Wrestling With God
February 12, 2012
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the 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 is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, 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 place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.
Reading from Swedenborg
It’s part of the laws of order that no one should become instantly convinced of the truth or immediately be so sure of it that he is left in no doubt at all about it. The reason for this is that when truth is impressed on a person like that, he becomes so fully convinced of it that it can’t be broadened or qualified in any way. So as soon as some truth is presented, some opposing idea giving rise to doubt is also presented. In this way they are led to think and ponder over whether it is indeed something true, gather reasons that support it, and so introduce that truth into their mind by the use of reason.
(Arcana Coelestia 7298)
The idea of wrestling with God sounds a bit strange until you add a bit more information. What about us wrestling with the idea of God existing at all? What about wrestling with the expectations we think God has of us, or the difficulty of our needing to be free agents and yet having to obey God’s commands? How about wrestling with the idea of a loving, merciful, and all-powerful God and a world we often see as unjust, unfair, full of suffering, full of a lot of innocent suffering, and struggling—wrestling—to square those two things together—one of the biggest questions of all time? That sounds like a lot of good reasons to be involved in a wrestling match with God.
We’re not going to have time today to look at the pros and cons of all those big questions. Each one would fill up a whole sermon. Instead, we’re going to look at the fact that we are caught up in such struggles and also that we can develop a positive, healthy approach to it all. But be very careful with this: it isn’t saying that struggling with our faith is “good for us” or that “we are here in order to struggle” or that God “sends struggles to see if we are up to it all.” That puts God in a very poor light, and it tends to make us look a bit like victims. Yet a lot of people still come up with that idea as if it explains everything, even though we can’t get behind the mystery of it. People will still say to someone who is really troubled with all kinds of doubts, “You need to have more faith!” I know what they’re saying, but I don’t find that particularly helpful. It’s like saying, “Have more faith in a God you can’t understand or even accept.”
Faith without any inquiry or explanation is rather futile. It’s a bit like burying your head in the sand come what may, or screwing your eyes shut and hanging on to the hope that everything will work out fine in the end. That kind of faith doesn’t ask you to think, only to believe. Imagine that you are driving home quite a long way, and you glance at the petrol gauge and notice you are dangerously low on petrol. Telling yourself you probably have enough in the tank to see you home is one way of dealing with it, but driving off the highway to get some petrol from somewhere while you still can is another way of overcoming the problem.
We do have things called “minds.” Our minds are not just information storage units; they can put a number of ideas together to see if they make sense. We can think things through and come to some conclusion about things. We call that “reasoning.” Sometimes, when we reason about something, we don’t have a definite end result at the start; it begins to shape up as we bring different points into what we’re inquiring about. It can sometimes be the other way round, of course, but we should call that arguing the point, rather like they do in a debate.
The main thing is that we have this ability to think. So, when we link that with God or with life after death, we mustn’t lose sight of what we’ve got to help us and only go on about having enough faith. But be careful here, too. We have the ability to think about it so that we can look at the reasons why there is a God, why life is eternal, why people suffer through no fault of their own, but we certainly can’t come up with the proof of it. Perhaps a good word to use for this is the evidence for these things, and the way that this evidence confirms their probability. And we must realize too that we can’t disprove them any more than we can prove them.
This is where the wrestling comes in. We wrestle with trying to weigh up the evidence for God against the evidence for no God. It’s all a bit intellectual, and it certainly isn’t easy. I’ll give you two bits of evidence for God and then two bits of evidence for no God. One of the most common things people put forward for God is the incredible order of creation. There it all is, and it all works amazingly well, on the big scale and the microscopic scale. Chance couldn’t have done that like that, so it suggests there is a God. Another good one is the fact that people have always had some deep intuitive sense that God exists, right from the very beginning; there isn’t a culture anywhere in the world that doesn’t in some way include a higher being of some kind.
Now for the opposite view: there can’t be a God, people say, because he never really does anything. If I pray to God for a big win on the lottery, then I think the right answer should be No. But if I pray to God for something that lines up with God’s will—let’s say becoming a better person—it doesn’t happen, and if anything does, it feels like it’s coming from inside me and it was there all the time anyway. So why do we need God?
The other “problem with God” is that evil—or great wrong—exists in the world. A Greek philosopher called Epicurus once put the problem like this: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able to? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then why is there evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
That’s how the never-ending debate for and against God runs. They almost seem to cancel each other out, which may be why a lot of believers put such great emphasis on faith and the exhortation to “have more faith”—because that approach bypasses all the weary arguments.
One of the ways I would try and give some evidence for God would be to avoid the “is there a God or isn’t there a God?” wrestling match and look at what we can actually know about God. I would come up with things to do with goodness, love, healing, will power, changing for the better, and all those positive, real things in our lives that we see and feel. The very fact that we can forgive and get over things is so huge, and it is not what we are like by nature. So where do we get that ability from? Well, we get it from God. But I would even go further than that and say that all these wonderful possibilities we can use are God.
That may sound a bit strange, perhaps, but it’s really very simple. We are used to saying that God is Love. Everyone would agree with that! What we mean is that God loves us because he is a loving being. But it also suggests that when we come across real love in life, we are seeing God in a visible way—so we can also say that Love is God. When people make out that God doesn’t really do anything, how about telling them that every time someone acts lovingly, feels forgiving, shows they care, makes amends, puts themselves out for someone else—all of which must be happening somewhere in the world thousands of times a minute—God is that decision we make, God is that urge to get it right—which, as we said earlier, certainly doesn’t come naturally to us! What I’m really saying here is that God doesn’t have to be the heated argument that people sometimes indulge in. There he is, right in front of us, in some beautiful act of kindness, which is the best place to find him.
The story goes that during the night Jacob wrestled with God and won. That’s the whole point of the story—that Jacob beat God in a wrestling match. And when you think about it, that must always be what God wants for us in any wrestles we have with why life is as it is, why bad things happen to good people, why lives get cut short, and why people sometimes do terrible things to other people (remembering that today marks ten years since 9/11). God doesn’t dish these things out; he makes a world in which they can happen. He didn’t make a cotton-wool world, but a world that forces us to look for answers and work toward solutions. He wants us to take this on and win. He wants us to come up with our very own
trump card because it means we’re making the best
use of our lives.
There is all the difference in the world between saying “You must have more faith” and living your life from faith as your starting point. I’d say don’t start with God. Start with the things you know—faith in people, faith in goodness, faith in things working out—and don’t just think these things, live by them yourself. You will be amazed at how it all opens out and starts coming together! God can come into an open mind, a good life, and a loving heart. Before very long, you won’t need to summon up more faith, because faith is now summoning you and God seems very real.
Jacob wins the wrestling match, and because he does, God wins as well. And to mark that win, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel—“Prince with God”— and the name that echoes down the ages to the present day comes into being because Jacob took God on and came out on top. Amen.
Rev. Julian Duckworth