Wrestling with God

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob was asleep, anticipating the next day. He was camped away from his old home, afraid of his older brother Esau. Years earlier, Jacob had tricked his brother out of his birthright and then tricked their father into getting the Patriarchal blessings. This means that the Promised Land belonged to Jacob and not Esau. In fear of his older brother, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban’s land. There he was tricked into 14 years of slavery and marrying Laban’s oldest daughter.

Jacob was now on his way home with his two wives, two concubines, and all of his children. Afraid that Esau would still be angry, he sent over gifts first. Then he sent his family without him, for fear that seeing him with them would cause Esau to harm them all. So Jacob was alone at night.

But something unexpected happened.

Someone came in the night and began to wrestle with him. This was a knock-down, drag-out fight that lasted until the dawn. The person tried to get away, but Jacob held on even when the strange knocked Jacob’s hip out of its socket. When the stranger asked to be released, Jacob answered, “Not until you bless me.” The stranger blessed Jacob and renamed him.

The name Jacob means “liar, trickster, deceiver, supplanter.” This is what Jacob has been his entire life. Literally translated, the name means “Heel-grabber,” which is how he came out of the womb, gripping Esau’s heel. But “heel-grabber” is a euphemism for someone who is tricky. The modern equivalent would be to say someone is pulling your leg. Jacob is someone who would trick or “jacob” you.

Jacob’s mother Rebekka was told that God intended to give him the birthright and the blessing. But Jacob and his mother decided to take it for themselves through deceit. Jacob “jacobed” his brother and then he “jacobed” his father.

But the stranger renames him “Israel.” This name means “I have wrestled with God.” And that is exactly what Jacob was doing at that moment and identity of the stranger is revealed.

Jacob was wrestling with God.

When I tell this story to my students, I sometimes get the question: “Why was God wrestling with Jacob?”

The answer is: because that is what Jacob has been doing all of his life.

God wanted to give him the Promised Land. He wanted to give him a great and glorious destiny. But instead of waiting on the Lord to act in His time, Jacob tried to wrestle that prize from God’s hands.

Imagine a parent buys a new car for their 15-year-old child and puts in the garage to give to him or her for their 16th birthday. But instead of waiting, the child breaks into the garage and steals the car and crashes it. This is essentially Jacob’s story. He wasn’t ready to be the leader, but he thought he was clever enough anyway. As a result, he brings pain into his life. He is “jacobed” by Laban. He is a slave for 14 years. After his mother sends him to Laban, he never sees her again. His hip injury is a reminder of the suffering his life endured because he chose to wrestle with God.

So what does this have to do with us?

For many of us, this describes us.

God has promised us good things. He set before us a choice: one road leads to happiness in this life and the next. The other leads to misery. “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) But how often do we want that happiness while walking the road of sin?

When I do my examination of conscience each day, I am truly humbled by the utter stupidity of my sin. My wife and I often pray on the phone. To my shame, sometimes if I am home, I will flip channels with the volume down while we pray. What am I doing? instead of giving my due attention to God and my wife, I throw myself at my entertainment and distractions. I am wrestling with God for my attention. And when I am done, I find that I did not have a fruitful prayer experience. But I also did not have any real enjoyment from the entertainment.

When I do this, I find that I’m fighting God for something that really does not satisfy instead of simply receiving from Him what He wants to give me.

God has His hand on us. “You are always with me. You hold my right hand.” (Psalm 73:23) If God holds us, but we run away from Him on the other path, of course we are going to feel torn in two. That is because we are wrestling with a God who has a firm hold on us. When a mother holds tightly to their child as they try to run into the crowded parking lot, the child feels constrained and confused. The child wrestles against the firm hand of the mother. But the mother does not let go, even if it hurts the child because they are headed down a more injurious path. In the same way, wrestling with God will cause pain and discomfort in our life because He is trying to keep us from the worst.

But all children grow up. We must become men and women who make our own choices. Mom will not always keep hold in this way. In the end, if we choose to run away from Him forever, He will respect our choice, no matter how much He wants us to come home.

But hopefully, after beating our heads against so many walls, we will turn around and return. That is what happens with Jacob. He comes home to face the music, without deception or trickery. God changes his name because he is no longer a liar or trickster. He is like us, those of us who have wrestled with God. And in the morning, he returns home and is reconciled to his brother in the Promised Land.

When we feel the Holy Spirit stirring in us or if our conscience is speaking loudly, let us listen to that voice instead of fighting it. Instead of wrestling with God, let us gladly surrender. We will find that when we do that, His embrace will not feel constraining and confining.

We will instead find ourselves wrapped in the Arms of love that carry us closer to our brothers and sisters in the true Promised Land.

Copyright 2020, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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