we know. It draws us in, only to leave us frustrated or sad—the loss of the possibility, the sabotage of the longed-for outcome. What is it in us that draws back from the very thing we most want? And most importantly of all, what stops us when the all-loving Creator of the universe woos us—but we draw back, pulling away from the richest possibilities of all?
While overt sin can indeed separate us from God, far more prevalent and more subtle is the resistance that holds us back, sidetracks us from the very thing, the very being we long for. “My people,” says the heartbroken lover, “have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Jesus told parable after parable in which participants refused the relationship they could have. The older brother who would not join the prodigal son, nor the more prodigal father, in celebration.
The wedding guests who were too busy with work, wife, pleasure to come to the party. The man with one talent who hid it. The tenants of the vineyard who would not respond to the owner’s messengers. The scribe and the Levite who kept to the other side of the road. In these stories, it is not so much overt sin that was the obstacle. Rather, it was self-righteousness, or passivity, or fear, or false comfort, or self-preservation. And so, it is with me. I resist the love of my Creator God until suffering or longing break through the shell I have created.
In Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings, Janet Ruffing notes, “Most of us are engaged in endlessly inventive evasion . . . of the experiences of God that we claim to desire.” We instinctively withdraw from the God who is untamable, from the “uncontrollable otherness of God.”Janet Ruffing, Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings (New York: Paulist Press, 2000) 33–34.
01. Story after Story
I see this process repeated in my own life, the lives of my friends, and in the lives of those with whom I journey. Several friends recently related to me how they went to a life-changing seminar only because they were in so much pain. “We were driven to it,” they said. And as a result, they are happier and more realistic about themselves than they have ever been.
Then there is Tom, who has kept his day job to put himself through university with high marks and a longed-for career in his sights, only to get into his final year and be unable to complete his last assignments. He admits fear of failing at the job he so wants. Superficially, he is angry that God hasn’t worked things out for him. But he says that if God were to appear, he would be so afraid he would run.
And there’s Rod who won’t give up his relationship with Sarah, even though she will never leave her husband for him. As he explores his feelings about the relationship, he knows it is God with whom he longs to have deep intimacy. But he doesn’t trust that God will be sufficient for him.
And Leon, who has brief homosexual encounters, knows there is no satisfaction in them. On reflection, he notices the deep intimacy he wants, and is aware that brief liaisons hold little more than momentary pleasure. As he begins to find God as Lover, he experiences a growing sense of self. In staying with the desire rather than denying it, he can find his deeper desire for a God who can give him a sense of himself.
God’s plan is transformation and deep relationship. Yet he lets us choose less, over and over. But then he follows us—Hound of Heaven that he is—waiting for us to turn.
Part of me knows that the nearer I get to God, the deeper the water, the less I can touch the bottom, and the less I can hold on to my ego. God sees me as I truly am, and I cannot pretend I am other than that. I have to let go of my illusions and face the divine Reality. It is when the half-gods go that the gods arrive. Yet how can I let the half-gods go? It is only when I finally admit that death at God’s hand is better than life without him. And God, the ultimate patient, compassionate lover, waits while we try everything else but him.
02. Seeing Resistance
An important part of spiritual companioning is to notice this place of resistance—and then to go with it. The very place where the one we are accompanying experiences that tendency to draw away can be the point of entry of the Spirit. This is because resistance, something arising in our subconscious, marks a point of wounding or desire for something else. Resistance and desire can point to the same issue, the same underlying story. If we can pay attention to that movement of drawing away, we often find the point of wounding.
Counselors understand this when they talk about “going with the resistance.” A person in need may come and talk about his problems, and then at the very point where he is getting near to a possible answer, he pulls back from that way forward. The listener’s natural tendency is to go to that solution—isn’t that what the person has come for? But what the person is more likely experiencing is ambivalence—the problem issue, the awareness of a possible answer, and yet resistance to that answer. If we press for the solution at that point, we are not helping. If we “go with the resistance,” we usually discover what is hindering him from choosing the way forward. So often we are tempted to give advice, when in fact the person already knows that advice, but for some hidden reason is pulling away from it. Far more helpful is to explore the pulling away, so he can recognize what is holding him back.
Fear is frequently a cause of resistance, fear that we might lose the idols that we have called God, and fear of exposing the wounds that surface when we stop running away from them. All of us have been hurt— many of us very deeply. God, the master surgeon, desires to heal us deeply. We say, “ ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
When his spiritual director helps Tom look carefully at what happened around his failed exams, Tom becomes very aware of his fear of God’s coming close. What is it, his director asks, about the longed-for job that he holds back from? “How will I ever know I can do it?” Tom says. He recalls earlier successes he had: how at school he won a series of running competitions and was put into the state team. There, he failed badly. Will early success lead again only to failure? The pain and shame of the earlier event has never healed. He covered it over, believing boys don’t cry. He was told he had to be a good sport in the face of defeat. But only as he faces again the childhood wounding and shame can he receive the healing he needs and begin again to work toward possible success.
And what of Rod? How would a spiritual director work with him? She gently notices his contradictions. She asks about his image of God—“Who is God for you?” Can Rod transfer his superficial longing to a deeper longing? Is there something in the feminine aspects of God that Rod has not been able to engage with, and so has sought elsewhere?
The director does not condemn. No doubt Rod struggles with his own condemnation. And yet he holds on to a relationship that hurts him. Something powerful is at work here. To name it superficially as sin misses the point. “Rod, what is it you are wanting in this relationship?”
“Somehow, I am so drawn to her,” he says. “She accepts me in a way I have found nowhere else. When I think of her, I feel so nurtured, so loved. I know that it’s not even real she would love me like that. But it surely feels like it. Somehow, I feel valued as I am, instead of neglected and criticized. It’s as though at those moments I can feel lovable and worthwhile.”
“And who is God for you?”
“When I get in touch with that feeling of being loved, I can believe that God sees me like that. That really, somehow, in accepting Sarah’s love, I can accept that God loves me.”
“And what is it like when you experience it as God loving you like that?”
“It’s like I can sink into it. I don’t have to be anything other than I am. I don’t have to be the good boy just to get noticed. I can just be. And in that moment, I can even trust God to be enough for me.”
The long, slow process of spiritual direction stayed with the resistance, the attachment. What was Rod really holding on to? What did he most deeply desire? In the slow dance of daring to go forward and then pulling back, the deeper longing and fear could be named. He could finally see that his deeper longing was for intimacy with God—a God whom he still did not completely trust to fulfill his needs. And by staying with the resistance, he could name the fear of emptiness and depression of his own failing marriage and his fear of having to live with that emptiness again if he really let go and trusted God.
The easier response from an advice-giver would be to tell Rod to give up the relationship. The deeper journey was to stay with the clinging to the attachment, to go with the resistance, and behind it find the deep longing for God. This involved helping him name the fear that God would not truly fulfill his searching, and recognize ways in which God did meet him. As his trust in that reality became stronger, he slowly learned that God was sufficient for his longing. Slowly his fingers opened, and he was able to release the fantasy.
How remarkable God is—remaining unfazed by our choices of fleeting and superficial pleasures and turning away from what he has to offer. This is a God who has changed the whole meaning of jealousy. He transforms our longing for something less than him into a deeper longing that recognizes that after all, all along, he was the lover we desired.
Often, resistance is about a fear of what we may have to give up. The more we focus on what we have to let go, the more we hold on. The rich young ruler was challenged to let go of the riches that gave him security, status, potential, and power.
Only as he comes to know the God who gives deeper security, a different kind of status and power, and never-ending potential, can he stop his grasping. Only as Rod sees the God who loves and accepts him as he is can he let go his false attachment to Sarah. Only as Leon finds God’s persistent love to be steady and unchanging can he let go his brief sexual encounters. “God is,” Janet Ruffing reminds us, “more persistent in luring us into intimacy than our responses warrant.” Ruffing, 53.
At its core, much spiritual resistance is due to a lack of certainty that God will really be enough for us. The question of whether God is sufficient taps into our fear, insecurities, pain, and resentments. More surprising, however, is that resistance sometimes comes from a positive experience with God—as though there is too much glory for us to bear. Creatures of half-light, we fear the blinding sun and draw back from our experiences of it. This, too, is the dance—we seem to need time to dare to believe that the Divine Lover truly wants us. And we draw back into lesser relationships for a time until he gently woos us back to the dance.
An understanding of resistance can give us more patience with this process—both in ourselves and in others. Our defenses around our deeper wounds are such that we are often blind to the very point where we need to change. In recognizing that the resistance itself can lead us to the deeper desire, we can stay with it and so accomplish a deeper transformation. And we can stop pressuring ourselves to change quickly and instead let the Lover woo us to let the half-gods go.
In so doing, we can join with the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, and long for what we do not yet totally embrace. Eckhart said that in order to be set aflame by God’s love, we must long for him. And if we do not long for him, then we must long for the longing. For that, too, is of God.
And we can join with John Donne (1572–1631), who recognized that the city of his soul was occupied by the enemy and that he had betrothed himself to another and resisted the God for whom he so longed. And so he begged God to help him get “divorced” in order to be ravished by the God he truly wanted to hold him:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I like a usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But I am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. John Donne. Holy Sonnet XIV.
God seems seldom to overthrow us, batter us, or break us. He does indeed breathe, shine, and seek to mend. More like the Hound of Heaven, he dogs our footsteps, patiently going with us on the long journey into a far country, so that when we finally begin to come to our senses, we hear his whisper of something better. And when we finally come to a place of readiness to receive the gift of himself, he runs to meet us.
I like to believe that at some point after we meet him in the biblical story in Mark 10, the rich young ruler’s attachment to his riches began to loosen. Maybe a spiritual companion was there to help him face his fear of letting go, and to name again his deeper longing for eternal life and relationship with the Christ. And maybe, years down the track, he could surrender his attachments, his riches, his position, and turn to walk back to the waiting father—who would indeed run to him.
But we can’t rush that process. And neither does God.
Your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so
My need of God
Clear. Daniel Ladinsky, The Gift: Poems by Hafiz (New York: Penguin Compass, 1999).
IRENE ALEXANDER coordinates courses in counseling and social sciences at Heritage Christian College in Brisbane, Australia. Her joy is to see others engaging with their own wounding and resistance and thus discovering the passionate and compassionate God.