You can call me Jacob today, for I intend to wrestle with God. Sometimes, there is no other way to know him. Sometimes I must grip him with the hands of grief or I will not be able to grasp him at all. This fight has brooded long in my soul, this struggle has grown like a storm on my horizon, for I have had a year of confusion. This has been one of those seasons in which every thing I thought God gave me to do fell through. The doors I thought he opened slammed shut. The grace I thought he gave turned to grief.
Today, after a week in which three specific, long-held prayers were flatly denied, I have come to my quiet time with fight in every atom of my soul. God seems to have fooled me and left me in a bitter cold and I want to know why. How, I sputter as I settle into my quiet time chair, can God claim to love me and then abandon me to this desert?
I open my Bible and turn to the story I have claimed as my own these days; the tale of Jacob’s fight with God. There is something about Jacob’s life, his grapple for favor and love, his frailty, his bargaining with the Almighty that reminds me of myself. I don’t find this flattering, but it is an odd comfort. Despite all Jacob’s foibles, despite his fight and fear, God stuck with this stubborn man. That gives me hope and sets my face, because today, like Jacob, I am at an impasse. I’m stuck in a desert of circumstance with fear and confusion crouching in wait for me just as Esau camped on the desert horizon the night of Jacob’s great fight. Jacob went out into the desert that night to plead with God, to beg his help and rail at his absence and he ended up in the arms of God himself, pounding out his anger, his fear, his need for God to hold him. Well, here I am to do the same. I close my eyes and open my heart. Let the battle begin.
I fight my own self first, there in God’s arms. Dry as the bottom of the ocean drained of all its water, the desert of my life stretches around me. Is it of my own making? It could be. I have a trickster’s soul, like Jacob, a heart that thinks it can outrun pain and outwit the upshot of all my fearful and faithless hours. Maybe it is my pride that moors me in this dry, dark place. The brave choices I would not make, the love I would not give. I know my decisions are often faulty, my schemes for friendship or finances full of holes. Frailty runs in my blood, the awful inheritance that none can stem, and I feel it as I writhe in God’s hands. Is all this my fault?
Then I wrestle pain. For I know this night is not of my making alone. I am imperfect, but I am persistent, and I have loved God and made his ways my own with every ounce of resolve I could muster. My wisdom may be scant, but my choices have been made in prayer. Knowing this, my fight is anguished and my hands come down harder on God’s silent arms. I am suddenly Eve as well as Jacob; Eve when the world was stripped of beauty, when the first stab of grief rent the air. What is this pain? Where is my God? My heart has never acclimated to sorrow, I still feel shocked when I am broken. Surely it wasn’t supposed to be like this, surely loving God should protect me. I wasn’t made for this disappointment, this loneliness, for prayers that seem to die like mist in the great, broad air of God’s silence.
Finally, I wrestle with God. My existence is his fault. He said he loved me and I believed him. Now I strike him with my pain as hard as I dare, trying to reconcile his love with the fact of a world still broken. I stretch and strain in the darkness, trying to grasp some sense of his care, something to help me believe he is the father I so need him to be. His hushed holding of me as I struggle is a strangeness I almost cannot bear. I long to escape him, to finish this fight, yet I know that he is the cause, the opponent, the peace I need all in one. Every question, every strike is to and for him, no part of this darkness can be explained apart from his troublesome existence. The only thing I hope to win is the working of his hand. He is my opponent, and he is my prize. My enemy, and the lover I yearn for with all of my soul. Whatever shall I do?
If I follow Jacob’s story, then I will cling to God until I am blessed. I will clutch at his arms until he claims me as his own and gives me a name as his child. But I am afraid to end like Jacob, for the tale of his fight is a strange one, and the ending of it, more than I understand. Of course, God won. Jacob could not out-wrestle the one who made his own muscles, nor out-argue the one who gave him speech. God lamed Jacob in the end and perhaps the laming was mercy. For I think that Jacob might have struggled to death in his anger and fear. But Jacob clung even beyond that breaking, clung until God himself yielded a curious prize.
The prize was a name. God’s trophy to his child, his challenger, was a new identity. The trickster Jacob, even with all his lies, his stealing of birthrights and striving for everything beyond his reach, would become the first of a mighty and holy people. God confirmed his choice of Jacob as the father of Israel by giving him the name that would define the nation. But what a name. If I were God, naming the people who would reveal me to all the earth (and I had just finished wrestling a particularly stubborn one), I think I’d give them an identity laced with command. I’d call them simply “faithful people,” or “humble ones,” or “those who do everything God asks,” or maybe even “the perfectly obedient followers of Yahweh.”
But out there in that wild desert night with the stars in a whirl and the air thrumming with Jacob’s savage fury, God named his people something entirely different. God blessed Jacob, and all the holy people after him, by giving him a name that meant “those who struggle with God.” The name “Israel” basically means “those who fight.” Those who struggle and strive. Why would God call such trouble on his poor, holy head by giving his people the identity of scrappers? Why, I ask myself today, as I grapple with the hard way God leads, would God want little old me to be a struggler too?
The name does ring true. My life since the day I “asked Jesus into my heart,” has been one long battle. Oh there is brightness to hearten me, and beauty to keep me in hope, but it’s been one long fight. Against sin and self, against the niggling of daily life on a broken earth, against the times, like this, when God is maddeningly silent. Yet every bit of it has been my offering of love to this God who saved me. And suddenly, as I look at the story of Jacob, look at the fight in my own life, I see something I never did before.
God blessed Jacob for his struggle. He was proud of Jacob’s penchant to fight. God’s naming of Jacob smacks almost of a fatherly pride; “look at him go, he’s definitely mine.” Never did God condemn or disqualify Jacob for his fight; instead, God passed on that scrapper’s spirit to an entire nation of holy people. Finally, I begin to see.
God loves those who struggle with him. God loves the fighters, the ones who grapple with faith and refuse to give up. When I struggle, my heart is alive. If I truly accepted God’s absence, acquiesced to pain, decided that darkness was all I could ever expect, then I would have no reason to wrestle with grief. God loves those who will not settle until they touch his goodness. He delights in those who hold fast through every doubt, cling harder with every seeming evidence of abandonment. Why? Because every lover of God must fight. I just never understood that before.
I was blind when I began; I thought that loving God meant an end to all my troubles. What I have had to learn is that this is the broken place, a world scarred by sin and grief and from it, there is no instant escape. The problems I have right now? They are part of my story in the fallen world, a place in which loneliness and sorrow still reign. God’s love is absolutely true, his grace ever-present. But I will experience it in what C.S. Lewis called “the shadowlands.” I will be disappointed. Life will let me down, pain will pock my way until I am finally safe in the new heavens and earth.
God acknowledged this reality when he gave Jacob, and through him all God-followers, the name of “strugglers.” To accept that identity is to understand that no one is exempt from fallenness or pain, from the ravages of sin in this world. But it is also to hold, with tears, yes, with a wrestling of heart, the belief that somehow God triumphs in the midst of it.
Have you ever noticed how many times the word “overcome” is mentioned in the New Testament? Jesus, on the night before his death, told his disciples outright that they would have lots of trouble. “But take courage,” said Jesus, “I have overcome the world.” John heartens his readers over and over again with the promise that our faith overcomes the darkness. And in Revelation there is that haunting promise “to him who overcomes, I will give the kingdom.” God would not have called us to a fight he did not intend to win. The greatest wrestler in the world was Jesus. He came down into the gritty pain of our fight, he fought beside us, and he was the one who finally overcame the darkness by laying down his life.
This is the hope to which we cling and this is what redemption really is. Redemption is not the zapping away of all that’s wrong, it’s grace turning all pain backwards into joy. By holding fast to God, even if it means we must fight, we enter God’s grand, slow battle to make all things new. It’s a slow triumph. But the promise of God is that nothing is outside the realm of redemption. Many things may hurt us here in the broken place, but evil may never overcome us, and in the end, even evil will be turned backward into grace.
Our Jacob-like fight is is just one part of this glorious battle. As God lovers, we struggle toward light. We fight to keep faith alive. We don’t curse a faceless universe and stay alive out of spite, we have a goal, a marvelous light, an unceasing love that exists beyond the touch of any darkness. Toward that, we fight. For that good, we will grapple. For the proclamation of that reality, we will fling the whole of ourselves into the furious struggle to believe in the goodness of God. We will believe in a kind, laughing face whose gaze is fixed upon us, whose kindness holds us through the darkness and leads us, finally, beyond it.
So call me Jacob. Call me “the one who struggles with God.” It’s not the name I would have chosen, but it’s the identity I’ll accept and the fight I’ll join. And with the help of that great wrestler Jesus, I believe I will finally overcome.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she’s not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.