When I began writing this meditation on Jacob wrestling with God and its implications for the spiritual life, I did not intend it to be another essay on suffering. Yet the theme came of its own accord, and has some continuity with thoughts posted here, here, and here.
The story, found in Genesis 32, should be familiar. Jacob, traveling to meet his estranged brother Esau, camps alone at the ford of Jabbok.
And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
The stranger is usually seen in the Christian tradition as Christ himself. Perhaps the most conventional moral interpretation emphasizes Jacob’s persistence. In refusing to let God go, he receives a blessing; so also must we be persistent in prayer and struggle in faith. Another, almost opposite interpretation sees the struggle as God destroying our willfulness, teaching us to submit and “let God.” But these readings in themselves make little sense of the most striking aspects of the text.
My own exegesis of this passage focuses on the wound, which I first began to contemplate after reading a passage in Scott Cairns’s memoir Short Trip to the Edge. Here, an ordinary Athonite monk uses the story of Jacob and the stranger to illustrate for Cairns a mystery of the life of prayer.
[Father Iakovos] placed a hand on his chest, just above his abdomen. “You have to hold on to Him,” he said, “with all your strength…. You have to plead with Him to meet you here…. And when He arrives, you must hold on to Him and not let go. Like Jacob,” he said, “you must hold on to Him…. And like Jacob,” he met my eyes with new intensity, “you will be wounded. Like Jacob, you must say, ‘I will not let You go unless you bless me,’ and then the wound, the tender hip thereafter, the blessing…. He is everything,” Father Iakovos continued, “and ever-present. He is never not here,” he said, touching his upper abdomen, “but when you plead to know He’s here, and when He answers you, and helps you to meet Him here, you will be wounded by that meeting. The wound will help you know, and that is the blessing.” (136-137)
Jacob’s meeting with God certainly lends itself to mystical interpretation, and this commentary highlights the abundant oddness of the Biblical story. Why does God provoke and wrestle with Jacob in the form of a man, and with commensurate strength? Why does he give Jacob a permanent injury that has apparently no bearing on the progress of the fight? Why do Jacob and all his descendants receive a name that celebrates a moment when God and man were physically at odds? Man resists and apparently defeats God (“you have striven with God… and have prevailed”). In the end, Jacob and the Athonite monk alike see this as a moment of extraordinary grace, a moment at which God and man were never closer to one another. “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
To illuminate the spiritual depths of the Jacob story, one must look elsewhere in the corpus of revelation. Other scriptural narratives follow a similar pattern of struggle, wound, and blessing. In this essay, I focus on two: the book of Job, and Christ at Gethsemane.
Some interpreters have tried to play down the uncomfortable implications of these texts, for they do not teach submission in the manner of conventional piety. They in no way commend complacent trust in the benevolent sovereignty of God; they problematize God’s power and goodness, dwell on weakness and suffering, and seem to condone the fierce struggle of mankind with his creator. They make no attempt to justify God’s mysterious ways.
The parallels of the book of Job with the story of Jacob at the Jabbok ford may not be immediately obvious. Yet Job easily matches it for oddness. A righteous Job strives with God in the midst of great torments inflicted under apparent divine sanction. God appears and refuses to explain himself. At the end of the struggle, God vindicates his adversary, the doubting Job, against those who put blind trust in God’s good order. (As St. Gregory the Great put it, Job “is preferred in the Divine judgment even to those very persons who defended the Divine judgment.”) And yet the book of Job, which sympathetically poses man’s complaint against the cosmic order in almost blasphemous terms, does not end in gloomy misotheism. The suspicions cast on God are not refuted in so many words, but they are successfully transcended to the apparent comfort of Job himself.
Exactly how is Job comforted? I think G. K. Chesterton’s imaginative analysis brings us very near to the truth. Job is commended in his struggle because the purpose of it all is to seek truth; he demands explanation because he believes there is an explanation. Job’s comforters, on the other hand, insist that Job see a moral fabric to the universe in which “everything in the universe fits into everything else; as if there were anything comforting about a number of nasty things all fitting into each other.”
Then God thunders in, and not to dispense answers on Job’s terms. “He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of candid intellect, takes a little time to consider, and comes to the conclusion that he does not know.” God hands Job a hundred enigmas, and Job finds “the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” The inexplicability of the divine judgments also crushes Job’s friends, whose belief in the rational benevolence of the cosmos is revealed as trite and self-deceived.
And yet, as God’s words hint, behind the cloud of suffering, there is a mystery too beautiful to be spoken; this inner beauty may not always be accessible to man, who was not there “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” There are things only God knows. For who is Job, after all? And who is God? And how can Job know God’s ways? Yet God, in revealing the enormous gulf between himself and Job, also thereby establishes a new intimacy with Job. The revelation of this gulf is still a revelation, itself illuminative; a vision beyond comprehension may definitively still the questions that remain unanswered on their own terms. Job has been taxed to the uttermost, and now, seeing “things too wonderful” for him, repents. In his struggle with God, he has moved past the naive faith of his former days, and entered a new era of blessing. His afflictions, so meaningless in themselves, have become a means to God.
The book of Job thus echoes the highly condensed narrative of Jacob, teaching a positive theology of struggle with God. Jacob too receives no explanation; the stranger even declines to give his own name. Jacob’s new name, Israel, “he who struggles with God,” simply affirms what took place. But Israel limps away worshiping God, rejoicing at having seen God’s face, and yet lived.
Chesterton saw Christological significance in Job’s wounds, in the “paradox of the best man in the worst fortune.” This typological link was recognized in the fourth century by St. Zeno of Verona, who saw in Job the patterns that defined the life of Christ: righteousness, temptation, suffering, vindication, intercession, and fruitfulness. St. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job developed this theme more thoroughly; Gregory also saw Job as a figure of the Church. Christian theology has thus been deeply appreciative of Job since St. James the Just cited him in his epistle as an example of steadfastness in suffering (5:11).
The Gospels reveal the suffering of Christ most profoundly in the narratives of his Passion. The most intimate moment comes in the garden of Gethsemane, when we are allowed a glimpse into Christ’s interior struggle that proved scandalous to Greek notions of divinity.
For the divine, all-powerful Jesus appears weak and desperate in the garden, resistant to the will of his Father. Christ “wrestled” [agonia] at Gethsemane, and his adversary was God. How can this be the perfect man, let alone God incarnate?
The Evangelists are certainly unstinting in representing the darkness to which the God-man descended. Gethsemane is the beginning of Christ’s true aloneness, which culminates in the frightened desertion of his followers before the Cross. While Christ struggles in the garden, his disciples, the very foundations of the new Jerusalem Christ proclaims, faint in exhaustion. Meanwhile, Christ enacts a dialogue: “remove this cup” and “not my will, but thine, be done.” Christian tradition has come to see this as a revelation of the two natural wills of Christ, divine and human; as perfect man, Christ’s human will is submissive to the divine will he shares with the Father. Nevertheless, the human will is burdened with all the weakness and frailty of the flesh, figured in the sleeping disciples. Christ overcomes this in his person, and leaves Gethsemane to embrace his Passion.
Even in perfect obedience, this submission is not without cost; Christ, the most heroic of men, united with the very mind of God and knowledgeable of his destiny, does not settle for “all will be well, so it’s all right.” He enters fully the weakness and absurdity of the human condition. By the ministry of the Son, the God who had decreed to let the tares grow with the wheat, who allowed the progress of evil and suffering to spread across the cosmos, united himself to suffering creation and bore her pain. The struggle of human with divine is necessary, even in Christ, in whom the two natures are brought into perfect harmony.
An angel appears in Luke’s account, and this angel “strengthens” Jesus while taking away none of his agony. Why should Christ need to be strengthened by one of his creatures? Perhaps Christ’s human, psychological energies were expended, and the angel served as a sacramental vessel of grace, being of created nature. We may also meditate on the fact that this is part of a literary pattern in Luke: an angel announces incarnation, and angels later announce resurrection; now, an angel delivers the consolation of the Passion, which then was shrouded in the darkness of suffering.
Yet I think the most significant aspect of the angel’s appearance is as a part of the wrestling itself. The angel’s presence is, if nothing else, a sign of the Father’s solidarity with his Beloved Son. The angel brings Christ the comfort of God, embodying in creation the intimate love that flows unbroken between them; so the angel is a figure of the Spirit. And this love is manifested not by removing the cup, as Jesus prayed out of the torment of his humanity, but by simple (and for all we know, silent) companionship in the suffering.
This is the product and feature of the struggle, which would continue on the Cross: renewed intimacy. God empties himself, stooping to weakness and vulnerability. He reaches the uttermost depths of humanity’s darkness, speaking with the voice of humanity, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And yet, by taking the gulf into his own person, so also he bridges it. The Cross both posits the question and answers it, with a paradox greater than Job’s, in a divine act of self-emptying that proves, at the Resurrection, to have been a creative movement surpassing the dreams of patriarchs and prophets. God accepts Christ’s worthy sacrifice. The Son sits at the right hand of his Father, which opens to us not only healing, but union with God. Such is Jesus’s prayer on the eve of his Passion: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us.”
The violence of the Cross, when immanent God seems turned against transcendent God, accomplishes something no lesser gesture could. It is an impenetrable mystery illuminated from within by the Resurrection. There is no rift between Father and Son, nor could there be. For the struggle is one of love, as are the wounds. Christ struggles with God not to allow his private desires to triumph, but to unite himself with God across an ontological divide. He struggles to prevail, and yet in this struggle to prevail and to be defeated are the same thing. In the struggle of love, all win.
In these readings of the struggle with God I have posited intimacy via contact. Here, the struggle is interpreted as a manifestation of the proximity of human and divine, paradoxically realized when the two appear most at odds. But to press deeper, we must return to Jacob at Jabbok’s ford.
There, God delighted to take a form of mortal weakness and struggle with his servant, and the result of this struggle (on Jacob’s side) was a wound and a new name, both of which would remain for life. Indeed, the name Israel was not only given to Jacob, but to all who sprang (in Biblical vernacular) from his thigh. This thigh, whose sciatic muscle the Jews decline to eat thereafter, had received the touch that both disabled and blessed. Thenceforth, the whole people of God, including Jesus, bears the name of Who-Wrestles-With-God.
As the Athonite monk perceived, wound and blessing are therefore inseparable. Somehow, the wound is a part of the sweetness, a part of the blessing, and a part of the theophany. Even in his Resurrection, Christ bears the marks of his Crucifixion; the glory of the former cannot be without the latter.
An unspeakable mystery is contained in the sign of the wound. For it was not merely man that took the Cross, but God in man in perfect union. Within their own unconfused modes of being, God and man share the wounds of the struggle of love.
Fr. Stephen Freeman recently, on his blog, meditated on how the crucifixion signifies something essential about our eternal Lord. By this he does not mean that suffering is a part of the divine nature, which would commit the error of passibilism; God as God, perfect Being and holy Light, can experience no evil or sorrow. Rather, Fr. Stephen insists that the crucifixion points to and exemplifies the joyful, kenotic love of the Trinity, for the Word was crucified before the foundation of the world. The free sacrifice of crucifixion, an offering up to the Father for the sake of the world, is not a mere contingency but wholly consistent with the character of the Trinity and a part of its life.
the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus is simply the showing forth, the visibility in human terms, in human history, of the relationship to the Father which constitutes the person who is Jesus. The prayer of Jesus which is his crucifixion, his absolute renunciation of himself in love to the Father, is the eternal relationship of Father and Son made available as part of our history, part of the web of mankind of which we are fragments, a part of the web that gives it a new centre, a new pattern.
That the kenosis (self-emptying) required of Christ extended to death and physical suffering is in some sense a contingency of the Fall. It is not that God arbitrarily willed evil in order to play out a chosen drama, or that there is something in the divine nature that necessitates evil in order to manifest certain properties. Nor is suffering a mechanistic means God requires to accomplish his ends. But such is the love of God that, foreknowing the Fall and all the evil that would result, he willed creation as the habitation of the Son and loved it even to the horrific ransom it required of him.
The wounding of the person Christ is a gift to the Father on behalf of creation. It springs from Christ’s kenotic descent to the point of tension, the infinite divide between creature and creator that only infinite being can fill. The creature he became emerged in victory, yet bearing the marks of love. From his side on the Cross, blood and water flowed; this, the Church Fathers taught, is a sign of the healing sacraments that bind together and dispense grace to the Church. As out of Jacob’s struggle Israel received his identity, the Church has received its identity out of the death of Christ. His blood is still drink and his flesh food. We may still put our hand in his side. His wounds will never close.
Fr. Stephen also relates the figure of the Crucified to Adam and our common humanity. In paradise, the Man was unsatisfied with the goodness of creation, and even the companionship of the animals. So the Man was wounded, and from his side came the Woman, the mother of all living (whose name, Eve, means something like “living”). Adam’s loneliness arguably does not amount to a “struggle with God,” but it nevertheless represents a real tension, for love has not yet reached its fulfillment. A further sacrifice is required, and from the very bone of the man comes new, beautiful, unexpected life, spiraling up into a holy and fruitful union.
This was before the fall, before all evil. The Lamb received glory from the Father in love before the foundation of the world (John 17:24); the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). Here are two sides of the same dynamic of self-giving love, as the Son who receives his being from the Father offers his whole being back to the Father. It is simultaneously returned to him, and so for eternity; thus is love fulfilled. The “wound” of renunciation is in the same eternal moment the “blessing” of retrieval. “Every great love has always been a crucified love,” Paul Evdokimov declares.
This is intimacy via renunciation. Our calling as creatures is to participate in the perichoretic dance of the Uncreated. And we are able to do so because we are made in the image of the Crucified. The dance extends to creation via the renunciation of the creaturely will, which can only be achieved through struggle. Adam and Eve failed here, as have all men and women since, but Christ succeeded. His renunciation extended to the wounds of sin and death, which he bore in his body, and in his renunciation he received back life abundant to the salvation of the entire human race. I, wishing to unite with him, must also engage in his struggle of love, which he has already made for me a victory.
Therefore, the struggle implies something further, intimacy via imitation. It is at once the destiny and free choice of the human being to suffer with his Lord; only thereby can he enter the mysteries of God and so pass from the world of sin and death into eternity. His life in this world is nevertheless characterized by struggle, both ascetic, in order to attain mastery over himself, and with God, in order to be mastered and so prevail. Again we are led to ponder the Athonite’s words: “When you plead to know He’s here, and when He answers you, and helps you to meet Him here, you will be wounded by that meeting. The wound will help you know, and that is the blessing.”
This fierce encounter in the life of prayer leaves a mark. The Christian crucified with Christ receives the distinctive wound of that union, as St. Paul declared boldly of himself (Gal 6:17). We cannot explain our sufferings or Christ’s by recourse to the shallow consolation of Job’s friends. We cannot suggest that there is some grand order according to which everything bad is not really bad, or adds up to good in the end, or only comes to bad people. The wound is real, and a necessary consequence of kenotic love uniting to fallen nature. The death that brings life is foolishness to the world, and it is the place where God is revealed.
Even the Mother of Jesus we may justly call Our Lady of Sorrows, pierced in the soul according to Simeon’s prophecy. There is a famous Russian icon of Mary—probably influenced by similar Catholic images—pierced by seven swords. Interestingly, it is known by the title “Softener of Evil Hearts.” The relevant akathist (dedicated hymn) begs the Theotokos to penetrate us and those around us with compunction over our inner cruelty. The insight here is that holy Mary’s wounds of the soul are filled up with the grace of God; they are means to spiritual healing. Mary, the one who freely assented to the decree of God through Gabriel, is wounded by her relation with her Son; nor could love demand any less from her.
Christ bequeaths not only life to his bride, the Church, like Eve springing from the side of Adam, but suffering, participation in his passion. The “cross” our Lord ordered us to take up daily is a total death of self, the shedding of the “old man,” and not simply the struggle with sin in the flesh. The fruit of this death is the “new man” born from our wounds and his. By struggling with God and not letting go, we unite with him, realizing him ever more and more in ourselves, until we may stand deified in his presence like the stars, filled with light not of ourselves, yet more truly proper to ourselves than anything we have ever known.
So it is limping that Israel walks into the dawn.
“The wound will help you know, and that is the blessing.”
The disordered state of sin is our reality, and the operations of love do not ignore this. On the contrary, the kenotic love of God assumes this and incarnates into it. The struggle is attended with a wound that pierces through the chaos and distortion of sin, creating a space for new life to enter. God seeks us out as he sought out Jacob, and the means of his blessing is his wounding. The wound kills us and vivifies us; it makes us anew, and no longer will we be called Jacob, “deceiver.” The marks of the struggle stay with us always.
Hence the blessing of the wound in the mystical life of the Christian. I cannot yet see the face of God, but I can feel the pain of his touch. God came to Jacob clothed in weakness, not in the splendor and terror of his being in caelis. He came under cover of night, and left before dawn. So gentle was his touch, so hidden his aspect, that Jacob could come face to face with the one whom none can see and live, and wrestle with him through the night. Yet secreted within the shape of weakness was the power to wound.
And Jacob, crippled at a touch, seized God and refused to let go until he received blessing. In pressing his adversary to himself, he embraced the wound, as if he were pressing an opponent’s dagger deeper into himself. He could have sent his adversary away; he could have cursed God and died. But like Job, and like Jesus in the garden, he prevailed, refusing to let go of the Lord for all the suffering it caused him.
We see here a double movement: the condescension of God, and the response of man. God initiated the encounter, and he did it in a way that both accommodated Jacob’s capacities and enlarged them. This world is only capable of seeing the darkness, and not the glory of full day. God does not shy from this; he embraces it; he identifies with the darkness and in so doing changes it to light. Christ is not merely the semblance of a man, but man, subject to death and yet its destroyer.
And Jacob responded in the way God wished of him, and did not let go, but fought for his blessing. What started as a struggle in darkness turned out to be theophany and salvation. The encounter between God and man cannot but be struggle; the encounter between holiness and sin cannot but wound. Yet in astonishment we see life and healing pouring from that wound, and we press it deeper; we allow it to make something new of us. The wound is the presence of God.
These are things impossible to explain, but one must speak nevertheless. Man lives in darkness, and he sees darkness everywhere he looks, even over the face of God. There are no simple explanations, perhaps no explanations at all. Humanity, by nature so far from God, struggles with him at Gethsemane, is wounded on the Cross, and rises on the wings of Easter. This is about vastly more than curing disobedience or escaping judgment; it is about deification. The wounds of Christ contain the mystery of resurrection; his death is our life. We wrestle in order to be wounded and to go forth full of life, having seen his face.
Here we have a theology for the intuition of the Athonite. The struggle with God in the life of the Christian is a struggle both of knowing and of becoming. I may deny anything in heaven and earth as it pleases me, but the wound penetrates to my innermost heart and cannot truly be denied without denying myself. It is the imprint of his touch. Dwelling there, I find God. I find there also the prayer of the Holy Spirit, the testimony that I am united to Christ, following the pattern of his ministry and thus entering the love of the Trinity. There I find myself able to pray, to reciprocate love.
“The wound will help you know, and that is the blessing.”
The holy encounter of the wound, within a world not perfectly in union with Love, is experienced as suffering, doubt, even separation. Perhaps the best witness I have of God is my insatiable longing for him, the keen feeling of divine void. Dostoevsky spoke of “perfect atheism… lived even to suffering” as the last rung in the spiritual ladder of ascent before perfect faith. The perfect atheist suffers from the absence of God, and so draws near. He realizes the impassable distance between himself and divinity, and is therefore on the edge of being able to comprehend the Cross.
St. Silouan spoke of fifteen years in which he experienced an almost unrelenting Hell, the loss of light and grace and the torment of demons. He only began to emerge when he heard this teaching from the Lord: “Keep thy mind in Hell, and despair not.” Humility, renunciation, and down-going are medicine for the proud spirit, teaching her contrition. At the same time, they are a following of the path of Jesus Christ. The spirit condemns herself to Hell, that she may receive grace. Separation from God, paradoxically, is meeting him. In the opening of the gulf, it is all filled up.
Corresponding to the purgation of pride as I look inward, the struggle with God purges me of idols as I look outward. God appears elusive, silent, or vengeful, leaving me in pain and insatiable thirst. I struggle all the more to grasp him, and every false image of him falls away in its turn. I am not allowed to simply worship strength, or moral goodness, or other properties of beings among beings which we attribute to God. I am not allowed to be satisfied with cheap anthropomorphisms. I must be led to dwell in the ineffable light of God, to Love Itself.
The hints of Job and Jacob that there is something beautiful going on behind the cloud of divine mystery, behind the futility of human existence and the silence of God, are fulfilled in Christ, who in his weakness and suffering overturns all idolatrous paradigms and reveals the eternal love of the Trinity. This personal, revelatory act is reenacted in our own struggle and wounds, and so we too become revelations of Christ.
Christ is thus reflected in that other mystical experience of Jacob’s, the ladder between heaven and earth (John 1:51). Heaven and earth meet in him but are not confused. In the presence of evil, which he fully experiences, he transcends it; the hope of creation is the mystery of incarnation, out of which flows a love whose source is completely beyond the reach of evil and suffering. The Word inheres in all things, sustaining them in their existence–yet this must include evil things, things in denial of their own existence and identity in God. God refuses to amputate the diseased flesh, consign it to nothingness. He loves all of his creation, for everywhere he sees the beauty of the Son. In the womb of the Virgin, the creation becomes a home for the Divine Essence.
Later in Short Trip to the Edge, Cairns quotes from Elder Aimilianos, a prominent contemplative. “When I do not have the sense of this struggle with God,” Elder Aimilianos remarks, “I have not even begun to pray” (173). (See further excerpts from Elder Aimilianos’s book here.) Practically speaking, struggle means persistence in contemplative prayer, beyond the point of spiritual exhaustion. Gratuitously, God reveals his presence; in attentiveness and gratitude, I cling to him, fearing only to be parted from him. As I grow weaker, the Word cuts into me, opening me further to Love, and my prayer unites with the Spirit’s within me.
Finally, in the combat of love, God, too, is wounded. The blood of Christ lies at the foundation of the world. These are the blessed wounds of our salvation, for they are in us as they are in him. I may go on in Christ, because I am wounded, because I bear the name Who-Wrestles-With-God.