By Bill Carroll
On a recent Sunday, we heard the rather strange and disturbing story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. I’ve been fascinated by this story for about 30 years, ever since I heard my friend chant it in Hebrew at his Bar-Mitzvah. I’m pretty sure I had a yarmulke on at the time. Thank God there was an English translation.
This odd little story comes in the midst of a much longer tale of family conflict. Jacob has stolen the birthright of his brother Esau and the blessing of their father Isaac. In another land, he has worked hard to acquire two wives, two maids, many children, and large flocks of sheep. He has been chased cross country by his father-in-law and is about to reenter territory controlled by his brother Esau. Jacob is afraid for his life and that of his family. Nevertheless, he lingers behind as his wives, the maids, and the children cross the River Jabbock. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, he spends a troubled night
alone, wrestling with a mysterious man who turns out to be the living God—or at least the angel of God.
Jacob is wounded in the encounter, as the man strikes him on the hip, pulls it out of joint, and leaves him with a limp. Yet he refuses to let go. Even at break of day, when the man begs to be released, Jacob refuses to let him go, unless he will bless him. In response, the man gives Jacob a new name, Israel. And Jacob, for his part, realizes that he has, in fact, been face to face with God.
What is exceedingly strange about this story is that most of us don’t think of God as our adversary–certainly not one we could fight with and win. Moreover, for many of us, our relationship with God is a place of safety, comfort, and security. We are wounded enough already!
If we do think about struggling, our adversary is Satan. Or perhaps some lesser demon, temptation, or sin. Perhaps we struggle with an addiction or other self-destructive tendency. Maybe it’s a painful memory or broken relationship. Maybe it’s pride or anger or feelings of worthlessness. But it’s not—at least not for most of us—a struggle with God. On the contrary, God is the one who takes our side when we are fighting against one or another of these enemies. God is good, merciful, loving and kind. And, it’s true, God is all these things and more.
But some of us, perhaps, have come to know it’s not always so easy. Sometimes, we do stay up half the night wrestling with God. Sometimes, the encounter leaves us wounded, wondering if our relationship is worth it. There’s a dark side to faith. God may be good and loving but isn’t always nice. The living God is not some cosmic wish-fairy who waves a wand and makes the bad stuff go away. Relationship—especially the most holy and life-giving kind of relationship—is always fraught with risk. When we get close enough to another person—he or she can wound us. He or she will certainly challenge us and spur us to difficult and painful growth.
Often, when we wrestle with God, we are wrestling not so much with the reality but with our false preconceptions about God. That may have been true for Jacob, who tricked his brother into selling his birthright and deceived his father into blessing him. Maybe he thought God was like his brother or father, who were capable of giving or denying their blessing. Often, our families are the scene of a life and death drama, as we encounter the imperfections of significant persons whose words and deeds take on a significance far larger than life. And let’s face it: we are seldom as gracious with each other as we might be—and never so gracious as God. God is not like some human parent, who might either give or withhold a blessing. God is the infinite ocean of mercy, who is always giving more than we could ever receive.
But, there is also a real sense in which God can become our adversary. At least insofar as we are lost in sin. We are, in fact, in love with our sins—and our journey into God may involve a painful process of letting go—as we struggle to tear away from those parts of ourselves that keep us in bondage. God may have our best interests at heart, but we so identify with the things that are killing us that God appears as adversary rather than friend. The apostle Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ—of dying to sin, that we might live to God. For Christians, the path toward wholeness and victory involves deep darkness and participation in the Lord’s suffering. We may wrestle with our conscience. We may struggle against the Holy Spirit, who speaks deep within us about the gift and demand of love. And, in the end, we may find ourselves limping along as we try to follow God but keep on walking in the way of sin and death.
But the wounds we suffer are more than merely something negative—the painful removal of obstructions to relationship. They may also be our way into God. Walking in the way of the cross, a beloved prayer reminds us, we find it to be none other than the way of life and peace. Christ loves our wounds, because they make us more like him. Our wounds are signs of our status as frail and dependent creatures. Vulnerable, intimate, self-giving love is what we are made for. It’s the kind of love that Jesus gave us, when he came among us in the flesh. We are called to love each other with the hearts of human beings.
Moreover, in the Christian mystical tradition, we often speak of the wound of love—a wound that is impressed upon our soul by the presence and action of God within us. St. John of the Cross, for example, in The Living Flame of Love, speaks of the sweet cautery and delightful wound of the Holy Spirit. By a cauterizing action, like a hot iron applied to stop a bleeding artery, love burns and heals the soul, ultimately through the grace of our union with God.
“The fire of love,” John writes, is “of infinite power” and can “inestimably transform into itself the soul it touches. Yet He burns each soul according to its preparation: He will burn one more, another less, and this He does insofar as He desires, and how and when He desires.” John goes on to contrast the wound of love with that caused by material fire:
The wound left by material fire is only curable by other medicines, whereas the wound effected by the cautery of love is incurable through medicine. For the very cautery that causes it, cures it, and by curing it, causes it. As often as the cautery of love touches the wound of love, it causes a deeper wound of love, and thus the more it wounds, the more it cures and heals. The more wounded the lover, the healthier he is, and the cure love causes is to wound and inflict wound upon wound, to such an extent that the entire soul is dissolved into a wound of love.
Brothers and sisters, we ought not to pity poor Jacob—but to imitate him. Like him, we ought to persevere through the night and never, ever let go of God. For, in the very act of being wounded, he prevails and receives a blessing after a long, hard struggle. He receives a new name—Israel, the one who sees God. And his wound results from the divine touch—the Holy Spirit, who sets us on fire with heavenly desires. The more we are wounded by this love, the more deeply we thirst for God. In this desire and this thirst lies our salvation. For this is the touch of our Savior—the Great Physician–who, in wounding, makes us like himself—even as he heals us and makes us whole.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.