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Struggles as Blessings

October 10, 2022
The Zarqa River (formerly the Jabbok River) in Jordan between Amman and Jerash (DCR 3/20/22)

Then a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak. When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he hit Jacob on the hip, and it was thrown out of joint. The man said, ‘Let me go; daylight is coming.’” (Genesis 32: 24-26, Good News Translation)

Someone said, “Doubt is the mother of faith.”  A person who accepts another person’s faith lock, stock, and barrel has not used his or her God-given cognitive powers.  Such a person has a second-hand faith, not an authentic faith.  We are reminded of that in Jacob’s struggle with God in the Old Testament lesson.[1]  

After deceiving his brother and fleeing with his birthright and blessing, Jacob lived with his mother’s relatives, where despite some setbacks, he was blessed with a family and with material wealth.  After a number of years, God told him to go home: “Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you”  (Genesis 31:3). 

Along the way, Jacob encounters “a man,” whom we later learn is of divine origin, on the bank of the Jabbok River (now called the Zarqa River): “Then a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak.  When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he hit Jacob on the hip, and it was thrown out of joint. The man said, ‘Let me go; daylight is coming.’ ‘I won’t, unless you bless me,’ Jacob answered. ‘What is your name?’ the man asked. ‘Jacob,’ he answered.  The man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have struggled with God and with men, and you have won; so your name will be Israel.’ Jacob said, ‘Now tell me your name.’ But he answered, ‘Why do you want to know my name?’ Then he blessed Jacob.  Jacob said, ‘I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive’; so he named the place Peniel” (Genesis 24-28).

I don’t know about you, but I have had many doubts and struggles with my faith through the years.  The verse that that I struggled with during my meditation on this text were the words: “When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he hit Jacob on the hip, and it was thrown out of joint” (Genesis 32: 24-26, Good News Translation).  

If God is all-powerful, why was he not winning?  Couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?  As I thought about it, I realized that this is not the only time when God did not use the powers at his disposal.  Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself of his divine powers to live a perfect human life through obedience to the Father: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant . . .”    (Philippians 2:5-7).  We see an example of that when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and refused to take the bait.  

It was God’s choice to let Jacob overcome him.  Jacob wrestled all night with the man, until he extracted a blessing from him. His persistence was rewarded.  He was given a new name.  At the end of that struggle, he had grown from being a deceiver (“Jacob”) to becoming “one who struggles with God (” Israel”).  Dennis Prager posits that “By giving His Chosen People the name ‘Struggle with God’ . . . God was not only giving his people permission to struggle with Him; he was actually asking us to do so. Doing so makes our faith authentic. And it is that authenticity which keeps us from turning into religious automatons.”[2]  Receiving the name Israel from God was a great blessing for Jacob.

You would have expected Jacob to end the match after his hip was dislocated, but he continued the match until the man blessed him.  He persisted until he turned the struggle into a blessing.  Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf from infancy understood the blessings that can come from struggles. She said, “The struggle of life is one of our greatest blessings. It makes us patient, sensitive, and Godlike. It teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”     

Jacob decided to work through the struggle until he was blessed.  He was committed to seeing it through.  Jesus teaches the importance of persistence when he told the parable of the persistent widow, who pursued justice until the corrupt judge finally relented.  Jesus is saying that if an unjust judge provides justice in response to constant pressure, how much more will God respond to us: “And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?’” (Luke 18: 6-7).

The psalmist confirms that God is faithful and just and will respond to our cries for help: “The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121: 7-8).

As you pursue your studies of Scripture during your faith journey, you will encounter texts that you will struggle with from time to time.  As you study Scripture, take care to understand the text in the context of the culture of the time it was written, as well as the broader implications for us today. Making efforts to understand Scripture will lead you to a greater appreciation for the life struggles of others. Through your struggles in life and in your persistence to understand Holy Scripture, you will be greatly blessed, as Jacob was in his struggle with God.  In the words of St. Paul, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3: 16).

Prayer: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2)

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost are Genesis 32:22-30; Psalm 121; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8.

[2] Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Genesis (2019), Regnery Faith, p. 387.

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