Struggle Well

Did you know there are twins in New Zealand and their parent’s named them ‘Fish & Chips’?… True story.

Another family have 3 kids – Faith, Hope and… yeah you guessed it… Kevin! Not surprisingly ‘Fish & Chips’ has been banned as a name in NZ, along with other choice names like ‘Robocop’ (Mexico), ‘Circumcision’ (also Mexico) and a host of others.

Names matter. And while these days people want to know ‘what’s cool’ in naming, in the ancient world names carried weight and significance. They spoke to our very identity. So when Jacob from the book of Genesis was given his name – meaning ‘deceiver’ or ‘supplanter’ it spoke to who he was and how his life would be lived. His twin brother was far less significant – Esau just meaning ‘hairy’.

If you aren’t aware of the enmity that developed between these two then check it out in Genesis chs 27-32. Jacob deceived both Esau and his father Isaac and took what was rightfully Esau’s. Not cool. And not surprising that Esau wanted to kill him.

After a significant time apart Jacob believes he needs to go home and see Esau again. He is on his way when he hears Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men – which only serves to confirm his worst fears – that he is a dead man. Anticipating the worst, Jacob splits his family in half and sends them in different directions – clearly hoping that at least some of them will survive the carnage.

Jacob sends them off and then stops for a while on his own. Then follows the most bizarre but transformative encounter.

v 24 says: ‘So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.’ 

I’ve done a lot of camping, but never have I had someone approach me and ask for a wrestle! And the idea of fighting through the entire night seems equally weird. The ‘man’ (who Jacob later realises is God – or an angel of God) couldn’t ‘overpower him’, which I sense means he couldn’t get him to tap – to quit. Clearly the ‘man’ was able to end the fight as the eventual touch on the hip suggests, but he couldn’t get Jacob to quit.

Just before this encounter was Jacob’s dream – a beautiful, grace filled moment when God reaffirmed his covenant to him. God chose to use a betrayer and deceiver as the father of the nation he would call his own…

And now in this moment Jacob boldly says to the ‘man’ ‘you can’t go unless you bless me.’ He receives that blessing, along with a new name. God changes his name from Jacob to Israel – from deceiver to ‘the one who struggles with God’.

The people of Israel are those who will struggle with God. As I read that story again recently I was reminded that as the church – the ‘new Israel’ – we inherit that identity and we too are those who struggle with God.

The choice is to how we struggle. We can struggle well – honestly engaging with God, grappling with our expectations and disappointments, or we can struggle badly. We can disengage – give up the fight – or just live forever in anger and fury at a God who didn’t do all we had hoped. Or again we can live in denial – we can parade the ‘victorious Christian life’ to those who look on – we can speak the lingo – look the part, all the while disintegrating internally because our experience does not match our rhetoric.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘struggling well’ and at church we have just started a new teaching series around this theme. I love the energy it has created as people have sensed a subject with which they can really engage.

So many of us struggle.

Correction – we all struggle – it’s in our DNA – to wrestle with God in some way. But often when we speak of ‘those who struggle’ we do it in pejorative terms, as if they were our ‘bench players’, or our liabilities.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Seriously – if we are ‘those who struggle with God’, then to struggle is what we were made for. And it is actually in the struggle that we find our wholeness and our identity as the people of God. Over the next couple of months each time we gather I have invited men and women from our church community to take 10 minutes to share their journey – their story of where life is at – and usually its hard – and then to speak to us about what it looks like for them to struggle well.

These are not our bench players. These are our heroes – these are the people who have stepped into the ring and who are engaged in the fight. These are people living up to the calling God has put on us.

And if you don’t struggle?

Oh – you do – maybe you just haven’t put a name to your struggle – maybe your struggle is that you aren’t even able to see your own blind spots. That’s ok – just invite the Spirit to shine some light and you will join the rest of us pretty soon.

My great hope is that we will have a church of people who are actually real and raw about who they are, and where they have been, That will be confronting for us and maybe we’d prefer a squeaky clean, ‘stock art’ image of the Christian experience, but it just isn’t real… It is actually an illusion – a dangerous illusion.

At any given time there will be people at peace with God, wowed by God and thrilled at who God is, but there will also be people angry with God, questioning God, sooking with God. And that can make us uncomfortable. That won’t ‘look good to others…’

Easier to put on the victorious Christian life, Sunday face and just pretend. But when you do that you don’t actually get to know God.

You just play religious games. You worship a fictitious God and you miss out on the experience that awaits you if you will just dive in head first and face the struggle.

Our heroes ought not be those who appear to have it all together, rather they should be those with bloodied, tear stained faces who have hit the depths, met God there and have been able to struggle well.

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