It was lonely there along the banks of the Jabbok, but Jacob needed some time to himself. Half a lifetime ago he had fled his brother’s anger, and the next day he would confront him face to face. What would Esau do? Would this be Jacob’s last night alive? And even if Esau let him live, he still had to confront his father Isaac. What would he say to the old man whom he had deceived? Jacob needed to make sense out of his years he had been away, to get some perspective on things, to muster up courage to face his brother, and perhaps his death.
As he sat there in the darkness, alone with his thoughts, someone jumped him. Jacob couldn’t see who it was, but they wrestled all through the night. By dawn, it was obvious to the stranger that Jacob wasn’t going to give in; so with a mere touch he put Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Now, at that point Jacob might have done what his adversary asked and let him go. After all, if the mysterious person could cripple him with a touch, what else could he do to him if he put his mind to it? But there was something different about the one he wrestled. Jacob knew that the one in his grasp was no bandit but someone supernatural. So Jacob refused to release the shadowy figure until he gained something from him. “Give me a blessing,” Jacob demanded, “or I won’t let you go.”
Before the angel complied with his demand, he asked Jacob his name. To tell someone your name in Old Testament times was more than just casual information. In those days, people didn’t get their names because their parents liked the sound or because they wanted to honor a favorite relative. A name meant much more than it does today. A name revealed a person’s character. For instance, Jacob means the one who grasps. That’s how he came out of his mother’s womb, grasping the heel of his twin brother, and that summarized his character. To tell someone your name was to reveal your inner self. It wasn’t something you gave out freely. But Jacob knew that his adversary was no ordinary human being, so he told him his name. The angel said, “You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,” which means, “the one who strives with God.”
In those days to change your name meant that something about your very nature was changed. No longer would Jacob be called the grasper. From then on, he would know God face to face, and knowing God, he would strive with God. What happened that night by the banks of the Jabbok set the tone for the rest of the Old Testament, the story of Israel’s relationship with God. Instead of going their separate ways, God and Israel would struggle with each other, and out of that struggle, Israel would be blessed.
Have you ever wrestled with God? The Tustins have. Years ago when Sam and Molly Tustin were in their late twenties, their five-year-old son died. Shortly afterwards, someone told them that now they had a guardian angel in heaven who watched over them and protected them. That was unfortunate. God doesn’t make five year old boys responsible for the health and safety of their families. When we die we enter into the eternal peace of God. But the thought comforted them, and they clung to it as they raised three other children and then began to revel in grandchildren. Little Sammy, their guardian angel, was protecting them.
But then, years later, their youngest daughter Tricia, aged 48, died in a car wreck as she was returning home from a business trip. She left a husband and two young teenagers. The Tustins were devastated by the disaster, but what made it worse was the feeling of betrayal. Their little son Sammy, who they thought was their guardian angel, hadn’t protected them from another tragedy, and they felt like God had let them down.
Now, Sam and Molly Tustin could have given up on God at that point, like Ted Turner did. Several years ago the television and sports magnate gave a speech in which he said that he stopped believing in God when he was a teenager after three tragedies hit him in quick succession. In just a few months’ time, his sister died, his parents divorced, and his father died. He asked that age-old question of why God let it happen. He couldn’t find a good answer, so he gave up on God. He let God go and didn’t want to be bothered.
But the Tustins didn’t do that. Like Jacob, they wrestled with God, not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, and they refused to let God go until they received a blessing. They cried out to God in their anger, they questioned “Why? Why?” over and over. Their struggle took longer than one night. It took months. But with the help of their pastor and their friends they got the blessing. The blessing for them was a deeper understanding of what God did for them on the cross. Sam and Molly began to understand that God didn’t spare his own son. Jesus was touched by suffering and death. They saw that God doesn’t promise to protect us from all harm, but to stand beside us in our pain so our grief won’t destroy us. The Tustins accepted that life in this world is riddled with pain and death and no one, not even Jesus, is exempt from suffering. The blessing they received was an assurance that God is more powerful than anything that can harm us, and that the resurrection is our guarantee that Christ raises us to new life. They still hurt from their loss. They still get angry. But they don’t blame God for what happened. They’re closer to God now. Their friendship with God is deeper. And they don’t hold little Sammy who died decades ago responsible for their well being.
Like Jacob, our grappling with God sometimes takes place in times of crisis, times when simple bumper sticker religion that served us well enough just won’t stand up under the pressure of events. Other times our wrestling is more intellectual. Things we learn about the world make us grapple with old assumptions about God and the Bible. I remember when I was studying geology and evolution in high school and college. I wrestled to understand where God fit in. Some people believe that science explains all there is to know about the universe and dismiss the Bible as misguided. Others believe that Genesis tells us everything we need to know about how the world was formed and dismiss science as misguided. I believed the scriptures, but I also believed that God gave us minds to unlock the secrets of the universe. So I wrestled until I realized that science and scriptures answer two different questions – science tells us how the world was made and the Bible tells us why the world was made and who made it. I realized that a day in God’s time might be a hundred million years in human time. I realized that scripture is right in saying God formed human beings out of dust. And science is right in saying that the formation took millions of years and evolved through many different stages. That makes me stand in even greater awe of God that God could have such a long-term vision that would culminate in the likes of you and me, that those hundreds of millions of years it took to form humanity are just an instant in the time of God. The blessing from that intellectual struggle was even more amazement at how great God is.
Or maybe your wrestling with God hasn’t come in a time of crisis, or when you’ve been confronted with views that call your belief into question. Maybe your wrestling came as suddenly and as unexpectedly as it came to Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok. Driving down the road or lying in bed wide awake at one in the morning, you’ve wrestled with the question of what does your life mean, why are you here, and what are you supposed to be doing. Those are deep questions of the soul, and the easy thing to do is to release them, to let them go before they cripple you. Or you can grapple with them, struggle and question and open yourself to change until you receive a blessing.
It’s hard to wrestle with God because we expect peace and comfort from God. We come to church looking for God to accept us, to make it easier to live in a world that has too much stress already. And God is a deep well of comfort and compassion. But in our desire for consolation, it’s tempting to try to put God in our back pocket, to make God our pal who protects us from hard questions and soul-wrenching struggles. I wonder if Jacob didn’t feel that way. He’d gotten everything he’d ever wanted. Life was his oyster. But God reminded Jacob that the Almighty is an awesome being, who had it in God’s power to cripple Jacob with a touch.
The author Annie Dillard once observed in dismay how glibly the people in her church came to worship. She was struck by their frivolity and their nonchalance, more concerned about what was going to happen to them at dinner after church than about what they would encounter in worship. Don’t they know, she wrote, who it is they’re confronting? Instead of straw hats, the women should be wearing crash helmets. They should be ready to come face to face with one who’s more powerful that TNT, who can blow them all to smithereens if God chooses.
We love to marvel at God’s beauty in nature. We see God in the delicacy of the rose, the splendor of the sunset, the sweetness of the robin’s song. But nature also has the power to humble us. We see God in the flowers and in the birds and in the sweet gentle rain, but we also see God in the fierce, untamable storm. No wonder Jacob was awestruck as morning dawned there by the Jabbok. “I have seen God face to face,” he said in amazement, “and yet my life has been preserved.”
There are times when the power of God grabs us and wrestles with us and we feel like we’re locked in the grappling embrace of almighty power. We can avoid those struggles and choose to remain untouched, unscathed, unchanged by an encounter with the Lord. Or we can wrestle with God until we’re blessed, until God’s awesome power changes us into someone different, better, new. Jacob wrestled with God and didn’t give up until he received a new name, Israel, the one who strives with God. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with God. There may be a blessing in it for you.