Trying to Comprehend the Incomprehensible

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Jan 16, 2020

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—let them be caught in the schemes they have devised. …Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed. Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”? But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan. (Psalm 10:1–2, 12–14)

It is said that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. always carried a copy of Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who, during a 1935 trip to India, told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Dr. Thurman influenced King greatly as dean of the Chapel at Boston University when King was a student there. Some years later, after Dr. King had been stabbed during a book signing, Dr. Thurman told the emerging civil rights leader to use this unexpected tragedy as an opportunity to stop and meditate on his life and his purpose. It was advice that was life-transforming.

Thurman advised King to extend his healing period by two weeks. It would give him time away from the pressures and issues of the movement. “Thurman worried that ‘the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,’ which potentially could swallow up King.” Dr. King took the advice. He studied Thurman’s scholarly and theological views and gleaned a concept of Jesus the Christ that profoundly affected his future work and writings.

According to Thurman, understanding Jesus as a social activist, human and yet divine, who believed in the inherent worth of all people, is life-giving and easier to comprehend than the commonly communicated image of the Father or Parent of Jesus—God. God’s ways often do not seem fair or just. It is hard, sometimes, to put the words “good” and “God” together, because so much in our lives is not, in fact, good at all. The incomprehensible is a relentless presence in our lives. It tempts us to question God, something our parents and grandparents taught us we should never do.

Yet, without questions, we will never move beyond the incomprehensible in front of us. We cannot understand why God seems silent and permissive in the face of persistent racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. We struggle with doubts and questions that grate against the advice and warnings of our elders, who taught us to hold our tongues and accept the fact that God is good, all the time.

The psalmists, however, made room for the doubters to publicly wrestle with God. They aired their struggles for all to see. In doing so, they allow space for us to admit our hurt and the freedom to shout our displeasure. The doubters are made more powerful through their questions to God because, in questioning, their relationship with God becomes more life-giving and sustaining.

Thurman and King both questioned and wrestled with God, getting enough answers to show us a pathway through the darkness to the Spirit of God. And in that seeking, we are armed with God’s own Spirit, a powerful force that is mightier than any gun, hateful epithet, or oppressive social system. The presence of God’s Spirit within us is a gift and as an old hymn states, “the world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.”

Many of us are at risk of being swallowed up by the resistance work we are doing. Perhaps we are at risk of being swallowed up by our own anger, frustration, fear, or emotional angst. Perhaps we, too, need to heed Dr. Thurman’s advice to stop and wrestle with and meditate on our life and our purpose. Our souls need healing in order to be made whole; only whole spirits can approach the incomprehensible with a measure of peace despite our unanswered questions about God. With that peace comes power to withstand the fires of life. Soon, the incomprehensible diminishes in our sight, and we are able to move forward.

And in the end, that is what God would have us do. It is the way God helps us to overcome the incomprehensible.

Amen and amen.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Then you will love Susan K. Williams Smith’s book Rest for the Justice-Seeking Soul!

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