In 1964, a young boxer named Cassius Clay fought the legendary Sonny Liston for boxing’s heavyweight title. Neither pugilist was a beloved figure.
Liston didn’t always fight clean, they said. He was an ex-convict with alleged mob ties. Clay was a great talent but, even at the young age of 22, had what many thought was an insufferably big mouth. Clay leaned into his persona, trying to rile up opponents.
While other boxers like the British heavyweight Henry Cooper said they didn’t even want to walk down the same street as Liston, Clay, after the bout was announced, bought a bus and painted the words “Liston Must Go in Eight,” suggesting the round in which he would end the fight. Clay drove the bus to Liston’s house and, at 3 in the morning, challenged Liston to come out and get his beating. Clay called Liston a big ugly bear and said that after the fight he would donate him to the zoo.
Suffice it to say, Clay endeared himself to no one. Jim Murray from the Los Angeles Times wrote that 180 million Americans would be rooting for a double knockout.
The fight was a national sensation. Most older Americans cheered for Liston to beat the young upstart. Some younger Americans pinned their hopes on Clay. Clay was a big underdog, but he danced around the larger Liston. And while Liston landed some punches, and Clay’s eyes began to sting — possibly from an illegal substance applied to Liston’s gloves — the story goes that Liston was undone by a shoulder injury. (Clay later said it was from swinging and missing him so many times.)
The bell rang for the seventh round and Howard Cosell called, in shock, that Liston wasn’t coming out of his corner. The fight was over; Clay had won. Already a star, Clay proclaimed he was the greatest; and after the fight he emerged with his new name — as if forged by the struggle itself Muhammad Ali.
We know that a struggle can be transformative, as if we might emerge from any challenge with a new identity. A job loss, a disease, a conflict, a loss — all of these make us who we are. And if we struggle long enough, we become more ourselves, even if we leave the fight — limping, but blessed— because we’ve wrestled something out of a conflict. You’re probably proudest of those things for which you have fought the most.
An old story in the book of Genesis shows the kind of transformation that happens through struggle. Jacob, a patriarch of Israel, crosses a river one night. He wrestles against an unknown antagonist but emerges with a new name, despite his wounds.
The identity of Jacob’s assailant was a popular conversation in the early church. Maybe it was a passerby. Maybe it was an angel. Maybe it was God himself. Maybe it was Jacob, wrestling with his own doubt throughout the night. William Faulkner once wrote that the only story worth telling is the human heart at war with itself.
Jacob sits at the edge of a river waiting for his brother Esau, who is on the horizon with armed followers. Maybe Jacob wonders if it’s comeuppance for so many wrongs.
So Jacob fights with himself, praying, struggling to cross to the challenge ahead. But the struggle comes to him. A stranger assails him. Jacob fights. And he starts to lose. He gets struck on the hip and it goes out of joint. Now he’ll be even weaker when he meets his brother Esau, who he still fears. Now he’ll limp for the rest of his life. But he won’t let go.
In the end, he wants to know that name of his assailant — but it’s a trick. Asserting a name means you hold a kind of power over another. And Jacob doesn’t get to name God. God names Jacob —Israel — the one who has struggled with God. The identity of the attacker revealed to us by accident. Jacob, as if baptized, limps through the river, and comes out with a new name, made by his struggles.
At the heart of our struggles right now maybe be a lot of unanswered questions for God. And maybe it takes the falling away of everything else to see it. A virus sickens you or confines you. It changes the world around you. Anxiety about school strikes in a new way — or work, or church, or any of the other places that were once easily accessible but now come with a tinge of threat.
Our lives of grasping fall away in that basic insecurity of loneliness or fear or anxiety or worry. Sitting on the shore of something new we wonder what we’ll meet next. And in our wrestling with God and ourselves, we’re wounded. We don’t come out of this whole. We know that about the kind of life God has called us into. Jesus didn’t get out unscathed, either.
The purpose of our life isn’t to avoid suffering, but to wrestle a blessing from it — from all of those anxious, unasked questions we only get to in the quiet of the night, when we’re all alone. We struggle and we wrestle, making sense of it all, becoming who God made us to be, when we limp into the dawn.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.