October 6: Got Questions? Week 1: Wrestling withGod: Genesis 32:22-32
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.” 29 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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
- Why does God allow tragedy and suffering?
- Why and how did God create the world? Why didn’t God create the world as perfect?
- How does God speak to us today?
- How does God hear our prayers? (And how does prayer work?)
As we dive into our first week of wrestling with questions about our faith, we will focus particularly on questions about God this week. This passage in Genesis is one that resonates with me as we begin our series of questions together because it sets the stage for the story of faith and its people. Hear we meet Jacob and his massive family on their way to meet Jacob’s estranged, and probably angry, brother, Esau. On the way, they cross the Jabbok river, and Jacob was at some point left alone, where a man wrestles with him all night. In the morning, the mysterious man finally strikes Jacob in the hip socket, and the struggle ends. Jacob asks for a blessing, and in this blessing receives a new name: Israel- which means, one who struggles with God. Jacob then names the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), since he had seen God face to face and lived to tell the story. And so begins our unfolding story of faith- we wrestle with our questions, we struggle with our faith, we have moments of certainty along with moments of doubt, and God affects us in profound ways- we are renamed and sent back out into the world as new persons because we have wrestled with God and have a story to tell. And not just that- but this story also shows us that God values and embraces the struggle, the wrestling, and asking the questions leads to stronger faith and growth for ourselves with God.
That is why we need to ask questions and wrestle with God, with faith, with the hardships that life brings our way- that is how we learn, how we grow, how we deepen our understanding of God, ourselves, and our relationships we have with others. Today we will turn to the questions you all asked and wrestle with them together that we might deepen our understanding or even long to ask further questions along the way.
I had several questions about God and suffering- “why does God allow tragedy and suffering” or “why does God allow some with cancer to live and some not?” In this, we need to understand first and foremost that God is good. All the time. We read in 1 John that “God is love,” and in the Romans that God works for the good in everything. When we ask these kinds of questions, we are really asking why humans seek to do harm to one another? Or “why do our already fragile bodies develop harmful and sometimes fatal disease and illness?” I do not believe that God ever “allows” tragedy and suffering. I believe that suffering comes from the depths of the human condition- it comes from the harm we do to one another. It is the sin of hate, violence, greed, jealously, and anger left untreated that results in tragedy and suffering. I do not believe that God causes cancer or illness- I do believe that our bodies are complex entities that sometimes fail us due to the science of it all, and due to that which we just simply do not understand. I do not believe that God causes tornadoes or earthquakes or other natural disasters. I believe that those are the results of our weather systems and the unexplainable power of nature. I do not believe that God causes murder, rape, car accidents, or school shootings. Here is what I do believe: I believe that God is good and God is love. I believe that God does work for the good, even through the bad, and that in the midst of suffering, God is there in middle of it, bringing justice and mercy out of even the worst of situations. I believe that in the person of Jesus, God came so that our suffering is not a foreign concept or idea, but so that we could have a Savior who suffers right there along with us, and works to bring life out of suffering and even death. Sometimes God shows up through those who surround those affected by tragedy- God shows up through the offering of peace and comfort through the arms of a loved one, God shows up in those who surround us in prayer, God shows up in the little miracles that happen that sometimes we might not see for ourselves. God is there, creating hope in the midst of despair, and gently reminding us that we might have eyes to see this for ourselves and not be blinded by our grief and suffering.
We wrestle with questions about God having to do with creation- why did God create the earth? Why did God let us live here? Why didn’t God create the world as perfect? Some of these questions we obviously cannot give a full answer about, but we can certainly wrestle and speculate together. For example, we are told in Genesis 1 that “God created the heavens and the earth, and called it good.” So we are given our first glimpse of God as Creator. We also have to remember that every religion and every civilization since the world began has a creation story. No one was there in the beginning, so no one really knows how we came into existence and how we came to be or why we are here. But as people of faith, we are given these stories and ideas about how and why we came into being, and it starts with God. We have this idea that God is an eternal being without beginning or end- that God has always been and always will be. We are given an account of creation in Genesis with the images of the heavens and the earth, the earth as a formless void brought to life by the wind from God sweeping over the face of the waters and God saying, “Let there be light.” In our creation story, we see the bringing forth of humanity and that men and women were created for good and not for harm. In a sense, God as creator did really create the perfect world, but then human nature took over. Violence is introduced into the world with the murdering of Abel by Cain’s hand. Jealously, anger, greed becomes dominant in human hearts rather than creating, loving, working for good. And from these realities comes the fact that we as humans are also given the gift of free will from God, but that gift comes with a price and a challenge: to use our free will for good- to use it not for harm, not for destruction, but for the re-creation and transformation of the world back to that perfect state that God intended it to be- that our free will should be used that we might be co-creators with God to reshape the world into the divine image that was in the beginning. Needless to say, our humanity has gotten the best of us, and we have a very long way to go.
Several questions I received about God had to do with how God speaks to us and interacts with us in our world today. One question asked, “How does God hear the prayers of billions of people in the world?” This called to mind one of my favorite movies, “Bruce Almighty,” where a man named Bruce is given the powers of God for a brief time in his life, and one of the challenges he faces is prayer- he keeps hearing thousands of voices in his head of people praying, and can’t seem to escape it. God finally shows up and says, “They are prayers. If you keep ignoring them, they will start to build up on you like that- so he goes through a series of funny ways to manage the prayers- thousands of filing cabinets, filling his apartment with post it notes, and finally, he comes up with an e-mail account, which over time also becomes overwhelming and he hits “reply all” and answers YES to every prayer- needless to say, the world was a little chaotic for the next few days. My point is that this is simply a matter of faith. When we pray, we must believe that God is listening. We also believe in an awesome God who is present within each and every person and is present in every part of our world, seeking after us, working for change, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, is working alongside each of us, our churches, and our communities to guide, to listen, to provide.
When we pray to God, a few things happen: One, we are affecting a change within ourselves- we are humbling ourselves, becoming vulnerable before God, and we are opening ourselves to the possibilities that God has for each of us. When we pray, we are in a sense, tapping into the divine energy that was present even at creation itself. We do not pray to “get what we want” or “make something happen.” We pray that we would sincerely listen to God’s activity in our lives. We pray so that we get out of our own way and let God do God’s work. What happens, for example, when there are 2 babies in the Neonatal ICU unit at the hospital, and both have churches and families that are praying for them to survive, and one does, and the other does not. Did God answer one prayer and not the other? No! That’s not how it works. We don’t know why things turn out the way they do, but when we go back to the story of creation, we see that God creates things but empowers them to create more. In this way, everything in creation is unfinished, and God then invites us help in creating the world. When we take part in creation, we might find that the things we create might not always go as we had hoped, but we have hope in this: that God’s divine energy present at creation brings order out of chaos. When Jesus prays at the hour of his suffering at the Garden of Gethsemane, he asks that the cup of suffering might be passed from him, but his prayer to God is, “not my will, but your will be done.” Jesus is then tapping into the divine energy that made everything. In this prayer, Jesus is being open to the God who is at work here and now and he is being brutally honest. Prayer is just that: brutal honesty with God. It is the outpouring of ourselves, it is challenging God, asking the tough questions, even getting angry. Guess what? God can handle whatever our thoughts or words or feelings are- because prayer is truth, it’s being honest with our Creator, and we have a role to play in ongoing creation. Prayer is seeking our role to play in ongoing creation of the world. Prayer should be the way that we live out our lives, the way that we see the world around us. It’s that we will never stop asking the question: “What is God up to and how can I be a part of it?” Praying connects us to those we are praying for, prayer changes us, makes us better people- we can be open to the new thing that is coming into being (from “Open,” NOOMA series: Rob Bell). We don’t know why we see results of some prayers and not of others. We don’t know sometimes how prayer really works. But we do know that when we pray, we are remaining open to God’s creative energy in the world that we might be challenged to tap into that divine energy and find our role within it.
And prayer might begin with brutal honesty, asking the tough questions, possibly anger, confusion, or doubt- but to connect with God, we must begin somewhere, we must begin by asking the questions. We might not have all the answers, but we keep asking the questions, we keep wrestling with God, and like, Jacob who became Israel, we find that when we do wrestle with God, we come away as changed people, ready to face the world unafraid. If you take anything away this morning in wrestling with these questions about God, let it be this: God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the world is good. God is love. God creates for our good and invites us to co-create with God that we might be agents for change and hope in the world. God does speak to us today through a variety of ways- through the chaos, through the quiet, still small voice, and through prayer when we open ourselves to the divine energy of the world and when we reach out in concern to others, asking what our role might be in healing the world and its people.