Sunday, 3 August 2014

Wrestling God- Gen 32

I think sometimes we present the Christian life a bit too simplistically. We can sometimes make it sound like becoming a Christian will solve all your problems. We can respond to people’s complex problems with cliché’s like, “Let go and let God”.  We can walk away feeling like we have reassured the person, but they are still left with their problems. When we oversimplify life with God we can run the risk of becoming like Job’s friends who tried to give Job simplistic explanations for his suffering. At the end of the book God says to Job’s friends that only Job spoke rightly about God, while the friends spoke falsely. Job brought his complex troubles and questions to God. We need to be careful about oversimplifying the Christian life.   
Sometimes things do seem to go well and simply. We have moments in our lives when it seems like there is a flow. Our prayers are constant and easy. We read our Bibles and we are grounded and inspired. We meet life with faith, hope, and love. Hopefully we have long stretches of our lives that are like that. But, if we are serious about our life with God we will have times and seasons when we struggle.
At times life is a struggle. At times it feels like we have to fight for every breath, and for every inch of ground. It might even feel like we are wrestling with God. I know that’s not the pious things to say. We are supposed to say that God is on our side. He is fighting for us, not against us. He loves us. He has our best interests in mind. … I believe all that, but I also know that sometimes I can feel like I am wrestling with God.
In Genesis 32 we read, “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.’”  
We don’t know who the mysterious stranger is, but after the event it is implied that Jacob has wrestled with God and has seen God face to face and survived. After this encounter Jacob is given a new name that will mark God’s people for the rest of history- Israel. Israel, we are told, means in part to struggle with God. Jacob, and God’s people with him, are renamed to imply a struggle with God.  
If that renaming is accurate then perhaps we are overly simplistic in the way we describe the Christian life. Perhaps we are meant to have moments where we have to understand our relationship with God as a struggle- even as a wrestling match. I’m sure Job felt like he was wrestling with God. He was innocent and had done nothing to deserve his pain. He called out to God for justice and to explain his suffering. Perhaps even Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane felt like he was wrestling with God. His human prayer was to have the cup of suffering removed from him so that he would not have to endure the cross. The stress of the struggle caused him to sweat drops of blood. Eventually his human will was drawn in line with his divine self, but the struggle was very real. His prayer to have the cup removed is an unanswered prayer spoken by Jesus’ own lips.     
Saints are those who have a deep relationship with God and they will resist easy and simplistic descriptions of life with God. John of the Cross, when writing on the life of prayer, wrote extensively on the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is a painful experience of the absence of God and of having all joy taken away. No pleasure is found in anything. It is a spiritual and emotions desert. Prayer feels like a waste of time in this moment. St. John tells us that God permits the Dark Night ultimately to purify the soul, but it is a painful experience.
I’m sure we all have moments in our lives that are full of doubts about God, the Church, and our faith. Doubt is a normal part of the life of faith if we are honest. Usually the place of doubt is where our faith is transforming and growing. Sometimes we struggle because we know what we should do but we really don’t want to. St. Augustine once said, “Lord, grant me chastity… but not yet”. He knew what God wanted him to do, but he resisted doing it. He wrestled with God. We might experience trials, such as sickness, or depression, or abuse, or the death of a loved one, and we are challenged to understand how this works with God’s world and God’s creatures and God’s permissions.
It’s funny we can so simplify the Christian life when at the very center of our faith is a bloody man on a cross. It is an image of the separation of God and human beings, and the tremendous cost of that division and reunion. It is an image of struggle- an image of suffering love. Not love alone- Suffering love. The life of faith is a life of struggle- even, at times, struggle with God.
I know in my own life I feel like I am sometimes struggling with God. There is part of me that resists God. There are times when prayer is hard and even painful. There are times when prayer feels like wrestling. It drains my energy.  There is a darkness I am keenly aware of that fights with God. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to submit to God.
We hear some of Jesus’ words, “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33). There are plenty of other passages I could read. Isn’t there a little part of you that says “No, I won’t”? Isn’t there a little part of you that begins wrestling with God when his commands threaten our pleasure, or our security, or our bank account, or the comfortable lives we have built for ourselves? Isn’t there part of you that resists and says, “No, you ask too much”?  In the Hymn Come Thou Font of Every Blessing the third verse says, “Let thy grace Lord like a fetter/ Bind my wand'ring heart to Thee/ Prone to wander Lord I feel it/ Prone to leave the God I love/ Here's my heart Lord take and seal it/ Seal it for Thy courts above”. That verse always strikes me so powerfully because I feel the truth of it in my bones.
While there is a part of me that fights against God, there is also another part of me that refuses to let go. Job’s wife tells him to give up the struggle and just “curse God and die”- Just walk away from God and stop the struggle. Sometimes that seems like the easier thing to do rather than be constantly dealing with the tension of being drawn into God’s will. As Jacob is wrestling with the strange God figure we read, “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.’”. Jacob was wounded in the struggle- a wound that would cause a limp for the rest of his life. The stranger told him to let him go, but he still hung on. He refused to let go until the stranger gave him his blessing. I sometimes feel like Jacob. There is a blessing there and even though I might be tempted to walk away I refuse to because I believe there is a blessing. I want to fight for that blessing. I refuse to let go. The fight itself could be seen as a kind of intimacy- a kind of embrace. The Medieval Jewish Commentator, Rashi, said, “for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.”
Jacob meets the mysterious stranger when he is on the way to meet his brother, Esau, who wanted to kill him 14 years earlier. In some ways it would have been easier to stay where he was, but God had promised a blessing of land and family and that God would use his family to bless the world. So Jacob returns to his father’s land to face his brother. He knows it is God’s will for him, but no doubt it was a meeting that produced anxiety. To soften up his brother he sends gifts ahead of him, hoping that Esau’s vengeance would be extinguished by the gifts before they actually met. Jacob, no doubt is consumed by anxiety. Jacob wrestles with his own anxieties about meeting his brother and to pursue God’s promise. It was an internal struggle. That is when he wrestles with the mysterious stranger and receives both a wound and a blessing that comes with the new name, Israel. As Jacob left his family and travelled to find a bride he encountered God and saw a vision of angels moving between heaven and earth. Now as he returns home to the land of promise and to his family, he again encounters God, but this time it is a struggle. Having faced God, Jacob finds the courage to face his brother.
This passage is strange and mysterious. We don’t usually think about God this way. We want to think about God as the peaceful Good Shepherd.  In C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the children are nervous about meeting Aslan the lion and they ask if he is “safe”. The beavers reply, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” The God Jacob met was not safe, he was left with a limp, but he was good in that he received a blessing and God was faithful to His promise.  In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the character Eustace is full of character defects- he is greedy, selfish, and a coward among other things. Without getting into too much detail Eustace gets into trouble because of his selfishness and greed.  To his horror, he ends up being transformed into a dragon. Aslan eventually guides Eustace to become human once again. This begins by the dragon shedding his skin like a snake, but eventually Aslan has to help remove the dragon flesh. Eustace says, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt.” Eustace is a changed person after this encounter. He is healed, but it was painfull.   
Like Aslan, God is not safe, but he is good. He is not about meeting all my wants and making me feel warm and fuzzy. He will struggle with us, and tear at us. In a way, he is even dangerous. But, ultimately God\s efforts are to transform us. He will tear away our sin and struggle against our self-destructive desires. He will fight against all that is bad in us- all that will destroy us, even if we want it desperately. We might walk away with a limp, but we will also be more whole.  

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