Wrestling With the Angel

I realized this week that it’s been quite a while since I’ve read the entire bible. Instantly, I have horrible visions once again of wading through Leviticus and Numbers and snoozing my way through 1 Chronicles, but it had been so long since I’d done it, I wanted to refresh my memory about some oft-cited passages. Reading the bible this morning, I found this passage in Genesis:

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
(Gen 32:22-32)

Now, I’ve always liked this story. I always thought it odd especially because of the euphemism about the “thigh” being out of joint. Kind of sums it up nicely.

So contemplating this passage in light of recent events in my life, I thought it also summed up my spiritual journey nicely. In a sense every one of us–atheist, agnostic, christian, buddhist, whatever–all wrestle with God or the concept of God. All of us feel the need to come to a point in which we acknowledge a Higher Being or we don’t. I have been wrestling with this notion since the 80s. Before that, I always assumed a God existed, but that it didn’t have much to do with me especially since the worst of circumstances was occurring without spiritual help of any kind. Later on, when I was a young, married mother and facing the prospect of how to raise children, I turned to a coordinated, all-encompassing religion like Christianity to provide boundaries. I take that back, I never found the institution first. I found Jesus, but I turned to Christianity because I thought it was the next step I had to take in a faith journey. I’m not sure I should have done that, but I wanted to be with other believers; to learn from them.

And I have. Down through the years we’ve met some lifelong friends, some not-so-nice people, and some extremely prideful pastors. We’ve also met some very devoted and loving pastors, who genuinely wanted to see us along our journey in the best possible way. It was unfortunate that some of us experience Christianity through fundamentalism first; Protestant or Catholic. I often wonder how things would have turned out if I hadn’t gone through the indoctrination of that kind. Yet, for all that, I am grateful for it as well. You can’t really understand something unless you’ve been steeped in it for so many years. And in a bizarre twist, it is precisely this “steeping” process that keeps me from totally pulling away from it. The steeping of being immersed in the bible, in the Christian culture is what permeates your soul just as God permeated my soul way back in 1983.

You see, despite what’s on the internet or in the mainstream media, not all Christians believe the same things or in the same way. For every hateful Rev. Wright church out there, there is a loving black church that worships God and loves Jesus and their neighbor regardless of skin color. For every Christian “Zionist,” Rev. Hagee church out there, there is a church that provides balance in scripture interpretation and offers differing views about territorial rights and “end time” scenarios. For every hateful Christian, there is a loving one offering food to the hungry or comfort to the hurting. For every polygamous child molester out there, there is a loving man who cares for the children he fathers. For every gossipy, “Church Lady” who maligns your clothes or tells stories behind your back, there is a woman who prays with you and sees that your needs are met when you are home recovering from surgery. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is how we wrestle with God or our idea of God anyway. We fight like Jacob until we are weary. We want to KNOW who or what God is. Some of us give up and say it’s not worth the fight. Some, like Jacob, fight until God is forced to bless us. Maybe we aren’t blessed in material goods or health, but we are blessed with peace of mind and spiritual communion. These blessings are when the wrestling part becomes worth it.

In the story, Jacob asks the angel his name and the angel counters with, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Why indeed? Names are important. Names are powerful. In pagan circles and in the practice of magick, knowing someone’s name in full gives you the power to manipulate or to bless that person. It is the one “talisman” you have that is your own. Naming God is kind of an attempt on Jacob’s part to take control over the situation. God blesses Jacob with a new name, but Jacob doesn’t get the same privilege in reverse. We are not allowed to name the unnameable. And maybe that’s why I believe and have faith in spite of all the “evidence” to the contrary. There comes a point past which science cannot go. There comes a time, when even scientists should not name the unnameable. In our hubris we imagine that we have that power and that right, but we are really insignificant in the face of a storm or tornado or earthquake or any other thing far more powerful than we are. It’s not the idea that God is in that storm or tornado, it’s realizing that we cannot control such a thing even though we think we can. At some point we all have to acknowledge our limits and our boundaries.

I’ve come up against an ideological boundary past which I choose not to go; past which I realize will come my point of no return. I can imagine going past it, I can write about going past it, and I can even take a step toward it, but to do so would be a bad thing for me. There are and should be limits. Not recognizing them and not honoring them in your life leaves one without anchor or stability. My limits and boundaries are not your limits and boundaries, nor should they be. The problem comes when we think everyone has to be where we are; that everyone’s journey should perfectly mirror our own. Or the problem arises when someone thinks their path is a better path than your path. I think we should all tend to our own paths and stop trying to clear the weeds from another’s path. One person’s weed is another’s flower after all.

My path is and always will be wrestling with the angel.

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16 thoughts on “Wrestling With the Angel

  1. **Some, like Jacob, fight until God is forced to bless us. Maybe we aren’t blessed in material goods or health, but we are blessed with peace of mind and spiritual communion. These blessings are when the wrestling part becomes worth it.**

    I may have posted this on something you wrote earlier, but I think thoughts like this get overlooked in Christianity. If Jacob fought until God blessed him, and wouldn’t have been blessed unless he demanded it … did Jacob earn the blessing? Are there things we’re entitled to from God? Do we have a right to demand certain things, that God perform to certain expectations? Is there a point at which we’re *not* suppose to be humble with God?

    You do sound more peaceful in this post, if that helps. Like you’ve found/realized something. It’s neat — your peace comes from the understanding that you will always wrestle. 🙂

  2. OneSmallStep,

    As far as the wrestling is concerned, I think that we should claim what’s rightfully ours with God as Jacob did. I think it was Frederick Buechner who wrote about Jacob and how people like him are the go-getters in life. They don’t settle for second best (witness his stealing Esau’s blessing) and he showed it by “taking” what was his from God. God honored that I think. Maybe we don’t receive blessing, not because we don’t “work” for it, or because we don’t “claim” it, like bad theologies tell us, but because we don’t stick with something long enough, we don’t show God we are serious and committed to an outcome…. We are an impatient people after all.

    Yes, I do feel more peaceful as a matter of fact! 🙂

  3. MOI,

    **As far as the wrestling is concerned, I think that we should claim what’s rightfully ours with God as Jacob did. **

    This is setting off alarm bells in my head, because I’m so used to hearing that the only thing we can rightfully “get” from God is eternal torment. All else is simply a gift we don’t deserve.

    But I’m wondering how much better the message would be if we’re told that are more things we can rightfully claim — peace, prosperity (not in the huge material wealth sense, but in a home, food, clothing, education), life, love, happiness. Rightfully claiming what belongs to the image of God, and rightfully claiming the original creation, so to speak.

    Even God’s love could be something that we could rightfully claim. Maybe I’m alone in this, but the idea that I do have a “right” to God’s love, in the same way I have a right to a parent’s love, is very humbling.

  4. OSS,

    “But I’m wondering how much better the message would be if we’re told that are more things we can rightfully claim — peace, prosperity (not in the huge material wealth sense, but in a home, food, clothing, education), life, love, happiness. Rightfully claiming what belongs to the image of God, and rightfully claiming the original creation, so to speak.”

    This is exactly what I’m talking about here. Yes, the alarm bells go off because we are told only to expect bad things unless we keep in line, follow this or that dogma, etc. I’m not buying it anymore. I think you’ve got it right. We have a right to claim God’s love if God claims us first, which God does…without any “clean up on aisle 3!” from us. I’ve always been a firm believer that God draws, calls, justifies, and sanctifies the willing (Romans 8).

    Blessings!

  5. I just stumbled upon these posts, and feel the mixture of benign curiosity and envy typical of those confronted by those with faith, when they have none of the same certainties. Not quite “none”, since I’m a vague theist, but not a Christian. If I felt the presence of the living Christ in my life, I would be crazy not to follow it. The fact that I don’t gives rise to the sense of curiosity and envy. In the absence of some kind of numinous episode, I’m left with my rationalisations about atonement being a way of humanising ancient Jewish sacrificial ideas about their god, or simply a way of getting forgiven simply by being sorry.

    That’s why i so much agree with you about our inability to pre-judge another’s path; even one’s own, since anything could change at any time. If that were to happen, my rationalisations would simply evaporate: We have to be where we are, as long as we don’t get the idea that we have reached the terminus.

    As to what we have a right to expect from God, or life in general, I’m afraid that the whole concept of rights may be a way of legitimising what we would like to happen, by giving it some pseudo-legal force. Whatever good occurs will come from a sense of our shared humanity, not from some rule book. A tyrant will take away your rule book and shoot you (no power =no rights).

    To come back to my beginning, if I believed in an intrusive God who interfered with the machinery, then things would look very different to me.

    Thank you so much for your obvious open heartedness, and I hope you will view the musings of this infidel with patience.

    Reg

  6. Reg,

    There but for some kind of grace, go I!! 🙂 Of course I bear with infidels because if you read far enough in my posts I have also been (am?) one most of the time. Faith, as some have, does not come easily for me. I do not have “great” faith. I have a “barely hanging on” kind of faith, but one that will not go away despite what I do to to make it go away. I believe God must cling to me as much as I cling to God.

    I’m not a big fan of institutional Christianity. I’ve been hurt by Christians and non-Christians alike and I’ve been blessed by Christians and non-Christians as well. I’ve come to realize that those who claim no faith are full of natural grace and those who claim the most faith can be the biggest assholes this planet has ever seen! So yeah, I’m with you on judging another’s spiritual path. It can’t be done nor should we expect everyone to travel the same speed, in the same vehicle, etc. My blog is to judge the fruits, which one blogger friend (OSS) believes is the only way we can really judge anything. What does one’s faith produce or promote? Love? You’re in! Hatred? You’re not!

    As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the one thing I must cling to. I don’t cling to dogma about Jesus or God or anything else. I can’t deny my encounter with Him all those years ago, so I can’t deny Jesus no matter what. However, I respect everyone’s journey and don’t expect them to take my journey.

    Blessings on you Reg!!

  7. Thanks so much for your response. My discussions with some Christians have been difficult. To have someone tell me what a super inteilligence thinks or feels seems a little presumptuous. Trying to second guess a super intelligence is interesting of course, as long as we accept that there’s very little likelihood that we have it right.
    My annoyingly vague theism has God as someone who put the thing in motion, and lets things happen (free will). You get points for effort. This at least deals with a world in which some people get an obviously crap hand, while some, like me, are incredibly lucky for no apparent reason. I can’t deserve my luck, just as the people of Burma can’t deserve to drown.

    But there’s some grit in the machine. The closest I get to your numinous encounter with Jesus is a sense of being looked after; I can’t imagine why. I’m totally blind and, more often than natural coincidence would explain, I’ve been sitting next to a stranger on a train who happens to mention where they’re going in casual conversation; and that’s where I’m going too, making getting to an unfamiliar place much easier. Now this shouldn’t be true, but it is. I am grateful, as when I bend down to pick something up wich I dropped, and it’s right under my hand. But I have no explanation.

    Blessings to you too

    Reg

  8. Reg,

    I suppose it’s kind of like you explain. It’s something I can’t see, but feel nonetheless. Thanks for reading and commenting. Feel free to do so anytime!

  9. When I hear Mahalia Jackson sing, or hear the opening of the Bach B minor Mass, I almost get it. I have a strong feeling of their overwhelming conviction, but it’s like when someone describes a picture to me. It’s always going to be second hand joy; but you have to deal with what you have. I’m fascinated by anyone who has any degree of certainty about this stuff. I guess the upside is that I don’t feel any need to go to great lengths to justify Paul’s legalism and misogenism. Paul is a big problem for me actually. He seems to have invented Christian theology and, for some reason, everyone believes him. I can understand how that legalism and misogenism suited the Church Councils in their attempts to get control of the message.

    As far as gospels go, I’m safer with Mark.

    Thanks for your patience

    Reg

  10. Hi Reg!

    You know, when I hear music, I get that “feeling” also. It’s an overwhelming “too muchness” in my throat and tears well up. It’s weird which music triggers it too. Whenever I hear some of John Williams’ scores like “Dances With Wolves” I am moved beyond reason.

    I too do not like the sureness of some. Paul was always a problem for me as well. Still is. But I think the bible has been hijacked for too long by biblical literalists and inerrantists. My favorite book in the bible is Ecclesiastes, which has some of the best darn advice anywhere! 🙂 Funny, no one seems to preach from it. Oh, well.

  11. Sorry for hijacking your blog, but I’m interested in finding so much common ground with a person of faith. I’ve grown accustomed to being told by such people that I have “Hardened my heart”, and that my failure to feel the truth of central Christian concepts, such as the Trinity, or Atonement, are just arrogance.

    My problem is that you can’t feel what you don’t feel. The mystery of what you have and I don’t, and why that might be, is what prompts these comments. The fact that you can embody this within your faith is somehow reassuring to me. If those who tell me that I have to accept the whole package or be damned were really serious, they’d give everything they have to the poor as instructed, so I’m not too bothered about them. The God I believe in isn’t that petty. If I do my miserable best, I have a strong sense that it will be OK. As woolly as that is, it’s about as far as I get at the moment.

    Thank you

    Reg

  12. Reg,

    Don’t worry about hijacking the blog! My diehard Christian friends won’t engage me any longer because I refuse to budge from my opinion and I think some of my de-converted friends are leery of my clinging to faith in spite of my being able to see the wisdom of de-churching. They would take it further and de-God, but I can’t do that. Not yet anyway.

    You wrote “you can’t feel what you don’t feel” and that’s IT in a nutshell! I would add also that “you can’t help feeling what you do feel” which is the other end of the spectrum. I’ve tried to NOT believe and I reason with myself about not believing, but there is a small part of me that believes that I am still “found” by God and I can’t shake it no matter how much I reason it away. It’s too ingrained. It feels too wrong to get rid of it.

    I no longer listen to those who say we have to “accept the whole package” because Jesus never accepted the package of religion that first century religionists were offering either. Jesus’ ethics work fine for me as a totally workable system: Love God and Love your neighbor. I think that’s the total package.

    By all means comment whenever you like!!

    Blessings!

  13. What intrigues me is the difference between us, caused by something I don’t think I can do anything about. It feels like a qualitative rather than a quantative difference.

    I believe quite a lot of things and, having had a good Anglican education (Church music and the King James bible), for which I’m extremely grateful if only on educational grounds, I find parables coming into my head quite a lot, EG the Pharassee and the Publican, and the phrase you quoted: “By their fruits shall ye know them”.

    The God I think I believe in is, as I said before, altogether less intrusive and personal than the Christian God, and I can’t get my head round all this “Con-substantial, co-eternal” trinity stuff. God reincarnating himself (itself, whatever) seems such an unnecessary thing to do somehow. When I talk to doctrinally straight Christians, I just find myself thinking: “Why would you need that to happen?” So I guess it comes down to a personal God, and Christ as a reincarnation of that God as the essence of what you experience as a reality and I don’t. Is that right?

    Thanks so much for your interest/perseverence.

    Reg

  14. Hi Reg!

    You’ve explained it very well. I especially like your phrase “doctrinally straight” Christians because this is a good “label” if you will for those Christians who believe that “right belief” is the key to being a Christian. I find that belief in certain dogmas are not an indication of a good Christian at all. I think all that’s required is a “right disposition” in relation to our willingness to open ourselves to Christ’s example and Spirit.

    So yes, I’d say that Christ as reincarnation of God IS the essence of what I experience as reality. I don’t think it necessary that there had been a virgin birth, or even a bodily resurrection. Both seem incidental to Jesus’ life and teachings.

    I’m still trying to work out the particulars in my head, but even then, I never claim to be consistent or that any of it makes any sense. I suppose it’s a purely subjective faith on my part. But, then again, whose isn’t? 🙂

  15. To believe that something is true, or even to think you know that something is true, and yet to accept that it is still subjective (“Whose isn’t?), that’s your strength in my opinion, and that’s what the “doctrinally straight” can’t cope with. You have to accept their version of faith or be damned. I’m not sure that subjective certainty is logically possible, but I think it has to be. My wife’s a Catholic, but the way in which she at once believes and doesn’t believe all that dogma stuff is way too subtle for me. She can’t understand why I can’t call myself a Christian because of the mere detail that I can’t grasp Christ’s essential divinity. I’m equally certain that, until that day comes, I obviously can’t call myself a Christian.

    Anyway, however fuzzy all this inevitably is, you’ve made me feel less isolated from faith, and it’s great to have met you.

    Thank you

    Reg

  16. Thanks for the kind words, Reg. I hope that you make peace with faith, however that works out in practice, but my door is always open for you to “come by the porch” and chat. 🙂

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