By Pastor Sarah Stadler
If you are wondering today, if you have questions for God today, if you are not certain today, Jacob’s story may be your story.
Jacob ushers across the River Jakkob his entire household and spends the night alone yet not alone on the other side. Genesis tells us: A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. All night, Jacob wrestles with this man and does not let him go. In the days prior to this encounter, Jacob and his household travel by foot to meet Jacob’s brother Esau whom he had not seen in years. And the reason he had not seen Esau? Jacob had deceived him, deceived him to get his father’s blessing, and Jacob must have surely lived with remorse all those years, battling internally with himself and wondering what God made of his deception. Indeed, the next day, when Jacob sees Esau, he tells Esau that Esau’s forgiveness is like seeing the faceof God; he is deeply grateful. But on that night before he sees his brother again, when light is filling the sky, the mysterious man with whom he had wrestled all night asks to be released from Jacob’s grasp, but Jacob does not let him go until this man blesses him. And the man does—by changing his name from Jacob which means “deceiver” to Israel which means “one who strives with God.” It is in Jacob’s name-change that we find out who the mysterious one is. Jacob spent the night wrestling with God as his new name Israel proclaimed.
I remember being 18 years old when a friend of mine whom I had met in a church-related activity told me he didn’t believe in God. The moment that he told me, he was driving a mini van full of high school and college students—mutual friends of ours—through a blizzard. I grew up in Minnesota, don’tcha know. Given the circumstances, I wondered if I had simply misheard him, so later that evening when I was stranded at his house—because of the blizzard—I asked him: Did I hear you correctly? Did you say that you don’t believe in God? Yes, he said, yes, I did say that. I don’t believe in God. And suddenly, the whole firm foundation of my life, the very ground on which I stood collapsed beneath me. How could he not believe in God? How was there a world in which someone did not believe in God? Is it possible God did not exist? I very quickly plummeted into despair. Well, I reasoned, I guess God doesn’t exist. For about eight months, from that day around New Years until I went to college the next fall, I did not believe that God existed. I just decided that, if there was someone in the world who did not believe in God, especially my friend whom I had met through church, then God must not exist. I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s where I was. I gave up the fight. I decided it wasn’t possible for me to even consider a world where people had doubts and questions such as my friend had. I still went to church, mind you, and I still went to senior high Bible study. But I was done, just done, believing in God.
I didn’t stay in that place very long. As I said, when I went to college several months later, I was pulled back into questions and doubts, wrestling and struggling because I was taking religion classes and having different conversations about God than I had ever had before, more academic conversations which fed my spirit. When my whole life collapsed—because that’s really what it felt like—I had been a teenager on fire for God. Ibelieved that I possessed a strong, vibrant faith where I did not for a moment question God. I couldn’t wait to go to church on Sunday mornings, and I couldn’t understand how the people in my Lutheran church could just sit in the pews so quietly and reverently when God had done these amazing things! The lack of zeal and excitement confused me. You see, when I was 16, I had had an incredibly powerful spiritual experience that reshaped my life. Despite having grown up in the church and having theological conversations on nearly a daily basis in my household and despite this powerful spiritual experience I had had, my spiritual foundation was very thin. No wonder my faith collapsed. Here’s what I think happened: I don’t think I had faith. Instead, I think I had certainty—about God. Being certain did not serve me well. As human beings, as finite human beings in relationship with an infinite Creator, there is very little about which we can be absolutely certain. In fact, there’s nothing about which we can be absolutely certain. And that’s okay. It just means that we will wrestle with God. We will struggle. We will doubt. We will question. Not as an antithesis of faith but as evidence of it, a continued engagement, a continued relationship with God.
God blesses Jacob by giving him a new name and not only a new name but a new identity. The Hebrew names used in the Bible often are not just names but actual nouns or adjectives in the Hebrew language. Jacob literally meant “Deceiver.” Imagine being called Deceiver. Everyone would know your tendency to deceive others. Have you met my friend Deceiver? Yeah, you don’t want to be friends with someone called Deceiver. God blesses Jacob not just by changing his name but by giving him a new identity: Israel, one who strives with God. And of course, Israel becomes the name by which God’s people are known, the Israelites.
The people of God, the Israelites, they were literally people who strove with God through slavery in Egypt, through 40 years wandering in the desert, through the devastating time of the Judges, through Kings Saul and David and Solomon, through the Babylonian Exile, through famine and feast. The Israelites questioned and doubted, wrestled and struggled with God. They worshiped idols and failed to love God and neighbor as Deuteronomy taught, but they also turned back to God and praised God, served God and loved God. We are in the line of these people, God’s people, the Israelites, and as I thought about this story this week, I realized that as descendants of those who strive with God, we too have at our very core an identity as people who strive with God. Just as the Israelites wrestled with God throughout history, so do we. As people who proclaim that God is the One who created us, who defines our purpose and meaning, but One whom we cannot completely understand, we also struggle, we also wrestle with this One…as naturally, we would. If we are not wrestling, we are probably more certain than faithful. And here’s the good news. God can take the wrestling and whatever comes along with it—anger or sadness, anxiety or despair. If we read Genesis carefully, we see that God initiated the wrestling with Jacob, and then God gave Jacob the name One Who Strives with God. It appears that God desires for Jacob and for us to wrestle with God. For when we wrestle with God, it means not that we have turned away from God but instead the very opposite: that we are in relationship with God, vibrantly struggling, questioning, striving.