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The Spirituality of Struggle

Carolyn Thompson
Sun, Oct 20

The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Genesis 32: 22-31

Before we take a closer look at this story about Jacob’s restless night on the riverbank, I want to make a few comments.  First, this is by no means a morality tale about how to treat your relatives! Jacob was a conniving scoundrel who has cheated his brother and father and uncle.  We need to remember that the Bible contains many different stories about God’s relationship with all types of people, and each has its point to make.

 Secondly, I love the message this account has about life with disability. Jacob is in a serious struggle at a significant point in his life, and he comes out of it with an injury to his leg that causes him to limp.  But that does not seem to deter God’s plan for this man to be the leader of his people.  God does not say, “Oh dear, I can’t use someone with mobility impairment; you no longer qualify.”  However, this is not going to be a sermon about employment for people with disabilities.

 Lastly, I want to acknowledge Joan Chittister’s book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope for the insights it provided.

 Today’s text opens with Jacob spending a dark night alone on the bank of the Jabbok River wrestling with an unknown man.  Let’s recall what has brought him to this point in his life. Jacob was born grasping the heel, as his name implies, of his brother Esau, the older of the twins. He cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and out of the blessing by their father, Isaac that should have gone to the first born son. Fearing his brother’s fury, Jacob then flees to his uncle Laban in the land of Haran.  

 Jacob is welcomed there, but in his uncle he meets a man just as conniving as himself. Jacob worked seven years to win Rachel’s hand but was tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. So he worked another seven years for Rachel. He cared for Laban’s livestock and they multiplied, but he also rigged the breeding program so that he was able to amass a sizable flock for himself.

 Then Jacob heard God telling him to “Go back to the land of your fathers and I will be with you.” This was timely since Jacob by now had worn out his welcome with Laban. He narrowly escapes with his wives and servants and all his livestock. Now he is about to cross over the river Jabbok into the land of Canaan.

 He is worried about the reunion with his estranged brother, Esau, and sends his servants ahead with a greeting. When he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob is truly afraid. He sends gifts ahead as a peace offering to his brother and divides his family and flocks into two groups, hoping that at least one will survive a possible battle.

 On this night Jacob has also sent his family across the river and he now remains alone.  We are not told why Jacob has decided to spend this night by himself. 

  • Does he just want a night of peace and quiet without family around?
  • Does he want to rest up before the next day’s encounter?
  • Does he need some time alone to reflect on his past deeds and decisions?
  • Maybe he wants to prepare what he will say to his brother.

Jacob is literally at a crossing point in his life, a watershed moment, on the border between a familiar past and a future that is unknown.

 It is a position all of us will find ourselves in at some time or another. Change is a constant in our lives as much as we would sometimes like it not to be. Some changes we initiate and some occur naturally as we move through the different stages of life. We leave our parents home, we change jobs, we relocate to a different part of the country, we retire.  

 All these transitions take some adjustment but are not necessarily traumatic. Yet many life changing events come along unexpected, unwanted and unexplained. They disrupt our lives, upset our equilibrium, and call into question much that once felt secure.  This is the kind of change that shocks us into new beginnings and invites us to grow and see life differently.

 The challenge is how to deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them than we would possibly have been without them. We are being called to conversion, to to think differently about who God is and about who we are as individuals.  Conversion is the opening of the heart to the grace of new possibilities. It is an invitation to discover that there is more than one way to be in the world. It does not blame God for changes that come our way.

 It recognizes that God simply companions us, simply stands by ready to receive our tattered, restless selves, as we are tested, tried, and tormented by the tribulations of life itself.  To be converted like this, calls for a spirituality of struggle, a process that helps us come to grips with the pain we encounter in struggle, but also helps us see the gifts that can be realized.

 In our story Jacob was alone in the dark and afraid. He was well aware of his sins and how he had wronged his people. He acknowledges his guilt, but he also remembers God’s promise to him and asks for protection. This is not wimpy plea but a firm reminder of God’s covenant with him. Perhaps he goes to sleep for a bit, but then he is ambushed by an unknown assailant and spends the entire night wrestling with this “man.”

 I think most of us can recall an occasion when we have spent a restless day tense and pacing or a night of tossing and turning over some dilemma or distressing news.  It could be about something that has happened or something still to come. Perhaps we were plagued by doubt, guilt, indecision, concern for others and or just plain fear.

 I found it interesting that while the text says that Jacob “wrestled” with this man, many of the artistic renderings of the scene show Jacob’s assailant as an angel who appears to be embracing rather than fighting Jacob. Could it be that this unknown being is encircling the fearful Jacob in his arms much as we might firmly hold someone distraught by grief, a person in the throes of withdrawal, or a child terrified by a nightmare? What we do know is that both Jacob and this man are deeply invested in the outcome, and neither will let the other go.

 By the end of the contest it appears that Jacob has been wrestling with none other than God. This is not the remote cosmic God of the Greek philosophers, or one only encountered in the sanctuary on holy days. Here is a god who surprises Jacob in the night and wrestles with him as man to man. He is also willing to stay the course for however long it takes. This God does not put a time limit on Jacob’s conversion. 

 Looking more closely at Jacob’s struggle with this “man” we see a pattern that mirrors much of our own experience with struggle.  These themes are isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness,   vulnerability,   exhaustion, and injury

 Jacob’s encounter takes place in isolation. He does not have a second to take his place if he gets tired, and he is not part of a team. Struggle is a very private, isolating thing.  What we lose is ours and ours alone: our dreams, our hope, our health, our expectations, our property, our identity – all uniquely and singularly ours. But struggle also has a public side. When the foundations of our world begin to shake – when relationships end, when long-held beliefs no longer satisfy, when our securities vanish – our ability to deal with the remainder of our world begins to shudder, too. Our struggle colors everything around us. 

 The pain of loss is real, but if we can detach ourselves from the idea that there is only one way to go through life joyfully, then we may begin to see other available options. Detachment teaches us to let go. Let go of unwavering answers. Let go of past achievements. Let go of life’s little hoards of trinkets.  It is only then we can begin to see that there are other things to live for and we have within ourselves the ability to reach out and grasp them.  

 It is nighttime when Jacob’s struggle takes place, and we are reminded how disoriented and lost we feel when we cannot see our way forward. The dark threatens our confidence and sense of self-sufficiency. Like Jacob who wants to know the name of his opponent, we want answers and explanations;   why is this happening, who is doing this to us? Much of struggle is an internal process where feelings threaten to overwhelm us.  In these times when God seems most absent, it is our faith that can assure us that God is in the picture somewhere, waiting to welcome us to new life.

 Fear can paralyze us. Jacob is so afraid he can barely hold on. The thought of losing everything he has ever worked for and loved is devastating.  All sorts of fears:  fear of criticism, fear of ridicule, of being different, fear of authority – can wear us down and tempt us to sell our souls in exchange for the grossly lesser prize of false security.  Yet it is fear that keeps us from being who we ourselves really want to be. 

 Fear calls for courage, that capacity to stand our ground and to speak the truth even in the face of overwhelming odds.  Courage is not a lost part of ourselves; it is the hidden part of ourselves that only fear can energize. Courage comes out of the way we think and the way we live from week to week.

 In this wrestling match Jacob, who has always been able to get what he wants and be in control, learns what it is like to be powerless. He is in a struggle for his life, no longer in charge of the situation.  He realizes that he won’t be able to subdue his opponent, but he is determined to hold on until he gets the blessing he wants.

 When life as we have known it has vanished and there is nothing whatsoever we can do about it, we come face to face with our mortality and our powerlessness. Now we must become who we really are, not who we have presented ourselves to be.

 This is the time to accept that life is out of our control and surrender to new meanings and new circumstances.  We can learn that there are times to let a thing go, to put it down – however unresolved, however wrong or unjust it may be. There are some things in life that cannot be changed.... There is a time to let surrender take over so that the past does not consume the present, so that new life can come, so that joy has a chance to surprise us again.  Surrender is not about giving up; it is about acceptance and moving on.

 Whatever the nature of Jacob’s opponent, the two are in a fearsome match, and Jacob is made aware of his own vulnerability. Struggle takes us down to size and makes us face our limitations. Vulnerability is the call to self-acceptance.  It can be a wonderfully liberating moment on the human journey, freeing us from the great burden to be perfect. 

 This ability to accept our limitations makes us more valuable members of the human community.  The things I need but cannot supply for myself make me open to the rest of the world. Acknowledging my own limits makes me open, and trust in the gifts of others makes me secure. What I am not able to do for myself is someone else’s gift and responsibility. My limitations make space for the gifts of other people. This is true community.

 Three times in this short story we read that Jacob’s struggle lasted all night long. Exhaustion is the invisible but real enemy in struggle.  It is the bone-sore, deep-down, heart-wearying, never-ending weight of struggle that wears us down and turns our spirits into dust. It is when we become fixated on a single vision of the future, the one we refuse to relinquish however clear its end, that struggle defeats us. Exhaustion defeats us when we allow ourselves to stay locked in mortal combat with a hopeless cause instead of moving on in life to where God waits for us with new beginnings.

 Even when exhausted, desperation drives us to endure what we cannot change, so that we can become what we are next meant to be. Endurance is neither success nor martyrdom; it is realistic.  It means being willing to cope with what is until something else begins. Endurance has as much to do with the kind of people we are as it has to do with the details of situation we’re in.  Endurance is the hope in a continuing darkness that dawn must eventually come somehow, somewhere. Jacob was blessed for enduring a righteous struggle, not for winning.

 Real struggle never comes without a cost. It marks us in ways we may not even realize at the time, leaving us scarred and chastened and different for the rest of our lives. It cannot be smoothed over or undone. We will bear its imprint forever on our souls and perhaps on our bodies. Struggle changes us, transforms us, shaping and reshaping us.  It burns off the dross, takes the dew off the rose and the guild off the silver.  Struggle turns the fantasies of life into reality. No one comes out of struggle, out of suffering, the same kind of person they were when they went it.

 The possibility exists that one could come out worse; struggle can turn people sour. But it is equally possible to come out stronger and wiser with more depth and vision, insight and understanding, compassion and character than when it began. Then we become someone with gifts to share with others on the journey. Jacob was transformed by his struggle and given a new name: Israel. He went on to become the leader of a great people.  If we read further in the passage we would find out that Jacob learned to humble himself to those he had wronged. He walked in front of his family, bowing repeatedly as he approached his brother. 

 The spirituality of struggle is the process of redefining the self. When our expectations run aground of reality, we begin to rethink the meaning and shape of our lives, not just our past decisions, but our very selves.  This process involves a slow deconstruction of the old self so that the real person can be reborn in us, beyond the expectations of others, beyond even our own previous assumptions.  It is a process, not an event. We too often get caught up in thinking of struggle, or suffering, as an event or a state of being, when it is more accurately a progression through which we need to move.

 

Struggle is the foundation of hope. Hope is not a denial of reality nor is it some spiritual elixir. Hope is a series of small actions that transform darkness into light.  Hope is the legacy that emerges when we finally comprehend that change is not destructive, that we are not alone, that different ways offer new possibilities, that God has not deserted us, that we don’t have to be in charge, that we do not have to be perfect, that we are equal to the task, that we have the endurance to continue, and that our wounds and scars have not forever branded us as unfit.

The spiritual task of life is to feed the hope that comes out of despair. Hope is not something to be found outside of us. It lies in the spiritual life we cultivate within. The whole purpose of struggle and wrestling with God is to be transformed into the self we are meant to become, to step out of the confines of our false securities and allow our creating God to go on creating, in us,  to bless us with a new name.

 

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