The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. (Genesis 32:22-24)
Of all the stories in the Old Testament, I think the story of Jacob wrestling with (presumably) an angel of God all night in the muddy reeds of the Jabbok River just might be my favorite. Maybe that’s because this text was one of my very first sermon assignments in seminary, and it deeply unsettled me (in a good way). Or maybe it’s because the older I get, the more I find this story to be such a fitting metaphor for a life of faith, which really does feel like a wrestling match most of the time.
These nine verses offer a picture of God that is quite different from what most of us are used to. It’s startling, even rather scary. What do we do with this picture of God as an unnamed assailant who pounces on Jacob in the middle of the night and wrestles him to the ground? The great preacher, Barbara Brown Talyor, talks about it this way:
You do not hear much about God causing the chaos [in life], or even having a role in it. On the contrary, it is God’s job to make it stop. God is supposed to restore the status quo and help everyone feel comfortable again. Isn’t that how you know when God is present? When the danger has been avoided? When your heart stops pounding and you can breathe normal again? …It is an appealing idea, but unfortunately the Bible does not back it up. In that richly troubling book, much of God’s best work takes place in total chaos, with people scared half out of their wits: Elijah, trembling under his broom tree, pleading with God to take his life; Mary, listening to an angel’s ambitious plans for plunging her into scandal; Paul, lying flat on his belly on the Damascus road with all his lights put out. …No one in his or her right mind asks to be attacked, frightened, wounded. And yet that is how it comes, sometimes, the presence and blessing of God (Gospel Medicine, Cowley Publications (1995), pp.107-8).
That last sentence especially strikes me. “And yet that is how it comes, sometimes, the presence and blessing of God.” Jacob liked having God’s presence and blessing on his terms. So long as God fit into his agenda and met his conditions, then he would claim this God as his own.
Taylor points out that, like Jacob, we tend to be more attracted to a God who resembles the big blue genie in the Walt Disney film Alladin. We want a God we can control by summoning him when we need him, make our wish, and then safely send him back into the lamp.
But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no genie in a lamp. And that’s a good thing! This is a God who has made a covenant with his people, as well as with all creation. A God who is faithful to keep this covenant. But this covenant is on God’s terms, not ours! As it turns out, God’s plans and purposes are far greater than anything we could wish or bargain for.
I want to suggest that this story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is really a story about grace. Granted, it is not the grace that we tend to envision—that sweet amazing grace that nudges us along “softly and tenderly.” We like that kind of grace. It’s unobtrusive and it’s not too demanding. It’s the kind of grace that makes us feel safe and comfortable.
But the grace that grabbed a hold of Jacob (which is ironic since his name means “grabber”) is a rough and tumble kind of grace that pursues us and wrestles us to the ground, locking us in its wounding hold. I’m talking about grace that comes in the form of unwelcome intrusions in life—disruptions, struggles and disappointments. Things that blind side us and knock us flat on our back, fighting for our life. This is a grace that hurts–a grace that leaves us limping. But it also leaves us blessed. And that makes it amazing grace nonetheless.
More often than not this is the kind of grace it takes for God to lay hold of our lives in Christ, to shape and mold us according to his purpose, and to move us in a certain direction. This is the kind of grace it takes for God to free us from the illusion that we are in control—that we were ever really in control in the first place. A grace that wrestles and wounds.
I’m not suggesting that God is behind every experience of struggle in our lives. That would be an oversimplification and it risks trivializing the pain of those who suffer. And sometimes the chaos in life is because of bad choices we’ve made. But even if God is not causing the chaos, we can have the assurance that God is with us in every struggle, perhaps closest to us when it feels the darkest. And that somehow, by the mystery of divine providence, all things are working together according to God’s good purposes.
In these moments of intense struggle, if you dare open your eyes, you just may catch a glimpse of God’s face–a face both terrible and glorious. And you may notice his arms holding you, these arms that wound and heal. As you wrestle, cling to God for dear life and dear death—yes, cling and don’t let go. Like Jacob, insist upon a blessing. You will come away with a limp, that much is true. But that’s not all. By God’s grace, you will also come away with a new name: “One who struggles with God and prevails.” And this is what makes the struggle worth it.