Every Saturday night my maternal grandparents watched “Live Atlanta Wrestling.” Sitting on the edge of their plastic-covered sofa they cheered on and booed the figures grappling on their tiny black and white TV.
They were pro wrestling fans. I mean, rabid, SEC-football-intensity fans. While I took these spectacles to be cheesy, scripted entertainments, Grandma and Grandpa experienced a weekly episode in the life-and-death struggle between good and evil.
This was the early 1970’s, decades before the high-end productions aired by the likes of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). “Live Atlanta Wrestling” was filmed in front of a small audience in one of the studios of a local TV station and then broadcast later.
The wrestlers were more or less physically fit, but none of them boasted the muscle tone and the athleticism of Duane Johnson (The Rock) and his top-tier competitors. I’ve come to believe—in part thanks to the movie “Fighting with my Family”—that professional wrestling is choreographed without being completely fake. It’s an entertainment and yet also a sport requiring strength, agility, and toughness.
For these professional contestants, career arc and probably ego are at stake in each match. Their bodies and their pride can can be injured. But when they climb into the ring, pro wrestlers are not putting their very existence at risk.
By contrast, on a dark night along the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob laid it all on the line. He wrestled with God. And he wrestled with himself.
This was not a fight for biological survival. Jacob was wrestling with life’s fundamental question. What am I really living for? Who or what will be the god of my life?
I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s step back and consider a couple of defining highlights from Jacob’s story. As a young man he had swindled his older—and perhaps dimmer—brother Esau out of his birthright. Twice.
Jacob fled his brother’s murderous rage and got on his Uncle Laban’s payroll in another town. While he was tending Laban’s flocks, he married both the older man’s daughters and managed to swindle his uncle out of a good portion of his wealth.
Once again Jacob had to make a run for it. This time he headed back in the direction of his old home and the brother he had cheated. The Jabbok River marked the beginning of Esau’s territory.
An advance team of Jacob’s hired hands had come back with the news that Esau was on his way to greet his brother. With four hundred men in tow. Uh oh!
In the person of what he assumed would be a vengeful and heavily armed brother, Jacob was coming face-to-face with … himself. The mess he had made by being himself was about to serve as a mirror for his spiritual condition.
This is what I imagine he saw. Jacob always pursued what Jacob wanted by depending upon Jacob’s wits. He was a self-centered, manipulative striver. To get what he desired, he had no qualms about lying and stealing.
Jacob did religious things. He prayed and erected altars and offered sacrifices. But God did not seem to be the god of his life. Jacob was the god of his own life.
And now, in the dark, at water’s edge, it all came crashing down. His way of living had led him—and his entire household—to catastrophic disaster.
So Jacob wrestled. All night he grappled with a powerful stranger, refusing to submit to his more powerful opponent. As the hours wore on, he started to think that maybe he was getting the upper hand. The stranger—despite his superior strength—would have to submit to him. To Jacob. Like everything and everyone else had always done.
With the sun’s first rays on the horizon, the stranger said, “Let me go.” And Jacob’s heart froze. He heard in those words this truth:
You’ve lived your whole life trying to make everything bend to your will and fulfill your desires. You’ve wanted to make all things and all people submit to you. You see now where this path leads. Catastrophe. Choose another way. A better way. Let go.
In response, Jacob asked for and received a blessing. Jacob became Israel. God became the God of his life.
If you read the rest of Jacob’s story, you’ll see that this transformation was not, in fact, instantaneous. Nor was it finally completed in Jacob’s lifetime. He still told some whoppers, manipulated others, and played favorites among his own kids.
It seems likely that Jacob wrestled with God—and with himself—repeatedly in the succeeding years. And in that thought I find some comfort.
God knows that I still wrestle with myself from time to time. And God will keep wrestling with me, as long as it takes.