Wrestling Match

Paul McMullen —  February 15, 2017 — 3 Comments

Randy "macho Man" Savage, Hulk Hogan

In the last few posts, we’ve worked through Gregory Boyd’s objections to “certainty-seeking faith.” For many folks, I suspect you’ve been interested in getting to a renewed biblical view of faith. It’s not enough just to deconstruct our understanding of faith (as idolatrous!); we want to know how to reconstruct a faith we can live in.

Others may be happy that we’ve deconstructed certainty-seeking faith (with some pushback), but may be hesitant to move toward the reconstruction phase. We’ve been burned once, and we don’t want to get burned again. If you’re feeling that way, let me encourage you to simply consider a fresh look at faith. Honest searching is good and healthy for the soul.

In chapter 4 of Benefit of the Doubt, Boyd now moves to examine what biblical faith looks like. He begins with the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God (read Genesis 32:22-32). There are all sorts of unexplained elements to the story, many that don’t make any sense. Why is God wrestling with Jacob? Why does he knock Jacob’s hip out of socket? Why does Jacob hold God in a headlock until he receives a blessing? Why does God allow Jacob to win?

Boyd believes that the author of Genesis was well aware of the oddities of the story, and that ultimately it was being shared from Jacob’s point of view. So why does God wrestle? Just as a parent or grandparent might wrestle a young child and allow them to win, God wrestles with Jacob for a reason. Jacob and God are having a moment. The blessing Jacob receives is a new name. The name “Israel” is given because Jacob struggles with both God and man and overcomes (32:28). It is Jacob’s willingness to wrestle, his tenacity, that God is celebrating. Israel’s wrestling with God will become one of the nation’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.

Heroes of the Old Testament are often wrestling with God, and God tends to be supportive of this engagement. Abraham and Moses, for example, are willing to argue with God when they hear his plans – and God apparently is swayed. The prophets, particularly Jeremiah and Habakkuk, are willing to verbally wrestle with God over the injustices they see in the world.

One of the most obvious examples of a biblical hero who wrestles with God is Job. Job is the unwitting victim of a heavenly conflict between the accuser (in Hebrew: hassatan=the accuser) and God. The accuser states that Job simply worships God so that Job can enjoy the good life. If all God’s blessings are taken away, Job would certainly curse God. Job is never let in on the spiritual dynamics of his circumstance. Instead, he suffers, and as he does his piety goes from politeness toward God to downright accusation and challenge. He wants to go to court before God and plead his case. Job’s friends argue, unwittingly, the accuser’s case for him. “People are blessed for being good,” they suggest, “and cursed for being bad.” Since he is suffering, they reason Job must have sinned. On the other hand, Job blames God for his suffering, though he never curses God.

In the end, God shows up to Job and his companions and presents his argument that things are much more complex than Job realizes. Job and his friends are ignorant of the intricacies of creation, of the powerful forces of evil at work, and God’s power in the midst of these complexities. Boyd says that the friends are arrogantly misguided in their understanding of morality, and Job is misguided in blaming God as unjust. Job repents and admits his ignorance. His response is worship.

Since both Job and the friends were rebuked (Job 40:1-2; 42:7), how is it that Job is held up as an example for the friends? Boyd contends that God is affirming Job’s straightforward, honest approach, versus the self-serving theologizing of the friends. The Hebrew word for “right” or “correct” can also mean “straightforward” or “honest”; as in, “you have not spoken of me what is right” (NRSV, italics mine) in 40:7. If Boyd’s understanding is correct, then God is not admonishing the friends to think that God should be blamed for evil (as Job does). Rather, the friends should be willing to wrestle with the confusing realities of a world in which God is good but people still suffer. Job’s willingness to wrestle with God, as Jacob did, reveals a “faith grounded in authenticity” (pg., 90). This is the type of faith God is looking for.

“Our honest wrestling is a sign of engagement with God.”

Here’s the point: rather than God being angry or threatened by our doubts, questions, and spiritual wrestling, he actually celebrates those who are willing to “go to the mat” with him (pg., 90). Our honest wrestling is a sign of engagement with God. It shows interest, concern, and desire. It reveals a distaste for the status quo, for easy answers, and shallow relationship. For those of us willing to wrestle, the prophet Jeremiah said this:

“When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” God’s Decree.

(Jeremiah 29:13, The Message)

I picture God on the wrestling mat. With a smile on his face, he says, “Bring it!”

Paul McMullen

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I've worked with new churches and church plants since 2005. I enjoy writing, teaching, and small group conversations.

3 responses to Wrestling Match

  1. 

    (This comment is about 5 times longer than I had expected. So I guess this post hit a chord with me. It brought up all sorts of related materials. I have sliced my many comments into 5 parts and uploaded them separately. Each part is nearly a stand alone unit but they all relate to the whole of my response. )

    PART 1
    Paul, I appreciate that you and Boyd have presented an attractive invitation to the complicated and discomforting processes of the reconstruction of personal faith. It took careful insights into the story of Job and the words of the prophet Jeremiah to come to this perspective.

    I suggest that certainty is not the enemy. Otherwise constant uncertainty would be the grand virtue. That is not psychologically or spiritually sustainable.

    I suggest that grounded and rounded certainty is possible as well as natural after seasons of careful and prayerful reconstruction.

    What follows are my best thinking on the topic as well as stories and insights from my complex reconstruction journey.

    I point to the familiar quote by Socrates. He said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Likewise, i suggest that the unexamined personal faith is not worth having.

    Ultimately every human has a personal philosophy and a personal theology. These are alive and well residing deep inside the soul of every person. They are not often examined or understood because that is not normally required. But when there is a major crisis, crossroads or commitment, then the thoughts, words, deeds and choices are evidence of what dwells deep inside. Major incidents like funerals and diagnosis of cancer can bring these to the surface. The ideas about God, life after death and the meaning of life may or may not be made conscious.

    I suggest that the best movies and novels appeal to many people because they present scenarios where such matters about the conflicts of worldviews, priorities and values are explored externally and safely.

  2. 

    PART 2
    Bear with me as a change direction related to education and then circle back to reconstruction.

    The ongoing challenge of a parent, pastor and educator is to gracefully train others in critical thinking skills. That is much easier said than done.

    The tragedy of most schools is the terrible competition related to standardized tests. There are rewards and punishments for how well or poorly the groups of students performed.

    I have talked with school teachers that are very sad that they are essentially forced to structure their lesson plans in order to maximize the scores on standard tests. They call it teaching to the test. They do not have the time, energy, freedom, flexibility or support to focus on real and meaningful education that will serve the student for the rest of their life.

    This relates to the vast difference between education and indoctrination. Getting the right answers on the test leads to a high grade. But just getting right answers without considering and understanding the factor that lead to that is just indoctrination. Normally students are not deliberately taught how to question, investigate, research, study, reason, work in teams, and etc. And most fundamental and evangelical churches are oriented to getting the right answers. That can foster a culture where certainty is the norm and doubts are the enemy.

    Then doubts and uncertainty dare not be confessed to most people. That would be taboo.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Jesus & Doubt « In the Storyline - March 15, 2017

    […] last biblical character we looked at was Job. Boyd suggests that Job’s faith was most on display through his honest struggle with God. In […]

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