Wrestling with God
Jacob’s story - and our own
The same night he 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. [Genesis 32: 22-31]
Jacob wrestled with God, refusing to let go until he received a blessing. The story is in part about names. We learn that Jacob is Israel – literally ‘one who strives with God’. We discover that Penuel, the place of meeting is so-called because here Jacob met God face to face. Yet this is far more than a story about the origin of words. It tells us of identity gained through struggle. The conflict takes place at a crossing point between one side of the river and the other, and between the past and the future. Jacob receives a new name and a new beginning. Neither party in the struggle will let go: Jacob of God or God of Jacob. Jacob, now Israel, goes away as the sun rises, limping from the encounter but also transformed.
Conflict is part of our human existence: we know its familiar roots in a mismatch of expectations, a struggle for control or a divergence of attitudes. Conflicts are most difficult and painful when our ‘opponent’ is someone important to us: a friend, a partner or a family member. The issue is the catalyst for the struggle but what comes into question is the very nature of the relationship: ‘Can I really trust this person? Is she who I thought she was or have I got her completely wrong? Is this ‘make’ or ‘break’?’ These may well be the very questions that come into play when our conflict is not with another person but with God. However, whilst conflict is disturbing, it often opens the way for deeper mutual understanding and a more fruitful relationship. Relationships can drift along or drift apart when they remain at the level of superficial niceness. With honesty we own and express real emotions. The potential exists to grow into a new level of understanding if both sides are willing to stay with the struggle, and to keep faith in the essential goodness of the other.
It has not always been an easy relationship with God. On my part there have sometimes been harsh words. I have not always understood God’s silence when I needed words, or unwillingness to intervene when I needed an answer. Yet I am still in there. Strangely too, I am more than ever convinced of God’s commitment to me. The words of the Creed have leapt from the page into the heart. I sense God creativity everywhere about me. I find God alongside me, embracing my vulnerability. I trust, however haltingly, in God’s continual labour to make me whole and complete me. Perhaps it is because I begin to see these same movements within me and I know this is the making of me: it is what makes life worthwhile, purposeful and beautiful. It is my only way to ‘be’.
I am not done with wrestling because God is not done with me. What do I expect: that God will be entirely amenable to me and predictable? Someone or something that I can sum up and know all there is know about and so control to my own ends? Or someone whose depths I can only begin to guess at? Someone whose presence in my life challenges me to move out of a limited view of myself and take the adventure into the person I might become? If I take on the adventure then I also take on the danger and the pain it will sometimes bring. God has chosen this path with me and often with limited reward. I can do no less than choose the same. Though limping I choose the blessing. Jacob will not let go.
Adapted from Seeing in the Dark, Christopher Chapman [Canterbury Press, 2013]