Jacob wrestles with God
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river.24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.32 Therefore, Israelites don’t eat the tendon attached to the thigh muscle to this day, because he grabbed Jacob’s thigh muscle at the tendon.
Thoughts on the passage:
Even if we are not on social media like Facebook or Twitter, most of us are familiar with how it works. You post something to the website that might be profound, inane, offensive or just plan boring. Your friends and sometimes strangers then can see what you posted and comment on what you said or give you a “like” or thumbs up. While it is not for everyone, it generally seems like a harmless enough activity. What we can fail to realize however is the insidious ways that it is affecting us biologically.
Dopamine is an organic chemical found in the brain. It is a neurotransmitter that is released by neurons in our brain as a way of sending signals. One of the main signals that dopamine is used to send is as a reward for actions. Like a treat for a good dog, the brain uses dopamine to signal rewards for us.
Dopamine plays a role in the rise of social media as well. All of those positive responses you get when you post something funny on Facebook are like small rewards and your brain responds by releasing dopamine when you get them. This positive feeling then motivates further interaction on social media. We crave the good feelings and affirmations we get from social media and so we keep posting and replying in hopes of future rewards. The theory is that dopamine can play a part in making social media addictive.
The same dopamine hit we get from posting on social media is often realized when we take various drugs. Just like a smoker craves cigarettes, our bodies can become dependent on the good feelings we get from the dopamine and are left wanting more. What starts as a friendly way to connect to our friends and neighbors can easily morph into something much more.
Now I am not saying that all social media use is bad. Just like not everyone who eats develops and eating disorder and not everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic, not everyone who uses social media gets addicted to the feelings it creates in us. What I am saying is that we need to be aware of how social media acts on our brains because it is part of a great challenge, we all face. Deep down we all want to be loved.
Last week we talked about the need for love in the world and in particular we highlighted the need for us to love God. If you remember the greatest commandment from Jesus, it is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, once we love God, the next thing we need to do is to love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbors if we first do not love ourselves. In fact, I think this need for love is a driving factor in the use of social media.
In our text today, we learn about the time that Jacob wrestled with an angel. The line that always stands out to me is this cry from Jacob, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” All night long Jacob wrestles with this angel and the thing that he is longing for is a blessing. Put another way, what he really needs is to know he is loved. Like a child acting out for attention, Jacob is wrestling with the angel in hopes of getting a sign of divine affection.
Are we any different? Have we had our moments where we wrestled with angels or cried out to God, longing for a blessing? How often have our actions served as a cry for attention? When have we done things to try and get another person to acknowledge us and show us that we are loved? I know that I have done all these things at one point or another. Sometimes our actions are sincere and helpful attempts to be noticed and other times they are more destructive, like pulling the pigtails of the girl we like so that she notices us.
I believe that we all are longing to know we are loved. I think this need starts with our own struggles to love ourselves. I often believe that we are our own worst critics. No amount of bullying or harassing can do more to put negative thoughts in our minds than we already have put there ourselves. We struggle to love ourselves because we can see so much that is wrong in our lives. We know we do not eat as healthy as we should. We know that we need to exercise more. We know the bad thoughts we have in our heads about other people. Our own internal monologue can drown out the good voices that are coming from outside of us, or inside of us.
Fortunately, there is good news, God loves us. In his book, “What are We Fighting For,” Bishop Bickerton accurately states that despite all the flowery language and technical theological jargon that pastors learn in seminary, those three simple words, “God loves you,” have far more meaning and power for us. These are the words that we need to hear. We need to remember that God, who sees our sins, knows our faults, and is far more aware of what is wrong with us than we are, looks at us, loves us, and calls us good. That love from God should give us the strength to love ourselves as well.
We see that same love in the story of Jacob and the angel. Jacob is already a blessed man. In his life he has experienced God’s blessings over and over. He has received the promise that was made to Abraham and Isaac and yet he wants more. This is a familiar tale for us. Most of us, even when we are blessed with something quickly find ourselves wanting more. One cookie is not enough, a new car quickly gets old, the Christmas present we longed for all year is “boring” before the end of January. Is it any wonder that Jacob too finds himself longing for another blessing?
God does not punish Jacob for wanting more. God understands the longings of the human heart. In our brokenness and our sin, we are constantly trying to fill the pain we have in our hearts, the longings we have in our souls. Jacob wrestles with an angel and lives. This is not because Jacob is some wrestling master, but because God does not want to hurt us, even when we are mad at God and wrestling with angels. Instead, God wants us to know that we already have all that we need. God love us, all we need is to love ourselves as well.
I am always leery of making things sound too easy. Loving ourselves is not as simple as the cookie-cutter answer of “remember that God loves you.” Anyone who has wrestled with the dark demons of depression and mental illness knows that just thinking happy thoughts will not overcome a chemical imbalance in the brain. Simply repeating “God loves me” might not be enough to overcome a hereditary dependence on drugs or alcohol as solutions to our problems. The work of loving ourselves can be long and difficult. Ultimately, it starts with remember that love which flows from God. The love of God is pure and powerful. It overcomes our weakness and sin. It gets past our self-interest and personal desires. It flows over us like the tender love of a parent for their child. The love of God sees us, claims us, blesses us, and call us very good. Thanks be to God
Questions to Ponder:
What are the ways that you struggle to love yourself?
How do we balance the need to love ourselves with the temptation to focus solely on loving ourselves?
Who is someone you know who has a humble, but steadfast nature that is grounded in God’s love?
God, like a parent you love us all as your children. Help us to remember in the dark nights of our lives, when love can seem absent, that you lover remains. When we look in the mirror, help us to see ourselves with your loving eyes. Give us the courage to look past our failings and faults and find ways to love ourselves as you do. Amen