It’s the middle of the night, and I’m wide awake. Again. I don’t know what time it is. They say looking at a clock will make things worse, like some kind of information-induced insomnia, so I don’t. Instead, I close my eyes, lay perfectly still, think about my breath as it makes its way from my nostrils to my lungs, and try to will myself to sleep.
I settle, and it begins—the endless catalog of thoughts. Tonight, they’re all a variation on a theme: God feels like the bad guy.
It’s the only thought that really keeps me up at night anymore. It keeps me because it’s the one thing I can’t say out loud—not in the classrooms of the seminary where I study, not in the sanctuary of the church where my husband and I have been serving the last two years, not even in the dark silence of my bedroom. And it keeps me up at night because Christians aren’t supposed to feel this way. Or so I’m told.
Only thing is, I didn’t come up with this thought on my own. I stumbled onto it in the Bible, of all places.
“He prepared his bow like an enemy; his right hand was ready to shoot,” says Jeremiah. “The Lord, like an enemy, destroyed Israel.” I don’t remember the first time I read these words. I just remember the first time I felt them in my bones like the prophet’s voice was coming from somewhere inside me. My parents’ marriage was falling apart due to, as I used to put it, “moral failure” on my father’s part, which we all know is Christian shorthand for an affair.
If you had asked me then if I knew God, I’d have answered with an unequivocal “yes.” My life was little more than a Christian cliché—raised in a Christian home, daughter of a pastor and his piano-playing wife. I knew God. But had you asked me the same question five years later—after my parents’ divorce had been finalized despite years of praying for reconciliation and restoration, after I’d found out my father had a child by his mistress—a boy 13 years younger than me who I still can’t bring myself to call my brother—and after my relationship with my father had become more theoretical than practical, I’d have responded with a question of my own: What do you mean by “know”?
It’s what keeps some of us restless in this thing called faith—the knowing that God is beyond us even as he is present with us. Some will call it struggle. Some will call it doubt. The nature of the Christian tradition in which I find myself is such that the majority of us have been led to believe that regardless of what we call it, there is no room for “it” in the life of faith. But what I have found is that those of us who find ourselves tossing and turning through the faith are not alone. What we find, if we are willing to take the risk, is that the scriptures not only give us permission to voice our doubt—to wrestle—but also give us words to express the restlessness we feel. Because, as it turns out, it is not outside of faith that we find restlessness but rather, just within it.
It’s what we find in Abram’s “by what can I know that I am to possess it?” having “believed the Lord” for his promises only two verses earlier. It is David’s “How long, Lord, will you continue to ignore me?” It’s Jonah’s angry complaint against God, “I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment” It’s Habakkuk’s “Why do you force me to witness injustice? Why do you put up with wrongdoing?” Given the assurance that his prayers had been heard, it’s Zechariah’s “How can I be sure of this?” It is the cry of an anxious father, “I believe; help my unbelief!” It’s Thomas’s “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” It’s Paul’s asking the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh” the first, and the second, and the third time to no avail. And it is Jesus’s anguished prayer on a sleepless night, “My Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me” even as his disciples rested.
This is the life I know—a life of persistent, if sometimes restless, faith. But if I have learned anything from the sleepless nights of my life it’s that eventually, without fail, morning breaks. And in the morning as the light begins to flood my bedroom, I find a God not only strong enough to handle my struggle, but also merciful enough to be moved by it. And in the morning, I find in the scriptures—the word that reveals him—not condemnation but compassion. For the scriptures are a comfort to the restless gently leading us deeper into the glory of God. We only need eyes to see it and hearts willing to risk even a little restlessness if only to find our true rest.
Cover photo by Anita Austvika.