Confrontation and struggle were a way of life for me in my first solo pastorate. In the first six weeks of being in the church I faced every kind of sin imaginable, to the point that my mentor in the faith recommended I take some time off. I had not even been there for two months! Although that was a difficult time, the greatest struggle was with God himself and feeling like my prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling. In fact, I spent several years of my life in an extended wrestling match with God. He touched me and crippled me by his grace, reminding me how much he is in control. Since that time, I walk with a limp that is not visible – an invisible limp which reminds me I am a different person – one who knows Jesus better and is much more at peace with life.
If we do not wrestle with God in the stressful times of our lives, we will have difficulty discovering what genuine humility is, how much we need the Holy Spirit, and the grace that can be ours to face the rest of our lives. Five hundred years ago Thomas à Kempis wrote to new priests entering ministry with this advice:
“We should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement. It is when a man of good will is distressed or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing. While enduring these afflictions he takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans; he grows tired of this life and wishes to die so that he could be undone to live with Christ. It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”
The Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, was worried and stressed. He knew he had deceived his brother Esau many years earlier to gain their father’s blessing. Now Jacob is about to meet Esau after all these years, and he is downright afraid for himself and his large family. So, he divided them up into two groups, thinking that if Esau were to attack, the other group could escape. The night before the big stressful meeting, Jacob sent his wives and family across a tributary of the Jordan River, the Jabbok, and spent the night alone wrestling with God. (Genesis 32:22-31)
God will put us in life-compromising positions to create divine encounters so that we will walk away changed. Those events usually come in the form of engaging God with all the questions and difficulties of an incredibly stressful situation. The inner change that occurs comes in the form of a new identity, a new limp, and a renewed understanding of God’s grace. A new confidence arises, convinced that through disability and weakness we are strong and able.
There is a good deal of symbolism happening in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God. First, take note that this Scripture story raises more questions than it answers, such as: Who was the man Jacob wrestled? Was he God, an angel, or someone else? Why have a wrestling match? What in the world is going on here? The unanswered questions are symbolic of the reality that we do not and probably will not get the clarity we are looking for in our struggles with God. Sometimes we might not even know it is God whom we are wrestling with. It is quite possible where we see God estranged from us, he really has us in the grip of grace and will not let go.
Second, Jacob got up during the night, representing his dark night of the soul and struggle with the circumstance he must face. Jacob was left alone with no one to deceive (his typical modus operandi) which is symbolic of his great need – he had no “tricks up his sleeve” and had nowhere to turn but to God. Jacob was asked by his wrestling opponent what his name is. Jacob’s answer is a humble one, confessing who he really is (Jacob means “schemer” or “deceiver”). Jacob asked for a blessing, which in itself is an act of humility because it is an honest profession that he lacks something necessary for life that he cannot provide on his own through any kind of ingenuity on his part.
Third, Jacob asked for God’s name – and got no answer to his question, no clarity, and no satisfaction. This is deeply symbolic of the fact that God is mysterious, and we will not always get the answers to our questions we want. God will not kowtow to our puny attempts at controlling him. Jacob would not let the wrestling match end and held on, just like he grasped the heel of his brother Esau at their birth. This is a symbolic reference to Jacob’s stubbornness which was redeemed and transformed into tenacity, rather than a manipulation of people to get what he wanted.
Fourth, God renamed Jacob, “Israel.” Jacob is now distinguished from the old deceiver with a new identity. Israel literally means “God fights” which is a reference of hope for Jacob’s descendants. That Jacob struggled with God and was able to walk away from it is not really a statement of physical victory so much as a reference to Jacob’s having overcome his constant fear and need for control which prompted his continual trickery.
Fifth, Jacob’s limp is a permanent sign of God’s grace to Jacob. God is with him and his descendants. Jacob is a different person having encountered God, and the limp is a continual reminder God changed his life forever – Jacob will never be the same after this. Ironically, the limp made Jacob stronger, not weaker. From this point forward in Jacob’s life, he is mindful of his limitations and that God is the One who will arise to fight, protect, and carry on the covenant promises. There is no longer any need or even desire to scheme to accomplish anything.
It will be difficult to find grace apart from wrestling with God in the painful situations of life. It is in such times we must be crippled by grace. We need to be willing to fight with God. It is necessary to get in the match and struggle with God rather than worry within ourselves or just pretend everything is okay so that we will avoid the hard contest in front of us.
Has God left a permanent mark on you? Do you carry a limp from him? What is your name? How does God identify you? Our great need is not in being clever, smart, or working harder; it is God’s grace that we all need. As a kid, when my parents left the house, my brother and I would rearrange the furniture so that we could have a good-solid-knock-down-drag-out wrestling match. Since my brother was older, it usually ended badly for me with a pile-driver that left me incapacitated. It is seriously a miracle that I am still alive after being dropped on my head so many times.
Whenever Christians approach the Lord’s Table, we are reminded of the Son who wrestled with the Father in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and came away confident of facing a cruel cross so that we might have life. The Lord Jesus carries with him even now the reminders of his suffering – the marks on his hands and his feet from a crucifixion that accomplished deliverance from sin on our behalf. The elements of bread and cup are deeply symbolic reminders of what Jesus did as the cost for our salvation. And they are further reminders that just as we eat this bread and drink this cup we will drink again with Jesus at the end of the age. It is faith in Jesus alone that creates and secures for us a transformed life so that we can share in a crippling grace from him forever.