Saturday, 13 January 2018

Wrestling with the Angel

“Isn’t it the greatest possible disaster, when you are wrestling with God, not to be beaten?”
(Simone Weil)

In the mysterious Biblical story, Jacob is alone one night during a journey, when ‘a man’ appears and wrestles with him until dawn. When Jacob refuses to let him go, the stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip, but also gives him a blessing and a new name; ‘Israel’, which means ‘struggles with God’ (Genesis 32:22-32).

This story is an image of the struggle with God that is central to the Quaker way, although it is often absent from modern descriptions of Quaker experience. Early Quakers recorded that their initial encounter with the Inward Guide was often conflictual - the Light revealed aspects of themselves that they would rather not see, and urged them in directions they would rather avoid. As the leadings of the Inward Guide were resisted, the struggle would intensify, sometimes leading to severe physical illness or emotional crisis. Perhaps this kind of experience is so often glossed over today because modern Friends are understandably suspicious of anything that suggests coercion or threat in religion. The Biblical stories that portray God as threatening and punishing are usually rejected as outdated and unhelpful. But there is nevertheless an important reality of ‘struggling with God’ that takes place in our own experience, for many of us who have encountered the reality of the Inward Guide, but who have resisted what it has tried to show us and how it has tried to lead us.

This resistance can take many forms. We usually want to defend a favourable view of ourselves, and to ignore any inklings of our self-interested motives, resentments or narcissism. We are often reluctant to embrace nudges of the Spirit that suggest we might be led to disturb our habitual comforts in some way, by reaching out to unfamiliar people, or making some change in our daily life that involves risk or inconvenience. This kind of spiritual sluggishness or inertia is common to almost all of us, and perhaps acts as a necessary ballast to avoid being swept away by temporary enthusiasms. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to stay stuck in the defensive posture that insists on digging in, refusing to hear what the Spirit has to say to us, or to follow where it leads. All too often, the result is a life that goes nowhere, that continually circles around its collection of small concerns, and never breaks out of the track of narrow, habitual self-interest. It is perfectly possible to pass a whole lifetime in this way, in which the call of the Inward Guide is smothered so insistently that life withers away, and one becomes haunted by vague regrets and anxieties, crowded around by the insistent threat of meaninglessness.

For some of us, the rejection of the Light is more deliberate. The dark impulses of addiction and compulsion, even when we recognise them and know them to be destructive, can draw us towards choices that are deliberately damaging - self harming through over-eating, alcohol, drugs or dangerous behaviour. The deliberate impulse to self-destruction will be familiar to everyone who has struggled with addiction or despair. It is the urge to escape the agonising tensions, regrets, humiliations of life, by extinguishing feeling and responsibility. We can choose to fight against the Light, tearing at ourselves and wounding those around us in our furious rejection of inward life.

The experiences of early Quakers, like the story of Jacob, suggest that the struggle with God does not have to end like this. For some of us, the greatest blessing we ever receive might be a painful dislocation, when our life is interrupted by a suffering, failure or humiliation that knocks us out of our habitual self-justification and distractions. We might find that none of our goals are any longer worthwhile, that our cherished opinions or attitudes were meaningless posturing, and that we no longer know what to do or who to be. We have been brought to the point of surrender to the inward springs of life that were struggling to be born within us. Now we can receive a new name, a new identity and purpose for our life, because we have ‘struggled with God’ and thankfully, blessedly, we have been defeated.

How have you 'struggled with God'? and have you received a gift or blessing?


  1. Yes, Isaac Penington wrote "Man must be wrought out of himself..." There is part of me that says, like in the Goon Show, "I don't wish to know that!"
    If anyone can find the exact quote I would be grateful.

    1. Dear Richard,

      The passage comes from 'To All Such that Complain . . .'(p. 7) from 'Some Further Questions and Answers Concerning the Seed of Israel' in Penington, 'Works' (London: Phillips, 1784), Vol 2, p. 349.

    2. Thanks Gerard
      I have the Keiser & Moore "Knowing the Mystery of Life Within" Do you know where the quote is in this book?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Each of the above 'removed' comments was my reply to Richard! I still find this medium a little puzzling at times!

  4. Craig Barnett: You may wish to take a look at James Kugel, *The Ladder of Jacob*.

  5. This is a very worthwhile essay, as it brings into view the necessary inward longing for right relationship with God, which finds resistence, also within. It is the Lamb's War whose first battles are fought in the individual soul. I hope that you find ways to get this essay to more Quakers: perhaps having it published in The Friend?

    Penington has already been mentioned in the comments, and here is another reference to his writing on this topic:

    The first work of the Lord, is to confound the knowledge and understanding of the creature; especially in those who have been deep in wisdom and experience of things; for if they were not closely pusued with darkness and confusion, they would presently be gathering a stock into the old storehouse again, and so grow wise after the flesh, and never learn the life of the Spirit. Now in this work of confounding, how can the leadings of God's spirit be manifest and clear after the flesh, and to the fleshly understanding? Yea, if they were manifest after this manner, how were it possible to withhold the fleshly part from drinking them in? and so the man would live again, but the seed not live, which gains its life (and being and form and perfection) in the man, by the death of the man; even by the man's being hunted, and battered, and broken out of his wisdom, and knowledge, and reasoning, and comprehension; and becoming as a fool or child, being able to know nothing, nor retain nothing, nor perform nothing, nor keep his standing; but still as he is led, and taught, and created, and preserved in the power, and by the presence of the life (Works, QHP, 1999. II, 398).



"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)