From the Gospel of Luke:
They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 22:67-68 (NRSV) – July 2, 2013.)
In the assembly of the elders of the people, the chief priests and the scribes, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah?” and in response he gives vent to some very real human frustration.
I recently read an article about frustration as a plot element in writing fiction. The author suggested that frustration is, in fact, the most important emotion in fiction because nothing happens in a novel or short story unless the plans, wishes, or desires of the protagonist are frustrated. If Ahab had killed the white whale on his first attempt, Moby Dick would have been a very short tale, indeed. The author of the article pointed out, however, that frustration “is seldom a ‘pure’ emotion. It can come mixed with many others: anger (‘How dare they!’), hurt (‘Why won’t they help me?’), fear (‘I’ll never get what I want’), self-blame (‘I’m not good enough to succeed’), resignation (‘Can’t win ‘em all’), or bitterness (‘Life sucks’).”
One of my favorite episodes of The West Wing was about a submarine crisis off the coast of North Korea. The White House staff brought in an expert on submarine warfare to advise President Bartlett; Hal Holbrook played the character with droll dullness, droning on and on about difference experiences. In one scene, the expert and Leo McGarry were sitting on the sofas in the Oval Office talking; Leo was listening, the expert droning on. From off camera came the sound of a rhythmic thump – thump – thump. The camera pulled back to reveal the President banging his head on his desk . . . . I’m not sure what the President’s frustration might have been mixed with, but clearly that is not the best way to handle frustration!
With what, we might ask, is Jesus’ frustration mixed? I think the answer must be, “Faith.” Jesus is convinced that whatever happens, his God is with him. The night before this questioning, all the other emotions with which this frustration might have been mixed were sweated out in Garden of Gethsemane, leaving only faith: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) To be true to his mission (whatever we might now believe or understand it to be), to be true to his God, Jesus could not allow any other emotion to taint his frustration.
In any given situation, with what are our frustrations mixed? Too often they are like that article author described, mixed with emotions that result in negative or self-defeating outcomes. Our task is to spend some Gethsemane-time, sweating out those impurities, leaving only faith.
I think frustration mixed with faith might best be named “resolve,” which the dictionary defines as “firmness of purpose.” That certainly describes Jesus in the assembly of the elders (and throughout the Passion).
In an address at the University of Maine in October 1963, President John F. Kennedy exhorted his listeners: “Let us resolve to be masters, not the victims, of our history, controlling our own destiny without giving way to blind suspicions and emotions.” The example of Jesus suggests that, in some ways, we may still be “victims” no matter what we resolve and no matter how strong our faith may be. But our Lord’s example and the Christian faith also demonstrate that “victimization” to those who stand firm in their mission is a temporary state; on the other side one finds resurrection and redemption.
Frustration is a very real and very human situation. What we choose to mix with our frustrations is the determiner of outcome; followers of Jesus mix faith with frustration.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.