Becoming Israel

You can’t really know you love God until you feel like he’s wounded you. That’s my understanding, anyway. There is a significance to the name “Israel” that is easily lost on us English speakers. The word is a combination of two words that mean “wrestle” or “strive” and “God.” So it means something like “wrestles with God.”

It all goes back to Genesis 32 when Jacob was at a watershed moment in his life. Relations with his father-in-law Laban had gone very sour as he made his departure, ending with a confrontation after Laban chased him down. But even worse, he learned that his brother Esau was approaching. The last time he had seen Esau was when Esau was intent on killing him after their father had died.

Jacob arranged to send lots of gifts and livestock ahead of himself, putting all his possessions and his family on the road in between himself and his brother, presumably to inspire a bit of mercy. He remained behind for one last night before going to face his brother. At this moment, Jacob was at the end of his rope. His deception and treachery from earlier in life had born bitter fruit in his present life, and he must have wondered if he was about to lose everything, certainly including his life.

While it is hard to imagine he could have slept that night anyway, he was never afforded the opportunity. On this strange occasion, a man came from somewhere and wrestled with him until daybreak. During the scuffle, the man dislocated Jacob’s leg, leaving him with a permanent limp. At daybreak, the man insisted that Jacob should let him go but Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Finally, the man agreed to bless him, insisting that he would now be called “Israel” because he had struggled with God and with humans and had overcome. While much about what happened here is foggy, it is clear that Jacob knew after the fact that he had just seen God and somehow survived.

How interesting that of all the names that God’s people could have utilized, Israel has been one of the most highly preferred. If we take the origin seriously, to be a person of Israel or even of the new Israel is to be someone who wrestles with God. I am concerned that when our worship services tend to be upbeat and uplifting all the time–and who doesn’t want a good boost of encouragement at the beginning of the week?–we may implicitly be teaching that people who struggle with God and with what God has or hasn’t done in their lives might just have inferior faith.

Wherever this impression might come from, it hasn’t come from Scripture. It is telling to me that of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, about 68 of these (45%) can be categorized as some form of lament. There are individual laments and communal laments. There are laments of personal penance over feelings of guilt. There are laments of anger, calling for divine retribution on the people’s enemies and oppressors. Each time, there are questions raised about why God has let things happen the ways in which they’ve happened.

The wisdom literature, certainly including Job, deals extensively with the problem of suffering and making sense of what God has or hasn’t done around one’s suffering. An open expression of true emotions is a huge component of making one’s relationship with God a real relationship.

A few months ago, a couple of strange experiences led me to a realization. After talking with my spiritual director, it became clear to me that I had been avoiding a particular conversation with God for more than 20 years. At the time, I felt God had utterly let me down and disappointed me. Being the conflict avoider that I am, I have claimed often that the experience taught me to trust in God’s will more than my own desires, and that my preference was for God to do what God wanted. “Who cares what I want? I don’t even know what’s best for me!” But the truth is, after that experience, I had never trusted God enough to ask him for anything else. Why be vulnerable when the last time I was vulnerable I ended up disappointed? I had become blind to just how much I was trying to bury my emotions, but recently it had become obvious to me that my method wasn’t working.

Living in Corpus Christi, when I need seclusion, I head for the Padre Island National Seashore. It was murky that morning.

So I scheduled a day to go out to a secluded place. I carried a single Psalm with me, Psalm 88 printed out on a sheet of paper. As I started allowing myself to go to the place I had avoided, the tears came quickly and uncontrollably. I began reading the Psalm aloud, allowing its words to become my own. After each stanza, I would have to pause for several minutes to weep under the weight of what I was trying to pray, because the psalm is excessively heavy. I did this again and again.  I finally reached a turning point as I allowed my eyes to glance over the page and I noticed the shape of the number 88. I no longer saw a number. I saw two individuals. I saw one who wouldn’t leave the other’s side and I began to feel reassured that this was precisely my own situation. I had been disappointed but never abandoned.

In all, it was a few hours of sincere struggling, but before I came home that day, my tears had turned to laughter, and I had what was probably the best time of prayer I’ve spent in years. God’s actions had wounded me. I had told him how I really felt about it, and I was able to walk away knowing that he and I were going to be ok. Sometimes we walk with God. Other times we scuffle. But as long as we stay engaged, we can arrive at a place of blessing and deeper understanding.

While our relationship with God will involve many experiences of blessing, love, and providence, there must also be healthy space to experience our walk with God as a wrestling with God. Jacob couldn’t become Israel until after he and God had wrestled. I’m convinced that much like Jacob, it is when we get to the end of our rope, when we see that our possessions, our status, or even our family cannot be our ultimate solution, when we get raw and vulnerable with God that we can finally know for sure that there is no other in whom we are placing our hope. And when the day breaks and redemptive healing comes, we’ll know its true source.

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