The Cure for Atheism

Jason Micheli —  October 7, 2019 — Leave a comment

Genesis 32, Romans 9

     I like Jacob. I like Jacob even though it’s not clear from the biblical witness why I’m supposed to like Jacob. 

     In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t. 

     In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow by faith when God calls, Jacob doesn’t. 

     I like Jacob, but in a tradition where names mean everything, convey everything, foreshadow everything, its not clear from the name, “Jacob,” that we’re meant to root for this character. 

     When he was yet unborn, Jacob, who wrestles God in the dark along the riverbank, for nine months wrestled his twin brother in the dark waters of his mother’s womb. 

And when she gives birth to them, Esau first, the youngest comes out clutching at the leg of the eldest. 

     As if to say, “Me first.”

     So, Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’ 

     Which is a little like naming your kid, “Rudy.“

In movies and television, “Jake” is always the name of the hunky, altruistic hero. 

     But, in Hebrew “Jacob” means heel-grabber, hustler, over-reacher, supplanter, scoundrel, trickster, liar, and a cheat. 

     In a religion where names signify and portend everything, it’s not clear that I’m meant to but, nevertheless, I like Jacob. 

 

     

It’s true, scripture gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Jacob. 

     More than twenty years before they meet face-to-face on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob took advantage of his brother. 

     One afternoon Esau had returned from the fields, dizzy and in a cold sweat from hunger. Jacob pulled some fresh bread from the oven and ladled some lentil soup from the stove. 

     When Esau asked for it, Jacob demanded his elder brother’s birthright in return. 

     As Jacob knew it would, Esau’s birthright seemed an intangible thing compared to hunger. Esau accepted the terms of his brother’s extortion. 

     And, even if Esau knew not what he’d just done, Jacob certainly did. 

     But, I still like Jacob. 

     It’s true that his birthright isn’t the only thing Jacob poaches from his brother. 

     It’s true that when their father, Isaac, was weighed down by age and his eyes were cobwebbed by years, when Isaac was dying and wanted to bless his eldest son— a blessing to be the most powerful of all, a blessing that couldn’t be taken back— he old man lay in his goat-skin tent waiting for his eldest son to appear. 

     After a while he heard someone enter and say, “My father.” And the old man, his eyes darkened by blindness, asked, “Who are you my son?”

     The boy boldly lied and said that he was Esau. And when the old man reached forward to the touch the face he could not see, the boy lied a second time. 

    And when the boy leaned over to kiss the old man and the old man sniffed the scent of Esau’s clothes, just as Jacob knew he would, Isaac blessed him. 

     Jacob lied to his father to steal from his brother the birthright that he coveted. 

     If you’re counting at home, that’s 3 out of 10 commandments, broken in one fail swoop. 

      Still, I’ve got my own reasons. 

I like Jacob. 

     It’s true that soon after Esau’s rage made Jacob a runaway, God spoke to him in a dream— gave him a vision of a ladder traveled by angels— it’s true that when Jacob awoke from the dream and marked the spot with an altar stone and prayed to God, Jacob didn’t pray for forgiveness. 

     He didn’t confess his sin. 

     He didn’t express any remorse or give any hint of a troubled conscience. 

     

     Instead, Jacob prayed with fingers crossed and one eye opened, a prayer that was really more of a deal: 

“If you stand by me God, if you protect me on this journey, God, if you keep me in food and clothing, and bring me back in one piece to my house and land, then you will be my God.”

God revealed God’s self to Jacob. 

And, afterwards, Jacob is still the same Jacob— the same sinner— Jacob was before. 

Like a lot of us (most of us?),  Jacob’s encounter with God leaves Jacob completely unchanged. 

     So, it’s hard for me not to like Jacob. 

    I know it’s true that when he had nowhere else to go, his mother’s brother, Laban, took Jacob in and gave him food and shelter and work and, eventually, a wife and family. 

     I know it’s true that after over 14 years of Laban’s hospitality Jacob became a rich man- but not rich enough to satisfy Jacob who returned Laban’s good deeds by cheating his father-in-law out his wealth. 

     I know it’s true that God, in his compassion, gave children to Leah, because Leah’s husband, Jacob, gave her neither a thought nor a care. 

     If you’re still counting at home, that’s another couple of commandments broken (which still gives him a winning percentage better than the Miami Marlins are likely to have this season.)

     Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief. 

     Jacob’s got a wandering eye and a fickle heart. 

     Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet. 

     Jacob’s always ready to run away from his problems. 

     

    Jacob’s not a bible hero. 

He’s not holy. 

     He’s a heel.

    Still, I can’t help it. 

I like Jacob. 

 

You might not. 

     You might not like Jacob. 

     You might not be like Jacob. 

     

Maybe you’re batting perfect when it comes to the commandments.      

     Congrats.

     Maybe you’ve never lied to your mother or your father, or your husband or your wife. 

     Maybe you’ve never watched idly by as a sibling or a friend, or a neighbor wanders out of your life, gets into trouble and then beyond your reach. 

    Maybe you’ve never betrayed someone you should’ve honored and obeyed. 

     Maybe you’ve never returned a good deed with a petty one, or turned to God only when you needed him. Maybe.

     Maybe your family never suffered such bad blood that it threatens to hemorrhage, or maybe you’ve never let the wounds of a broken relationship fester through years upon years. 

     Maybe you’ve never withheld forgiveness, because clenching that forgiveness in your fist was the only control you possessed. 

     At every point, from his mother’s womb to Jabbok’s river, Jacob has worried about Jacob. Jacob has only ever cared about Jacob. Jacob has looked after no one else, but Jacob. 

     Maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’ve never been like that. 

     Good for you. 

Gold star to you.

     Go ahead and turn your nose up at Jacob. 

 

     

Just because I like him doesn’t mean you should. 

     Not everyone can relate to Jacob. 

     Not everybody can identify with someone who suspects his sins are eventually going to sneak up on him from the shadows of his past. 

     Check the text— Jacob sends his wife and his kids and his possessions packing before a stranger jumps him in the dark and fights dirty until dawn. 

     Jacob ships them off across the Jabbok and then he just waits in the dark for a shadowy struggle he apparently anticipated, but had no actual reason to expect. 

     In other words, the stranger in the shadows doesn’t surprise Jacob, because Jacob was expecting that, sooner or later, the other shoe would drop, the bottom would fall out, and his ill-gotten gain would get him. 

      Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob. 

      Maybe your rap sheet is clean. 

Maybe your conscience is clear.

      Maybe your past really doesn’t stink and so whenever it hits the fan, it never occurs to you that you had it coming.

     Maybe you’ve never clutched the covers at night convinced, “This is happening to me for a reason. God’s doing this to me, because of what I’ve done (or left undone).”

     Maybe you’ve never wondered that this sickness or struggle is because of that sin. 

     Maybe you’ve never harbored the suspicion that the darkness that’s enveloped you is what you deserve. 

     Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob. 

     Lucky you. 

     

Lord knows, I can. 

     I can. 

     But, that’s not why I like Jacob.

 

    

     No, I like Jacob because Jacob is not the sort of guy who would ever send a Hallmark card that says, “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

     I like Jacob, because Jacob, whom God leaves lame and limping and bruised,  knows that the good news is NOT, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” 

I like Jacob, because Jacob knows that God is to be found up at the top of that ladder God showed him, and Jacob knows that the good news— the Gospel— is not that God is there at the top of that ladder to meet u,s if we but climb our way up to him. 

     Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The ladder was not for us to journey up to God. 

The ladder was for God to come down to us. 

Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The good news is that God meets us in the very midst of that which we cannot handle.

 

    Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who published a book entitled Dignity earlier this year. 

Arnade used to be atheist. The book started out as an essay he wrote for The Guardian entitled, “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes.”

Arnade was an unbelieving, French-cuffed financier on Wall Street. 

When the market crashed in 2008 and he lost his job, he began travelling through urban America, interviewing homeless addicts and prostitutes and squatters and taking their pictures. 

“I had always counted myself an atheist,” Arnade writes, “I picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies.”

“When I first walked into the Bronx, photographing homeless addicts, I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be. None of them are. Rather, they are some of the strongest believers I have met.”

Arnade writes about a forty-something woman named, Takeesha. She talked to him for an hour standing against a wall at the Corpus Christi Monastery in the South Bronx. 

When she was 13, Takeesha’s mother, who was a prostitute, put her out to work the streets with her, which she’s done for the last thirty years. 

“It’s sad,” Takeesha told Arnade, “when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Jesus. Whenever I got into [a guy’s] car, Jesus came down and stuck with me and got into the car with me.” 

Takeesha has a framed print of the Last Supper that she takes with her— a moveable feast— wherever she goes to sleep for the night. 

She’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.

“He’s always comes down and meets me where I am when I need him the most,” she told Arnade. 

 

     I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the “glory story.”

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. 

     The “glory story” prompts those kinds of questions and clichés, because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. 

The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God, but God’s journey down to us. 

     The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension, not our ascension. 

     And, the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. 

     Rather, the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended. 

Indeed, that’s why the first Christians believed it was the pre-incarnate Christ Jacob wrestles here in the dark of the night. 

This angel in the darkness is the Second Adam (Jesus) who has the authority to (re)name God’s creatures. 

     The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. 

     The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles. 

     And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the “glory story.”

     We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God, it starts with searching for Him in our weakness. 

If we hope to find wholeness from God, it begins by seeking Him out in our woundedness.  

If we dream of finding healing from God, we first must look for God not up in glory, but down into the pit of our nightmare. 

     Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help, we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. 

     Up into glory, rather than down in to the darkness, and out into the shadows that surround us. 

    So, I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Because, it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ. 

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s. 

     Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness, and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing— that’s not just the Jacob story, that’s the Gospel. 

     That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by grace alone through faith alone. We mean that you alone— by your lonesome— do not have the strength to save yourself. 

     You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint. NOTE: poor guy.

     That’s why the bread is broken. 

And it’s why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar. 

     Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. 

 

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

“On the streets, with their daily battles and constant proximity to death, they have come to understand viscerally the truth about all of us which many privileged and wealthy people have the luxury to avoid: that life is neither rational nor fair, that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes.” 

“Meeting people like Takeesha,” Arnade writes, “I soon saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well. We don’t believe in God because, with our cash and comfort, we don’t need to believe in God, which is but another way of saying “God only meets us in our need.”” 

The cure for atheism, in other words, is found not at the top of the ladder, but at the bottom. 

Or, in the middle of Jacob’s wrestling ring.

    

    

    

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