he struggles

I just read that the name Israel probably means “he struggles with God.” Wow. This week I had a conversation with a friend about how we struggle in our faith. We question its place in a pluralistic society. We revisit certain doubts over and over. So I find it encouraging to read that Israel is named for struggle.

That means God knows us as we really are. Israel was the name of a man before it became the name of the nation of his descendants, but what man and nation share is a history of struggle. Israel was born Jacob, the conniving twin of Esau; the man who dreamed of angels on a stairway from earth to heaven; the man who wrestled with God. Much like him, I have pretended to be what I am not. I have dreamed big, then gone back to my old ways of living. I have tried to take hold of God with the same demand Jacob made after fighting all night: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The blessing in Jacob’s case was a new name. The blessing in my case is knowing that God understands. He may not answer all my questions, at least not right away. When Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name” he only replied, “Why do you ask my name?” But Jacob, now Israel, knew. He said, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

I think sometimes we believe that God doesn’t want anything to do with us until we have our lives and our thoughts in order. Doesn’t this prove otherwise?

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God is not a man.

You think you know where I’m going with this, don’t you? If you’re a Christian you might already be angry. But hold on, I’m not talking about Sophia.

I used to think of God as a man. Not fully God and fully man, which is a theological fact that’s impossible to understand. Because I couldn’t understand it I simplified it, and as a result I resented God. All this “for God’s glory” stuff–could he be more conceited? More insatiable? Why should I sing praises to one who doesn’t do what I want him to? That’s like five stars for no performance.

It took me years to recognize the flaw in my thinking. I was angry because mentally I had elevated God only to the top of my Hall of Fame. He was more virtuous than Abe Lincoln, more giving than Ghandi, more righteous than Job. But that wasn’t the right place for him. What he really needed was a hall of his own, a Hall of Holiness. He’s not just the best of all the men who’ve ever lived; he’s the sole occupant of a separate category.

That means I can ask new questions about him. When he says he should be exalted, a word whose roots mean raising something to a higher importance, he’s not saying he wants praise; he’s saying it’s necessary. Necessary for what?

Here’s the answer: “Jesus said…’Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12: 30-33)

Those words “lifted up” also mean “exalted.” Traditionally there are parallels drawn between Jesus being lifted up on the cross and Moses lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole when he was leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Looking up at the bronze serpent brought healing from venomous snake bites (Numbers 21:4-9). Looking up at Jesus on the cross can bring the start of healing from much more. When God is exalted, his loved ones are restored. And by “his loved ones” I mean us! Want to hear something amazing?

“…we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)

God alone is able to save us; he has done all the work necessary to save us; yet sometimes we resist him because we’re still thinking he’s a dude with an overblown self-concept. Take a day to think about him differently–not as a man, but as the only occupant of a category we can barely comprehend. He is “set apart,” which is what holy means. And yet he reached, and still reaches, across the space between us to reconcile us to himself. What do you think about that?