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 them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 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.” 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
I have always loved this story. I get it. I think we all do. We’ve all wrestled with our faith, demanding a blessing, desperate for an identity, looking for a victory. Sometimes spiritual enlightenment can feel like an exciting revelation, or like a warm peace, or a lightbulb clicking on. It can be thrilling and affirming. Other times it feels like a battle, or suffering, or like everything you have is being robbed of you, or like parts of you are being burned away. It can be painful and feel like dying. When we learn more about God, ask the hard questions, unlearn certain things, relearn old things, embrace new things, we are growing our faith, even if it feels like an endless wrestling match on a dark night that we come away from limping.
I have limped my way through the year after facing sexism, ageism, and abuse of power. Just as it felt as if I was healing and moving forward, I was struck and I am limping again. We had a small house fire, and now we are figuring out what will come next. My theology has not survived. I have had to wrestle like Jacob because my lived experience no longer matched the things I believed about God. Why has this happened? Where is God in this? Where is my blessing? Who am I? What is my name? When will I see the daylight again? When is enough, enough? I’m still wrestling. I’m still trying to piece together what my beliefs are now. I don’t have all the answers, but I won’t stop asking the questions.
Faith is mysterious, like this passage. Who was Jacob wrestling with? It says a man, but then Jacob says that he has seen the face of God and prevailed. In the book of Hosea, it says that Jacob wrestled an angel. Some type of divine encounter occurred, and Jacob was brave enough to demand a blessing from it. Jacob did his best to make sense of his encounter, getting what he asked for, but not getting all the clarity to what he experienced. Jacob was permanently blessed and cursed.
This is truly a parable that represents the mystery of faith, God, and life. I think when we’re wrestling with faith and God, we are surrounded by mystery. We’re asking the questions that may never be answered, and yet we have to keep moving forward. We may come away blessed and cursed. I think the essence of spiritual growth is admitting that we will never have a complete understanding of the divine or the natural world while also being true to our ever-changing beliefs and identity. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” or “I’m still searching” or “I’m not sure what I believe” or “I’m frustrated” or “I no longer subscribe to this aspect of my faith” or “My beliefs have changed.” Faith is a lifelong process. And we were never commissioned to have it all figured out. And it’s okay to have negative feelings in relation to faith. It’s who we are, and God loves us and tells us it’s okay and to do our best.
Ultimately, while we are in hard seasons of wrestling that feel like suffering and dying, we are not being erased. We are being remade. I don’t believe that God sends people to bully us or sends house fires to harm us so that God can change us. Instead, I think really terrible things happen because we live in a broken world, but God cares enough to show up. And God is willing to be our wrestling partner while we work through this mess. Somehow, transformation happens in this season. Like Jacob, we may come away scarred, but we may also be renamed and made new. Our sense of identity is important to God because it is important to us. So if, like me, you find yourself wrestling with faith and feeling like your theology is being stripped away, perhaps, whenever you are ready and only if it is helpful, seek this opportunity to engage in a spiritual awakening that leads you to a new identity.
I leave you with these lyrics from the song “24” by Switchfoot:
I want to see miracles, see the world change
Wrestled the angel, for more than a name
For more than a feeling
For more than a cause
I’m singing Spirit take me up in arms with You
And You’re raising the dead in me