Call me Israel. For I have wrestled with God. In Genesis Jacob wrestled with God all night and persevered until he received God’s blessing. In the morning God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “one who wrestles with God.”
I chose this Biblical passage as the text for the first sermon I ever preached. I expounded it to a tiny congregation in rural Kentucky in 1974 while a seminarian. I have returned to this passage many times in the past thirty-eight years. I have proclaimed this scripture from other pulpits since then, each time approaching it differently. I am still wrestling.
I have struggled with faith, ministry, and theology all my life. Many times I almost quit. Recently I did quit ministry for more than a year. I assumed Christianity would get easier the more I studied the Bible and theology, and the more I matured in my faith. But in fact the struggle has become more difficult. My struggle has been compounded by sharing the struggles of my parishioners for so many years.
I have seen good people struggle through very difficult situations. People struggle to hold onto their faith – to believe and trust God in times of crisis. As their pastor I am there to share their pain, help them, and give them words of encouragement and hope. But many of these faithful Christians tell me that they experience no answer from God to their earnest prayers at such times. For many Christians God does not seem to be present when He is needed most.
Furthermore the problem of evil and suffering bothers me more than it used to. Maybe it is because I have seen evil firsthand. Child abuse, teen suicides, elder suicides, murder, good people facing deep depression worse than death. In one of my churches, four of our Sunday School children were shot in the head by the angry boyfriend of the mother. Conducting that multiple funeral changed my life.
If I had known that these shootings were going to happen, I would have done everything humanly possible to prevent it. God knew; God is omniscient. Yet He did not stop it. If I had been present in that apartment I would fought the man to stop those murders, risking my own life to do so. I would have killed him if necessary. God was present; God is omnipresent and omnipotent. Yet God choose not to act.
My experience with evil is insignificant compared to the experience of the parents of millions of infants who die of hunger, violence or disease each year. My familiarity with evil pales in comparison to the experience of Elie Wiesel. Listen to his description of arriving at the Birkenau Nazi concentration camp:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
I know the standard answers to the problem of theodicy. I have quoted them to hurting people a thousand times: “All things work together for good to them that love God…” Sorry, I don’t see the good that justifies such evil. Then there is the answer of “free will.” I could tolerate a little less free will for the perpetrators of evil if there was less suffering for the most vulnerable and innocent.
Many people quote this paraphrase of scripture: “God never gives us more than we can bear.” Sorry, I don’t buy it. I have seen too many people given more than they can bear. The apologetic “ace in the hole” is that God’s reasons for allowing such evil and suffering are beyond our understanding; therefore we should just have faith.
That argument silenced Job, but it doesn’t stop my questioning. I need to know why, even if I can’t understand it fully. Throw me a bone, Lord. I have been struggling for a long time over this, and the night is far spent. But for now I will keep wrestling in the dark hoping that God will bless me with some tidbit of insight. Any answer is better than bad answers or no answer at all.
– Art is “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” by Karen Laub-Novak