I am often confronted with the pain and suffering of those who wrestle with their own inner demons. Most often, I find people who are struggling with addiction, either theirs or that of a beloved family member or cherished friend. Addiction knows no bounds. It is not limited to the poor, the uneducated, the immoral. It’s more than just alcohol, drugs, sex, or any plethora of other vices; the state of being addicted to anything is a sickness. First it infects the body, then the mind, then spirals outward to affect the family and friends of those who suffer their own addiction. As bad as it may seem from the outside, often it cannot begin to parallel the internal strife it brings.
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“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him” (Genesis 32:24-25 NRS).
Now I read this passage from a new point of reference. How often do those who struggle with their own addiction feel like Jacob, and the source of their addiction the unknown man? Jacob was left alone; perhaps he felt lonely, abandoned, lost, or hopeless. There in this vulnerable state he find himself under attack, engaged in battle. It’s a long, hard fight that lasts the entire night. Long is the time in darkness for those that are addicted. Life can feel like perpetual night, every moment a struggle to survive, much less thrive. The man does not prevail against Jacob, but neither does the text indicate that Jacob triumphed. It was more like a draw. The man will withdraw from Jacob, but not before leaving a permanent mark, a reminder of this epic struggle: he strikes Jacob, pulling his hip out of joint. Even when one overcomes their addiction, there is often a lasting scar that will linger for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the pain is physical, like the alcoholic who drinks until their liver fails, or emotional, like the drug user who robbed their friends and family to support their habit and left lasting distrust and suspicion. No matter what, there is always suffering because addiction abuses our bodies, our minds, our spirits. It hurts us and those we love, and especially hurts God to see one of his children in pain. Nor should anything have more influence in our lives than God, who can be pushed out by our cravings.
Most important in this text is that Jacob will ultimately prevail over the man, and receive a blessing. The struggle has left Jacob physically weak, but he emerges stronger in a spiritual sense. It is a point of debate whether the man was God or simply a divine being; the Hebrew text is evasive. The metaphor of wrestling is powerful and perfectly matched with conversation about addiction. To envision those we know, especially those we love, wrestling as if their lives depend upon it, and often they do, places us in the unique position of showing our support through our presence and our prayers. No one could wrestle for Jacob; the match was his to win or lose. We cannot battle the inner demons of others. It can be the worst place in the world, stuck on the sidelines watching helplessly as someone you love is threatened with defeat. But someone is there in the midst of the struggle; God never abandons us, even when we abandon God. Jesus came to walk in our midst and free people from their inner demons, their possession by evil spirits. I think of Mary Magdalene whom Christ called by name. She had been possessed by seven unclean spirits before she came to know Jesus. After she was cured, she followed Christ and her story of struggle and triumph became part of our sacred text. The sin is not the struggle, it’s in the acquiescence to defeat.
For some of us, our inner demons are powerful addictions, for others it is our refusal to purge ourselves of our sinful ways. Whatever it is with which we struggle, we must realize that God has not abandoned us. We are not left alone with our adversary. Christ is with us and calls us by name, so that we can be like Mary Magdalene, redeemed by God’s love and empowered to help others. Let us not abandon those who suffer with addictions, for God has not abandoned us who still suffer our sins.
God of Power and Might,
Long are the nights when we are tormented by our sinful state.
For those who are bound by the chains of addiction,
We ask that you might sustain us in our battle to overcome what ails us.
For those who struggle against their sinfulness,
Open our eyes to a new way of living in Christ.
Help us to put away our own judgment,
Instead, let us offer our hands to those whom the world has cast off.
Jesus Christ, the Great Healer, came for the sick.
We, who embody Christ, must care for them also.
Let us not be afraid.
As you are with us, no one, no addiction, can stand against us.
In you, we find our strength and our redemption.
Glory be to the God of those who struggle!