Twenty years earlier, the young man had run away from his brother who was threatening to kill him. He’d spent those twenty years breaking his back for his father-in-law who seemed to take perverse pleasure in finding new ways to rip him off.
He’d worked seven years to be allowed to marry the woman he loved, only to discover on the morning after his wedding night that the wrong woman was with him in bed. “It’s not our custom to marry off the younger before the elder,” his father-in-law had shrugged. So the young man had worked another seven years in exchange for the woman he really loved.
And then for another six years, he had continued to tend the flocks of his father-in-law, his father-in-law changing his wages every time he could conceive a new way that he might possibly be able to pay him a little less. Finally, with the situation continuing to worsen, God said, “Enough. I’ve seen what your father-in-law has been doing to you. It’s time for you to go home.”
The not-so-young-anymore man set out amidst another layer of drama (packing up his household and running away, one of his wives stealing her father’s household gods, and a week-long cross-country chase by his irate father-in-law culminating in a nasty confrontation).
A little further along, the man hears that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men. His breath shortens and his mouth dries. What am I doing going home? The last time I saw my brother, he wanted to kill me! His throat tightens and his heart pounds, and he cries out to God for protection. And that’s where the already action-packed story gets even more intriguing.
God doesn’t come with comforting words or a reassuring guarantee of protection. He pulls him into a night-long wrestling match.
Why, after years of traumatic experiences, when someone cries for help, would God come to him in the form of a human assailant?
All encounters with God are mysterious and multilayered and I expect there are many layers of healing taking place. Perhaps God is confronting the sin that caused the young man to have to run in the first place since, in asking his name, God elicits a confession: “My name is Jacob—deceiver.” Perhaps he is removing the disgrace of that identity and giving him a fresh start, rooted in this encounter with God, by renaming him and then blessing him. And perhaps, face to face, hand to hand, God is teaching Jacob the deceiver what it feels like to confront head-on instead of to manipulate and sneak and hide. Perhaps for Jacob, learning to fight fair is part of his discipleship.
Perhaps, for many of us, learning to stand up and fight—at all, or in a new way—is part of our discipleship.
David cried out for God to rescue him. God did—and then trained David’s own hands for battle, arming him with strength to be able to defeat the enemies that had previously rendered him terrified and helpless (Psalm 18).
Ezekiel’s formation as a prophet involved God pulling him, quite literally, to his feet and making him strong and stubborn enough to do the job God was calling him to do (Ezekiel 2:1-2, 3:7-9).
I see God wrestling with Jacob and I find myself face to face again with a trauma counselor who once had me stand and push as hard as I could against her hands. Sometimes you have to stand up and fight or you will lie down and cry.
Part of me wishes it wasn’t this way. That part of me would rather discipleship were all about growing in gentleness, in quiet contemplation, surrender, trust. But Mulholland challenges me:
“We would much rather have our spiritual formation focus on those places where we are pretty well along the way. How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way?” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 45)
And—surrender? trust? I write those words and feel myself cornered by a stronger Love who whispers that his embrace isn’t always what I’d expect. That genuine surrender means being open to him in whatever way he comes. That growing in trust might look right now like raising my arms and stepping into the wrestling ring with the divine assailant who stands before me, hands raised, calling me into the freedom of wholeness which involves body as well as soul, confrontation as well as gentleness.
“O God of wholeness, when I consider the lack of balance and wholeness in my life, the one-sided spiritualities with which I attempt to appease you, to appear good in the eyes of others and to please myself, I come face to face with my need for a holistic spiritual life. Help me, I pray to hunger and thirst for the wholeness you have for me in Christ. Help me to be willing to surrender to you whatever stands in the way of such wholeness.” (Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey, p. 76)