Israel, defined in Hebrew is most commonly translated as “God prevails” or “Soldier of God.” Another reading of the word reveals that it is from the verb: Sara, or “To contend.” From this we derive my favorite translation: "Wrestles with God." Sara is not just a verb however. It is also a noun meaning wife of a noble king, princess, or noblewoman.
How perfect that the title of Israel should be born of “Sara” God’s proper name for Abraham’s wife, the matriarch of Judaism. Women are fighters after all. They contend with childbirth, a more painful experience than any warrior is likely to come across.
But back to Israel. Why would God name his people in honor of struggling against himself?
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome."
This verse comes as Jacob is at a low point. Banished from his country, Jacob has been fleeing his brother Esau for over 20 years. He toiled in service to a selfish man in order to secure a bride. He was tricked and dealt with shrewdly, ending up with multiple wives when he had only desired one.
He was at last freed from his burden, and in return for his diligence and unceasing persistence had acquired a fortune. All of which was gained through struggle. Even in departure, he had to run from his father-in-law, Laban, who selfishly pursued him in avarice for the fortune Jacob made in his service. God prevented Laban from doing Jacob harm, and through a vigorous debate, Jacob conquered Laban’s selfishness and they entered into a peaceful covenant.
Finally free of his oppression, Jacob sought to return to his homeland where Esau was waiting.
...With an army.
Jacob is terrified. He sends peace offerings to Esau, and emissaries bearing words of peace, but he does not know how his words will be received. Indeed, no response came from Esau or his band of 400 men. These men were bearing down on the smaller camp of Jacob, which trembled in fear at the idea of Esau’s absolution.
Then Jacob prays, and is visited by a man in the night.
They wrestle. They struggle with one another a solid 8 hours of moonlight before arriving at a stalemate.
Just when Jacob thinks he might have the upper hand, this strange grappler hits him with a super-secret pressure point attack and pops his hip out of joint. For those unfamiliar with the painful rigors of intense grappling, you can’t imagine how painful or demoralizing it would be to have an enemy gain so much ground on you in so quick an instant.
A joint out of socket is an intolerable handicap in a wrestling match. You have no base from which to attack or defend without the full use of your hips. The only reasonable thing to do in such a situation is tap out and submit. But that’s not what Jacob does. He refuses to let go of his opponent and demands a blessing. Even in utter defeat, Jacob holds fast. His persistence is admirable, and so the man, or angel, or God himself, blesses Jacob and renames him Israel.
Just to review: Jacob has lived a contentious life in which he sins against his father and brother, steals away in the night like a coward, and spends two decades in servitude to a selfish man who not-so-coincidentally reflects Jacob’s own arrogance. He struggled his entire life to overcome his circumstances, first by grasping a birthright, then by pursuing a woman, and finally he struggles to attain forgiveness and redemption in his own brother’s sight.
All of this struggle, all of this fighting, and all of this contention culminates in a single night, in a single arduous match against Love Himself. Because Love is a struggle. Understanding who God is, and overcoming who you are, is a knockdown, drag-out, no-holds-barred brawl. A one-on-one war that leaves everyone broken, bruised, scarred, scattered, and fundamentally changed.
Wrestling with God is no laughing matter. It is not an undertaking for the weak in spirit or the soft of heart.
In my time practicing the martial art of wrestling, I was privileged enough to encounter some of the highest level grapplers alive. I went and trained under Olympic medalists Tom Brands and Dennis Hall during their week long boot camp at the University of Central Tennessee. I felt the grip and power of world class athletes and sensed the gap between their skills and mine. I felt the overwhelming powerlessness of a child contending against someone with a lifetime of world-class competition and training. I felt and I trembled. But I never gave up.
That is what it means to contend with God. To wrestle with the Holy Spirit as life’s troubles, travails, and its chaotic relationships batter you back and forth, etching scars of integrity across your soul. Every mark is a badge of honor. Every wound is a tool for growth. Every busted lip, bloody nose, broken limb, and shattered bone is a lesson that can either overwhelm or be overcome.
God plays rough. Because he doesn't want wimps on the front-lines of his armies. He wants soldiers, hardened by battle and steeled by flame.
Our Lord is a healing force of light and life. He is often compared to the elements in an attempt to capture an echo of the essence of his presence. He is a consuming fire, a torrential flood, a mighty wind, the foundation of strong earth. How does one grapple with a hurricane? How can you shoot a double leg on a wildfire? What chance do you have trying to put an earthquake in a headlock? Yet this is what Jacob does, and this is what God asks us to do.
Fight. Contend. Struggle against the physical constraints and spiritual rigors of this life. Endure through Christ the indomitable odds against you and prevail! I tell you the truth: “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”-- Ephesians 6:12
And through this process we are shaped into powerful men and women of God. Amazonian warrior priestesses and herculean champions of virtue. This is what you are called to be, this is who you really are. Heroic.
You are soldiers in the army of Christ who bring the Kingdom down to earth by living your tumultuous lives in the dignified, unflinching, and implacable pursuit of higher ideals.
Never forget your responsibility. Never abandon your struggles. Always acknowledge your challenges and smile upon them. Grit your teeth at the enemy and laugh the mad laughter of one who is hopelessly outmatched, yet unwilling to retreat. It is our lives that we gamble with. It is our souls that we brandish as swords, and cry out in unrelenting passionate fury for. It is God who sustains us, and we cannot be defeated.