Holy Discontentment

For the week of November 20, 2021 / 16 Kislev 5782

Young child with an earnest pained expression

Vayishlach
Torah:  Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 (English 11:7 – 12:11)

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Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit / Genesis 32:26-28)

This is one of the most, if not the most, profound moments in the entire Bible. How could anyone strive with God and prevail? But Jacob did, and it resulted, not only in he himself becoming known as “Israel,” the one who strives with God, but his people as well. The Chosen People of God would continue this striving (and sometimes prevailing) from then until now.

For many striving with God appears to be contrary to what a life of faith should be. We have images of serene saints disconnected from their passions and cares, humbly and unquestioningly receiving divine directions, submissively doing his bidding no matter how difficult it might be. We may have such images, but they are not derived from the Bible. Instead, Scripture paints a picture of struggle, doubt, fear, hope, failure, and lots of questions.

Our failure to grasp the struggle we are called to often results in a false version of contentment. Contentment is a good thing when it comes to our possessions and other worldly markers of success. But, on the other hand, we are not to be content. The Messiah himself taught his disciples to pray, saying: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We are to pray that the world would coming into alignment with God’s will. This demands we not accept things the way they are, but rather to seek God for radical change. This necessitates a holy discontentment.

Holy discontentment doesn’t automatically direct us to constructive solutions. Too often our solutions are worse than the problems. This is why we are called to pray for change before we seek to implement it. Only God’s will in God’s way will extend his kingdom on earth.

Prayer as our response to holy discontentment should not take us back to those images of pious serenity. Instead, we should remember Jacob. I am aware that he was not concerned about what was wrong with the world. In his case, he was overwhelmed with terror as he anticipated encountering his brother. He was worried about what Esau might do to him after being ripped off by Jacob twenty or so years before. Still, his approach to God illustrates for us the struggle in prayer that God values.

Too often prayer is a thought-toss to the sky, slighted dusted with the hope that perhaps God Almighty may deem us worthy of his attention and, if we are lucky, things will go our way. I know most people would never think of prayer exactly like that, but I wonder. How many, like Jacob, won’t let go of God until he blesses them, despite being injured in the process?

Jacob isn’t alone in such an earnest approach to God. When Hannah prays for a son, who ended up being the great prophet Samuel, we read “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). King David prays prayers such as “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Tehillim/Psalms 13:1). Jeremiah cries out: “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 8:23; English 9:1). The Messiah himself “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). Some think this is a reference to his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is more likely a description of his general posture in prayer.

Is this intensity in prayer necessary? Doesn’t God know the desires of our hearts, not to mention his awareness of his own plans and purposes. If we think about it enough, we may be tempted to conclude that prayer shouldn’t be necessary, let alone require the effort we see in these examples. However, I don’t think it is an issue of necessity. Jacob and the others weren’t concerned about the theology of prayer. They were only concerned about two things, their need and the only one who could meet that need. Their intensity was a result of their desperation connecting with an understanding of God’s power and generosity.

This cannot be put on. Such intensity can’t be faked. But, at the same time, taking these and other biblical examples seriously can encourage us to get honest about our deepest needs and our lack of faith with regard to God’s response to our prayers. I wonder what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to strive with him, to hold on to him until he blesses us (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:26).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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