There was a time I wrestled with God. The wrestling match began in my teenage years, when I detected certain inconsistencies in the instruction handed down from my elders. From my Southern Baptist church and family I learned that God had given free will to every human being, and that we could choose whether to follow Him or not. From my Presbyterian school I learned that God had foreordained everything, and that a process called predestination somehow influenced the choices we make. This was not the only inconsistency encountered in my Christian upbringing; there were and still are many. The question of free will and predestination, however, shaped the context of my wrestling with God from the beginning. I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of my elders, nor had I reason to question the truth of what they taught me. What I questioned was how these seemingly incompatible truths fit together. I still do not have the answer, but a very wise man helped me find a way through the dilemma. He was my Bible teacher. One day in class someone asked him to explain which was correct, free will or predestination. He may have been the only person in the school qualified to answer that question. He was an ordained Baptist minister, and had had ample opportunity to consider the subject as he taught Bible in our Presbyterian academy. His answer was surprisingly Hebraic, both imminently satisfying and frightfully frustrating: he asked us if both concepts were present in the Bible. When we said yes, he said, “Then they both must be true.” And that was the end of the matter.
And the beginning.
Even at that early age I had determined to stick with the God of my fathers even though I did not understand everything about Him. He had revealed Himself through His written word, the Bible, and through His Living Word, Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ), His Messiah. Therefore I decided to continue with Him and find out more about Him even if the process of learning proved difficult. I did not realize at the age of 17 how difficult that process would become. Some of my peers chose not to stick with Him; they walked away because the wrestling match was too hard, or because His answers were not what they wanted to hear. They had asked hard questions, and legitimate questions, but for some reason they could not hear God’s voice in the answers. They remain sceptics to this day. Others of my peers decided to stick with God, but they chose not to ask any hard questions. The traditions of their fathers were enough to permit a comfortable life, or so I assume. I cannot tell whether the hard questions ever entered their minds, nor can I tell whether fear of the answers (or lack thereof) kept them from moving beyond the self-imposed borders of a shallow faith.
Yet the hard questions pressed me sorely, and very soon brought on the first great crisis of my faith. After high school I left the cocoon of my safe Christian home in Alabama and travelled 300 miles away to Tallahassee, Florida, to enter a prestigious institution of higher learning. At Florida State University I learned about alternatives to the Christian answers. Names like Marx, Lenin, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hegel, Buddha, Muhammad, and Sagan passed through my consciousness, depositing seeds of doubt which germinated into a continuous line of inquiry about the nature of life. Each avenue came to an abrupt end at the reality of the Cross. No matter how methodically I pondered these alternative explanations, I could not get around the truth that the Most High God had chosen to sacrifice His Own Life just to make Himself known to His human creations and provide a way to deal with our rebellion against Him.
These were the currents flowing through my soul in the autumn of 1980. They rose and fell in a tidal rhythm, reaching a crescendo on November 26, the eve of Thanksgiving. By a strange confluence of circumstances, that night I found myself on a bus travelling home from Tallahassee to Birmingham. Somewhere in the vicinity of Valdosta, Georgia, the currents of doubt assaulted me with renewed vigor. Sitting alone in that dark bus I became acutely aware of the vast dimensions of creation, and the insignificant speck which was myself. A choice crystallized before me: stand on the truth of the Creator, itself something I did not and could not know with any degree of certainty; or embrace the darkening despair of life alone in this vast universe. Peril lurked in the shadows of both options, yet one held a glimmer of hope: the testimony of a God Who had kept promises to preserve His people throughout the centuries. That testimony was already working in my own life in a small way, for I ascribed to Him my abilities at persevering and overcoming various academic, physical, emotional, and financial trials. The combined testimonies of countless thousands, from Noah and to my own saintly grandmother, spoke to the same truth. Such a weight of evidence, however subjective, could not be fabricated. And opposed to that testimony stood a hill of sand: the various conflicting explanations of reality from self-appointed secular, atheist, and spiritual authorities. There was no hint of light on that path, only a darkening descent into madness and debility, punctuated by fleeting moments of pleasure as I grasped at diminishing sources of satisfaction until I ceased breathing.
The choice, therefore, was no choice. In that moment I cried out to my God, “I must believe in You, because I cannot bear the alternative.”
That was my first great wrestling match with my Creator. The wrestling continues, for I have not yet found all the answers. Those answers which have presented themselves are often very uncomfortable, even unpleasant. They do not fit the nice, tidy Christian world of my upbringing, but they are in the Bible, and therefore I must believe them to be true. The wrestling is not so much deciding whether God is real; that was decided in my youth. Now the point of the wrestling is whether God is trustworthy, and whether I will continue to follow Him even when I do not understand.
In this I am not alone. Our father Jacob faced the same circumstances. He started wrestling even before his birth; Scripture tells us he wrestled with his brother Esau in the womb of their mother Rebekah. Scripture also tells us that God loved Jacob and hated Esau even before they were born. The Prophet Obadiah explains that God intends evil toward Esau (Edom) and his descendants, but the Prophet Hosea says that He keeps open the way of reconciliation for Jacob’s descendants of Judah and Israel even though they have sinned grievously against Him.
What are we to make of this? Is God unfair? The Prophet Ezekiel asked that question. He received the uncomfortable answer that God’s ways are right; it is the ways of His people which are not right or fair. He also learned that our responsibility is to take God at His word and obey Him. The alternative is even more uncomfortable:
But the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Are My ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord God. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God. “Therefore, repent and live.” (Ezekiel 18:29-32 NASB)
And that is not the end of the uncomfortable things God says. Consider what He said through the Prophet Isaiah, speaking about Jacob’s descendants:
Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you, I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life. (Isaiah 43:4 NASB
And what of this from Yeshua’s ministry:
As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3 NASB)
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that there are far more uncomfortable, unpleasant things in the Bible than we would like. We would very much like to have a friendly, nice God Who lets us live in peace. What we have is an all-powerful sovereign God Who created this universe for His pleasure, not for ours. His ways truly are different from our ways, and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. If we struggle against Him we will be broken, but we must struggle. We must persevere, even though we do not understand. It is not enough to coast through life in the self-satisfied comfort of a god of our own making. That is idolatry in every sense of the word, whether it is an idol of wood, of stone, or of our own self-imposed ignorance. Yeshua addressed such idols in yet another uncomfortable situation:
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?” Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him. (John 6:52-71 NASB, emphasis added)
Notice that Yeshua was not speaking to His enemies, but to His disciples. Most of them could not get past their preconceived notions, religious traditions, and prejudices. In Yeshua God had revealed Himself to them in a way they could not comprehend or accept. Rather than wrestle with Him over this, they chose to walk away. The stark contrast is the answer of the Apostle Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter’s answer was the same answer I gave to God on that lonely bus ride through Georgia long ago. It was the same answer Job gave to his friends in the midst of his own inexplicable suffering:
Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him. This also will be my salvation, for a godless man may not come before His presence. (Job 13:15-16 NASB)
Because of that answer, because he refused to let go of God, Job had the indescribably terrible and wonderful experience of encountering God in a very personal way. The experience transformed him beyond what he had imagined. His questions did not receive answers his human mind could comprehend, but his spirit understood. We must learn from his response:
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5-6 NASB)
So also must we learn from our father Jacob. At the age of 100, after wrestling with God, with his brother, with his uncle, and with himself, his crisis of faith arrived on the road back home to the Promised Land:
Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (Genesis 32:24-30 NASB)
As far as we know, Esau did not have such a wrestling match with the Creator. He must have chosen a different path early in his life, or perhaps that path was chosen for him and he merely confirmed it. That is the uncomfortable question we must ask, but we cannot know the answer until God chooses to reveal it. The answer probably has something to do with the fact that Eternal God exists outside of time, and therefore sees the end from the beginning. That is cold comfort to one who has just lost a child to cancer, or whose business is burned to the ground by an incoherent mob. God has a refining process, and tragedy is part of it – built into the system thanks to the decision of our first ancestors to rebel against Him. The question is not whether God is just or unjust, but how we will respond to Him. Our father Jacob responded in the end with faith and obedience. God changed his name and his destiny, but did not answer all his questions. Then He demanded our father’s full attention:
Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and live there, and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. (Genesis 35:1-4 NASB)
Jacob responded the right way, but Esau did not. The question before us today is the same question put before them long ago: will we take the Creator at His word and follow Him, no matter where the path leads? Or will we follow a path of our own choosing that leads ultimately to destruction? Our answer determines our identity. Either we choose the life promised to Jacob/Israel, or the destruction promised to Esau/Edom. There is no grey area where we can make our own reality.