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Spirituality: Jacob’s wrestling match

August 3rd, 2008 by isaac · 7 Comments

Title: Jacob’s struggle with God
Date: August 3, 2008
Texts: Gen 32:22-31

It’s dark, Jacob is alone, and he wrestles with God. They are bound together in a struggle. If we want to talk about spirituality, that’s the best image we have—a struggle with God, wrestling with God in the dark; we know there’s something there, but we just can’t quite see it.

If we turn to Jacob as a model for our spirituality, we soon discover that he shatters all our images of spiritual superheroes. Jacob doesn’t do anything to earn this mountain-top experience with God. He’s no Mother Theresa; nor is he a contemplative monk. He’s not even someone I would trust as a friend. He is known as a deceiver, a liar, a trickster. His name, Jacob, literally means “deceiver.” In his youth he tricked his brother out of his birthright, and lied to his father. He played ticks and deceived his father-in-law, Laban.

There is nothing about his story that would make us wonder if he’s good man, someone who God wants to hang out with. But there he is, confused, desperate, alone in the dark on a mountain, and God wrestles with him. They are bound together in a wrestling match.

Spirituality is this kind of struggle with God. It’s not always pleasant. Intimacy with God isn’t necessarily a reward for those who do everything right. The story of Jacob teaches us that God can always sneak up on people who live life as if God doesn’t matter. And Jacob also teaches us that intimacy with God may often look and feel like a wrestling match, a struggle in the dark.

I think that’s why I like Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. It’s a story of a man who is angry with God. Maurice Bendrix doesn’t have any space for God; in fact, most of the time he considers himself an atheist.

There’s nothing good about Maurice. He betrays his friend Harry’s trust by committing adultery with is wife—he’s a deceiver, just like Jacob. It’s not a pleasant story; his life isn’t something to imitate. He is not an example for us to follow. He is like Jacob: there is nothing good about him, other than that he struggles with God. Let me read the very last lines of the book, it’s Maurice:

I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.

That’s the struggle of spirituality. Maurice prays; this man who doesn’t want anything to do with God throughout the book, prays at the end. “O God, You’ve done enough… I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone.” And the story ends. But it’s a cliffhanger. At the end of the book, his story with God is only beginning.

He doesn’t have a warm experience with God that drives him into more spiritual intimacy. No. Maurice battles with God; they fight; they share the intimacy of wrestlers: pushing and pulling, fierce and sweaty, a relationship fueled by the passion of frustration. Shaking your fist at God is still a relationship; and that’s what Maurice has at the end of the novel. The struggle of spirituality is alive. God has not let go of Maurice.

But Jacob’s mountain-top struggle with God does come to an end… or does it? Does our struggle with God ever come to an end? Jacob and God wrestle until daybreak; Jacob finally prevails and lets God go. Is that the end? We find the answer in Jacob’s new name. God names him Israel, which means, “the one who strives with God” (32:28). Jacob’s new name means struggle. Jacob and his people will be known as the ones who struggle with God, who wrestle with God, who never let go of God.

But the name, Israel, can have a second meaning as well. Israel can also mean, “God strives.” Israel can also mean that God won’t cease from struggling either, that God will hold on forever. This people will be the people who God never abandons. God will never leave us nor forsake us.

And with this promise comes a temptation: pride and idolatry. Genesis 32:29, “Then Jacob asked, ‘Please tell me your name.’” Jacob wants God’s name—he wants to make God into an object, a piece of this world, something manageable, not so mysterious, more familiar, and useful. But God refuses a name.

Why? If we can name God, we simply fit God into our world, into what we already know, into our preconceived place for spiritual or religious or holy things. Then we can fit God into our categories of things we already know about. But Jacob is in the dark, literally and figuratively, and wants some clarity, something tangible to hold onto, a person, a thing, something to fit into his categories.

But God doesn’t fit nicely into our categories. God shakes them up and turns them upside down. We can never place God, and say that God is over here and not over there. We can never restrict where God must live and move. That’s the danger of contemporary forms of spirituality.

We want to say that spirituality belongs to this category called religion which doesn’t really say much about our everyday lives. There’s a temptation to say that spirituality is about spirits, nonmaterial presences, the stuff we interact with when we close our eyes. But God refuses to be confined to any of those categories. We can’t name him and claim him; we can’t use God to justify ourselves, to bless whatever we want to do.

Instead, since God isn’t named, since God doesn’t fit nicely into our categories, since we can’t reduce God to the world of spirits, this means God can show up in our lives when and where we least expect. God sneaks up on Jacob in the night, and wrestles until dawn.

And in the next scene God dismantles all our comfortable categories. 32:30, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’” Jacob catches a glimpse of God. It wasn’t a clear vision, since it was still night. But, nonetheless, he catches a glimpse. And this glimpse transforms Jacob’s life, it transforms the way Jacob sees the world; there’s a breakthrough. The lines between heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, are about to crumble before his eyes, and our eyes.

Immediately after God departs, Jacob sees his brother coming in the distance. This is 33:1, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him.” This is an ominous vision; like hurricane clouds gathering on the horizon. Jacob fears for his life and for the lives of his loved ones. And what’s worse, he now walks with a limp from God, and he’s exhausted after a night of wrestling. How will he battle with Esau, and his four hundred men?

Yes, Esau is a brother, but he’s also a possible enemy. Jacob walks slowly, with a limp, toward his brother. Esau sees Jacob and runs to meet him. It’s a scene full of tension. What will happen next? Esau runs to Jacob, grabs hold of him, falls upon his neck, and kisses him. Instead of strangling his neck, Esau showers Jacob with kisses. Then Jacob looks at his brother’s face, and this is what he says (33:10): “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

What’s going on here? Jacob finishes wrestling with God, catches a glimpse of God’s face, and now sees his brother and says he sees God’s face. Esau bears the face of God. At this moment, our boundaries between heaven and earth, between God and humans, are broken wide open.

This story shows us that our spirituality plays out in how engage in the material of this world. The categories of spiritual and physical are not opposed for us. God’s reality plays out in how we look upon one another—friends and enemies, strangers and relatives. For Jacob, seeing God’s face isn’t something that happened once during a special spiritual moment—a mountain top experience.

No. God won’t be imprisoned by those events and categories. God won’t be a spiritual charm we can keep in our pockets for safety. Instead, Jacob now sees God’s face in his brother, the most unexpected place, a place where he previously had nothing but fear. We learn that God’s face can show up anywhere. Our spiritual struggle takes place in material encounters, with people, when we meet face to face. That’s where God happens.

Our spiritual struggle takes place in the people we meet, when we face up to our Esaus. But it’s also important to notice Jacob’s posture when he meets his brother-turned-enemy. He walks with a limp. Jacob earns a limp from his wrestling match with God. His spiritual victory does not make him a proud triumphalist. No. He earns a limp; he stumbles with every step; he’s now closer to the ground, humble; he can’t run, he walks slowly, with no escape routes.

Those who wrestle with God are marked with limps; our spirituality teaches us how to limp. We limp through this world, vulnerable, willing to reach out for helping hands, the gifts that others bring, mutual aid. We admit our need and ask for help. We welcome generosity. For with every generous gift we receive, with every outstretched hand we embrace, we welcome God’s grace into our lives. Grace comes to those who limp.

We are a people who are learning how to limp. This is the nature of our spirituality. We limp.

Tags: sermons · spirituality

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Maurice Martin // Aug 3, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    Great metaphor, and one I happen to live every day in many literal senses.

  • 2 Ciaran (UK) // Aug 7, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Isaac, I have just been writing a sermon on Psalm 88 and in my head have been connecting it to this pasage on Jacob as well (I have also read your piece on Psalm 88). I want people to get that Christiantiy is about more than ‘living in victory’ in some superficial sense, sometimes it is habgin on by your fingertips trusting that the rock isn’t going to give way but less sure that you won’t. Or to put it another way – limping.

    Interested in your thoughts on the Psalm 88 / Jocob connection

    Really well thought out site

  • 3 isaac // Aug 8, 2008 at 8:11 am

    Ciaran, thanks for reading the blog. And I am very glad that my sermon and meditation helped spark some ideas for your own sermon preparation.

    The “living in victory” stuff worries me as well. While I appreciate what Gustaf Aulen has done to put Christus Victor back on the map, I also worry that this way of thinking erases the tragedy of Jesus’ death. The Garden of Gethsemane shows us a Jesus who “is hanging on by fingertips, trusting that the rock isn’t going to give way but less sure that [he] won’t,” as you put it. What does it mean for Jesus to pray against the possibility of his death?

    I am haunted by a quote from Pascal: “Jesus is in agony until the end of the world.” What kind of victory is it that continues to fuel Christ’s suffering? Or, to put it in context of Jacob’s struggle, Does Jesus still walk with a limp? From Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Thomas, it appears as if Jesus’ victory doesn’t make all the bad stuff go away. His body still bears the wounds of his crucifixion. And they are open wounds since Jesus invites Thomas to put his hands in them.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about how we need to read the Psalms as the prayers of Jesus. So, maybe the best thing to do is to see how it is possible for Jesus to pray Psalm 88.

  • 4 Grace // Mar 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    If you even check this let me know. I don’t want to waste my precious time. Good post. Thanks. In the middle of a big wreslting match. Searching still. Using another email but will still check.

  • 5 isaac // Mar 4, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Thanks, Grace, for reading my sermon. I hope it was helpful.


  • 6 Grace // Mar 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Wow! Cool, you responded! (I haven’t had a lot of luck with responses.)Well, as for the wrestling match idea. I was listening to Christian radio, as usual, and the content was Jacob wrestling. This resounded with my current experience. Jacob was fighting with God, but over what? So, I have been researching the teaching and have only found very shallow, faulty, and bizzarre takes on the script.
    To begin, I am not used to wrestly with God. No win situation. He has put me in a real head on dispute with Him. I find myself arguing so many verses. This seems to be the bases for the struggle. David’s psalms vs. give your enemy your cloak too; clay pot for His disposil vs. no one can take you from His hand; Jesus is able to deliver you from your sin vs. Roman’s point that reprobation hardens the heart, which brings in the whole point of strength. Strength comes from God, right? What happens when he doesn’t deliver? Don’t get me wrong, He has worked plenty in very tangible and measurealbe ways, to me. Too many to list.
    He sent me a dream about 3.5 years ago. I was smoking cigarettes and was trying to quit in this dream. I had 3 or 4, maybe 4 a day as I was slowly trying to stop. Well, I hadn’t smoked since college. I hated the smell and was dizzied by the down draft of smokers. It was such a strange dream.
    Then, a man from my church started courting me. We had known each other for a couple years at church, not at all close; he led the worship team. But, we had mutual friends that were instrumental. Foreshadowing
    He smoked and was trying desperately to quit. He was in ministry and I felt drawn to ministry. We engaged and discussed our future plans. We married. And, my life spiraled into disallusionment.
    He quit his job 2 days after marriage; he went to lunch at a bar and had several beers (he told me he didn’t drink), he built a shop on my savings and then refused to take jobs; he spent hours several days a week on perverse websites (I didn’t realize this until I found out how to access the deleted history.); he dissolved into a foul, angry, mean, greedy drunk within about a year and a half of this.
    I was beside byself and turned to alcohol and cigarettes myself in such a state of stress. I was marinatting in it after all. The prayers just didn’t work. I fasted, I prayed, I remained obedient and under this husband. I wasn’t strong enough I guess.
    After he did, well something, with another woman and refused to support the family at all, basically abandonment, I had to rid the home of the problem. My daughter and another girl that was without a home living with us, shouldn’t have to deal with this. And, I was affraid as a theif had snuck into our home. I filed.
    During this whole thing (3 years), I lost my closest sister to an accident, my son to an overdose, and my income to budget problems. Just last week I lost my case to the legal system and my ex came out with a huge amount of stuff, part of my retirement, and maintance. two and a half years of misery and the judge said because he wasn’t working, eventhough he could see he was refusing work and was an alcholic, he was entitled to my income. I

    have been reduced to ….devestated, single parent, using alcohol and smoking, yuck.
    Where is God? I agrue daily with him. Every good thing will be given….approach the thrown boldly….do not test me too hard….stretch out your arm against my enemy….is able to prosper you…no one can take you from my hand…is my advocate…is able to deliver from your sin…power of Satan is not greater…unless sexual sin…will not test you beyond…bind them with the power given to you thru…

    His agrument: Pretty much all of Job…you are the clay meant for distruction….they were not with us…dogs returning to their vomit….do not sup with the….my ways are not your….thou shalt not bear false….thou shalt not steal….keep the Sabath day (it’s Saturday, duh)...alllllllllllllllll my sin ad nauseum.
    Well, I just can’t do it. I never thought he required perfection. So, why has His hand of protection been removed from me! He promised! Pin, 3 point, ouch, ...hold, time…..Match is on.

  • 7 isaac // Mar 16, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Grace, I think the point of the wrestling with God is that God draws us into intimacy. We may not get what we want; but we do find ourselves drawing closer and closer to God’s love. That’s the good news.