Today’s Lent guest post is by Daniel Hochhalter, author of Losers Like Us, an ebook that shows how our worst mistakes and greatest failures bring us to a place of teachability, egolessness, brokenness, and empathy.
People often describe discipleship and the Christian life as a series of hills and valleys through which Jesus leads us. But to me, discipleship is more like a struggle, a wrestling match with God. And during Lent, as we wrestle with sin vs. redemption, I think of Jacob—the ultimate wrestler with God.
In Genesis 32, Jacob gets ready to meet his older brother Esau—who he tricked, years earlier, out of the birthright and blessing (Genesis 25, 27). Thinking Esau might still be a little peeved about that, maybe even peeved even to kill, Jacob spends a night alone in the wilderness, preparing himself.
Thus begins a series of strange events.
During the night—a detail both literal to the story and metaphorical to the spiritual journey— a mysterious man appears and for some odd reason, the two immediately start mixing it up (verse 24). This man turns out to be God (verses 28, 30).
Then it gets even weirder.
At daybreak (verse 25) —again, a detail literal to the story and metaphorical to the spiritual journey —God realizes that, incredibly, he cannot overpower Jacob. So he does what referees would call cheating: he cripples Jacob by wrenching his hip.
Yet even after this crippling, Jacob refuses to concede; instead, he demands: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (verse 26). And God does bless him: he changes his name and identity from Jacob, meaning “heel grabber,” to Israel, meaning “struggles with God” (verse 28).
Finally, when it’s all over, Jacob makes an amazing claim: “I have seen the face of God” (verse 30).
Like Jacob, my experience with God has been a throwdown. I demand explanations from God. And I don’t want clichés; I want real answers.
So I wrestle with him until he cripples me.
My divine crippling came in February 2008. After seven years of study in a British postgraduate program, I flew to England to defend my thesis—the final step toward the PhD degree I needed to teach college. While there were no guarantees, my supervisor deemed my thesis “ready to submit” and explained that by far the likeliest outcome was that it would pass, with some changes required.
At the appointed time, I walked into the examiners’ office.
An hour later, I staggered out with . . . nothing. My thesis was utterly rejected, with no grounds for appeal.
All that time, money, and effort —gone.
It was a long, somber flight home.
To this day, I am certain God led me into that program. But what kind of God would lead me into such a death-trap? Isn’t he loving enough to fight fair? Isn’t he strong enough to subdue me without cheating like that?
Seven years later, I still have few answers. However, those years have affirmed some key points in my understanding of discipleship.
First: Discipleship is messy and unpredictable because we can’t tame God; we never know what he will do.
Second: Sometimes discipleship involves believers mentoring each other, but other times it’s a long, solitary night of just one person, wrestling with God.
Third: In the wrestling match called discipleship, human motivations may vary, but God’s motivation is always the same—to give us a new identity and draw us closer to him.
Since my PhD disaster, out of my wrestling with God have come two unexpected new directions: a book (Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure) which I wrote about my own broken life, reflected in the lives of Jesus’ twelve disciples; and a new focus on encouraging other broken people.
Yes, I still limp. My PhD failure will limit me, at least in academia, for the rest of my life. Yet at the same time, God has blessed me: he has renamed me from Daniel the Failure to Daniel the Published Author—a new identity I still can hardly believe.
I can’t say the wrestling is over; I continue to mix it up with God, demanding answers for things too hard to understand. But I can say I’m amazed to discover how creatively determined God is to pursue intimacy with me, at all costs.
And that discovery is the heart of true discipleship.
During Lent, I urge you to wrestle with God. Shout out your rawest, angriest, most painful questions. Go for the headlock and yell: “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”
By baring your soul and laying everything on the altar—all your hopes and dreams, dead or alive—I truly believe that you, like Jacob, will be able to say, “I have seen the face of God.”
I may not see it fully yet, but I am getting a glimpse.