Wrestling with God
“So Jacob named the place Peniel saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, yet my life has not been snatched away.’ Now the sun rose on him as he left Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.” Genesis 32:30-31 (AMP)
I grew up in an almost exclusively Christian environment - my parents were Christians, I attended Christian school K-12, and was extremely active in my youth group. While my personality has never been one that quite toed the line, for the most part, I heard, accepted, believed, and integrated all of the things I was supposed to. I engaged in Bible class, studied apologetics, helped plan chapels, led the student council. I did the Bible studies, I served in kid’s ministry, I led mission trips. I had the right friends and prioirtized the right things. After a short little blip my freshman year of college, by 22, I had met and married an honest, good, steadfast Christian man and was ready to start my adult life.
For the first eight years of my marriage and adult life, the foundation laid in my childhood and adolescence held up. Even after our firstborn son, Max, died at birth, I didn’t really question God, his goodness, or his plans for my life. It was unbelievably painful, but it didn’t rock me to my core. Having weathered such a devastating loss and come out the other side, I thought my faith and grasp on who God was were indestructible.
But then in 2020, the ground began to shake. The lifegroup Spencer and I had started and given seven years of our lives to, disbanded in the official/formal sense in the wake some significant changes at our church - the church I had grown up in, where our lifegroup met, served, and weekly soaked in and then processed together deep and meaningful truths. This church and these friends had provided so much structure and brought such value to our lives. But one day in February 2020, we suddenly found ourselves reeling from what felt like the breakup of our community (spoiler alert - you don’t need formal structure to live life together and we are still very much a lifegroup today) and an unexpected departure from a church that we had quite literally poured our souls and lives into.
Then a few weeks later, the world shut down. We were young parents with a toddler and infant at home, STUCK at home, without a church home to even engage with virtually. Within the period of a month, our deep roots had been ripped up, and we were suddenly nomads.
After years of spending 5 hours each Sunday setting up, tearing down, holding babies, or leading worship, the break was honestly lifegiving for our family. It was good. It was needed. It was room to breathe and hold my own babies and sing songs over them. For the first time in my entire life, I began to question why we needed to attend church on a Sunday. I realized I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to church when it became an option again. I questioned whether a Sunday spent at church benefited and fed my family's faith or if it actually sucked us dry. And if it was a rhythm we wanted to return to, what kind of church would we choose? What actually mattered to us about a church’s beliefs, body, and posture towards the greater community? Did we prioritize what fed and met our needs or our kids’ needs or the community’s needs? Things that had once felt so sure and obvious and constant were now a giant question mark.
Then in June 2020, my eyes were opened to the injustice, segregation and violence all around us; and in the midst of all that, my sister-in-law came out to our family. The response of Christians to what was going on in our world - COVID, racial injustice, hatred and violence against the LGBT community, political turmoil and tribalism, further rocked my sense of place in both the world and the “big C” Church.
I began to notice how many Bible believing Christians used the Bible as both a shield and a weapon - unwilling to ask themselves any hard questions then turning around and wielding violent words in the name of Jesus. I realized that so many, myself included, treated the Bible as an idol - as though it (often to the exclusion of the Spirit) was a part of the Godhead, instead of a means to find and begin to know (what may be known) about this powerful yet intimate, omnipresent yet near, God who created and sustains the cosmos yet lives in me. As an avenue to know God alongside creation - both the natural world and the rest of humanity, and better still, the very Spirit God who cohabitates this body with me.
What started as innocuous as “we need to find a new church” quickly snowballed. It was like once I asked one question, lifted one little stone from the pile to examine it instead of taking for granted that I knew the answer, I couldn’t leave the next stone unturned, the next question unasked. The momentum started building, and I was helpless to stop it.
If you’ve been paying attention, you may be thinking this sounds a lot like what has become a bit of a buzz word in the media and a dirty word inside the church - deconstruction. A lot has been said about deconstruction on social media, in thinkpieces, and even from the pulpit. Perhaps it’s healthy, perhaps it’s dangerous, or perhaps it’s just a trendy thing for us millennials to get up to again. Either way, this journey I’ve been on over the last several years technically falls under the definition of deconstruction or as some prefer, detangling.
But I find that it’s really more like wrestling with God - an intimate and inherently Biblical act. I’m not throwing off the traditions and mores under which I was raised in the church because it’s the cool thing to do. I’m simply looking at it all in light of who I’m finding God to be and asking God if it holds water. If it bears his image and goodness. If it lines up with the character and witness of Jesus. If it bears good fruit. If it welcomes and invites us into His shalom and ushers us toward flourishing.
When I look at the Biblical account of Jacob wrestling with God, I see a hardened and prideful man. Someone whose life has been marked by deception - as he’s been on both the receiving and the giving end of that deception. But he encounters God while on his way to make amends with his brother Esau. After a lifetime of distance and estrangement, Jacob is ready to try a new and different way. To apologize, to humble himself. And it is here when he meets God and wrestles through the night. As one might expect, the physical act of wrestling with God further humbles Jacob, and he leaves the encounter knowing that walking away with his life intact is a mercy. Of course he leaves with a limp - how could one wrestle with the God of the universe and expect to walk away unchanged and unscathed.
I entered the year 2020 prideful. Sure of my theology, boasting a faith I believed “stronger than most” for having weathered extreme loss, confident in my Biblical literacy, with a personality bent towards certainty. And then I met God. I have been wrestling with God through this long night, and I am grateful to still have my faith intact. But much has been stripped away. I am no longer certain of much beyond God’s reckless, allconsuming love for each and everyone of his beloved creations. His abiding presence and goodness. The gift of Jesus - the physical, embodied God walking this same earth, getting this same dust on his feet. The mystery that is the Spirit’s cohabitation of my very body.
I no longer live my Christian life with my head held high and my chest puffed out. My posture is bowed a bit. I walk with a limp - a constant reminder that he is God and I am not. God may never give me answers, but he gives me himself when he welcomes me with open and gentle arms to wrestle some more. And perhaps, that invitation, that nearness and safety, His very presence, has been the answer I’ve needed all along.