Come, O Thou traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see;
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee.
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.
– The Sacred Harp
A century ago, Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth described prayer as a kind of spiritual tempest blowing away all our complacencies. While giving a nod to the contemplative and aesthetic dimensions of spirituality, he was blunt about its capacity to rupture the settled proportions of daily life:
We do need more reverence in our prayer, more beauty in our praise, less dread of tried and consecrated form. But still more do we want the breathless awe, and the stammering tongue, and the solemn wonder, and the passionate gratitude, which are the true note of grace, and the worship of a soul plucked from the burning and snatched by a miracle from the abyss.
Prayer is not for the timid. Better wear a crash helmet, as Annie Dillard advised. But the fierce energies of prayer are not God’s alone. We must bring the strong force of our own desire to the encounter, pressing God to keep the ancient promise of a world made new. Every prayer may inevitably end with “thy will be done,” but it often begins in a place of struggle, if we are honest. “Hear my voice when I complain,” prayed the Psalmist. Even Jesus argued vehemently for an alternative to the cross. We were not made to go quietly. God wants us to put up a good fight. “Prayer is wrestling with God,” wrote Forsyth. “It is a resistance that God loves.”
The Bible never names the stranger who jumps Jacob in the dark and wrestles him till daybreak (Genesis 32), but interpreters have always suspected his divinity. Delmore Schwartz, in his poem “Jacob,” describes the assault as “the ambush of the marvelous, / unknown and monstrous, / at the very heart of surprise.” Jacob couldn’t see his opponent’s face, but all his inner conflicts must have risen up to give him a name:
– It is the ghost of my father Isaac, from whose deathbed I stole the blessing, and he’s come to take the blessing back.
– No. It is the spirit of my brother, with whom I wrestled in my mother’s womb, with whom I must fight in the flesh tomorrow.
– No. It is my own shadow, the unloved child and desperate trickster, here to unmask the pretense of my so-called success.
– No. It is the angel of death come to mock all God’s promises of protection and future.
– No. It is God’s own self, that merciless opponent who will not let me be until I am broken open and made new.
All night long, Jacob fought against this stranger, this Other. The stranger wounded him, dislocating the socket of his thigh, but Jacob would not give up. When dawn came, the stranger tried to flee, but Jacob held on tight.
“Let me go,” said the stranger. “I do not live in the glare of your well-lit thoughts, but only in the shadows of your intuitions.”
“I will not let you go until you bless me.”
“What is your name?” asked the stranger.
“It is Jacob no more. Your name shall be Israel – the one who wrestles with God.”
“Then what is your name?” asked Jacob.
“Ah!” said the stranger. Then he gave Jacob the blessing, and vanished.
The sun began to rise as Jacob limped away from the river, forever wounded, but ready at last to meet his future.
I once led a workshop on this story at a church retreat. After digging into the passage for a while, participants were invited to retell it in their own way. One young woman, who was differently abled and emotionally troubled, did exactly what the Bible wants us to do with its narratives. She put herself into the story.
Jacob was having a lot of problems with his family. He needed to get away from them, to get his head together. He felt a great struggle inside himself. “Why can’t I deal with my anger and frustration?” After a while he began to realize that he was wrestling with God.
He wrestled with God all night long, but when dawn came he began to think God must be pretty tired of him by now, that God must be so sick of listening to his problems that he was just going to go away. Jacob felt afraid and alone but he didn’t give up. He held on tight and wouldn’t let go. He begged God to stay and to bless him.
“What is your name,” God asked him.
“I don’t think so,” God said. “I think it’s Israel, because you’ve had the guts to face up to your problems.”
Then the sun came up and God was gone. And as Jacob began to walk away from that place, he noticed he was limping. Suddenly he remembered that he had always had this limp, but it didn’t bother him anymore. It was okay. It was just part of who he was.