“One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth… If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.” – Simone Weil
Because we are limited, finite beings, we do not understand spiritual things immediately. We need to wrestle with God to reach a point where we can at least accept, and hopefully come to understand, the things of God more fully.
Jacob’s encounter at the ford of Jabbok in the Book of Genesis is an image for this wrestling that every Christian inevitably encounters in prayer.
“Jacob was left there alone. Then a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (32:25).
This incident in Scripture portrays the doubt, closeness, distance, faith, tension, violence, paradox, pain, and blessing involved in the spiritual life.
There is no agreement among scholars as to the identity of the strange man Jacob wrestles; some think it is an angel, others God. But whoever he is, it is surprising that the supernatural being seems to be at a disadvantage. He sees he cannot prevail against Jacob so he strikes him in the hip socket. But Jacob continues to wrestle, his hip dislocated, until the man gives him a blessing.
Jacob’s tenacity in the story is striking. Whether the man is an angel or God, one wonders, “Why does Jacob seem stronger?” As St. Augustine put it, “What comparison can there be between an angel’s and a man’s strength?”
The story is so rich that there have been many differing interpretations over the years. The multiple layers of meaning that the Church Fathers uncover are stunning. But, as with everything in Scripture, the meaning takes root in our lives when we absorb a passage and apply it to our own lives.
For me, the man wrestling with Jacob is Christ, and he allows Jacob to be stronger because our free will makes it possible for us to, in a sense, prevail against God. But God does not give up easily. He strikes us in the hip socket, sometimes over and over, hoping that it will stun us enough to accept the daybreak that casts light on our darkened minds.
Some of you may relate to this dynamic. Over and over again we push back on things we are told or even believe to be true. Sometimes we do this because we want to, and sometimes we just can’t help it. We doubt, and there is nothing we can do about it. We are human. But God does not expect or want us to simply accept the tenets of the faith in a lukewarm way and robotically attend Mass every Sunday.
God does not want a Church of bored Stepford wives.
Acceptance and growth in faith come with what Benedict XVI calls “hand-to-hand contact” (or combat in some cases). In prayer, we “push” God, and he pushes back, and we tumble around in the dust for a while. When we feel it is OK to wrestle, we shed our masks and are able to be real about what is really going on in our spiritual lives and we share our difficulties, with God and with others.
Our modern world bombards us with a rationalism drenched in disdain for faith. If we do not give ourselves permission, or time, to wrestle with God so that he can shed light on our reason, it is likely that we will lose the faith, if not externally, then internally.
In an age when people in the West are leaving the pews at alarming rates, the Church needs more wrestling, not less.