Resistance – The Dragon that Guards the Treasure

The latest seminar I attended in my spiritual direction training course at HeartPaths Spirituality Centre was on resistance. What happens when people resist God.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how congregations and groups resist God. It’s not just individuals.  The need for group discernment practices is as vital as individual discernment practices.

Spiritual Director Janet K.Ruffing, RSM has been training and supervising spiritual directors for over 25 years.  She describes spiritual direction as “accompanying people in their spiritual lives.”  Spiritual direction assumes God is present in everyone’s life.  Universalism assumes there is no place that God is not and no person that God doesn’t love.

What happens when people don’t want God. Not what happens people don’t believe in God, but when people don’t want God.  There are plenty of people in Liberal congregations that don’t believe in God.  There are others, however who don’t want God.  Not believing and not wanting are two different things.  Not wanting to have a relationship with someone is not always the same thing as denying person’s existence.  When you don’t believe in God you’re an atheist. When you don’t want to engage with God, even though you want a spiritual life, you’re avoiding, resisting.  Its like dancing around the edges of any person you have or want to be in relationship with.

In Unitarian Universalist congregations I think we see resistance surface as what cartoonist David Hayward (nakedpastor) illustrates as the “bad atheist” argument: God, not only do I not believe in you, I don’t even like you!”  People have substituted the pain and hurt they feel towards God (or the universe or whatever they may conceive as divine transcendence) for God herself.  I think there’s a big difference between those two things.

This is not to say that firm atheists don’t exist who have come to their atheism by emotionally stable and rational journeys. They do. My experience has shown me however that agnosticism, seeking, and “I don’t know what my relationship is with God” masks itself as atheism because a person has not dealt with, processed or deeply explored the pain and hurt, or even the abuse, they have suffered in God’s name or at the hands of religion or religious people.

Other people may not be avoiding past hurt, but just may not know what the heck to make of mystical experiences they’ve had and just don’t want to deal with it because it doesn’t match the vision they have of themselves.

Gerald May says:

The human mind is an endless source of inventiveness when it comes to avoiding the implications of spiritual experience.

Groups avoid the implications of spiritual experience as well. This is the cause of a lot of stagnation in church life.  Whenever we start to deal with matters of the spirit we deal with matters of the heart. We dive into our emotional lives and the everyday living of relationship and community.  Discernment is not just an analytical activity.  When the spiritual and the emotional are part of the equation, our inner and group goalkeepers and gatekeepers spring into action. We don’t want to go deeply into our hearts and souls.  Where our hearts lie, there also lies our treasure.  Therefore:

Resistance is the dragon that guards the treasure

If resistance is natural in individuals and congregations are made up of individuals, how can we have spiritually healthy congregations that are comprised of people who by and large have never dealt with their resistances?  Or even admitted they have them? Or are even willing to admit resistance exists?

Some basics on resistance, courtesy of Sr. Janet Ruffing and the HeartPaths Spirituality Centre:

Basic Facts About Resistances.  Resistances:

1. Are human and natural.

2. Arise from our old traumas and coping mechanisms.

3. Indicate potential loss or change of identity is happening.

4. Can make conscious great learnings and healings.

5. Are attachments to a partial truth of ourselves or a false self system.

The Roots of Resistances include:

1. There are payoffs to holding on our resistances.

2. Control issues and fear of new vulnerabilities.

3. Are often the known part of our lives.

4. May be an ego vision of perfectionism.

5. Point to our inner saboteurs.

6. Protect deep wounds

7. Fear of the unknown.

8. Addictions.

9. Fear of intimacy.

10. Fear of suffering.

11. Keeping secrets.

12. Images of God as timeless and changeless.

Examples of Resistances include:

1. There’s never enough time for prayer or spiritual practices.

2. Over attachment to a spiritual director or guru.

3. Fear of experimentation in prayer life or religious life.

4. Holding on to anger or holding on to grudges.

5. Over spiritualizing the direction process.

Some Spiritual Learning that Comes from our Resistances:

1. More compassion for self and others.

2. We are more than our wills – there are more levels of inner reality.

3. Grace is always present, even in the face of resistances.

4. The uniqueness of of each person and each person’s resistances.

5. Forgiveness, patience and spiritual awakenings.

In her book  Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings Janet Ruffing says to expect resistance whenever God draws near and to approach resistance with sympathy.  As a spiritual director you must have already established a positive relationship of trust, empathy and openness to deal with resistance with a client.  I think this is true for all pastoral ministry. Many people who attend liberal churches are dealing with some type of resistance, and one of our chief pastoral tasks is to establish enough trust to be able to engage the resistance.

I think we have a number of tools available to us for engaging resistance.

One is preaching.  Preaching about the spiritual life and resistance as a component of the spiritual life can help.  Preachers who can admit to resistance and share their struggles in this area as in any area of life are usually incredibly valuable resource to their listeners.

Offer opportunities for group spiritual direction.  Small group settings where there is no cross talk, where people are allowed to hear themselves in safety achieve what Parker Palmer calls a clearing for the soul to emerge. Palmer calls such groups a Circle of Trust and mandates that there be “no teaching, no fixing, no setting each other straight” among group members.   Another group setting is a cell group or journey group where people do study and service together.

Individual spiritual direction is a huge help in overcoming resistance.  When going down the river or hiking in strange woods, it’s always good to have a guide who knows the terrain. Spiritual direction is a misnomer.  Directors do not direct, they listen and help people see the light in their own stories.  Therapists fix, spiritual directors are more like tour guides and coaches:  “Look, the light seems to be coming from over there!”

Retreats. Retreats of any length on topics related to issues of resistance can help and can be targeted to areas of need such as addiction.

Consultation. Frequently when a congregation needs to bring in a consultant, the need is seen in terms of what is dysfunctional about the congregational system or in terms of help with specific function of congregational life or ministry such as stewardship and fundraising or worship.  I wonder, however, if some of the issues behind why congregations bring in consultants, especially the ones related to congregational system, are not at heart, related to resistance.  If more individuals were able to better deeply access a process of spiritual discernment, to sit in a place of unknowing, might the group be better able to do the same?