Wrestling God

October 3rd, 2019

Genesis 32:22-31

Let’s get something straight. So far as the biblical witness would suggest, angels are not dainty. In Genesis 18, three of them are eating enough for fifty people. In the New Testament, they routinely scare the living daylights out of people, including tough-as-nails Roman soldiers. And in Genesis 32, an angel is more than a match for Jacob, a man who has proven he can hold his own in the worst of situations.

Rather than thinking of angels as perfumed, cherubic, light-on-their-feet ballerinas, we might do better to imagine them as nightclub bouncers, roughnecks, or heavy equipment operators, with names on their birth certificates like Mack, Bulldog, and Bruno.

They are God’s professional movers—they never leave a scene without having changed people, moving them from here to there, from one way of looking at the world to another. “Your life was moving in this direction before; now you’re going to be heading a different way.” And the response they are likely to elicit in thanks for their efforts is probably not, “Oh, you’re such an angel,” but something more like, “You angel, you!”

This angel doesn’t disappoint. Jacob is on his way to success, on the fast track of patriarchal ascendancy, and nothing is going to get in his way. Jacob’s brother didn’t. His father didn’t. His twisted uncle Laban didn’t. So far, Jacob has always grabbed or finessed his way successfully toward achieving his goals. At this point in his life, he has hit his stride, and is only going up from here. Except Jacob hasn’t reckoned on angels.

Two things I’ve found to be true in the spiritual realm: No matter how small we are feeling, how broken, how low, how discouraged or disheartened, how much grief or illness we have suffered, there’s always a force great enough to lift us to life again. And it will. It may be to the skies at the end of our days, but lift us it will.

The other truth, or so it seems to me, is that no matter how big we are feeling, how powerful, successful, brilliant, clever, how much of a shaker and mover we have become in our field, how celebrated and congratulated by others and ourselves, there is always a force great enough to bring us down to earth again. It may be six feet under at the end of our days, but bring us down it will.

In Jacob’s case, the force was of the down-to-earth variety. An angel wrestles with this can-do, win-at-all-costs guy who’s at the top of his game, and hobbles irreversibly his winning stride. By the end of the encounter, Jacob is mud-drenched, limping, and branded with a name that could almost qualify as playground teasing: Israel, which translates, “one who strives with God.”

A star patriarch striving with God? Nonbelievers we would expect to strive with God. Pagans. The heathen. Antagonists to the faith. Francis Thompson in his early life was one of those, his epic poem describing that hound of heaven whose pursuit was relentless: “I fled him down the nights and down the days . . .” Surely those who resist God’s purposes strive with God. But God’s chosen people?

I like the bumper sticker, “God will not let you go to hell in peace.” That’s fair enough. But God will not let you go to heaven in peace? Evidently not.

How was it Teresa of Avila put it? “If this is how you treat your friends, is it any wonder you have so few of them?” In some ways, to be part of the Christian community is to choose a life of extending the history of Israel, a history of struggling with God. It is to choose a life in which we raise questions, wrestle with doubts, with trust, with lifestyle, and with sacrifices called for by compassion or justice.

If there are not aspects of God that scare the living daylights out of us, then we’ve probably skipped some pages of the good book. To trust in a God whose blessings are such that they sometimes leave our hip out of joint is a dare all its own, because there are times when the journey of faith involves wrestling with God—unanswered questions, unresolved dilemmas, unlit valleys, irreconcilable differences. In such times, the only reason we cling to God is because the alternative is to cling to nothing. “I will not let you go,” Jacob says—whether from sheer panic or steel resolve, we can’t be sure—“unless you bless me.” 

And so the angel does. Which is, if you twist the logic just so, what we might call good news: This mysterious stranger in the night, with power to wound but also to heal, blesses Jacob, Israel, the one who strove with God.

Therein lies the promise of this story, and of the Christian faith: There will be struggle in the walk with God—dark nights, confusion, feeling forsaken— but there will also be blessing. From the struggle itself emerges a new way of defining blessing: Blessing isn’t always poise and polish, sweetness and light. Sometimes blessing bears the satin scars of struggle, and walks with a discernible limp. 

About the Author

Paul L. Escamilla

Dr. Paul L. Escamilla is Associate Director in the Office of Public Affairs and Adjunct Professor of Preaching at read more…
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