Texts: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17. 1-7, 15; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21
In 1885 the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet in which he describes the tribulations of a long battle with depression and despair. I won’t read the poem to you, because its rhythm is difficult and its imagery particularly dense. In short, I doubt it would make any sense to you at a first hearing! But I would like to dwell, for a moment, on a rather disturbing connection Hopkins makes between two realities which are seldom mentioned in the same sentence, namely, Despair . . . and God. If I understand him rightly, Hopkins says that his year-long wrestle with despair might also be read as a wrestling with God . . . In tones which moves me more than I can say, Hopkins speaks of a God who comes by night to call him into question – to question the calibre of his devotion to God, even after many years of spiritual discipline. Despair, he says, is like a tempest which comes to blow the chaff from the grain of his soul. As such, he says, even despair appears to be God’s instrument, the servant of a God who wrestles with all that is not totally his own. A Love who will tolerate no rival.
There’s a terrible irony here, is there not? If Hopkins were not so intent upon the love of God – striving to love with all his heart, soul and strength – then this particular kind of sorrow would perhaps pass him by! People who have no plans to live under God’s rule are unlikely to become despondent about their lack of spiritual progress! Such people may be troubled by many things, but I’ll wager that the state of their relationship with God is not one of them! No, it’s the person who genuinely longs for God who is most likely to know that particular kind of sorrow which is the realization that your devotion is not yet complete. It is the sorrow of knowing that you are a sinner. Not because popular piety decrees that you are. But because you really are, and you know you are, deep down where it hurts, in the heart of what we call ‘the Truth’.
Jacob knew this on the night before he met his brother Esau. In the cycle of stories we know as the book of Genesis, God’s messenger had already appeared to Jacob in dreams aplenty, promising that his descendants would dwell in the land of his father Isaac forever, and that this company would prosper and become a great blessing for all the peoples under heaven. But on this night, that promise seemed like vain fantasy because, on the morrow, Jacob and all his family would meet up with Esau, from whom Jacob has swindled the birthright and blessing of a first-born son. Esau the wild man, who loved to hunt; Esau the leader of four-hundred warriors; Esau the one who had once threatened to kill his brother, so that Jacob was forced to flee in order to preserve his life. The promise and presence of God was wonderfully real to Jacob. Yet, on this night, the fear of Esau was even more present. On this night, Jacob’s faith in God wavered precariously. After sending his family over the river before him, Jacob returns to his camp to spend the night alone. But he is not left alone. As he crosses the creek at Jabbok, a man accosts him in the dark, and wrestles with him, we are told, until daybreak.
There are many ways to read this strange story. There are many ways to name the man without a name. If we were to read in a Freudian way, we might see the man who comes to Jacob as the externalization of his own fear about all that is likely to occur the next morning, the embodiment of his tendency towards despair before the face of what is feared. Through the long night of decision, Jacob wrestles with the urgent desire to flee from the face of his brother Esau. The part of him which would flee is very strong, but the part of him which longs to be rejoined to his brother is strong also. And so the wrestling goes on through the night, with neither side prevailing until, close to dawn, the fear finally leaves him – and he is blessed with the courage to go and meet with Esau.
Some theologians reject such readings out of hand because they distrust, as a matter of principle, any tendency towards what is called the ‘psychologization’ of biblical narrative. I am not one of them. As a theologian who believes, utterly, that God has taken human reality to his very bosom in Christ, I do not consider myself free to dismiss the mysterious machinations of human imagination and spirit as somehow beyond the ambit of divine activity. I feel bound, rather (and this precisely as a believer in the Christ by whom God knits the atoms together), to declare that every psychological crisis within the human heart and soul hides, at its heart, a profoundly spiritual encounter and confrontation with God that functions as the very heart and soul of what it means to be a human being. That is to say, with Louis-Marie Chauvet, that every theological reality necessarily has a body, that every anthropological analysis is not entirely itself until it is also theological.
What that means for the story at hand is this: that within and through this recognisably human confrontation of Jacob with his fear and despair one must also look for an encounter with the living God. And that is indeed what the story suggests, does it not? Is not the traumatic visitation of Jacob’s fear at the dead of night also the means by which God comes close to ask his disturbing questions: “Do you really love me? Do you really trust me? Do you really believe in what I have promised?” Finally, after a long struggle, Jacob’s answer is ‘yes’. But not before he feels the full power of the temptation to despair absolutely. Not before he is wounded for life. Not before he loses his name, and his very self with it. And so Jacob emerges from his night of prayer chastened and humbled, and made new in the waters of the river in which the struggle took place. ‘I will name this place’ Peniel’, he says, ‘because here I have seen the face of God and lived’.
The Jewish sages knew that seeing God’s face was dangerous. Their God was not as sickly and sentimental and harmless as many modern forms of devotion would have us believe. ‘It is a terrible thing’, wrote Paul, ‘to fall into the hands of the living God’. When Jacob saw God’s face, he died indeed. And the wound he bore for the rest of his life reminded him of that death. But, in the mercy of God, he was raised to life from the waters of his drowning. He received a new name, Israel, which functions in the story as a symbol of his new identity: ‘one who has wrestled with humanity and divinity, yet perseveres’. In the power and hope of this new identity, Jacob is finally empowered to face his brother Esau, not with his usual cocktail of bravado, bluff and deceit, but with humility. It is by this newfound humility, given him in the struggle before Peniel—literally “The face of God”— that he finally prevails.
So, the bible tells us that fear and panic, even despair, can be the messengers of God, the means by which we are led to choose for God once more. Indeed, the Jewish and Christian traditions say that Satan, also, is the servant of the Lord. But we should be careful to distinguish the servant from the Master. The servant is not the Master, though the Master’s purposes may be fulfilled through the servant’s action. That is why Hopkins, in his poem on the dark night of tribulation, begins by declaring that he shall never give in to despair absolutely. The messenger of God these feelings may prove to be at times, the means by which God wrestles with those remaining vestiges of ego and sin, certainly. But God they are not. And that is important to know. Giving in to despair, you see, is like setting up a false god. It is believing that the God of Abraham and of Jesus is a liar who will not come through on what is promised. When we are tempted to despair, we are tempted to bow down and do obeisance to a very dark god indeed, a god who would have us destroy ourselves absolutely, never to rise again. That is why Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish contemporary of Hopkins, even suggested that sin is another name for despair.
As for me, I am one of those who has been visited, from time to time, by the dark angels of the Lord, those messengers which ask the questions: ‘Do you really trust me? Is there really any point to your devotion?’ At such times, by the grace of God, I am reminded of Jesus, who persevered in faith against odds far bigger than mine. I am reminded of one who, when his friend John the Baptist was murdered, withdrew to a quiet place to wrestle with his own fears and anxieties and find his faith once more, one who continued to preach and to heal, even when the political and religious establishment decided to go after him. I remember the cup of his suffering. I remember the plea to his disciples: ‘Stay with me. Watch and pray’. I remember his arrest, torture and crucifixion, and his cry upon the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ I remember the way his disciples scattered in every direction, and denied that they knew him. But, most importantly, I remember this. That Jesus rose to God, that God vindicated his cause, and owned his life as a defining parable concerning the way that God lives and moves in the world. And so, in the story of Jesus I see how even the most monstrous of evils can become the instrument by which God offers healing and wholeness, not only to me, but to everyone . . . And I am encouraged to have faith in God. Yes, and even to imitate the Psalmist in seeking the face in which I know I will find my death. For in dying to myself, to my fears and worries and ambitions, I believe I will become what Christ became. And that is what I want most of all. As Hopkins says in another poem:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.