The Necessity of Struggling

For so long before this storm, things were going so well I had only petty complaints. That nagging doubt at the back of my mind, that it shouldn’t be this way, that calm waters are stagnant waters? Easily ignored.

That comfortable, easy place I’d been living in for so long?  A trap. It’s not the Peace of Christ, but the anesthetized-entertained comfort of sitting in front of the television set with a big bowl of ice cream.

It doesn’t make me profoundly grateful. It makes me weak.

The struggle of exercise – walking, lifting weights, swimming, climbing, running, wrestling itself – makes us stronger. So does the struggle of our spirit – studying things that challenge our preconceived notions and existing interpretations, practicing empathy to understand why others differ, letting our hearts break with those who are suffering profoundly, getting our lives dirty, looking ridiculous, walking as Jesus did, among those who are “other” and beyond the pale of respectable society.

We were meant to struggle. We were never meant to coast. There is no cruise control in the Christian life.

But that’s what we do so often.

  • We know what we believe – or at least what our denominations believe – and we never question it.
  • We accept our interpretation of the Bible as being as infallible as the Bible itself.
  • We accept our respectable social circle as right, superior, almost sacred.
  • We let our socially acceptable sins slide. It’s not really gossip, I mean, not if you spread it out out love…
  • We accept our privileged American lifestyle as our birthright.
  • We accept our nation’s sins and crimes, no matter how many suffer and die for our “security” or to produce the consumer goods we crave.
  • We unconsciously assume that a “Just War” and an “American War” are one and the same.
  • Or perhaps we blindly take the political left’s side. There’s no reason to pick on conservatives. Spiritual laziness is apolitical.

I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. And my spirit, like my physical health, has paid the price.

I’m making a commitment here to struggle every day. It won’t be hard to find things to push back against.

  • my distractedness
  • my physical laziness
  • my tendency to let Katherine do too much of the housework
  • my uncharitable thoughts, especially about those in authority
  • my tendency to eat too much of the wrong foods
  • my tendency to make everything about me and what I want/feel/think/believe
  • my privilege as a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual cisgender American
  • and so on

Ultimately, this struggle isn’t about the little details or the individual sins. It fundamentally affects what kind of person I am.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB) says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

If we don’t struggle, if we just coast in our well-fed first-world lives, what use are we?

What I Am Sure Of

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about questions, writing about the push and pull of mysteries of the faith, things so many people take for granted.  It may be frustrating to some of you that I don’t always come to a conclusion.  To borrow a phrase from Donald Miller, I don’t “resolve.”  But please bear with me.  There are some things I do believe…

The charge has been leveled that evangelical Christians, and conservative ones in general, can’t stomach ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  And surely bumper-sticker catchphrases like “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” only add to that image.

But the truth is, people aren’t great with ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  That’s why, once we choose a political party, we ignore almost any horrible deed by our side, because it’s “better than the other guys,” whether it’s torture – I mean, “enhanced interrogation” – or drone strikes on Pakistani civilians and U.S. citizens abroad.

Similarly, when we settle on a religious framework, we tend to stick to it, minimizing or exceptionalizing its problems, from ‘crack that limp wrist’ to ‘build a fence so they’ll die out‘ to the ongoing abuses of complementarian fundamentalists.  But much of the time the problem isn’t the theology so much as the certainty itself.  None of us is immune to confirmation bias.  The problem comes when we don’t fight it, but instead sanctify it.

It’s true that we go through times of transition, mostly as young people, when we examine our parents’ beliefs to see which ones are really ours.  The children of conservatives may become socialists, the sons of hippies, Young Republicans, the daughters of butchers, vegetarians.

Of course, times of change and transition aren’t only for adolescents. Sometimes having children sparks a new period of wrestling, brought on by sleepless nights and the awesome wonder of new life.  Sometimes age and approaching retirement, with its distant rumblings of mortality, sparks yet another time of change.

But beyond this?   Most people don’t have a stomach for uncertainty.  As human beings, it’s our nature to prefer flawed, even wrong, answers to rightful questions.

It’s far too easy to stop wrestling, struggling, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  We get comfortable, and soon we find we’re no longer following Jesus across dusty Judean roads, over craggy mountains, and into the land of the half-breed heretic Samaritans.

Instead, we’ve set up our comfortable seats at the temple (always the same pew, every Sunday).  And the sad part is, we don’t even really expect Him to come to us.  We think He has come to us, and we’re good.  We’ve got it.  We got our inoculation, we’re right with God.  We’re all right.  “I’m not a sinner.  I never sin.  I’ve got a friend in Jesus…

And that certainty makes us hard.  It calcifies and ossifies, grinding our compassion and empathy to a halt.  Outsiders become, not the ones we seek out (like the woman at the well), but enemies of the faith.  Our approach is not genuine interest and sacrificial compassion, but alarm and hostility.  We cry “persecution!” from our well-cushioned pews in our air-conditioned churches every time something in the outer world slaps us in the face.  But persecution isn’t a slap in the face; it’s a bullet in the head.

There’s a reason we call it wrestling with a topic.  Wrestling is hard.  It’s sweaty.  It’s physical.  It’s exhausting.  Working out our salvation with fear and trembling requires a lot of energy.  More than that, it requires pain.  Fear and trembling.  This is going to hurt.

Wrestling with God is going to hurt.  And it should.  The Marines have a saying: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  If you can’t stomach the pain of questioning, you’ll have to accept the weakness.  But please, don’t claim that weakness to be a stronger or truer faith.  Shouting heretic and TYPING IN ALL CAPS doesn’t make you right.  It didn’t make me right when I did it, either.

This is what I believe.  I believe that Jacob didn’t wrestle an angel.  He wrestled God Himself, a pre-incarnate Jesus.  And though he wrestled all night until his arms ripped and his lungs raged like fire, though he almost lost his leg, Jacob wrestled.  He held on, and in the end God blessed him.

And I believe God still waits to wrestle with us all.  It won’t be pretty.  It won’t be easy.  It won’t be painless.  But it will be worth it.

Amen.

Repetition: Jacob and the Angel, Part 2

Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling the Angel (painting)

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Eugene Delacroix, detail, 1861

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, waiting.  A hot breeze blew through the desert night, drawing water from the Jabbok, making the air strangely wet and heavy.  For a moment, Jacob wondered if this was what it was like to drown.  The moon shone down, one bright, impassive eye in the heavens.

In his mind, he replayed every detail.  The gifts would arrive: first the goats, then the sheep, then the camels, then the bulls, then the donkeys, each sent with the same message, “These belong to your servant, Jacob.  They are a gift sent to my lord Esau.  And he is coming after us.”  He smiled.  The mind that stole the birthright and spotted Laban’s flocks knew that one gift, no matter how rich, might be rejected out of anger.  But few men could reject gift after gift, each more valuable than the last.

Jacob heard – or more accurately felt – a sound.  Just below the range of hearing, thunder rolled.  He turned his head, glancing back at the visitor with a smirk.  “Who are you, Esau’s angel?”

“Why do you want to know?”  The stranger asked.  The voice seemed to speak within Jacob’s mind, yet echo off every hill in Canaan.

Jacob turned fully to face him.  This stranger was no man, clearly.  The moonlight seemed to dance across his body, as if buoyed by a greater source.  “What do you want?”

The stranger merely tilted his head and smiled.  Perhaps he was not Esau’s angel.  Perhaps he was one of the small gods the Canaanites worshiped, Ba’al or Dagon or some such.  He did not look like the house idols, but why should he?

“Are you simple?” Jacob said, his neck tensing, his hands closing into fists, “Or did you just come to stare, to gawk at the mortal whose own brother may kill him tomorrow?”  He stepped forward, fear and frustration boiling into a rage that pushed past all reason, a rage that might drive him to attack a god. “Answer me!”

The stranger sank into his knees, just a little, and spread his hands wide.

Jacob grinned, mirroring his stance.  “Wrestling, then?”  He said, “Good.  I’ve been doing that since I was formed in the womb.”

 

Jacob hit the stranger with all his strength, crouching low, trying to pull him off-balance.  But the shining man sidestepped, shaking off the hold.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Jacob snarled, shouldering into the visitor wildly.  At the last moment, he slipped his foot behind the stranger’s calf, tripping him.  Momentary surprise flashed across the stranger’s face.  Then they hit the hard, stony ground, with Jacob solidly on top.

Jacob struggled to pin the stranger, tossing one leg across his chest.  The visitor locked arms with him, shoving back with a strength even Esau never equaled.  Jacob’s arms burned with the effort, while his lungs labored against the Jabbok river mist.  The stranger, of course, seemed not the least bit tired.

“Submit,” Jacob said, “you’re beaten.”

The stranger bucked like an unbroken mare, tossing Jacob to the ground.  Jacob’s fingers clenched and squeezed painfully, struggling to keep hold on the stranger’s, then failing.  Jacob scrambled to cover his adversary, but the visitor was too quick, and rolled out of reach.

Both men scrambled to their feet in the fading moonlight.  Jacob stared, trying to formulate a plan between ragged, painful breaths.  But the stranger gave him no time, hitting him like a raging bull, bearing them both to the ground.  It was all Jacob could do to keep conscious.  By luck or miracle, his head missed a jutting rock that would have certainly broken his neck.  The outcropping grazed the strangers head, stunning him momentarily.

Jacob tried to escape, but by the time he regained control of his body, the stranger had as well.  Knowing his adversary’s inhuman strength, Jacob held tight, his rage flagging to fear.  He no longer cared if he won or lost, no longer dared to think he could bow this being’s head in defeat.  He only hoped he could occupy the stranger’s hands so he could not strike him.

Jacob imagined the shining visitor rising above him, raining blows upon his head like fire on Sodom, leaving him as dead as that cursed city.  That thought, that fear, gave him strength, and he locked up the stranger’s arms with his own, pulling him tight against his chest, too close to strike or even slap.  Jacob held tight, his fear giving him endurance almost beyond measure, until the silver moonlight had gone, replaced by the faintest orange glow of the morning sun.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said.  All his plans seemed like desperate grasping.  Esau might forgive him, but his life could still end here.

The stranger moved his hand downward, twisting against Jacob’s grip, until his fingertips rested against the mortal’s hip.  Jacob’s eyes grew wide and he screamed as the muscles in his thigh ripped apart.  His face turned pale, and cold sweat drenched him, but his arms only clenched tighter.

“I said let me go.”

“No,” Jacob gasped, breath ragged, “Not until you bless me.”

“What is your name?”  The stranger asked.

“Jacob.”

The stranger smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”

Jacob released his grip and lay back, his breath coming in shallow, ragged gasps.  The pain in his thigh had subsided, but its memory alone was enough to set him shuddering.  “You – you could have done that all along.”

The stranger nodded.

“You could have done that to my neck,” Jacob whispered, slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position, his breath slowly returning to normal, “You could have killed me with a touch.”

Once again, the stranger nodded.

“But you did not.”

The stranger smiled gently, then touched Jacob’s forehead, offering a blessing greater than the one Isaac had offered, greater by far than the one that had set this enmity in motion.

“Who are you?” Jacob said, his voice small and awestruck, “You are not one of Laban’s idols.  Are you a servant of my father’s God, or are you -”

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  “Go, Israel, and be blessed among nations.”  And in a moment he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, hope rising in his heart like the warm light of the morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and I live.  And I will live.”