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Wrestling with God

The image of Jacob wrestling with God has grown on me over time. (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. Genesis 32:22-31) I was always fascinated by the notion of being wounded by our encounter with God. But it has taken time and courage to acknowledge the need to wrestle with God.

Now Jacob had every reason to be worried about his meeting with Esau. Jacob had spent his life struggling, fighting for what he wanted by every means fair and devious, and now after twenty years he is to meet his twin who he has deceived out of his birthright. Jacob seems to expect the worst so he sends a gift or generous bribery or compensation of livestock ahead. And in some ways he probably deserves to be defeated – he has hardly lived a blameless life.

Maybe Jacob intended to spend the night in prayer asking for strength. Or maybe he intended to stay awake and strategise how he could negotiate his way out of conflict. What he does spend the night doing is wrestling with a stranger who he comes to understand to be God, or God’s messenger. And Jacob will not let go, will not give up, until he receives a blessing. Jacob gets what he asks for but it costs him – he is left with a limp.

I have always instinctively loved this story for the image of being wounded by our encounter with God and walking with a limp and yet still being blessed. Only more recently have I come to be excited and encouraged by the image of wrestling.

Someone once said to me “wrestling is the second most intimate thing you can do with someone!” Like many I prefer my spirituality conflict avoidant: I prefer peaceful meditations, pools of insight and wisdom, torrents of love and compassion, and heartfelt but orderly petitioning of heaven on my own and others behalf. Wrestling with what and whom I want and fear is a frightening and yet thrilling notion. Looking back there have been many seasons of wrestling. And yes the wrestling part was probably essential in discovering the more-than-rational or reasonable that I yearned for.

But why wrestling rather than respectful petitioning? Probably because it is such an intimate form of encounter and when our sparring partner is God, or God’s messenger, then we lose all pretence of being in control, and we end up fighting for our very breath and being.

The wisdom traditions, including contemporary depth psychology, would see the story of Jacob as a variation on the hero’s journey and this wrestling with God is an essential moment of crisis and formation that prepares him for resolution with his brother and entering a new land, a home land. Certainly the intimacy and intensity of this encounter changes Jacob and his relationships with his self, others and with God. This is reflected in the blessing coming with a new name, the name that the chosen people of God will come to be known by – Israel.

The very intimacy of wrestling deepens our relationship with God. As we struggle for what we want and with God we become clearer about our desire (which is not always what we started out wanting!) until we want to be blessed as much as we want the next lungful of air. In the intimacy of the encounter we come to know ourselves better (which can be fairly devastating) and we come to know God as God. Part of this self knowledge is to know our selfishness, to know that our desires are not necessarily small and polite or acceptable (Jacob is in this predicament because he took his brother’s rightful inheritance) and yet until we know ourselves at this raw honest level we cannot proceed very far.

The intensity of wrestling also teaches us perseverance and builds character. It seems that getting what we want straight away or even as we want is not necessarily good for us or even possible. Learning how to strive with and for our desires is part of spiritual growth. In Jacob’s wrestling match his blessing comes out of the struggle itself rather than as a reward.

And the intimacy and intensity of this process of wrestling with the divine changes us and blesses us. When Jacob demands to be blessed the person asks his name. And in response to the answer of ‘Jacob’ he says “You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”(Genesis 32:28 NRSV) The blessing is a new name and a new stage of life for Jacob and his family and for the people of God.

It is a powerful story. I find it both unsettling and yet deeply encouraging that all that is dark and unresolved can be transformed in the struggle and become part of our realising our part in God’s story. That everything, even those things about ourselves and our histories that we are not proud of, belongs. (I am of course not condoning all that we have done or what has been done to us but in God’s process even the dark can be incorporated and brought into the dawn in a new way.) I am encouraged that yearning and striving are met in the intimate wrestling match of our relationship with God. I am encouraged that blessings are not only for the fair and orderly. (And I confess that part of me is not yet fully comfortable with this either. I would rather blessings were only conferred on those I approved of?!)

However we are not promised to be unscathed by the process, Jacob continues to walk with a limp. And so for most of us we too walk with a limp, we carry the wounds of our lives of struggle and blessing. For some of us it seems that we are left with much more than a simple limp by our struggles with life and God. And yet our woundedness does not exclude blessing. Indeed our wounds can become entry points of grace, can become our deep and healing meeting place with others, and the compassionate wisdom that feeds our faith and our ministry.

Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, give us courage to desire, to strive and to claim our blessing.


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