From Genesis 32:24-30
24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face…”
This is one of the most memorable stories in Genesis. It’s also one of the most interpreted.
Who is the man Jacob wrestling with? Is it God? An angel? His own conscience? A thief? A demon? And, what is the
struggle over? Is it preparation for reunion with his brother Esau? Is Jacob wrestling for his life? For a blessing?
The passage is also about naming. When spoken, Jacob’s name resembles the Hebrew word “to wrestle.” The man asks Jacob his name, but he renames him Israel, which means “God strives” or “‘the one who strives with God.” Jacob also asks the man his name. But, no name is given. We are only told that Jacob is blessed. Then, Jacob names the place he wrestled a name that means “the face of God.”
When I was at a week of church meetings a couple of weeks ago, I was struggling. The meetings I was a part of were very institutional. They dealt with administration, policies, funds and fund raising. The meetings were important from an institutional perspective. But, the meetings also went 8-10 hours a day for three days. They were so large that there wasn’t an opportunity to disagree, question, or participate in the decisions being made. Though, an invitation for feedback was made. I was around friends I loved and respected, but I felt very alone. A depressing question kept haunting me, “Is this life with Jesus?” Despite all the opportunities afforded me through church, I wondered again if there was really a place for me? This seems to be an ongoing spiritual struggle. At a low point, I remembered the story of Jacob wrestling. It was as if the Holy Spirit befriended me and slipped me a note. “Wrestle until you’re blessed,” were the words I heard. These words came to me in a way that I knew they should define my entire relationship with church. “Wrestle until your blessed.” Do it at every service, every meeting, each week, each day.
I’ve had similar struggles when I am in local congregations. On the one hand, I’m lucky. I enjoy many different kinds of worship. I enjoyed mass for four years in Catholic school and fell in love with the tradition. I spent years going to church with my Dutch grandparents at a traditional Reformed service. I spent four years attending high Methodist liturgy in seminary, another 6 years at lively congregationalist services at another. I’m comfortable around people whoopin’ or being slain in the Spirit.
But, I also am in an age group that really never claimed church or recreated it in its own image. The examples are sparse. Compared to generations before me, most of my peers abandoned church or at least denominational committment and congregational life. By in large, they have not stayed around to create churches that reflect GenX skepticism, spirituality, or sense of relationships. I’m very much in touch with that part of myself, too. This explains why I’m never fully at home even in congregational life and worship services. Like everyone else, I’m looking for my place.
Most of us have a complicated relationship with church, if we have a relationship with it at all. As a professional minister, theological-type, and aspiring disciple of Jesus, I even do. As I struggle to feel at home or find space for myself in denominational life or congregational settings, this ancient story of Jacob wrestling brings meaning to it all for me.
Wrestle until you’re blessed. Even if you get kicked in the groin (see Gen 32:25 above), stay with the struggle. Expect to be blessed.