Wrestling with God
For my first experience with contemplative exegesis, I decided to use one of my favorite passages, Genesis 32:22-32, the story of Jacob’s wrestle with God. I slowly read the text out loud three times. As I did, a series of words stood out to me: possessions, alone, wrestle, hip, bless, name, and God’s face. I meditated on each of these words, looking for the way they spoke to my life.
I began with the word “bless” and asked myself what I thought it meant to be blessed. My reply was another series of words: place, fit, belong, vulnerable, community, the time for it all. For a number of years, my faith has felt like a messy and uncomfortable journey, but neither of those adjectives is acceptable in a Christian school setting. Faith is supposed to feel more like a pep rally for Jesus in that setting. My idea of being blessed by God is finding a place where the complexities of my faith, with its paradoxes, tensions, and stretch marks can belong and where I can be vulnerable about them in the context of a community. I have found a number of places where I can be more vulnerable than I had been in the past, but I am not sure I have found the space where I can completely drop my guard.
I then moved on to “name”, as it seemed to make sense of my definition of “blessing”. In junior high, my class spent a lot of time researching what our names meant out of pure curiosity. I was dissatisfied with the Internet’s answers: “someone from Scotland” or “Gaelic speaker”. Yet upon graduation, our school principle bought each of us a small card which contained our name, its meaning, and a Scripture verse which followed the definition. While I no longer have the card, nor do I remember the Scripture verse, I remember the definition: “from afar.” Even then as a fourteen-year-old, it resonated with me as the perfect definition of my name. What would God call me? How would he rename me? Of that, I remain uncertain.
I then began to pray through the word “possessions”, wondering what it is I allow to deceive me into believing I belong and which I need to leave behind to wrestle with God. I think often it is knowledge. I can read enough books, write enough seminary papers, and trick myself into thinking I have the right answers. However, having the right answers often becomes an excuse for not engaging with Christ on a deeper level through prayer and meditation. I did question if music could be one of those possessions alongside knowledge. Sometimes, I listen to music that allows me to be distracted from the contemplative side of faith, but I find composing itself to be one of the best places to wrestle with God.
I find being left alone, like Jacob was, a terrifying experience. I have attempted prayer journaling, contemplation, and the prayer of examen in the past, but I do not usually keep up with these for long because of how terrifying it is to be as alone and vulnerable with God as those practices leave me. How can I instead fill the space with books to read? What music can distract me?
When I have wrestled with God, it is usually in prayers I would never want to share with another human being. Usually they indict God for the way I think he has been unfair to me in my faith journey. Why does he have to make faith so hard? Why are there so many churches, so many books that it is hard to find the right answers? Why is there so much sin in the way? Why is it so hard for faith to find a home? I usually come to these deep places of longing after reading great stories like The Return of the King and Silence. I often have to compose these feelings, moments of angst and longing vomited out in black dots across sheet music. “Wrestle and bless. Tell me I belong.” I wonder if these feelings are my “hip”. The stretch marks my faith bears from so many churches, so many books, so much wrestling seem to be the evidences of my wrestling with God. The more I wrestle, trying to resolve these marks, the further my faith is stretched and the more marks it bears. In the passage, the wrestling itself seems to be the blessing. Maybe what feels unfair is the actual blessing of God’s presence in my life.
After all of this, I wrote the following prayer in my journal:
"God, it's me and you, no observers, no games, no pretenses, no syllogisms, no noise. Feet planted, arms locked, eyes fixed. What are you going to do? I won’t let you go until you bless me. You can strip me of my right theological answers and the church etiquette that keeps me safe. I’m not letting you go until you bless me, until you give me rest, until my faith knows what it’s like to be home. I have never seen your face fully. I will pull at the sin and religion which veils you from me. I may not live, but until I see your face, touch your scars, and place my hands in your side, I will never be home. So I guess we’re in it for the long haul, day after day, night after night, we wrestle and don’t let go. Don’t ever let me go. I might not make it home in this life, but here we are in the tustle. The struggle itself seems to be the way there.”