Knowing God: Tender Love or a Wrestling Match?
During the Christmas break, our house was full of the noise of grown up children enjoying being together. They have a deep bond between them and this is often expressed physically; not with sentimental hugs but rather by tea towel fights, wrestling and (this one was new) my son sweeping the kitchen floor by dragging his sister around on her back. When he became a teenager Nathan no longer wanted to be hugged and cuddled by me and yet physical contact was still something he needed and sought. This was usually in the form of wrestling and I still remember the triumph in his face when he was first able to pin me to the floor.
In the incarnation God became man and dwelt physically among us. Jesus related physically to the people around him, feeding them, healing them, sitting children on his knee, walking with them, greeting them, laughing with them and weeping with them. God made us as physical beings and the relationship we can have with him is not only cerebral and spiritual, but also one which engages with our physical beings. We see glimpses of this when people experience physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we struggle with this, but should that really come as a surprise from a God who wants engage with the whole of our being?
It amazed me recently to learn that when we sing our pituitary gland releases natural endorphins into our bodies. These are neurotransmitters that give us a feeling of well-being. God created us so that even as we give to him in praise, it makes us feel physically good! It is has also been shown through psychological and physiological research that ‘an attitude of gratitude’ has a similar effect. When we live as God intended us to it affects the whole of our beings.
In Genesis we see Jacob encountering God in two very different but tangible ways. The first is in Genesis 23, where he dreams of the ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Here we see the grace of God embracing a man who had cheated his brother out of his father’s blessing and was on the run. Yet God drew near and spoke a different father’s blessing – the blessing of his Heavenly Father. Jacob was young, foolish, headstrong and immature and wasn’t yet ready for God’s hand of discipline. He first needed to know the unconditional love of a father who would say ‘know that I am with you wherever I go…for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.’ Jacob’s response was to set up an altar in that place and give himself to God in worship.
‘Worship’ means to draw near and kiss, it is intimate and it is a tender submissive act but is also a physical act. These elements are seen in this encounter of Jacob with God. We too should expect to experience these things as we approach God in worship. However, there are other times when, like with my son, God wants us to meet with us in the wrestling.
When Nathan wrestled me as a teenager there were two things going on. One was the need to still have that physical contact, but alongside this was his male pride pressing him to test his own strength. He had always struggled with being the smallest in his year group and as he wrestled, he was wrestling as much with himself as with me. By Genesis 32 Jacob has done a lot of growing up. He had been on the receiving end of a cheating uncle’s ruse which would have made him reflect on his own history. He had learnt to persevere and work hard rather than cheat to get what he wanted and in all of this had had seen God prosper him. He was now heading home but there were some character issues still to be addressed. Sometimes such issues are dealt with when in God’s loving acceptance and embrace we are ‘undone’ before him, but sometimes to address these things God takes us into a time of wrestling. This is where we find Jacob in this chapter.
When God told Jacob to ‘let go’, Jacob said that he wouldn’t until he received a blessing. He was now engaging his whole being in his pursuit of God. God’s response seems strange as he simply asked Jacob his name. Surely God knew his name? However this wrestling was all about identity. Last time Jacob was asked that question he had lied to his father and stolen Esau’s blessing. Now was the time to face who he was. Like my son, he was now wrestling with himself as much as with God. It was in honestly facing up to who he was and wrestling in this place that Jacob received a new God given identity. This didn’t come without a cost as Jacob ended up with a dislocated hip. In order to live in his new identity Jacob had to acknowledge his human weakness and so receive the strength of God.
I love those intimate times with Jesus where I feel like my heart is melted and his grace propels me forward, but as I face life’s challenges there are times when I have to wrestle with God. In these times it is me not God who is changed. God meets us as the tender lover and as the wrestling stranger; I am learning to fully embrace both in my pursuit of God.