“You have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed”
Words from The Book of Genesis (Gen. 32.28), from the classic story of struggle, Jacob wrestling with an angel, wrestling with God, it seems, and by virtue of prevailing becomes Israel, one who strives with God. It is all about the struggle, the jihad.
The word, jihad, in its proper spiritual sense, is about the struggle of the soul in relation to the will of Allah, the will of God. So, too, for Christians and Jews, there are the struggles of the soul with respect to God and our life with God in prayer and praise, in service and sacrifice. The struggle means acknowledging our own faults and shortcomings, our sins, to be blunt about it, which is only possible through the prior recognition of the goodness of God. The struggle is “to decline from sin and incline to virtue”; the struggle, quite simply, for “holiness” as Paul tells us. We “are called,” he says, “to holiness” which is the quality of God in our very being. It is a constant struggle intensified for us in the disciplines of the Lenten journey. Lent is about embracing the struggle.
But what kind of struggle? Will it be a struggle which diminishes and destroys or the struggle which dignifies and ennobles? In any event, the struggle is defining. It is nothing less than a “striv[ing] with God and with men,” as the Genesis story reminds us. The struggle, the jihad, is altogether defining. It is ultimately about character and virtue.
This is what we see in the story of the Canaanite woman. We see her perseverance. She tenaciously hangs on to what she believes about Jesus. She senses in him the presence of God in whom there is health and salvation. She seeks in him healing and grace for her daughter. She seeks it by the only means we can receive it – through the prayer for mercy and help. This is no weak and wimpy prayer; this is the prayer of a strong woman who, like Jacob become Israel, will not let go. That tenacity of spirit, that persistent willfulness about what is objectively perceived, that willingness to hold on belongs to the truth of Israel but finds its expression here in one who is from outside Israel, a non-Israelite, yet one who strives with God and breaks into the very heart of God in Jesus Christ.