Every day during Lent, members of Oconee Street UMC will write a Lenten devotional and share with the congregation.
by Jodie Lyon
March 20, 2014
I’ve never watched WWE SmackDown and those spandex outfits the high school wrestlers wear really bother me. And yet, one of my favorite biblical texts is the story of Jacob wrestling the angel. In Genesis 32, Jacob, the sly, smooth-skinned trickster, is fleeing his hirsute, always-gets-the-short-end-of-the-stick twin Esau, and stops to rest overnight at Peniel. Then the story takes a sudden and bizarre twist. Seemingly out of nowhere, a man shows up and starts wrestling with Jacob. You can’t make this stuff up. The two struggle overnight, and Jacob refuses to let the man go unless he blesses him. Finally, after a long fight, the man relents and the wrestling match is over. Jacob walks away with a limp and a new name, “Israel.”
I like this story not only for its completely absurd nature, but because of what it signifies about Israel’s relationship to God. Israel becomes Israel in the midst of struggle with the divine. Literally, Israel means, “one who strives with God.”
Most of the biblical heroes talk back to God. They object, they complain, they accuse, they criticize, they argue. It doesn’t sound like the proper response to God Almighty, but it’s what the text tells us they did. I teach religion and Christian theology at UGA, and I have a hard time getting my students—particularly my Christian students—to accept this. When studying the book of Job, no matter how dramatically I read them Job’s bitter accusations of God, they’re still convinced that Job suffered in pious silence. Isn’t that what a good, godly person SHOULD do?
I used to think so. I used to think that faith was never arguing, never complaining. It was passive acceptance of one’s situation in life, a faith that unwaveringly took the good with the bad. When contemporary Christians talk about “having a relationship” with God, it is usually this bland, submissive relationship that they describe rather than Israel’s “striving with God.”
What Christians don’t often realize is that strife can be a positive thing. Robert and I got married this past summer, and we’ve made it a point in our marriage to fight when necessary. That might sound strange, but we’ve both learned (the hard way) that a marriage worth fighting for is a marriage worth fighting in. If we are really going to be in authentic, intimate relationship with one another, there will be times when we get mad, or hurt, or disappointed, and pretending everything is fine when it is not is unhealthy and detrimental to our union. Love involves passion—not merely the passion of romance but also the passion of anger. Working through our emotions, rather than ignoring them, leads to a stronger love and a closer understanding of one another.
I’ve come to believe that love for God also involves complaint, anger, disappointment, accusation, and sometimes a no-holds-barred wrestling match. The first few times I wrestled with God, I was sure it was a result of a lapse in my faith and piety, but over time, I’ve come to recognize that it’s always led me to a deeper relationship with God. A human love relationship isn’t easy, and neither is our relationship with God. God disappoints us, frustrates us, and just plain makes us mad. I have no idea why God calls me to do the things God does, and I’m quite vocal about it. “I really don’t want to do that today, God, seriously. I just can’t. I have no idea why you asked me to do this in the first place.” I say this out loud at least once a week. But it’s through venting my frustration to God that I’ve come to know God, to trust in God, and to love God. It’s through striving with God that we become God’s people, just as Israel did.
“God, give me a passion for you strong enough to love you fiercely and strive with you and for you.”