The Desperation Of God

A Reflection on the Feminine Desire for Relationship

By Sharon Hersh

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 9 Fall 1997 · Issue 9: pgs 19-29

"Tick, tock. The game is locked and nobody else can play with us. But if you do, we'll take your shoe and keep it for a week or two."

The singsong chant of seven-year-old girls circled the playground of the Garfield County Elementary school. I looked down at my black-and-white Buster Brown shoes and listened over and over to every word. The new shoes, not yet broken in, signified a new year in a new school-the first of seven school changes I would eventually make. At this first new school I did not know the awkwardness of being "the new girl" or the awfulness of longing to be a part of The Girls until I heard the schoolyard chant announcing "you are alone."

I looked longingly at The Girls in the game. I memorized their faces until they stared back at me from the second-grade reader instead of Dick, Jane, Sally and Spot. I hummed their tune to myself while everyone else said the Pledge of Allegiance. I waited for the glorious invitation to clasp hands and sing out the rhyming words signifying: "I have friends. I belong. I'm part of The Girls!"

I don't remember how many days I waited-it seemed like decades to a seven-year-old-until I could not possibly wait one more dreadful day. During a cold and snowy recess, I walked across the playground to greet the ringleader of The Girls. I presented her my slightly scuffed Buster Brown shoe and delivered the eloquent speech I practiced all the way to school: "I want to play." She looked at me in amazement. To this day, I don't know if it was the fact that someone actually listened to their chant and took them at their words, or if it was my undarned sock with my big toe peeking through on the snowy blacktop that caused her astonished glare.

I played the game that morning. I clasped hands with unenthusiastic classmates and refused to see their mocking eyes. I sang the words and pretended they meant something. In school, I hid my shoeless foot behind the desk leg and resisted the urge to cry. Later, I walked home with one shoe off, one shoe on and whispering, "I played with The Girls! I played with The Girls!" At home, my mother laughed at me and said she would have to call the teacher. My father said it would be a long time before I got another new pair of shoes.

I stayed in bed with a stomach ache for the rest of the week. I pulled the covers over my head and wondered how I could ever face The Girls again. Worse, I could not look in the mirror. I knew if I did, I would no longer see brown hair, crooked part, brown eyes, missing teeth, familiar face. I would see a shoeless being-laughed at, pitied, shunned, misunderstood-a desperate creature capable of doing anything.

If you ask five women to talk about desperation, you will hear five different stories. A few will tell painful, poignant stories from childhood playgrounds or junior high slumber parties. Others will whisper tales of horror from dungeons of addiction or torture chambers of abuse. All will tell stories of relationship-stories filled with shame and stigma-told with shoulders slumped and head bent down.

This is an essay written by a woman to women about the soulmates of desire and desperation for relationship. This essay is also written for men as a window into the souls of their wives, mothers, sisters, and friends. The desperation of women is different from that of men. Men work to escape or silence the desperation of women, fearing an abyss that might swallow them completely. Sadly, women acquiesce to avoid withdrawal and contempt. Breaking the silence allows women to confess the reality of their desperation, and it allows men to enter a woman's world, inevitably experiencing their own desperate hearts. Desperation becomes an unlikely ally in the deepening and strengthening of relationship. Breaking the silence also invites both women and men to hear the desperation of women as an echo of the heart of God for relationship.

The stories of God in scripture beckon women to hold their heads up, to look in the mirror and face desperation, because facing it will result in what Pascal describes as the disruption of the beliefs that isolate us from others and from God. When women bring their desperation to the hermeneutic process of interpreting God's stories, they will have a richer reading of the text, resulting in a less obscured view of God and a new understanding of relationships.

Pascal writes that understanding despair comes from experiencing it radically. We must first peer into the eyes of desperation and see its reality-its anguish, its activity-to alleviate the heartache of relationship before we can see its reflection of the image of God more clearly. Radical experience of desperation begins with seeing it in the stories of women and then seeing its reflection in the image of God. Only then can desperation can be experienced most radically as it is expressed in extravagant love.

Looking in the Mirror

Women agree-be they ancient mystic or modern feminist-the orientation toward relationship is an integral part of female activity. Saint Theresa described her hunger for relationship to be such that she could actually "eat anyone who offered a taste of friendship." Carol Gilligan, a feminist researcher and writer, discovered that if female corporate executives are asked to choose between career and relationship, they will almost always choose relationship, even if it means losing career. Mary Pipher, therapist and author, concludes most women will do anything, including becoming mental patients, to preserve relationships.{1}

However, women do not need ancient manuscripts or research statistics to confirm the inexplicable companion of their hearts and its desperation for relationship. The stories of women blend to paint vivid pictures of this desperate creature that follows and stalks and threatens to engulf their very being. The mother who becomes an expert in espionage, noiselessly following her daughter from the dinner table to the bathroom, standing outside the door eavesdropping on her daughter's ritual of bingeing and purging, feels the breath of desperation over her shoulder. The mother who watches her youngest child board the bus for first grade or her oldest pack his bags for college is afraid the gnawing ache will be her constant comrade. The woman who learns that she will never conceive and have a baby of her own is terrified that if people could see this savage screaming inside her soul, they would surely shrink back because of its horrifying intensity.

The Hebrew word most synonymous with this kind of desperation is kamar. Kamar is defined as "to shrivel as with heat, to be deeply affected, to yearn." Kamar's story is told in the court of King Solomon. Two hysterical women stand before the king asking for one baby. Both women are outcasts-prostitutes-with no man as their advocate. Solomon wisely calls forth the truth by asking for a sword to split the infant in two.

"The woman whose son was alive was filled with kamar" . . . "her bowels yearned for her son" and she desperately thrust her baby into the arms of a cruel stranger to save his life (2 Kings 3:16-27). The words graphically suggest a mother who lost control of her bodily functions while contemplating her desperate plight and that of her son. Mothers with ulcers, insomnia, and all manner of distress caused by their longing for their children understand the torturous decision of this woman in kamar.

Mothers are not the only partners to desperation. Women married to abusive, distant, or demeaning men attend Total Woman Seminars, wrap themselves in cellophane, or assume responsibility for their husbands' behavior with desperation as their unwelcome compatriot. Statistics cling to desperation's sticky cloak: Women will stay in an abusive relationship for seven years before they even begin to talk about the realities at home. Nine out of ten women married to alcoholics stay in their marriage. Conversely, one out of ten men married to alcoholic women stays with his addicted mate.

A poignant scene in the film Leaving Las Vegas is etched forever in my mind as a symbolic story of women's longing for relationship. A woman, in love with an alcoholic, finds that she cannot compete with his bottle. In a moment of utter despair, she pours whiskey over herself, hoping the alcohol will allure the man she loves to a few moments of connection. He stumbles toward her but then collapses in an alcoholic stupor. You can almost see desperation in the shadows mocking and condemning her to humiliating loneliness.

Desperation accompanies women as parents and mates, but it most often frequents women in isolation: the wife of the busy corporate vice president, who is addicted to pain pills; the young mother who forages the cupboards and eats voraciously after her children are in bed; the single forty-year-old woman who has not dated in more than ten years and reads stacks of romance novels. All fear the face of desperation as it taunts, "You are alone."

Finally, there are the soccer mom, the militant feminist, and the good church woman who claim they are not acquainted with this creature desperation. But there are moments that catch even these unaware: loading the dishwasher, waiting to make a lefthand turn, reaching for the mail, or the moment just before sleep steals the day, when a vague uneasiness flits before the eyes and desperation winks, whispering; "If you let your guard down, everyone will know I am the secret you keep hidden even from yourself."

But God does not shrink back from the desperation of women in his stories. He weaves it throughout his narrative. Consider the stories of infertile Hannah, confined Esther, unwed and pregnant Tamar, widowed Ruth, outcast Rahab, virgin mother Mary, thirsty Samaritan, sick and grasping ragwoman, frantic and grieving sisters, sentenced adulteress, weeping and clinging prostitute. God tells their stories, in part, because their desperation is a reflection of his own.

The Mirror Has Two Faces

I believe one of the reasons the desperation of women is feared and hated and formed into a creature of monstrous proportions by both women and men is our failure to understand God's desperation. Peter Van Breemen writes, "The fact that our view of God shapes our lives to a great extent may be one of the reasons scripture ascribes such importance to seeking to know him."{2} The view of God as austere, unflappable, and unmoved is not only inconsistent with his own stories, but it propels women into the mire of shame and hopelessness regarding their own hearts. The traditional catechisms suggesting man is created to know, love, and serve God are incomplete. Men and women must also know how much God yearns to love and serve them.

Seeing God's desperation can transform mine. His anguish, humiliation, and relentless pursuit reveal the potential holiness of my desperation. I can stare in the mirror and see desperation's hideous reflection; yet how sad if I cannot also see the reflection of the image of the Most Holy. Philosopher-rabbi Abraham Heschel writes: "We [can] discover that the self in itself is a monstrous deceit, [and] that the self is something transcendent in disguise."{3} Throughout his stories, God radically reflects the transcendent way of desperation-as desperate parent, lover, and savior.

God as Desperate Parent

The desperation of God as parent begins in his first story, when he asks Adam his unending question to all wayward children: "Where are you?" Certainly God knew the precise location of the bush behind which Adam cowered. His question is the more agonizing question of parents whose daughter runs away from home without even a toothbrush, or whose son brashly announces his alternative lifestyle and walks out the door: "Where are you?"

I cannot forget my own mother's desperate wondering. She discovered that my wayward brother, addicted to cocaine, had stolen thousands of dollars from her bank account. The only way she could stop payment on the forged checks and hinder his potential purchase of more drugs was to press charges against her own son. Tears coursed down both of our faces as she stood at the district attorney's desk, pen in hand, to sign papers condemning her youngest son to an arrest warrant and bleak future. We didn't know where he was. As she shakily signed her name, she whispered: "Where are you?" Then she did the strangest thing. She wrote on her hand. I asked: "Mom what are you writing?" She choked back her tears: "I'm writing the number of his warrant. It's all I know about him right now."

The hush in the musty, gray Jefferson County District Attorney's office startled me. I did not know then that it was holy. Years later I would read words from the prophet Isaiah that would inform me that my mother's anguished actions reflected that of the one who said: "I have called you from the womb, from the body of your mother I have named your name. . . . Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. See I have branded you on the palms of my hand" (Isaiah 49:1, 15-16).

Our therapeutic culture too quickly labels desperate mothers "codependent." I wonder how modern analysts would diagnose the father in Luke 15 in the same way. It is impossible to exaggerate the desperation of the father's daily watch and wait for his wayward son. The text describes their reunion: "And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him" (Luke 15:20). The text is from the Greek word splagchnon, and is the equivalent to the Hebrew kamar: "to have the intestines yearn." Desperate parents need only to envision the sleepless father-scandalously gathering up his robes with one hand and holding his cramping stomach with the other, running wildly to his son-to see the strange sacredness of their own desperation.

God as Desperate Lover

The love story of God makes the stories in the fifty million paperback romance novels sold each year seem droll and unimaginative. God's description of his lover is painful in its humiliating detail:

But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers-
would you now return to me? declares the Lord.
Look up to the barren heights and see.
Is there any place where you have not been ravished?
By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers,
sat like a nomad in the desert.
You have defiled the land
with your prostitution and wickedness.
You have the brazen look of a prostitute;
you refuse to blush with shame. (Jeremiah 3:1-3)

God's intention for his traitorous lover is even more staggering:

Therefore I am going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her. (Hosea 2:24)

That God invites harlots to intimacy is almost beyond comprehension. That he desperately hungers for intimacy is an ineffable mystery that somehow intersects with human stories of love sought, love lost, and love endured. The revelation of God's desperate love compels us to consider that he is "simply in love with us more than our mind is capable of reconciling with the way we still have to think of God."{4}

A woman came to see me for counseling recently wanting help in confronting her alcoholic husband. She explained with deep remorse that his heavy drinking had been a part of their marriage for more than ten years. She knew that wise intervention should have been enacted much earlier but that now it was her only hope. Fortunately, her husband heard her hard words and is now in the difficult days of early sobriety. During the course of our work she began to tell stories of their chaotic, destructive life together. She shook her head with incredulity: "Why did I stay with him?I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. But I could not stop loving him." She is like God.

God as Desperate Savior

In his monumental book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann eloquently writes of the absurdity of the crucified God void of desperation: "And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being. . . . But in that case is he a God?Is he not rather a stone?"{5}

Moltmann further argues that Jesus entered the despair of Gesthemene and Calvary so that man might become more fully human in acknowledging his own desperation. The agonizing cry of Jesus on the cross invites the release of human tears of rejection and loss and despair. However, even Moltmann must step back from the desperation of God by asserting that Jesus came primarily to reveal humanity, not deity. The crucified God reveals the desperation of God most astoundingly.

I cannot write about desperation without recalling my most desperate hour. Years of suppressing and failing to deal with the realities of life culminated for me in an addiction to alcohol. My soul screamed for relief from pain and disappointment, and it writhed in fury. I crouched beside my hidden stash of alcohol and gulped the liquid salvation straight from the bottle-desperate to drink, desperate to stop. I didn't look in the mirror in those days either, because I knew that the creature, who began stalking me on the elementary school playground, had grown to hideous proportions. I was certain God had turned away from me as well.

Redemption of my despair began when I stopped reading the Bible as if it were a textbook of answers for Sunday School questions. Slowly, I became intrigued, amazed, and dumbfounded by the stories of the Bible. Reading John 19 I encountered a story of such desperation: my pink women's devotional Bible fell to the floor, and I wept as I saw anew the coarse wooden cross, the gambling executioners, the crude nails, the gaping wounds, the cup of vinegar, the cry of utter despair from the fatherless son, and the anguished turning away by the sonless father.

I saw more clearly than ever before that God became the most hideous creature, described by Frederick Buechner as one with a swollen lip, cauliflower ear, and ruptured spleen. I knew in a flash of stunning light, shattering my darkness, that God could look at me with kamar because he had looked away from his own son. This was a God of desperate grace who "desires all men and women to be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4).

The Unveiled Face

"And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory. . . ." (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Seeing the realities of desperation through story and daring to see the reflection of the image of God in desperation sets women free to love extravagantly. We come to the most radical understanding of what T.S. Eliot calls "the essential sickness and strength of the human soul."

When a woman courageously stares into the eyes of her desperation, she need not collapse in shame or cover up with pretense. The yearning for relationship is not an indication that something is wrong with her, but that something is profoundly right. When the desperation of God is appropriated to our own desperate hearts, a breakthrough into extravagantly loving others occurs. Henri Nouwen describes such a breakthrough: "What once seemed such a curse has become a blessing. All the agony that threatened to destroy my life now seems like the fertile ground for greater trust, stronger hope, and deeper love."{6}

Extravagant love asks heartbreaking questions: "Where are you?" Godly desperation is seldom silent. Thoughtful feminists write about the silence of women and the demeaning and destructive behavior that often accompanies the silence.{7} I agree with them that much is sacrificed as a result of women's silence-sacrifice that is for nothing. Women obscure the image of God when they refrain from speech because they fear conflict and chaos.Additionally, silence makes suppression of truth the glue that holds relationships together-resulting in a quiet, unholy intimacy.

Feminists blame a patriarchal culture for the silencing of women, and implore women to speak so that they no longer sacrifice themselves. This is where I disagree. I believe women are silent because they do not understand the nature of love. Extravagant love-born of desperation-compels women to speak the truth, and then the sacrifice that often comes with speaking up will be for something. Desperation without truth becomes manipulative; truth without desperation often becomes moralistic. When desperation and truth are wedded, women can speak powerfully inviting change as in the words of the desperate lover of Hosea: "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, your sins have been your downfall. I long to redeem you and heal your waywardness and love you freely" (14:4). Such an invitation is possible because the extravagant lover's "well-being consists, and is experienced as consisting, in willing the well-being of another."{8} Extravagant love, born of desperation, gives the strength to speak and live truth even at great cost.

Extravagant love is scandalous. The holy, desperate heart set free to imagine how to capture another for relationship cares little about reputation and standing in the community. God, after all, uses everything to win us. If I reflect on the most intimate times I met God, I see the most peculiar accouterments: a line from a movie, the tears of a friend, a car accident, a picture drawn by my daughter.

I have a friend who understands this gratuitous love because of the desperation of his grandmother. My friend entered adolescence confused and angry-with a heart already hardened to God and man. At the age of thirteen he decided that the ultimate rebellion-the final act to alienate himself from all familiar-would be to pierce his ear and wear an earring. The earring had the desired effect on his parents and church, affirming his decision to leave home. He made one stop on his way out-his grandmother's house. His grandmother took one look at the earring, and pulled out her jewelry box, suggesting he wear solid gold instead of imitation.A desperate grandmother became like God in her willingness to win her grandson with gold earrings. Women who are extravagant lovers are creative fools for the sake of others.

Extravagant love is lonely. I used to believe that maturity was the absence of this angst I seem to have been born with. I am learning that maturity is not the absence of longing, but it is the ability to wait in the loneliness. Desperation coupled with an unwillingness to wait will inevitably lead to addictions and other destructive behavior. Waiting reveals the raw agony of loneliness. Waiting keeps me from hurrying into the next moment, so I don't have to stay in this one. Waiting invites me to change even if those I love do not. Waiting cultivates aching hope. Luther's unmoving God of fortress and bulwark is also the lonely God at the door who waits, pleading: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).

The paradox of desperation is that when I understand God's desperate love for me, then I am compelled to live and love in my desperation. Loneliness then becomes inextricably linked to loving extravagantly. Understanding his desperation not only makes my loneliness bearable, but even fruitful. When I surrender to his kamar for me, I must enter this anguished compassion for others.The woman whose desperation strengthens her love may have ulcers, but she will be in the Most Holy of company as she participates in the awe-ful fellowship of "sharing in his sufferings" (Philippians 3:10).

Extravagant love allows no one to remain unchanged. This does not mean in the face of extravagant love our loved ones will always choose life, but they will be forced to choose. The wonder of this love, however, is that in loving we change perhaps most of all. Two stories demonstrate the power of this desperate love.

A woman I know comes from a family of pain-filled relationships. Her mother and sister were mentally ill, her brother sexually abusive, and her father oblivious. She remembers one Mother's Day when her mother suffered a breakdown. Her father exploded and began to threaten long-term commitment to an institution. Her brother sulked on the couch in his own dark cloud of violence and despair. But my friend desperately searched her neighborhood, collecting all the lilacs she could hold. She ran into the house to present them to her mother. Her brother laughed at her gesture and snarled, "You know, you won't change anything." She wondered if he was right. Her sister committed suicide, her mother is in a psychiatric hospital, her brother is a cruel and bitter man, and her father is even more oblivious. My friend's acts of desperate love may not have provoked good change in her family. But they changed her into a woman of compassion, loyalty, and kindness.

Her story reminds me of a story of God and his relationship with a wayward, stiffnecked people who would not change and turn toward him. He concludes: "My heart is changed; all my compassion is aroused" (Hosea 11:8). The God lauded by the Westminster Confession of Faith as "unchangeable" is also the extravagant God who changes in the face of his own love and becomes even more desperate.

Extravagant love is only possible to the degree that I am lost in his lavish love. Extravagant love, as I have begun to understand it and describe it here, may seem like a dubious payoff for redeemed desperation. I am reminded of the story of the Jesuit retreat-giver who silenced these sentiments in pointing to the crucifix and remarking: "What a strange way to run the universe." Those whose love takes extravagant and sometimes embarrassing forms are people who believe that the crucified one shows the way because "he came to us not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory but in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need. Jesus was a naked, humiliated, exposed God on the cross who allowed us to get close to him."{9}

I sat with a group of five women friends in my kitchen this summer, talking as only women can about our marriages, our recipes, and our desperation. By chance I noted that we were all barefoot. I smiled, secretly celebrating a circle of shoeless friends. We acknowledged our longings, admitted our foolishness, and decided that desperation-holy or unholy-borders on the insane. We laughed at the possibilities of living with desperate love and ending up in the psych ward wearing our bathrobes all day, doing crossword puzzles. Then someone remembered the words of Theresa of Avila-yes, the same woman who wrote of her devouring desperation for relationship. She also wrote: "May I be mad with love for Him, who for love of me became mad."{10}

The kitchen table became an altar where for a few moments we bowed our desperate hearts and worshiped an even more desperate God.

{1} Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other (N.Y.: Grosset/Putnam, 1996), 117.

{2} Peter Van Breemen, Certain As the Dawn (Denville, N.J.: Dimension Books, 1980), 13.

{3} Abraham Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1951), 47.

{4} Sebastian Moore, The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger (N.Y.: Seabury Press, 1977), 49.

{5} Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), 35.

{6} Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1996), 117.

{7} See Dana Crawley Jack, Silencing the Self (HarperCollins, 1991).

{8} Moore, 115.

{9} Brennan Manning, A Stranger to Self-Hatred (Denville, N.J.: Dimension Books, 1982), 123.

{10} Tessa Bielecki, Teresa of Avila (London: Shambhala, 1996), 11.