A Wrestling God

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

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

Life Notes


The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 1 Timothy 4:10

During my recent trip to Honduras, a line from the movie Still Alice lingered in my mind. The movie is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice is asked to share her experience with a group of researchers while she is still lucid enough to do so. She writes out her thoughts over a period of weeks so she can read them on stage. The line in her speech that struck me was this: “I am not suffering; I am struggling.” I thought it was odd, as it seemed to me she was both struggling and suffering – at least that was my interpretation of her condition.

I just named what I believe to be one of the biggest obstacles to helping those we label as in need of assistance – we impose our interpretation of their condition upon them, and then seek to interject our solution. We do this with the most charitable and best of intentions. For me, I contemplated the difference between struggling and suffering in the context of the people I met in Honduras. Certainly, there are conditions they struggle with – clean drinking water, for example, but they also found ways to cope with most issues. They struggle with high crime rates and an inadequate infrastructure, at least by our standards. I saw much of what I considered substandard housing. What I did not see, however, was a lot of suffering. In fact, and in retrospect, I think the cross-section of folks I met in Honduras suffer less than a similar cross-section of folks in the U.S.

Our interpretation of the condition of another is pivotal to how we react to them, as well as how or if we try to help them. For a suffering person, we offer comfort and support. We may feel pity and offer sympathy for their condition, sometimes even empathy. We may try to assure them things will get better, even when we do not know that to be the case. Often, we respond to suffering with acts of mercy to try to ease the distress.

For a struggling person, however, acts of mercy, pity, and sympathy may not be well received or helpful. A person who is struggling is attempting to better his or her own condition, but circumstances beyond their control often work against them. They need assistance, but not interference. Consider beavers. They build dams in streams to form water pools for their nests. Unfortunately, a beaver dam stops the water from flowing as it normally would, causing problems for those downstream. Sometimes, a beaver dam must be removed in order to restore the water flow. I think this image illustrates the plight of many struggling people. One way we can help is by identifying where the “flow” of resources is blocked and assist in getting materials flowing as needs demand.

Two manifestations of the desperation of poverty are suffering and struggling, and if we are to help those in poverty, we need effective tools for both. Everyone deserves the respect to say how or if they receive assistance. Suffering and struggling are two very different conditions, and if we are to help, we must recognize and honor the difference.

Come home to church this Sunday. Bring your poverty to the cross.