The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. An appropriate refrain, perhaps, to follow today’s story from Genesis. If you remember, the last time we saw Jacob was in Genesis 27, which we reflected on a few weeks ago, when he was on the run from his twin brother Esau. You may remember that Esau was seeking to kill Jacob for swindling him out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing. Now, in today’s story, many years have passed and much has changed. Jacob is now married (with no one, but two wives!), is the father of eleven children, and has grown to be quite prosperous (albeit through some rather questionable techniques). And yet, when we encounter him in today’s text, Jacob is once again alone and on the run from his brother, for he has just learned that Esau is coming to meet him with an entourage of 400 men. Jacob assumes that this can mean nothing good, and that in fact, Esau is finally coming to make good on his promise from so many years ago— that he is coming to kill him. It would seem that Jacob’s past is finally catching up with him. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Indeed, this week’s story seems to follow a remarkably similar trajectory to Jacob’s first flight into the wilderness. Just as it was so many years before, Jacob is once again alone, at night, in the wilderness, fearing for his life. And just as before, it is in that place of utter vulnerability and uncertainty that Jacob has a mysterious encounter with the divine.
This story from Genesis has been a source of great fascination for scholars and mystics throughout the ages. Partly because it is such a seemingly random interlude— with the sudden appearance of an unidentified man, who for no apparent reason engages Jacob in a marathon wrestling match that lasts until daybreak. Some scholars say the stranger is an angel or some other kind of divine messenger. Others argue it is none other than God in the flesh. Whoever we believe the stranger to be, however, it’s not too difficult to see why this story has taken on such great significance over the years, as it represents not only the story of one man, but also the story of an entire people— a people who are continuously wrestling with who it is they are called to be and how they are called to be in relationship with this strange and mysterious God.
It’s a story that continues on to this very day, for who among us cannot identify with Jacob in this story? Who among us has not wrestled with the problem of suffering, for example, or the question of why terrible things so often seem to happen to good people? Who among us has not wrestled with a problematic piece of scripture or a church teaching that just doesn’t sit right with us? Who among us has not wrestled with God’s seeming silence or apparent absence in times of need? Who among us has not wrestled with serious questions or disabling doubts? Who among us has not been kept up at night at some point in our lives— wrestling with our faith, holding on for dear life, desperately seeking some kind of blessing in order to carry on?
Make no mistake, this story is THE quintessential story about what it means to be an imperfect human, seeking a relationship with the perfectly incomprehensible divine. It’s a never-ending wrestling match, and at times, it can be quite dangerous. Sometimes, like Jacob, we get hurt. But if we can manage to hold on through the night, there may just be tremendous blessings awaiting us at the dawn of the day.
When I was growing up, this idea of wrestling with one’s faith was not exactly something that was encouraged. I grew up in a religious tradition that left little room for questions or doubt. If I had a question about something, I was expected to go directly to the priest (do not pass go, do not collect $200), who would provide me with the correct answer, which I was to accept without debate or dispute. It actually took me a long time to find a religious community that did welcome questions and that actually encouraged wrestling with one’s faith. It wasn’t until graduate school that I discovered that faith didn’t have to be this perfectly clean, clear-cut path, with all the answers already provided for us, and that actually, faith could be messy and untidy, that one’s walk with God didn’t have to go in a straight line, that there could be twists and turns, peaks and plateaus, and every now and again, what may seem like a wrong turn (I actually don’t really believe in wrong turns, just the occasional detour). In the words of author Mike Yaconelli, “spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes.” In other words, faith is messy, and anything but safe. We are meant to wrestle, to ask questions, and sometimes, to make a mess of things. That’s what this whole relationship with God thing is all about.
With all of that in mind, I have to admit that I find it somewhat troubling that so many churches these days seem to be offering a brand of spirituality that claims to have all the answers. In some ways, this is a smart move for churches, because in a chaotic and complicated world, many people are craving this kind of certainty and security. The world is changing, and people want to feel safe. They don’t necessary want to wrestle with God or with their faith. They just want a little bit of comfort from the storm. They want answers. And really, in today’s world, who can blame them? So if a church can offer that kind of comfort and security, if a church can offer clear, solid answers to some of life’s most pressing and eternal questions, they are likely going to do well— on the surface anyway. The problem is, for a lot of the folks who attend these churches, they may just be one more tragedy away from being thrust into the dark wilderness themselves, alone and afraid, where all of those clear-cut answers from before no longer seem to make sense. When the teenage son continues to struggle with addiction, for example, or when the overdoes finally occurs. When the second or third cancer diagnosis is given, when the faithful spouse cheats, or when the depression doesn’t lift. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a tragedy. It could just be a mundane, everyday sort of experience that exposes a chink in the armor of certainty. I have an evangelical friend, for example, who has believed all her life that non-Christians are going to hell. It’s what she was taught growing up, and it’s what her current church teaches her now. Recently, however, she confessed to me that when her 5 year old son asked her about people from other religions, and if those people would get to come to heaven too, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her little boy, who had a number of non-Christian friends, that a loving God would send millions of people into eternal torment. She realized how terrifying and heartbreaking that would seem to her child, and she just couldn’t do it. The words just wouldn’t come out. And so now, she is wrestling. I can tell it’s uncomfortable for her, maybe even a little bit painful, to be questioning these ideas that have always been a source of comfort and security for her. But you know, when all is said and done, she may walk away from this encounter somewhat bruised. Maybe that solid armor of certainty she had before will now have a gap or a fracture in it. But maybe that’s exactly the point— that every time we wrestle with God, we come away just a little bit more vulnerable than before— with a little more of our defenses broken down, so that more of God’s holy spirit can actually get through. Each time we wrestle, we are made a little more broken open, so that God’s love and grace can reach us more deeply. All of that wrestling, if we can hold on with the persistence of Jacob, may just lead to a deeper faith, a stronger relationship with our creator, and a more profound understanding of who we are and to whom we belong.
One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Carolyn Sharp, professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, was always encouraging me and my fellow students to wrestle. She has written that God’s word “becomes incarnate in the lives of believers through our circling around it and taking hold of it, allowing it to throw us to the mat, pushing back to discover it’s power, but also to discover strength that we didn’t even know we had.” And by the way, she also says that we shouldn’t necessarily do this alone. Wrestling with our faith, wrestling with scripture, and wrestling with God can be liberating and powerful and illuminating, but it can also be risky. While our wrestling may be primarily between us and God, it’s always helpful to know that no matter what happens during the night, we will not be alone come dawn— that there will be other faithful wrestlers ready to engage with us in conversation— to encourage our questions, to affirm our intuitions, to challenge our assumptions, and add nuance to our insights. And as we engage in this way— supporting each other’s wrestling rather than insisting everyone thinks and believes as we do— we may not necessarily find certainty in one particular answer or another, but we may just find a different kind of certainty— one that makes it’s way deeper into our souls with every crack in the armor that appears— the certainty that God will never let us go, and that the Spirit of Love which infuses all of creation is within us, and all around us, and inviting us to participate in it’s sacred task of healing and reconciling all creation. And while it’s true that sometimes when we wrestle, we may walk away limping, we may also just catch a glimpse of the very face of God.