A few weeks ago, the first reading for Mass was the story of Jacob wrestling with a man/angel (Genesis 32: 23-33) all during the night until the break of dawn. At the time, Jacob was on the run from his brother, Esau, from whom he was estranged. I suspect Jacob felt at least at a distance from God and possibly even abandoned by God. But then God found Jacob and wrestled with him in the form of a man all night long. Not being able to prevail over Jacob, the man said: “Let me go for it is daybreak.” But Jacob told him: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” At the end of the story we are told that Jacob named the place Peniel “Because I have seen God face to face, he said, yet my life has been spared.” Clearly Jacob knew that he had struggled with God, and while not triumphing, had been blessed by the experience.
Now my suspicion is that there have been times in each of our lives when, like Jacob, we have felt that we were wrestling with God. Fortunate and blessed indeed is the person who has not experienced times when they have felt alone and abandoned, or times of pain and hardship. At these times when we face questions that seem unanswerable, worries that keep us awake, and when anxiety is our constant companion, God can seem absent from us. At these times, though, if we can remember Jacob, perhaps we will discover, as Jacob did, that those times are privileged places of God’s grace and blessing.
Now, to be clear, the above doesn’t just happen. Jacob had to wrestle all night long in order to experience a blessing. And so it is with us. Sometimes we need to “wrestle with God” in order to experience God’s grace. Many years ago when I was struggling with a decision, the priest who was my spiritual director at the time told me: “John, the grace is in the struggle. Don’t avoid it; engage it.” And while I couldn’t see it immediately, I eventually discovered that God had been with me in the struggle and had been offering me God’s good grace all the time. I just wasn’t able to receive it, until I opened myself to it.
Each of our lives is a mixed bag of blessings and pain. While we would like to enjoy the blessings and avoid the pain, that isn’t possible. What is possible, though, is to believe that God is present in both the blessings and the pain. It took me a long while to realize this. I have come to know and believe, though, that even in the messiness and the struggles of our lives, God is present and offering us God’s good grace. There is indeed grace in the struggle. We just have to be open to that grace in order to receive it.