With What Do We Struggle? With Whom?
One of my friends, a pipe-smoker, found himself sitting in a meeting beside a fellow who was also a pipe-smoker. My friend told the other man where pipe tobacco could be purchased in Toronto for 75 cents a tin less than anywhere else. But this tobacco shop isn’t easy to find. And so my friend described in complicated detail how one gets to this shop, buried as it is among the back streets of innermost inner Toronto – all for the sake of 75 cents. When the meeting concluded my friend learned he’d been talking to Charles Bronfman, one-time owner of Seagram’s Distilleries, former owner of the Montreal Expos Baseball Club, owner of the Montreal Canadiens Hockey Club, owner of so very much more that he, Bronfman, has forgotten just how much more.
All of us have had an experience like this. We’ve all encountered someone whose identity we weren’t aware of, and came to be embarrassed by what we had said to the person we didn’t recognize. Or perhaps we weren’t embarrassed following such an encounter; perhaps we were amused or even delighted as we discovered that the woman who had sat at the lunch table with us was the Lieutenant Governor or the vice president of the Royal Bank.
I: -- Today we are looking at a story, 3500 years old, that speaks of a man wrestling all night with someone whose identity he learned only in the morning. Jacob wrestles during the night. He is locked in a desperate struggle. In the night’s thickest darkness he thinks he’s contending with another man. In the bright light of the new day he learns who his “antagonist” was: it was God himself. It’s only at the end of the life-and-death encounter, only when Jacob has struggled, hung on, fought through, that he learns the identity of the one he’s contended with throughout a night he had thought was never going to end.
At some point in our lives all of us have dark nights. At some point all of us struggle with something that resists us, thwarts us, threatens to overwhelm us. From a human perspective it appears to be a struggle with a purely human situation or a merely human opponent. In the bright light of a new day, however, we learn that through it all we were contending with nothing less, no one other, than God himself.
You see, because God is present to all of life, every situation in life or encounter in life or struggle in life is therefore also an engagement with God ultimately. From a human perspective it appears to be no more than a purely human struggle, terrible as this often is. Yet since God abandons no one, since God forsakes nobody, any struggle anywhere in life is ultimately a struggle with God.
Let me say right now that because our Lord Jesus Christ was profoundly forsaken by his Father on Good Friday in Gethsemane and on Calvary for our sakes; because our Lord Jesus Christ was profoundly God-forsaken for our sakes, there is no human being, anywhere in the world, who is God-forsaken now or ever will be.
This is not to say that there’s no one who doesn’t feel God-forsaken. At some point we all feel God-forsaken, even as in truth we never are.
Neither is this to say everyone has come to faith, is going to come to faith, or wants to come to faith. I am not pretending that because God forsakes no one therefore everyone is now a secret believer. Still, the fact that some have not yet recognized God and acknowledged him; the fact that some have never heard of him; the fact that some have heard of him but choose to ignore him; none of this means that he is now ignoring them. God ever remains that “Other” with whom all men and women are involved at all times, whether they are aware of it or not. What appears to be only a human situation, however difficult, is also, always, an encounter with God.
What are some of these situations? Disappointment, depression, despair, bereavement; temptation to revenge, temptation to bitterness, temptation to that peculiar form of insanity wherein we know that sin is sin, know that a terrible price is attached to committing it, yet perversely want to commit it anyway. In all of these situations we can simply lie down and quit, overwhelmed; or we can wrestle and keep on wrestling until daybreak.
Jacob wrestled during the night. Night, darkness is a rich biblical symbol suggesting turbulence, threat, loneliness, and fear. As Jacob wrestles he cries to his opponent, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
In my work as pastor I see much human distress, and see many people attempting to cope with that distress. Some give up. Others say, “I’ll never quit. I have to see this situation through to some resolution. I can’t let it go until something in this struggle has been wrested to my good. I have to prevail until my prevailing finds me a different person.”
A few years ago I sat at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous with a man who was struggling desperately to recover his sobriety. He had had a “slip” and had been on a terrible drunk. He was now coming off it, and he was frightened. He was afraid of going into the “DTs”, the delirium tremens, wherein the suffering alcoholic has nightmares beyond any nightmare any of us can imagine. As many of you are aware, alcoholic persons are overtaken by the “DTs” not when they are drunk but when they are becoming sober. Therefore there is one, unfailing way to avoid the horror: get drunk again. But of course to do this is to give up; it’s to walk away from the struggle and forfeit the blessing awaiting us on the other side of the struggle. This man wasn’t going to give up. He was going to struggle. He sat beside me, shaking like a leaf, perspiration pouring down his face, frightened, sick, but determined to see it all through to the end, because he knew deep down that at the end there really was blessing: sobriety. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was certainly an authentic sight: a man determined to wrestle through a night that might be longer than he thought and darker than he imagined, in the midst of which he cried out, in effect, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Recently I spoke with an ex-convict who had been “on the street,” as he put it (i.e., out of jail) for eighteen months. He had been a “paper hanger” – a writer of rubber cheques, worthless cheques. He had been “on the street” several times over in the past few years, but had been able to stay on the street only for a week or two before he succumbed to temptation yet again and wrote another bad cheque. Then it was another conviction for fraud and another spell in jail. He had repeated this pattern for twenty years. Now he was on the street once more. Eighteen months of freedom was more than he had had in two decades. He could never be described as theologically sophisticated. Nevertheless every morning, he told me, he cried to someone, somewhere, to keep him on the street for one more day; just one more day. He was going to wrestle through each night until daybreak.
I’ve never been tempted to “hang paper.” But we’ve all been tempted by something else, in some other direction. And hasn’t the temptation been so fearsome, so visceral, that our stomach turned and our knees shook? And wasn’t the struggle so very intense just because the outcome was so crucial for us? At the time we thought it was only a human struggle, only a struggle we were having with ourselves. Unbeknown to us it was more than that; it was a struggle that involved the living God.
No one makes light of bereavement. I don’t doubt that it’s dreadful. The more we loved and were loved by the one we’ve lost, the more deeply our bereavement bites. C.S. Lewis, professor of English Literature and Christian thinker, married in his fifties. He was wondrously happy. He felt his “ship had come in.” Within three years, however, he went from husband to widower. Upon the death of Joy Davidman, his wife, he spelled out his anguish in a little book, A Grief Observed. He begins the book, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness….I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.” Lewis adds, “I was happy before I ever met my wife. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources;’ I shan’t do so badly….Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘common sense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.” (I speak carefully here, carefully and reticently, since my wife hasn’t died – yet.) We’ve all seen bereaved people give up. We’ve all seen bereaved people quit, go under, and wait for the undertaker to close the lid a second time. And we’ve also seen bereaved people wrestle agonisingly through a long, dark night of turbulence, loneliness and fear. They keep on wrestling. Come daybreak, they want – and are going to receive – that blessing they’ve refused to forfeit.
You may have noticed a distinction in the situations I’ve described: while our society doesn’t fault someone for being bereaved, it does fault someone for being fraudulent or a substance-abuser. But all such social distinctions have no bearing whatever on the struggle in which people find themselves. What difference does it make whether they landed in the turbulence through their fault, someone else’s fault, or no one’s fault? One of the features of Jacob’s struggle had to do with the fact that he had cheated his brother Esau. When he finds himself wracked Jacob fears that maybe Esau has caught up to him and is going to retaliate; Jacob fears he’s struggling for his life, and all of this on account of his own wrongdoing. But whether we struggle on account of our own wrongdoing or not is beside the point. All that matters is that we don’t give up just because at the end of it all there is going to be blessing for us.
Struggles are legion: the struggle against habitual negative thinking; the struggle against a besetting temptation which, from a rational standpoint, is silly and yet continues to mesmerize us until we keep on staring at it like a rabbit staring at a snake, only to find that it’s got us; the struggle against mind-bending disappointment more painful than a punch in the mouth; the struggle against disillusionment or betrayal that threatens to acidify our spirit and shrivel our heart for the rest of our life.
In all of this there is turbulence, loneliness and fear (‘night’). In all of this it appears we’re engaged in a difficult human situation only, contending with a human reality only. Yet because God is the environment in which all of life unfolds, ultimately we wrestle with him.
II: -- In the old, old story of Jacob the dawn comes at last. Light is a biblical symbol for order and wholeness. As light – order and wholeness – overtakes Jacob, he is asked his name.
Now to us modern folk someone’s name is merely a means of labelling that person. To say that my name is Victor doesn’t mean I’m victorious in any sense. My name is simply a label that keeps me from being confused with Bill or Tom or Jerry.
For Israelite people, however, “name” meant “nature.” Someone’s name was her chief characteristic. If an Israelite were named “Victor” it was because he was victorious, or he wouldn’t have that name.
The name “Jacob” means cheater. Jacob is asked his name (he had earlier cheated his brother Esau) and he replies, “Cheater; that’s my name; that’s who I am.” From a human perspective a person is what she does. She cheats? Then she’s a cheater. Name and nature are one.
This, of course, is how we regard other people but never how we regard ourselves. If someone lies to us once, just once, we say he’s a liar. But if we lie, and lie more than once, we never identify ourselves privately or announce ourselves publicly as a liar. Anyone else who boasts is a boaster; anyone else who commits adultery is an adulterer. The truth is, what we predicate of other people must be predicated of us as well. As surely as we insist other people name themselves by what they do, we name ourselves by what we do.
Then what’s your name, and what’s mine? It all depends on what we do. How would others speak of us? Cheater, liar, manipulator, exploiter, complainer, worrier, weeper, whiner, tantrum-thrower?
“Not fair,” you say; “there’s more to me than that.” But we never make this concession to other people. “Still not fair,” you say, “because we are being ‘named’ precisely where we are struggling most valiantly.” Correct. The sarcastic person who is struggling with all his might to rid himself of his deep-dyed sarcasm is still labelled, and labelled contemptuously, “acid-tongue.” The bereaved person who is struggling is still labelled, and labelled contemptuously, “blubberer.”
Despite the apparent unfairness of it all there remains something positive, health-promoting, about it. When Jacob admits his name, “cheater,” he then – and only then – receives the blessing. The blessing is a new name. He is no longer named “Jacob” but rather “Israel.” New name means new nature, new principal characteristic. New name means new nature, new identity, new future. We know what “Jacob” [ya-kob] means: “he who cheats”. And “Israel?” “Israel” [Yisra-el] means “he who contends with God.” The alcoholic who says, with painful honesty, “Yes, I am an alcoholic: that’s who I am” – this person is on the threshold of the blessing: contented sobriety. Any person who honestly, painfully (honesty is always painful) admits her name: liar, back-stabber, habitual negative thinker, fault-finder, gossiper – any such person is on the threshold of a new name, a new nature, a new identity, a new future.
It all happens for Jacob at dawn, after the struggle through the long, dark night. It happens at dawn, when light brings order to his life and wholeness as well.
III: -- Naming and renaming are crucial throughout scripture. Jesus says to Simon, “‘Simon’? That’s no name for you. From now on I’m going to call you Petros, Peter, the rock. Rocky. That’s it. ‘Rocky’.” New name, new nature, new identity, new future.
We reply, “But Peter didn’t appear rock-like for quite a while. After Jesus had named him “Rocky” didn’t he deny the Master, three times over? Wasn’t he among the disciples who abandoned the Master at his most agonising hour?” Then why does Jesus call him “Peter, The Rock, Rocky”? Because our Lord knows that when someone is given a new name he conforms himself to that name. He becomes what, who, he’s been named.
We all know how this operates at the purely psychological level. If you keep telling a child he’s stupid he’ll believe himself to be stupid and act stupidly. If you keep telling a child she’s superior she’ll believe herself superior and act like the snob she’s become. People conform themselves to the name wherewith they are named.
If this is true at the merely psychological level, how much farther-reaching it is at the spiritual level. Because of what has occurred to believers through our Lord’s cross and resurrection; because of the Holy Spirit who cements Jesus Christ into us and us into Christ; because of all this we have been given a new name: we are son or daughter of God; we are brother or sister to Jesus Christ our elder brother; we are friend to the Friend who sticks closer than a brother. To be sure, in most of this the reality may be largely unapparent – as unapparent as it was in Peter the day Jesus called him “Rocky.” But let’s remember: the day came when stumbling Peter; the day came when fumbling, faltering, falling down Peter was acclaimed the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The day came when Peter’s influence was so widespread and so telling that people laid their sick friends in the street in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on them.
The truth is, the day has been appointed for all of us when what we have been named in Christ Jesus our Lord will cease to be only apparent and will be made fully manifest.
The apostle Paul tells us that the new nature which has been given us is “being renewed every day.” New right now, as new as it can ever be, yet always being renewed? He means that the new name/nature God has given us as a title is beginning to characterize us and will continue to characterize us until the gap between name and nature is overcome, and title and truth are one.
Like Jacob of old you and are I contending somewhere in life today. It could be in any of the areas I have mentioned; more likely it is in scores more that I have not.
What matters is this: we never give up the struggle; we never quit. We are going to continue wrestling through the night, however dark or lonely or fearsome, because the day does dawn. And with the dawn, light; our lives are blessed with order and wholeness.
The reason for all this, of course, is that regardless of where we are struggling in life, with what, ultimately we are contending with the God who contends with us in the sense that he first contends for us, contends for us effectually in Christ Jesus, just because he wants only to bless us.
In Jesus Christ he has given us a new name. One day the name we’ve been given, the nature we’ve been promised, will be ours manifestly. And on that day the blessing we’ve long craved because long needed will be ours and ours for evermore.