Wrestling with Angels: When “Good Enough” is Not Good Enough

Huh? Wrestling with angels?

Aren’t angels supposed to be the good guys? Don’t they go around spreading love and light and all that wonderful stuff?

Yes, angels are beings of love and light. But as portrayed in the Bible, angels have a dark side, too:

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Eugene Delacroix

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Eugene Delacroix

That same night . . . 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. Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

So he said to him, “What is your name?”

And he said, “Jacob.”

Then he said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life was preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32:22, 24–31)

Yes, Jacob thought he was wrestling with God. But that’s impossible. God is omnipotent. If the “man” that Jacob was wrestling with had really been God, it would have been no contest! That’s why the story has been traditionally identified as “Jacob wrestling with the angel.” As we’ll see in a future post, in the Bible God commonly appears through angels, and angels are sometimes called “gods.”

Now, if all of the leading characters and all of the stories in the Old Testament are symbolic of Jesus Christ (as he himself told us in several places in the Gospels), does this mean that Jesus, too, wrestled with angels?

And if the Bible is telling the story of our own spiritual rebirth as “new creations in Christ” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17), do we, too, wrestle with angels as part of our spiritual journey?

That’s the subject of a spiritual conundrum posed by a reader named Ray Silverman:

Swedenborg says that Jesus was “tempted by the angels.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this and wondering if this is just something that took place within Jesus’ mind at a level we cannot begin to imagine, or something that takes place within our minds as well. If it does take place within us as well, could you give me some practical examples of how we might be “tempted by the angels.” Thanks!

Angels aren’t perfect

First, let’s get one issue out of the way. Compared to us humans on earth, angels are indeed powerful beings of love and light; but they are not perfect. The ancient book of Job says, “God puts no trust even in his holy ones, and the heavens are not clean in his sight” (Job 15:15).

There is only one perfect being: God.

There is only one infinite being: God.

All other beings in the universe are finite, limited, imperfect. Including angels. In fact, angels are simply human beings who have lived out their lifetimes here on earth, and have moved on to their permanent homes in the higher, spiritual plane of heaven. For more on angels, see the article, “Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?

Yes, angels are farther along on their spiritual journey than those of us who are still living on earth. But they are still learning. They are still growing spiritually. And they still do have their dark side of ignorance and ego, just as even the best of us here on earth do. As angels themselves readily acknowledge, all of the love and wisdom they have is not theirs, but is a gift from God continually flowing into and through them.

In fact, if angels forget that everything good and true in them is God’s and not their own, they fall out of their heavenly community and experience a brief but painful period of depression and emptiness of soul until they come to their senses and lay aside their ego-driven sense that they are good and wise on their own. As Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19).

We experience angels as powerful beings of love and light because God’s love and wisdom is flowing through them. But we should keep in mind that angels, too, are imperfect beings who are simply servants of God (see Revelation 19:10, 22:8–9).

Jesus wrestled with angels

After his resurrection, Jesus went through the Scriptures with two of his followers, explaining to them how everything in the Bible told his story. (See Luke 24:13–35, and also Luke 24:36–48.) In John 5:39, Jesus says that the Scriptures tell (or “testify”) about him.

If we follow Jesus’ lead, and think of Jacob as a figure representing Jesus Christ, we can get some understanding of what Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was talking about when he said in Secrets of Heaven #4295, while interpreting the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, that Jesus allowed not only devils from hell, but even angels from heaven to tempt him during his lifetime here on earth. According to Swedenborg’s interpretation of the Bible, Jesus Christ not only fought and overcame all the power of hell, but also fought and overcame the entire angelic heaven. In this way he crowned himself king of all the spiritual realms.

What was it like for him to be tempted by the angels?

Abandoned by family, friends, disciples, and angels

As finite humans with small and limited minds, we can scarcely fathom the depths of what Jesus went through when he had to battle against and suffer at the hands not only of the demonic forces who were his enemies, but also of the angelic powers who should have been his friends.

However, we can perhaps get some sense of it if we have had the supremely painful experience of being abandoned and betrayed by our own family and friends—if we have faced the agony of being attacked and belittled by those who are supposed to love and support us.

We do know from the Gospels that Jesus was abandoned and even opposed at various times by his family, his friends, and his followers.

For example, early in his ministry, when a crowd had gathered around him, his family came to the conclusion that he was crazy, and tried to take him into custody. Jesus would have none of it, and “adopted” all of the people seated around him listening to his words as his new family. (See Mark 3:20–21, 31–35.)

Far more painful for him was the experience of being abandoned even by his closest followers as he approached his death. He asked Peter, James, and John to stay and watch with him during his agonizing hour of prayer before his crucifixion—but they all fell asleep (Mark 14:32–42). When he was arrested, all of his disciples deserted him and fled (Mark 14:43–50). Peter went on to deny that he even knew Jesus (Mark 14:66–72), just as Jesus had predicted he would (Mark 14:27–31). Even the bravest of his disciples stayed at a distance, incognito. Jesus had to face his accusers alone.

What does this mean spiritually? What was Jesus’ experience in his inner battles of trial and temptation? How was he “tempted by the angels?”

The Gospels give us only two brief glimpses of Jesus’ temptations: one right after his baptism, when he went into the desert and fasted for forty days and nights, and was then tempted by the Devil (Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13); and the other on the night of his arrest. In both cases, he had to face the powers of evil alone. Even the angels were not present with him until after the Devil had finished tempting him. They came and aided him only after the Devil left (Matthew 4:11).

The angels tempted him by their very absence. They tempted him by their inability to help him in his times of deepest agony, when he most needed their support. When he faced his greatest struggles, he was abandoned by all of his friends, including his spiritual friends: the angels. No one, not even the highest of the angels, was able go the distance and stand with him. He faced the powers of darkness alone (see Isaiah 63:5).

When “support” is really opposition

In his famous “Letter from Birgmigham Jail,” written in response to a “Statement by Alabama Clergymen,” Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:

Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Brimingham City Jail

Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Brimingham City Jail

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice . . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Why was Dr. King so bitterly disappointed, not by his enemies, but by those whom he had counted as his friends? Dr. King was accustomed to threats and violent opposition from his racist opponents. Why did this statement from his fellow clergy opposing the demonstrations for racial equality sting him so deeply, and goad him into writing one of the most powerful, eloquent, and heartfelt appeals of his career?

These Christian and Jewish clergy were not opposed to racial integration. In fact, they professed to support equality for blacks and other minorities. But they opposed any powerful, public actions to secure that equality. In the concluding sentences of the published statement to which Dr. King was responding, they had written, “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations.”

If the angels of God inhabit heaven, then the closest thing we have to heaven here on earth is the community of God’s followers, commonly called the Church. The struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his fellow clergy suggests another way that Jesus Christ was “tempted by the angels.”

Perhaps, in reading of Dr. King’s experience as described in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, we can imagine some of the conversations Jesus Christ was having with the angels as he approached his final battles against all the evils of humanity. Perhaps we can imagine some of the things the angels might have been saying to him:

  • “Do you really have to be so extreme about this battle against evil?”
  • “Why do you have to do it now? Time will heal all wounds.”
  • “You’re putting yourself in danger! We love you, and we don’t want you to get hurt!”
  • “You don’t really have to be crucified, do you? There’s got to be a more peaceful and less gruesome way to overcome the power of evil!
  • “Maybe it’s not necessary to completely rout the Devil. Maybe you could just beat the hellish powers back a bit, and teach them a lesson. You can always finish the job later.”

We may never know exactly how Jesus had to wrestle with the angels, and gain victory over the more subtle, deep, and difficult temptations that came to him from heaven—subtle, deep, and difficult because they came from those who loved him and cared about him.

But perhaps we can sum it up by saying that like his closest disciples, none of the angels could fully understand his goals and his mission. All of them tried to talk him out of going the full distance to complete the task that he had come to earth to accomplish.

Perhaps, like a mother unable to untie the apron strings from her grown children, the angels “lovingly” tried to hold him back from achieving his full potential and achieving his infinitely loving goal of saving the entire human race, past, present, and future from the power of evil. (See “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?”)

Tempted by our angels

What does all of this mean for us ordinary mortals?

Sometimes the toughest battles we face are those against our own family and friends.

None of us will ever attain the divine power of Jesus Christ. Few of us will ever exercise the wide-reaching spiritual power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But all of us have the ability to do great things within the smaller spheres of life that we inhabit. We have the ability to powerfully express God’s love and light in the goals and professions to which we devote our lives. Whether we become a CEO or an accountant, a business executive or a heavy machinery operator, a teacher or an electrician, we can excel in the tasks we do, and provide good, intelligent, loving, and thoughtful service to our fellow human beings in ways great and humble. (See “What Does Religion Have to Do with My Profession and My Daily Work?”)

And who is least likely to think that we can achieve great things with our life?

Probably our family and friends.

The problem is, they know “ordinary old us” too well. They think that what they’ve seen of us so far is all we’ll ever achieve. And of all people, they’re probably the least likely to think that we can rise to any kind of greatness.

And even if they do, they’re likely to think that they know how we should go about doing it, that they know better than we do what we should do with our life.

Too often, parents “help” their children by trying to shield them from the struggles of life, by bailing them out when they’re in trouble and not letting them experience the sense of self-confidence and personal power that can come only from facing and overcoming our own struggles on our own terms, and by our own wits and efforts.

Too often, friends “help” their friends by assuring them that they don’t have to work so hard. “Just take it easy! Don’t be so hard on yourself! Relax, and enjoy the pleasures of life.”

In these and many other ways, our “angels”—those who love us and care about us—hold us back from achieving our greatest potential in life.

Following our own upward path

Perhaps that’s why Jesus said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34–39)

Sometimes we have to leave our family and friends behind in order to achieve our highest and best goals in life. This may or may not mean literally coming into conflict with them. But if we wish to reach our full potential as human beings, we cannot allow family and friends to talk us out of moving forward on the path toward that potential.

Ultimately, the only one who knows our true and highest potential is God. And as we focus our lives on discovering and following the path that God has in mind for us—which is our own upward path in life—there will be times when we will have to push aside all the “loving” advice and protests of those who care for us, and doggedly pursue what we know is the right course for our own life.

Like Jesus, we may have to face abandonment even by those who had been our personal “angels.” Like Jesus, we may have to wrestle with those who would hold us back.

But the promise of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angels is that if we do not give up, but continue the struggle through the nighttime of our trials and temptations, though we may walk away limping and in pain from our fresh wounds, we will receive a great blessing.

It is the blessing of one who has struggled with God and with humans, and has prevailed. It is the blessing of inheriting the life of greatness that God has in store for each one of us.

In addition to being a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader, this is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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