…grateful day 3: grateful for a God that wrestles…

I’ve come to the painful realization that there are very few things that I do “the easy way”. I’m too stubborn and skeptical to take most people’s word for some things and I’m too argumentative to take my own word for others. Much to my wife’s frustration I am an arguer; I find great satisfaction in beating an issue to death, and then wringing it out in frustration because there isn’t more to it. This includes my faith.

A portion of my walk of faith includes a couple of seasons early in my Christianity when I was struggling to accept certain things about the Scriptures and fighting against the implications of some of the things that I had accepted. During these times I found, thankfully, a God who was (and still is) willing to wrestle with me. For awhile, and still from time to time, my “life verse” is the first part of Isaiah 1:18

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:”
Isaiah 1:18

God says to His people, “come on and argue with Me, let’s hash this out until you’re satisfied that I’ve told you the truth”. This God doesn’t get angry as long as you are still asking questions. He is patient and merciful to the slow of faith, like myself, who can get dangerously close to the edge but have a tough time leaping. Calculations and test-runs and time to mull things over have always been a part of my personality process, God doesn’t squash that, He continues to offer His ear, His word, and His love. He is a far more patient Father than I will ever be, and I am thankful for that. But His patience should not be mistaken for inactivity or reticence, He will “mix it up” with me, with us, when it is needed.

I share a passage from Frederick Buechner out of a sermon entitled, “The Magnificent Defeat”. I’ve never read the story of Jacob articulated and captured quite as well as Buechner does it. The lion-share of the piece is about Jacob of Genesis. His faults, his humanity, the unsanitized way that the author presents him, all of these things do not set up an other worldly hero, but a social pariah who can’t stay anywhere very long before he has created enemies out of thin air. The culmination of his life was not his acquisition of Esau’s birthright, or the amassing of his fortune underneath Laban’s nose, nor the humorous and ironic way he finally married his sweetheart. It was when he stood all by himself, near a river called Jabbok that the hinge of his life started to swing. Buechner captures the scene:

When he reaches  the river Jabbok, which is all that stands between him and the Promised Land, he sends his family and his servants across ahead of him, but he remains behind to spend the night on the near shore alone. On wonders why. Maybe in order to savor to its fullest this moment of greatest achievement, this moment for which all his earlier moments have been preparing and from which only a river separates him now.

And then it happens. Out of the deep of the night a stranger leaps. He hurls himself at Jacob, and they fall to the ground, their bodies lashing through the darkness. It is terrible enough not to see the attacker’s face, and his strength is more terrible still, the strength of more than a man. All the night through they struggle in silence until just before morning, when it looks as though a miracle might happen. Jacob is winning. The stranger cries out to be set free before the sun rises. Then, suddenly, all is reversed.

He merely touches the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, and in a moment Jacob is lying there crippled and helpless. The sense we have, which Jacob must have had, that the whole battle was from the beginning  fated to end this way, that the stranger had simply held back until now, letting Jacob exert all his strength and almost win so that when he was defeated, he would know that he was truly defeated; so that he would know that not all the shrewdness, will, brute force that he could muster were enough to get this. Jacob will not release his grip, only now it is a grip not of violence but of need, like the grip of a drowning man.

The darkness has faded just enough so that for the first time he can dimly see his opponent’s face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death – the face of love. It is vast and strong, half-ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at last he cries out, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” Not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.

– Frederick Buechner

I am a wrestler. But God is better at it than I’ll ever be. The beauty of what Buechner captures in the middle of that excerpt is unmatched. There is a moment in my wrestling with God, in all of our struggles with Him, when we begin to realize that we aren’t wrestling against Him to beat Him, we are wrestling because we so desperately need Him. We need Him to be stronger, we need Him to be bigger, we need Him to be wiser and more cunning. Perhaps more than anything we need Him to win. There’s a part of me that knows myself well enough, my own weakness and childlike powerlessness, that if I didn’t know God was infinitely stronger, wiser, bigger, and better than me then there would be no hope in my heart.

I limp from some of these encounters. To a certain extent I limp more from the wounds that came in the areas that I believed myself to be strong. The longer I could “hold on” and believe I was winning the deeper the wound was. These limps are hardly points of contention that I hold with God, to the contrary they are glorious reminders of the times when I learned how trustworthy God was, and is.

Buechner ends this passage with the theme of the thing, and I find it remarkable and inspiring and comforting at the same time:

Only remember the last glimpse we have of Jacob, limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn. Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat that is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.

– Frederick Buechner

I am thankful for a God that wrestles. I am thankful for a God that doesn’t back down from me. He is always willing to both take my best shot and then in return give me His best.

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