The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
By: Nate Mason
I love the story of Jacob wrestling with God! It is so complex and nuanced. On it’s surface it seems really odd. Why would God wrestle with a human being? Why wouldn’t God know Jacob’s name? You’d think the God of all creation would know who they were dealing with. It makes more sense when you realize that God was pushing Jacob to redefine who he was.
We construct our sense of self (that’s a sociology term, psychology uses the term personality or identity) from a whole variety of sources. Our identity is not set in stone, a permanent person, but we adapt all our lives. The primary forces that define our sense of self are our relationships and our behaviors.
Significant relationships give us the core of who we are. Back when my wife was pregnant with our first child, I struggled quite a bit with the kind of father I would become. My parents got divorced very early in my life, and my own dad wasn’t very present. God willing, I would be a constant presence in my children’s life, but I had no way of knowing what a present father does. While I was struggling to figure out who I was going to be, I turned to experts on the subject: The Who. My wife went on a business trip shortly after we found out she was pregnant. While she was gone, I picked up Who’s Next on vinyl and listened to it A side to B side over and over while I painted the nursery. The opening track, Baba O’Riley, has always been one of my favorite rock anthems. I did a quick Google of the word “Baba” and it meant “father (often as a proper name or as a familiar form of address).”2 That’s who I was going to be as a father, I was going to be Baba. To this very day my mother calls me Nathaniel. My wife calls me Nate. My grandma used to call me Toad (there’s a cute story behind it and she wasn’t just making fun of my awkward middle school years). And now my kids call me Baba. To all of these people I am someone very different.
1 Or an angel, or Jesus. Lots of different interpretive traditions on that one. In all cases Jacob is wrestling with the divine
2 It wasn’t until The Black Panther came out did I realize that Baba was also Swahili for father. Now it has a decidedly appropriated feel. In my defense I appropriated it from a British band. Of course, the British basically invented appropriation so I should have seen that coming. Nevertheless, this is who I am to my children.
The struggle of maintaining a healthy sense of self is find a way to balance these different relationships and what they demand of you. This was the real struggle God and Jacob had at Peniel.3 Jacob was letting the world around him define who he was to an unhealthy degree. Growing up, Jacob was “a quiet man, living in tents.” (Genesis 25:27) There is a little gendered condescension in that description. In that ancient world, women were supposed to be meek, quiet, and tend to the domestic tasks (ie “live in tents”). Jacob was timid and liked to cook, and his father, Isaac, judged him for that and preferred his brother Esau who was big, manly, and liked to hunt. In his insecurity, and at the behest of his mother, Jacob starts engaging in an ever-escalating series of lies and deceit. This shouldn’t be surprising since his name in Hebrew is an adage for lying: heel grabber/leg puller.
By the time Jacob stays at Penuel his web of lies caused him to be running from a father-in-law who was trying to kill him straight to a brother who was trying to kill him. After Jacob’s bout with the Holy, God asks Jacob his name as a way of gauging Jacob’s sense of self. Jacob’s response is a confession that he has internalized all the things his family has said about him: he’s weak, he’s a liar, he doesn’t deserve what he has. God’s response is world shattering. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” You are not weak. You have fought with the Almighty himself and came out on top. You are not a liar. You stood fast in the Light of Truth, and God found you worthy. From that moment on all of God’s people would be known by Jacob’s new name. God created Israel’s sense of self through his relationship with the Divine rather than Jacob’s relationship to his toxic family.
What role does God and Church play in your sense of self?
The most profound spiritual experience of my life happened at the now closed Warren United Methodist Church in downtown Denver. Warren was an inner-city church that provided a free meal to shelterless people. As such, the worshiping congregation was a beautiful mix of God’s chosen children who are far too often forgotten by His church. The first time my wife and I attended there, we sat behind a person named Terry. During the Passing of the Peace, Terry shared that they struggled with schizophrenia. They didn’t know if God was calling them to be a man or a woman. “Before I was born, God showed me a white stone with my true name on it. But I forgot what it was. I come here every weak asking for God to show me who I am supposed to be.” I pray almost every day that Terry will find that sense of self that they were searching for.
I am in awe at their willingness to be so open to the Spirit to tell them who they are. For the rest of us, we do our best to be open to God’s calling, but we all too often we let the world dictate who we are and what we believe. Too many of us define ourselves through our social/political
3 Or Penuel. If somebody smarter than me knows the answer, could you please tell me why the NRSV translates the name “Peniel” in v30 then Penuel in v31? It hurts my brain and I’ve spent way too much time looking up a very minor thing.
identity. I am a liberal/conservative/democrat/republican/Iowan/South Dakotan… We use those ideological relationships to define who God is to us, rather than letting our faith and church define who we are to God. This creates a volatile dependence on the continued thriving of our social identity that threatens our spiritual one. If people disagree with our positions, then they disagree with how we understand God! This leads to polarization and increased conflict, often with the people who should be helping you figure out who you are.
Be who you are not what you do.
The other big factor in our sense of self is our behavior. When people describe themselves, the first response is usually what they do. “I’m a ______” (pastor, lawyer, doctor, manager, receptionist, international person of mystery.) We connect ourselves to what we do, and that can lead to some serious problems. What we do will change. Divorce rates spike during major transitions in life. When a person starts a new job, or when they retire, divorce rates spike. When parents turn their relationships to their kids into an activity they do (ie they go from “parents” to “parenting”), divorces spike when their kids grow up and leave the house. When we put so much of ourselves in what we do, we lose ourselves when that pursuit is over. Losing your sense of self is a horrible, traumatic event.
The ancient kingdom of Judah experienced some serious trauma when they lost their identity. 4 The Israelites of Judah prided themselves on the Temple. The Temple was where God lived, we were God’s people, and as long as we “worshiped the right way” at God’s Temple, we knew we were Israelites. The people of Judah strayed away from the relationships that God demanded of them. Prophet after prophet kept telling the people, it’s not about sacrifice it was about loving God, and by loving God you will love and care for the weakest in your community. So much of their identity was invested in the Temple, that when it fell, it was as if God had fallen with it.
Our churches are having a similar, if way less violent, identity crisis. For the past several decades, churches defined their success by the activities they did. A good church has a lot of kids come to youth group. A good church will have a large choir. A good church will have full pews for worship and a potluck afterwards. Not many churches have those things anymore, and that has been traumatic for those of us who experienced the “good old days.” It has caused us to doubt ourselves and our place in God’s kingdom, or even worse, caused us to be bitter towards the younger generations who have refused to carry on our activities and programs. The Church is now in a place where we have to figure out who we are without all of those things we thought defined us.
4 Check out the Abingdon Press Old Testament Commentary on Ezekiel for more about this trauma. Nancy Bowen does an amazing job of making the weirdest and greatest book in the Bible make sense through the lens of trauma.
The pandemic changed who we are and what we do
On an individual level, the pandemic changed what we do and how we relate to one another, and that has a huge impact on our sense of self. Pre-pandemic days, we liked to host dinner parties and play board games. We’d do that in our personal life, and we’d turn those activities into church socials. My wife and I loved to gather people together for good food and fun. We don’t do that anymore. At work my wife was the lady who always brought in goodies to share in the breakroom (I’m sure we’re all aware of my nasty baking habit). Now she works from home and she’s doesn’t get to be the “goodies lady” anymore.
Realizing who God is outside of you will guide you to who God is calling you to be
Two years into this, we all have to admit that some of these changes might be very long term, if not permanent. We must figure out who we are in this new time. The first step in that should be remembering who we are to God. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a United Methodist? These are not abstract or subjective questions. There are solid answers to these. Do you know them? For so long we proclaimed our faith by what we assumed was true (such as we defined God rather than God defining us), but we forgot to check to see what Scripture and doctrine states. I am a passionate United Methodist, so this might come across as me touting the “party line,” but there is peace and security to having a strong external definition of who we are. That sense of self doesn’t change with our daily activities and temporary relationships.
Having this stability is a great coping mechanism for an ever-changing world that you have no control over. In the past two years I have seen how hundreds of congregation members in several churches respond to the changes the pandemic has forced upon us. Members that know the church, that know the mission of the church, felt peace and acceptance with the necessary safety measures we’ve taken. They accepted the responsibility to keep their brother and sisters in Christ safe and healthy and recognized that that required sacrifice. On the other hand, members who only knew the programs of the church, the meals, the Bible studies, the fellowship, really struggled when those activities had to be suspended.
So how do you go about this identity change? The first step is learning. Our church is a unique denomination with our own tradition, history, and beliefs. Learn them! There is a plethora of resources out there to help you learn about our church, and the best one is your local pastor. Tell your pastor you want to start an “Adult Confirmation Class.” You want to dive into Methodism and learn about the church you’re attending. Then watch your pastor panic as they realize they have to learn most of the UMC tradition and history for themselves. When you connect to something bigger than yourself, you are empowered by the millions of saints around the world. You don’t have to worry that your church failed because there is no longer a youth group, but you know that kids are experience Christs every day outside the walls of your building. Rather than programming, your church’s success will be defined by discipleship and transformation. God sees you the same way he sees Jacob, as a beloved child who they are very proud of.
Reorienting your sense of self is hard. Remember, Israel walked way from his struggle with God with a permanent limp. If you dive into the history and doctrine of the United Methodist church, you will find things to struggle with. Embrace that struggle! Wrestle with the parts of the Church that you don’t agree with. Ask a million questions to your pastor, or your DS, or your Bishop. None of us are born knowing who we are and who we will be, but the LORD has given us a faithful church that will help us navigate that process.