Do you struggle with God? Jacob did and was blessed. Often we think struggling with God is a negative thing. But God doesn’t see it that way. In the scripture above God ambushes Jacob with the intention that Jacob should struggle. Apparently he needed it! Struggles do have a way of changing us, and God seems to make a habit of setting them up!
Jacob had just said to God, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.” I think he was hoping God would change Esau’s heart but God decided Jacob was the one that needed the changing. Does that sound familiar? We usually think we’re ok; it’s the guy that needs to change!
The struggle took place in the dark. Jacob couldn’t see properly and didn’t know much about what was going on. Perhaps that is also familiar. You pray for help and things just get worse, it’s like you cannot see, and you could swear that if the light were switched on you would find God is attacking you? These are confusing times; but life changing. Often we want the easy way out, a quick fix to our problem. We would rather divorce than learn how to live with our partners weaknesses, we would rather cheat than learn the discipline of studying, we would rather borrow and have it now than wait till we have earned enough. The problem with these quick fixes is that they don’t last. We find our new partner also has weaknesses and we don’t have the character to handle them either, a job interview requires the knowledge covered in the exam but we didn’t study for it, we cannot pay back what we borrowed so we borrow yet again getting into bigger debt. Avoiding the quick fix and staying with the struggle shapes our character and prepares us for the future. Struggle is a good thing, and God seems to know this. It’s one of the main things he uses to form us; which is why I have no problem with the scientific idea that all living organisms were formed through a long process of struggle. It seems well within the character of God to do that.
Did Jesus struggle with God? You bet he did! Remember the garden of Gethsemane? That was struggle. He said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He knew the importance of going to the cross, but was struggling with what it would entail. He prayed “Abba,Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup (the suffering) from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” In this struggle between spirit and flesh Jesus reaffirmed his complete surrender to the Father. The struggle gave Jesus another opportunity to say no to the flesh and yes to God. Hebrews 2.10 says it succinctly; Jesus was “perfected through suffering.”
Was Jacob changed by the struggle? God thought so. In fact God decided to change his name from Jacob (‘he who grabs the heel’ – implying a deceiver) to Israel (‘he who struggles with God’ – and overcomes). I’d say that’s a move up! Jacob’s whole life had been characterised by deception. He conned his brother Esau out of his father’s blessing. Later he conned him out of his birthright. Then he conned his father-in-law Laban out of the best herd animals. Jacobs transformation to Israel was something of a deliverance.
Jacob left the battle limping. God had wrenched his hip to get him to surrender. Sometimes God will disable parts of our lives to get us to submit. If Jacob’s injury was permanent it would have served as a reminder to him and all who knew him that being a ‘smoothy’ was a thing of the past. A wise pastor once told me, “Never trust a leader without a limp.” We should only trust those who are battle worn and know they are far from perfect.
Did you ever wrestle with your father? I remember doing it a few times as a boy. It’s natural for a father and son to want to wrestle. Most young boys look up to their fathers as a kind of hero, so it’s natural that they would want to measure their strength with his. If you do well against your father you are becoming more like him. Usually a father will show he is stronger, but allow you to win. This keeps you looking up to him but leaves you with the belief that you’re becoming like him.
God showed Jacob his strength by wrenching his hip with just a touch; then he allowed Jacob to win. In fact the God-man said, “You have struggled with God…and have overcome.”
Jacob left that encounter a new man. He had a new name, new nature, and God’s blessing. He was able to face Esau with new courage and new humility.
If you have ever wrestled with your earthly father you will know that the thing that remains in your mind the most is not who won, but who you were holding. You are left afterwards with a sense of closeness to your dad. I am convinced that play wrestling is a kind of patriarchal way of expressing intimacy. This seems to have been the case for Jacob. He named the place Peniel or ‘face of God’ because he was mesmerised by the fact that he had been ‘face to face’ with Yahweh. Jacob was changed by both the struggle and the intimacy. This is true for each of us.