I’ve been wondering lately if the Israelites’ name ever made them worry about their fate.
The word “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” It was the new name given to Jacob after he wrestled with an angel. I bet the Israelites knew that. But I wonder if it ever gave them cause for concern, if they wondered whether they would live up to that name themselves.
Because they sure did. They lived in Egypt as slaves. After they fled, they wandered for years before they could enter their new home. And in that time, they frequently lost faith in their leader and in their God, and they even said that they would have been better off had they not escaped from Egypt. They struggled to keep God’s commands even after repeated warnings from prophets.
I wonder these things because I’ve been pondering a past season of struggle a lot lately. A few years ago I entered into a period of deep desolation* where God seemed hidden from me. The fervor I previously felt for my faith, which was mostly the result of a retreat I had attended in high school, disappeared out of nowhere; nothing prompted it, nothing traumatic triggered it. In the matter of a day, the name of Jesus left me cold. Prayer suddenly felt like too much work. Going to mass became a burdensome obligation rather than a joyful privilege. The feelings of joy that had accompanied my faith life had been snatched away from me, and though I begged God to give them back, He showed no signs of obliging.
(*desolation: a fancy Catholic way of saying that God’s presence and action and love seem to have disappeared from one’s life; the opposite of consolation, where God’s presence and action and love can easily be seen and felt.)
I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. I didn’t want to think that I was being tested or that God had anything to do with it, but I also couldn’t think of where else it was coming from. I wanted to accept it and move forward into this new phase that God seemed to be calling me to in my relationship with Him. But I was scared. I didn’t want it. I wanted things to go back to the way they were. I was stuck in the past, longing for the days when loving Him was as easy as breathing, unwilling to accept the truth that I had always been taught about love that was staring me square in the face: it’s not just a feeling. But if it wasn’t a feeling, what was it? I didn’t know, and I wasn’t really interested in finding out. After a few months of seemingly fruitless searching and persistence, I gave up. I let the struggle win.
I’m in a different place now. By the grace of God I’ve come out of that place of desolation and am continuing to rebuild my relationship with Him. But I still don’t fully understand why I went through such darkness. Maybe God was trying to help me see that faith isn’t about feelings and that a relationship with Him isn’t always sunshine and roses. If that’s the case, I failed His test. I didn’t see any kind of value in the struggle. I just wanted everything to be easy.
But Jacob showed us that it’s not. The Israelites did, too. Jacob wrestled through the night and held on to that angel even after his hip was dislocated. “I’m not letting you go until you bless me,” he said. The Israelites struggled to remain faithful to their God and to their leaders.
The very nature of the Christian life is anything but easy. We are all Israel, wrestling with God and His will in our own way. Sometimes the struggle is small—trying to let go of one or two bad habits, setting aside time to pray every day. But sometimes they seem too big, and we question whether the fight is worth it.
I wonder what would have happened had I held on to Christ’s guiding hand as I walked through my desolation, had I made Jacob’s words as he wrestled the angel my own prayer:
“I’m not letting you go until you bless me.”
Because God does some of His most marvelous work when we feel as if He’s left us. It’s those times when it’s most difficult to trust Him. Sometimes we have to walk through the dark and trust that though we feel blind or like we’re not moving, we’re being led.
But we can’t be led unless we hold on, unless we trust that Christ is offering us His hand as we stare into our darkness.