Wednesday 1 March 2023

Sacred Reluctance

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,
yet not my will but yours be done.

—Luke 22:42

Like many people, I struggle with procrastination. This is true even though I grew up in a family that owned a small building supply company, and much of the summers and weekends of my youth were spent working at “the shop,” where it was all hands on deck and there was no time for idlers or dreamers. Being raised with such a strong Calvinist work ethic, later in life I would often berate myself for giving in to procrastination.

In time I would come to learn that procrastination can be more than just idle time wasting, and even a key to the creative process. I vividly remember one time over twenty years ago working on my PhD dissertation, and finding myself halfway through a chapter with no idea how to continue the argument I was making, let alone reach a conclusion. It was like I had wandered into a forest and couldn’t find my way out. I told myself to go for a good, long walk, and when I returned, suddenly a path out of the thicket emerged, and I could work productively again.

At still other times, however, I struggle with something deeper than procrastination: reluctance. You see, I am not the kind of philosopher who simply cannot wait to break open a difficult book and learn how to decode its jargon so that I can obtain its secrets. Back when I was writing my dissertation, I remember slogging my way through Jürgen Habermas’s three-volume Theory of Communicative Action and thinking it would be helpful if I had some kind of mechanical device that would force my eyes to stay open. In these moods, I would look around at my enthusiastic colleagues who appeared to simply love what they were doing and I would wonder what was wrong with me.

Then I came across a wonderful little book by Christian Wiman called He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, which gave me a new way to understand reluctance. “It’s almost the definition of a calling,” Wiman says, “that there is strong inner resistance to it.” This resistance, he explains, is not simply practical, but existential, cutting to the very core of one’s sense of self: “Can I navigate this strong current,” Wiman asks, “and can I remain my self while losing myself within it?” (10) These daunting questions put me in mind of our Redeemer on his way to the cross, reluctant to take the cup that his Father had given him. No one asked him if he wanted to be the Son of God, and I am struck that, although committed to following his Father’s will until the end, he still asked for that cup to be taken from him.

Wiman goes so far as to counsel us to trust something about reluctance: “Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples.” Why does Wiman think such lives are exemplary? He answers: “Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it.” (10) There is something deeply credible, Wiman suggests, about those who are reluctant to answer their calling, yet somehow find the willingness to do so anyway, without any assurance of how things will turn out.

It seems, then, that the first step to moving beyond reluctance is to move through it—to recognize it not as something simply negative, but rather as a healthy sign that we are taking seriously the difficulty of the path to which God may be calling us. For it is a path of letting go of our selves, after all, in the hope of rediscovering our true selves in the claim that God’s makes upon each and every one of our lives. The road God calls us to travel is a road that asks us to open our hearts radically to the love of God and neighbour, and it is a journey we are asked to undertake even though we cannot know beforehand where it will take us. There is a sacred reluctance we experience on the threshold of this journey, a reluctance that understands this truth, and so we should not fear it when we meet it in ourselves and others.

In this season of Lent, as together we journey with our Redeemer to the foot of the cross, let us honour our reluctance, so that we can hear God’s claim upon our lives buried deep within it.

Shalom, my friends,

Ron Kuipers