Fighting the Divine: Relational Theology as Confrontational
By Matthew J. Korpman
Conflict is actually a healthy part of any relationship—even that with God!
When people imagine ideal relationships, they rarely imagine conflict. In fact, many would presume that any sign of struggle is immediately a negative indication as to the strength of a relationship. Harmony has become the sought-after virtue that many imagine when visualizing an ideal friendship, relationship, or marriage. To illustrate this, one need only look to older, upheld stereotypes for wives in Western and Asian cultures which depict them as submissive and obedient to their husband’s desires, never raising disagreements.
This raises the important observation that the common desire for a harmonious and peaceful relationship, one lacking conflict, is actually rooted in our toxic traditions of patriarchy, with its focus on control and manipulation. In order to have such “harmony,” one must either be only in relationship with a copy of themself or one partner must have their desires lifted higher than the other. In a healthy relationship, whenever there are two different people with distinct views, there will be a conflict of some sort. Rather than something to avoid, this conflict is a healthy sign that each partner in the relationship is free to express their individuality. And this raises yet another important point: that the only way in which we grow beyond our status quo as individuals is through experiencing such conflicts.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson notes the problem with our desire to avoid conflict: it isn’t actually what is best for human flourishing. Instead of a marriage being “tranquil,” he notes that he “often thought of marriage as a wrestling match,” and that “if you’re lucky, the person that you marry is someone you contend with.” To want a wife who contends with you means that “she should be more on the side of who you could be, than on the side of who you are . . . someone who will stand up, you know, and have her say, even if it’s not what I would say.” He then likens this to our calling as humans, and likewise, our spirituality, remarking that, “to be more than you were, to push those limits” requires that “you contend with the world. You wrestle with God.”1
Human beings grow through conflict and disagreement, discovering what we believe most when those convictions are tested in the fire. When this applies to our relationship with God, an uncomfortable realization emerges: although obedience and submission are emphasized most typically, if a relational view of God is to be most healthy, it must involve conflict. And that conflict cannot be one-sided (i.e., God toward us) but must reflect an equality between both partners (including humans against God). In short, a proper relationship between God and humanity must involve confrontation.
This essay will seek to introduce briefly the background and idea of what I call a confrontational approach to theology. It will begin by outlining the biblical background of this often-ignored portrait and then will proceed to outline how this theological approach can breathe new life into our approaches toward God.
Contrary to expectations, the idea of portraying our relationship with God through means of conflict and confrontation is not only present in the Bible, it is present positively. Biblical heroes of faith such as Abraham and Moses are both depicted as arguing with God about the proper way for God to act toward humanity, and not only does God welcome the disagreements, but in the latter case, God admits that Moses is right and revokes his previously stated plans (see Gen 18:16-33 and Exod 32:7-14). In the book of Leviticus, Moses’ brother Aaron continues the tradition by breaking God’s law as a reaction to what he perceives was a betrayal from God, an action which God respects and does not punish Aaron for, much to Moses’ own shock (Lev 10:1-20). The character Job famously fights with God from afar through an entire book, raising his voice to heaven’s heights. Not only does Job push the limits of what many consider appropriate theological speech, but when God finally shows up, he affirms that Job spoke in a correct way, rather than Job’s friends who defended God (Job 42:7).
The single most important text for explaining this common phenomenon is found in the story of Jacob, who finds himself attacked by God in the dark night. Instead of submitting to God’s perceived will, he fights back with all his strength. When God asks Jacob to let him go, he refuses to let go unless God gives him a blessing. In other words, the implication of this request could be paraphrased as: “though you came as a curse, I won’t accept that this was your purpose. You must give me a blessing, just as you promised me once before that you would do.” What, then, is the blessing given to Jacob? A new changed name: Israel, which means “those who fight God.” The blessing God provides Jacob, and his later descendants, is that they will repeat the fight with God as Jacob did that night. Why is the blessing to continue contending? Because this is what it means to have a relationship with God: to affirm his promise and know it’s true even when it seems God is giving one reason to doubt.
This theme is also repeated in the New Testament where we are told two stories about Jesus’ interactions: one with a Canaanite woman and the other with his own mother. In the former, Jesus refuses to help a woman with healing her child because she is a foreigner. When the woman refutes the logic Jesus gives, so demonstrating a flaw with its reasoning, Jesus celebrates her faith and says her rebuttal of his words (affirmed as itself an act of faith) assured her child’s healing (see Mark 7:24-30 and Matt 15:21-28). In the latter story, Jesus refuses to help a crisis at a wedding, informing his mother that it is not his hour. Instead of accepting his words, she informs her servants to trust that he will fix the problem. And sure enough, Jesus immediately gets to work, enacting his famous first miracle in the Gospel of John (2:1-11).
Alongside these stories, there are also tales of humans who lost their battles with God. The most famous of these is Jonah. What distinguishes those who successfully fought God from those who failed is the root of their struggle. For Moses, Jacob, and Abraham, their struggle was rooted in a deep belief in the moral quality of God’s revealed character. For Jonah, it was his disagreement with God’s moral character that led him to fight, and to lose (Jonah 4:2).
Seeing God as Both Provocateur and Partner
The reformer John Calvin, similar to his contemporary Martin Luther, noted that what was common to these stories (particularly the text of Exodus 32) is that God appears to be both the partner who fights beside you and also the teacher or coach who provokes you to the fight. “For we do not fight against him, except by his own power, and with his own weapon; for he, having challenged us to this contest, at the same time furnishes us with means of resistance, so that he both fights against us and for us.”2
To see God as serving both roles is to acknowledge that God has both a desire to empower us in our struggles, but also to grow us in specific ways through that struggle. In short, this is no different from the common stereotype of a spouse who tests their partner by telling them they can do something that would otherwise normally be considered off-limits. The partner has to intuit that their spouse is testing them. How? Because if they know them well enough, and have listened carefully to their wishes over time, they will know what their true feelings are, despite the words they speak. Failure to recognize this often indicates a failure in the relationship itself.
Or as Martin Luther put it in his Lectures on Genesis:
For if God sent an angel to say: “Do not believe these promises!” I would reject him, saying: “Depart from me, Satan, etc.” (cf. Matt 16:23). Or, if God himself appeared to me in His majesty and said: “You are not worthy of My grace; I will change My plan and not keep My promise to you,” I would not have to yield to Him, but it would be necessary to fight most vehemently against God himself . . . . If he should cast me into the depth of hell and place me in the midst of devils, I would still believe that I would be saved . . . . Therefore, I want to see and hear nothing else, but I shall live and die in this faith, whether God or an angel or the devil says the contrary.3
Luther can reject what even God says precisely because, like a partner who knows their spouse well, he has faith (trust) that the words spoken betray the truth of God’s actual purposes.
Humans often wrestle because we change. We change over time as we age, and we wrestle with ourselves while acknowledging those adaptations. Those around us change, requiring us to wrestle as we come to grips with the transforming reality. Reality is dynamic because it takes place in time and is ever evolving. We confront the unknown and, in so doing, conquer it just long enough to struggle again. Theologian Kathryn Tanner argues that this “incomprehensibility” or ability for us to be “unlimited” in our potential for adaptation distinguishes humanity from other living things, and which aligns us closest to God.
The fact that reality is conditioned, temporal, and changing is not a negative, for it is the possibility of change that ensures injustices may be righted, even as it also allows for the reverse to be possible, thus necessitating our struggles. Our conditioned state of life, affected by as many variables as it is, permits for great beauty to emerge, despite the risks it also entails. The combination of risk and beauty is the nature of revelation. As the prophet Moses, who rejected God’s provocative words, we are faced with things in Scripture that are equally contingent and require a similar resistance undertaken out of faithfulness to God. Scripture, like our human laws, is deconstructible and not to be confused with the ideal of justice or God’s transcendence.
Contrary to the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, which reports that Jesus taught his disciples that they should never argue/fight with him (GJud. 2:38), the Jesus of the canonical gospels invites wrestling and even complete rebuttals (especially by those who are often most oppressed and denied their voice). The faith that God invites humanity to embrace is one which allows for a true and healthy relationship. And as Calvin so rightly noted, and Luther heartedly agreed, it is not that God is changing or actually being defeated, but it is actually us who are being transformed, like Jacob. For unless we are willing to embrace the fight with God, we not only lack on an individual level a healthy relationship with the divine, but we fall short of God’s purpose in calling his people by the name of Israel.
Questions: How has your own wrestling with God changed that relationship? Has it enhanced it?
Matthew J. Korpman is a rising biblical scholar, itinerant preacher, and theological arsonist. Currently pursuing doctoral work in Biblical Studies, he is a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School and holds four bachelor degrees in Theology, Archaeology, Philosophy, and Screenwriting. He has traveled and excavated in Israel and Jordan, and is proud to call San Diego, California his home. See: http://www.matthewjkorpman.com/
Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 53.
Jacques Derrida, “The Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1992).
Chapter and verse numbering based on the edition of Judas found in The Complete Gospels, 4th ed., Robert J. Miller, ed.(Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2010), 353. Page 42 of Codex Tchacos.
1 Jordan B. Peterson, “Biblical Series XIV: Jacob: Wrestling with God Transcript,” (November 2017). https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/transcripts/biblical-series-xiv/ .
2 John Calvin, Genesis, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 272.
3 Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, LW 6:131.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.