A Wrestling God
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. 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.” Genesis 32:24-25;29c-30
Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, wrestles with God one night. Back and forth they go, apparently struggling to something of a stalemate. God strikes Jacob’s hip and knocks it out of joint, but Jacob will not let God go until he receives a blessing. God, in the person of a man, says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” After the blessing, Jacob released God but then walked with a limp because of his hip. Wrestling with and receiving a blessing from God left its mark on Jacob.
As we consider the various faces under which God manifests in our world, this story is another example that refutes our typical image of God as a distant, impersonal being. Personally, I believe I wrestle with God on a regular basis, although in non-physical ways. For example, I struggle with how God can be a loving, involved God and still allow child abuse, starvation, and the murder of countless innocents on a daily basis. (Never mind that the answer always seems to be, “How can you – meaning me – be a loving, involved human and allow such bad things to happen to innocents?”) It is a sometimes unwelcome reminder that we are God’s hands and feet on earth. Just as Jacob’s wrestling seems to end with no clear winner, our wrestling with God often ends with no clear answers. What occurs, instead, is a dialogue that eventually leads to new understandings, along with new questions. There is a push and pull, a give and take to interactions with God that can be frustrating for their lack of clarity, not to mention my lack of certainty that I am actually wrestling with God and not simply arguing with myself.
The thought of wrestling with God is one interesting piece of this story. Another aspect is that God came to Jacob in the person of a man (some translations say it was an angel). For me, this is a reminder that we, particularly those of us who hold ourselves out to be Christian, expose ourselves as representatives of God, if not God in the flesh, to others with whom we interact. I feel this most intently in my role as a father, because I know a child’s image of God is often formed by their interactions with their earthly father. The point is that we always leave an impression on those we meet. It is our responsibility to assure that the impression we give is consistent with what it means to be a child of God.
Another takeaway from the story is that Jacob’s wrestling with God left him with a limp. Wrestling with God should leave a mark, in that it should change us in some noticeable way. If we are left unchanged from an encounter with God, we must wonder if it was God we really encountered.
Finally, Jacob’s encounter with God happened when he was alone. In our busy, hectic world, we must be intentional about dedicating alone time so God can manifest to us. This means time away from television, family members, and cell phones where we just rest in God’s presence with no agenda other than to rest in God’s presence. Whether we devote 5 minutes or an hour, whether it is daily or weekly, alone time is vital to our development as spiritual beings. In this sense, God is shy. God will seldom compete for our attention against the distractions of our world.
Wrestling with God changes lives, but it also leaves a mark.
Note: this is the ninth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.