I’m always on the look out for words to hate, but I’ve recently landed on an unlikely word that every day I love a little bit more. It’s the word Contend. If you push it a little bit further you can get the word Contentious out of it, which, it’s possible, describes the internet and all modern life a touch too much.
I was recalled to this word, as many of you might have been, by listening to Jordan Peterson face up against Kathy Newman so many weeks ago (I know, old news, sorry). In the midst of all the, ‘So you’re sayings’ of Ms. Newman, Mr. Peterson leaned forward and said something to the effect of, ‘Don’t you want a partner who will contend with you?’
I thought it a most interesting choice of words. The Bible, as you know, is full of contention, of people not getting along with each other and nobody getting along with God. It is replete with accounts of God struggling with his people and his people struggling, usually miserably, with him. But it all comes together one night by a stream, where Jacob finds himself in an unlikely wrestling match with with someone the text calls a man.
And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Jacob had already had a pretty contentious life. Everything he’d done has been a struggle. He wrestled his way out of the womb, into a blessing and inheritance, out of poverty and loneliness into more family than he bargained for, and far more sheep and goats than he really deserved. None of it had been what you might call a trustful waiting to see what God would do, or even lying around scrolling up and down the sidebar of YouTube for another languid ten minutes of precious time wasted.
Still though, nobody likes a struggle. I want everything handed to me on one of those pretty tin dishes that are ten dollars a pop. As in, you get one plate for ten dollars. But each one is so pretty. I want someone to hand me a whole stack of them, without any planning or thinking about it on my part. Just like I want everyone to agree with me, to smile when I talk and think I’m funny and interesting.I used to always be envious and angry because God seemed like such a struggle for me, whereas for everyone else he seemed like no trouble at all. I once had a friend who naturally and, without any psychic angst, apparently was unabashedly in love with Jesus. She would wake up and ‘do her quiet time,’ as we used to say, which included praying for all her unsaved friends, for the unsaved of the world, and finally for herself and her family. Then she would read her Bible, journal, and advance unperturbed into the day.
Whereas I, miserable creature, would lie in the darkness, jealous of her, silently yelling nasty things at God about myself, him, and the ridiculous nature of all people everywhere. Sometimes I explained to him that he didn’t exist. Other times I made suggestions about the ordering of the universe in a much more useful way. But mostly I was just always struggling. The kind of struggle that you leaves you in a limp, always a little bit on the defensive, always on the one hand unsure and insecure, but on the other hand irrevocably tied to the divine.
Later, when I was all grown up, I learned that my dear friend, and some others who seemed to have it so so easy, had drifted completely away from that god attended to so obediently through so many quiet times. Maybe, in the end, it was just too quiet.
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
It’s a great mercy that God gets it into his being to wrestle, to contend with humanity. On the whole, it means a blessing for anyone who ever struggles with anything and comes away alive. But in a more narrow sense, it means hearing his own name, finally seeing his face, finally knowing the incredible wonder of a being, but really a person, who doesn’t just self identity as Light and Truth and Love and Goodness and Holiness, but holds those things in himself. He is, in fact, the complete and perfect embodiment of them. If, no matter the heartbreak, you don’t let go, you end up no longer alone, no longer in the dust, no longer limping.