The very first article I ever wrote for Tabletalk Magazine was entitled “Our Blessed Struggle.” It was published in 2009 (you can read the entire article here) and focused on the story of Jacob wrestling all night with the Lord, which is found in Genesis 32:22-32. In the article, I recounted and applied the fascinating exchange that takes place between the Lord and Jacob in verses 26-28:
Then [the Lord] said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” 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 longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Now I know that there is some uncertainty as to the exact meaning of the name “Israel,” which is given not only to Jacob on this occasion but also to the nation which would eventually come from him and to the whole of God’s people as well in both the Old and New Testaments. But the context of verse 28 in particular—and of the larger story too—suggests that the name “Israel” is best taken to mean something like, “he strives/wrestles/struggles with God.”
Keeping this in mind, I find it incredibly significant that God would choose to identify Jacob and His people from this point in redemptive history forward with the name “he strives or struggles with God.” As I pointed out in my Tabletalk article, it’s as if God was communicating something of what the real nature of His people’s life in this world would be. He was telling us that we would be “strivers” or “strugglers” until the day Jesus returned or called us home. He was telling us that our lives would be characterized by struggling, first and foremost with ourselves and the sin that remains within us after conversion, and, secondarily, with difficult circumstances and events in our lives.
My own Christian experience has certainly been marked out by a deep-seated struggle with myself. Indeed, as I have argued in another recent article on 1 Corinthians 15:10, I am my own greatest hardship (read the article in full here). For as long as I can remember, I have struggled to believe that “I am what I am” by the grace of God, because, deep down, I don’t like “what I am.” I would rather be someone else, someone who has everything that I think I am lacking or who appears to meet the standards that I have established for myself—which is another thing that I have struggled with. I tend to hold myself to expectations that are too high and completely unrealistic, with the result being that I end up falling short almost all the time in my own eyes.
But my experience as a Christian has also been marked out by a struggle with difficult circumstances and people as well. In my life, I have been turned down, criticized, laughed at, opposed, plotted against, rejected, and ignored. I have faced circumstances that are contrary to what I would choose for myself. I have wrestled with the Lord, struggling with why He would allow difficult circumstances into my life. I remember once meeting with Eric Alexander, the former minister of St. George’s Tron Church in Glasgow, Scotland, and listening to him recount the challenges of “rejoicing with those who rejoice” (Rom. 12:15). He plainly acknowledged the struggle he faced of rejoicing with others whom God appears to be blessing all the while He seems to be passing us by and not bestowing the same blessing on us. I have experienced this struggle too over and over again, watching as God pours out blessing on others and yet seems to be passing me by.
My experiences in this regard are not unique. All Christians struggle. I have been a pastor for long enough to know that this is true beyond any shadow of doubt. I recently confessed my struggles with prayerlessness to a local congregation as I was preaching on the subject of prayer. I confessed that I struggled to pray as often as I should, as eloquently as I should, and as fervently as I should. After the service, a woman came up to me and thanked me for my words. She said she had always assumed that she was alone in her struggles with prayer and was convinced that something was wrong with her because of her struggles.
All of us struggle. Genesis 32:22-32 tells us that it would be so. Rather than hiding the struggle, we instead need to be real with one another about it, for our sakes and for theirs, and seek to struggle well. Just what that looks like will be the subject of a future post. For now, it is enough to acknowledge the encouragement that God provides in Genesis 32. None of us is alone in the fight. We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), all of whom are members of the Israel of God and, therefore, characterized by “striving” or “struggling” all the days of their lives. And that is a tremendous encouragement indeed!