Is it too much of a platitude to say that struggle is a part of life?
I think we all recognize it enough— we all certainly experience it. But what about faith? What about being in a relationship with God?
I wonder how often we actually think about our relationship with God as a struggle.
We often consider that becoming stronger in faith means being more at peace with God. However, that's not always the experience, and when we look at some of our pillars of faith, they will tell you that their story is one of immense struggle with God.
One of the most profound books that tells of a challenging tumultuous journey with God was written by St. Augustine. His spiritual autobiography was aptly called Confessions. And in it, Augustine gives a deeply personal account of his life, in and out of faith. And although the book tells of his conversion, and was written after he became the Bishop of Hippo, the narrative is filled with not only past confessions, but current confessions of Augustine's deepest doubts and struggles with God.
CS Lewis, another Christian writer was first an atheist before converting to Christianity, but even in his Christian life, one of his most powerful books was called A Grief Observed which is a soul searching reflection on the death of his wife. In this book Lewis reveals intense struggle with God, referring to his faith as nothing but a crashed deck of cards.
So the faith life of both Lewis and Augustine were characterized by struggle with God.
And it's not just the pillars of faith and the great writers. But if we listen closely enough we'll find that many Christians would feel the same way.
As many of you may know, I am in the process of ordination to become a Priest, and one of the requirements is for us to have a three day psychological evaluation— so, as you can imagine I've been struggling with God…But part of that process was for us to share our spiritual journey with a group. One of the persons there was a woman, whom I'll call Terry, had a particularly interesting story to share.
Terry had grown up in an Episcopal Church that was supportive of her through her youth. However, as she entered into her adult years she lost touch with her church. At the same time she entered into a relationship with a man who belonged to a very conservative Pentecostal church.
When Terry had had children with this man, she lost both of her parents to a car accident, and it was also at that time that the relationship she had with him turned very abusive.
Now the church to which Terry belonged taught women to be subordinate to the men, and was of no help in this situation. When she went to the pastor after her boyfriend had broken her nose, he told her that the abuse was to be attributed to the fact that she had not married him yet— it was her cross to bear until they marry. So not only was Terry abused physically by her boyfriend, but spiritually by her pastor.
Terry, of course, had the sense to realize this was crazy talk and so she wisely took her children and left her boyfriend— and the church. As her family was no longer living, she had nowhere to go, with no money, and no place to live. Her anger and confusion with God and the church was also deep. Nevertheless, Terry could think of no other place to go except to her home church to seek help. But it was a deep struggle for her to go back to any church at this time, and she characterized this moment as one of intense wrestling with God.
This was a turning point for Terry in her faith. The community rallied around her, accepted her for who she was— they helped her find a place to live, and to find work. And over time the pastor there even helped her to discern her calling into the ministry.
Although, by her own admission, the abuse she received by the church and her boyfriend remains a wound, she now looks back at the wrestling she had with God in coming back to the church as a point where God interrupted her life struggles. It was a point where God interrupted her life struggles to struggle with her, and to challenge her to grow in faith, to recognize that her life journey is also a spiritual journey.
Terry's story brings out the fact that so often our daily struggles in dealing with life are deeply intertwined with spiritual struggles, and that it's important for us to be prepared for those divine interruptions, where we are challenged to grow with God.
This is what Jacob discovers in our Bible reading today. In fact, this is what the people of Abraham and Israel learn over and over again in their journey with God.
Now Jacob was a bit of troublemaker. He was the kind of guy that just always seemed to be finding a way to get ahead, and often at the expense of those around him. As a youth he did little nasty things like steal his brother's birthright and blessing, and then run away as his brother swore to kill him. As a young adult he married two women, Leah and Rachel, and then proceeded, through much cunning and trickery, to gain control of all the livestock of Laman, the one man who would accept him after running away from Esau, his brother.
So Jacob, after causing all this trouble to the house of Laman, then had to flee but the only place he could go was back home...back to where Esau was waiting to kill him.
Understandably, Jacob was a bit frightened. He did not want to face Esau, but he had no choice. So he did his best to prepare for the worst. He separated his family and belongings so that, in case Esau came to attack him, half of his family could escape. He prepared gifts to be sent off to Esau as a sign of peace. And on the day before he was to meet with Esau, he then went off alone, terrified and anxious of what was going to happen.
And that's when God came along...and not God in all his glory, but God as a regular man. And as if Jacob didn't have enough to think about, he suddenly found himself wrestling with this man all night long. He fought so hard that the other man was forced to punch Jacob in the fat of his thigh, giving him a limp for the rest of his life. Finally, the man demanded that Jacob let him go. And then Jacob does something strange: he demands in return that this man give him a blessing. It is then that Jacob realizes who he had been fighting, by the blessing he receives. The man says you shall now be called Israel, because you have struggled with both God and man, and prevailed. And of course the name Israel means to struggle with God.
Now, if you read closely, you'll notice that much of the wrestling Jacob has with God, mirrors the struggles Jacob was having in real life, with Esau. Jacob had been wrestling with Esau all his life, and the night he was most terrified and anxious, he also has an intense wrestling match with God to which Jacob comes out--not necessarily the victor, but in a deeper relationship with God, blessed by God. And a blessing was the very thing Jacob was hoping to get, yet again, from Esau— a blessing to return home, as a brother.
This story is not about a God who stands back and advises Jacob on what to do. Or who grants wishes when we pray. This is a story about a God that comes down to our very level— meets us where we are, and engages us at the very core— and struggles with us, wrestles with us spiritually, forcing us to face who we are at the core and pushing us to journey on with God, when we don't want to face tomorrow or when we don't want to journey on in life anymore.
See Jacob didn't think much about God that night, until God came to Jacob. God reminded Jacob, in a quite unpleasant way, that Jacob's journey is not just his--Jacob's journey is, and always has been with God.
Our lives too, whether we like or not, are also journeys with God— and like Jacob, we often forget that. But ours is a God that won't let us forget for long. Ours is an interrupting God, a God who meets us in our struggles and challenges us to grow with God.
Let us be ready for those divine interruptions. But more importantly, let us be ready to wrestle and to grow with God as they come. Amen.