If Jesus, the Messiah, struggles with God, and Jacob, one of the patriarchs of the Hebrew nation, struggles with God, what makes you think you are not going to? In Mark’s Gospel we see the very human Jesus struggling with God in the Garden of Gethsemane. He’s asking if it’s possible to have the cup of sorrow and pain taken away from him. This struggle would not have come as a surprise to Christ because Jesus knew his scriptures.
He knew that going all the way back to the book of Genesis the very patriarchs of the Hebrew people had struggled with God. When Abraham was 75 years old, God had promised him land, blessings, and descendants. But that promise was not fulfilled for another twenty-five years. We know Abraham struggled with how long it was taking God to make good on the promise because he and his wife Sarah tried to help God along by having a child with Hagar. It did not end well.
Jesus would certainly have known about how Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, struggled with God. Jacob’s struggles began even before he was born. Jacob was a twin. The Bible says in Genesis 25:22, “The two children struggled with each other in the womb.” When the children are born, Jacob comes into the world grasping the heel of his slightly older brother Esau. The struggles between the two brothers continued into adulthood.
Jacob tricked his older brother into giving him his birthright and then deceived his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the older son. Jacob then has to run for his life to escape Esau’s revenge.
Finally, on the eve of the final showdown between Jacob and his older brother, Jacob is utterly alone. In the middle of the night he finds himself grappling with a stranger. It is dark and there is no one around to help him or even tell him who he is dealing with. The struggle continues all night with neither party letting go of the other.
At last dawn breaks and God or God’s angel — we’re not exactly sure which — knocks Jacob’s hip out of its socket. He will limp the rest of his life after this wrestling match, but Jacob goes away from it with a name change. Jacob, the trickster, will now be known as Israel. In the Hebrew language Israel means “One who struggles with God.” Jacob grappled all night with God, but he never gave up. He persevered and God blessed him.
It is worth remembering that Israel’s nightlong struggle with God did not leave him unscathed. It took a toll on him and our struggles with God today take a toll on us. But what is remarkable is that this difficult struggle with God prepared Israel for the next day’s encounter with Esau. Suddenly that upcoming skirmish did not seem so formidable. Jacob, as Israel, was now equipped. Come what may, he was ready to deal with his older brother.
The image of Jacob wrestling with God is profound because it applies to us in our struggles with God. When we wrestle with God, we are holding onto him and he is holding onto us. We may be struggling, but neither one of us is letting go. We hang onto God, even as we question or battle with what it means to be a child of God today. But, even in our questioning and battling, we are secure in the knowledge that God is hanging onto us.
So, can we expect victory? Yes, in the long term. But in the short term, there is struggle and striving. Sometimes it feels like “No good deed goes unpunished.” Sometimes it feels like the good guys are losing out. And our struggles with God can leave us scarred. Jacob had a limp the whole rest of his life, but the good news for us today is that God blesses us in the struggle. Through those trials we can come to know the face of God.
The Bible takes this struggle between God and God’s people seriously. Life is hard, and God expects his people to struggle with it and with him. As we face the trials of this life it is easy to get angry and to question God as to why things are the way they are.
What I say next may surprise you. It is perfectly OK to “struggle” with God in this way. If that were not the case it would be impossible to explain the book of Psalms. The Psalms are our biblical textbook for prayer, and fully 70% of them are Psalms of Lament. Cries of, “Why, O God?” and “How long, O Lord?” are not uncommon. This is how we are instructed to pray. It is a mature prayer. God has broad shoulders, so to speak. He takes our laments seriously, but not personally.
Our struggles in life, and with God, are real; but through them all, God holds onto us tightly. He never lets us go.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.