Wrestling with God

“I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26b)

Jacob was afraid to face his brother, Esau. Jacob ‘s lavish gifts could hardly make up for the stolen birthright, and by force of arms, he could never win the day. As so often in the stories of the patriarchs, God’s promise seems to have come to another dead end. Jacob must come to grips, literally, with the One who has set this future before him.

This mysterious combat on the shores by the Jabbok has long been taken as far more than one man’s attempt to understand his destiny. Jacob fights against God, and yet clings to him. God is his adversary, and yet he proffers a rich blessing. Jacob’s life is changed, a people is born. The vista opened before Jacob is not merely advice on what comes next but the vision of God himself.

“What is it to wrestle with God,” asked St. Ambrose, “other than to enter upon the struggle for virtue, to contend with one who is stronger and to become a better imitator of God than the others are?” The way of virtue is no easy path. Like a stallion, our haughty wills must be broken to take God’s reins. Our desires must be straightened to long for the highest good, our bodies exercised in the regime of discipleship. God stands against us for our own good, “smiting us friendly” in the psalmist ‘s words, that we might find, on the other side of our pain, a new kind of life with him.

St. Paul remind s us that the Scriptures are weapons of righteousness, to be used “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training. “The Spirit breathes life into them so that they can make us complete, abounding in good works.

Prayer is a kind of wrestling as well. The widow won’t stop her pleading, and the judge must give in. “Perhaps she will blacken my eye,” he says to himself, an idiom of the boxing ring. If a wicked man will do right because of persistence, how much more, Jesus urges, will God help us when we cry to him. This parable too has long been seen as a call for assistance in the struggle of righteousness. The Evil One presses hard against us, and we need God’s grace to stand firm. “Christian up and smite them, counting gain but loss,” urges the old hymn; “smite them by the merit of the Holy Cross.”

Look It Up

Read Hosea 12:1-6. How does the prophet rework the themes of Jacob ‘s mysterious night to call Israel to greater faithfulness?

Think About It

How has God struggled against you to draw you closer to himself?

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