"And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, 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 name of the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." (Genesis 32:24-30 ESV)
"There is a consistent pattern in Scripture of what happens in a life that God wants to use and improve: there is always a call…….there is always fear……..there is always [God's] reassurance…..there is always a [personal] decision [to obey or not]…..and there is always a changed life." John Ortberg writes in the preface of his book If You Want To Walk On Water, You've Got To Get Out Of The Boat. "Those who say yes to God's call don't walk the walk perfectly ----not by a long shot. But because they say yes to God, they learn and grow even from their failures. And they become part of His actions to redeem the world."
One might ask what Jacob and Ortberg's book have in common; other than the obvious fact that both came from a sister-in-Christ who had cleaned out her library (I grabbed four boxes of books) and spoke these words about Jacob to me while I was there…..it isn't as obvious. I had heard of Ortberg's book from a brother-in-Christ who I had discussed my questioning of whether to commit to the ministry we were both involved in as its mission was developing and maturing or to gracefully bow out and follow another path. He had recommended If You Want To Walk On Water, You've Got To Get Out Of The Boat as some material to use for that decision. But I didn't get it or read it until now.
Chip Ingram's book Good to Great in God's Eyes: 10 practices common to Great Christians has become one of those books that have rocked my world. It seems to follow the common theme that God wants me to understand as I think about the mission field and the direction that God has taken my life. Ingram, President and Teaching Pastor of Living on the Edge ministry, points out some obvious flaws in my walk with God and his "big, hairy, audacious Dream"….."If you're thinking, 'Sure, God does that [gives or clarifies during a moment of crisis] with other people, godly people who have it all together and study their Bible all the time. But I've been divorced twice, I'm hooked on…….' You can fill in the rest with your own issues, whatever they are. The point is that even if your issues are as serious as murder, you're not disqualified."
"Remember what God is doing:" Ingram continues, "He wants to accomplish impossible things through improbable people and to impart exceeding grace to undeserving people."
Enter Jacob and his story in the wealth and rich history that makes God's larger story: the redemption and restoration of His people, humanity, to Him. Jacob, as we know, wasn't the best candidate for brother of the year, father of the century or even the bolder title of 'man of faith'….at least in the understanding and measurement of mankind…..but as we look back upon this particular turning point, we see a pivotal moment in the life of Jacob…..the point where he became Israel, father of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel and the fulfillment of the promise God made to the patriarch of us all, Abraham.
Jacob…. conniving as much as he was spiritual, consumed by moments of extremely strong faith laced with very real fear who is the patriarch of a family in disarray that eventually leads them into a straight path. This man, whose name translates "deceiver" is the physical start of the nation bearing his new name, is very relatable to each of us….a man of weakness and strengths born of his humanity who strives imperfectly for spiritual life. Through his story we see important moments in a journey born of faith and the encompassing power and depth of God's grace. Jacob, who starts life grasping the heel of his brother, Esau, is often stylized as the thinker while Esau is the doer….a manly man who simply dominates the second simply by his nature. Even in their father's eye, Esau was the more desired and favored of the two. Maybe that is part of why Jacob connived to steal the birthright…..this desire to be more than just second best.
Whatever the reasons; selfish or spiritually driven, the lessons of this deceiver turned nation-builder is too clear in the path that Ortberg discusses, it flows and ebbs in the tidal wave of Jacob's life. As Greg Laurie writes in his book Wrestling with God: Prayer that never gives up, "To a great extent, it wasn't so much that Jacob was wrestling to get something from God; rather, God was wrestling to get something from Jacob." The call had been placed upon Jacob in the midst of his disruptive and broken life….the story's known as Jacob's ladder that takes place in Luz as Jacob flees his father's and brother's wrath for stealing the birthright (Genesis 28:10-19)…..the fear is also expressed in v17 he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. This is the state of Jacob as he enters into the complexities of the relationships with Laban, Leah and Rachel…..and then comes full circle into the confrontation with Esau that he dreaded all these years since running away…..even as he faces his brother, his fear causes him to beg God for His mercy because of the prophetic dream God had given him……as Jacob put it…..'You promised so You can't let this turn out bad.'
It is in that moment, that grasping upon the promise that Jacob saw within the dream that God moves…..bringing into Jacob's life that moment of complete…….
Jacob spent his life desperate for a spiritual breakthrough…..fighting against God as his humanity dominated his hope, his trust and his life. He boxed with God, using the promise of the ladder dream as his 'ends justifying the means'…..and did so with human success. And at the moment where desperation and all too real fear made him realize that there was nothing that he could do, nothing that would pull him out of the mire of complexities and bad choices, He begs God to remember the promise….to bring His protection. And God comes to wrestle. No simple zap with a lightning bolt, no booming voice in the desert and no dream of promising futures. God shows up, when Jacob is alone and wrestles with him until 'the breaking of the day.' (Genesis 32:24).
Coming up against God……human vs Supernatural….human fragility vs Godly strength….I wonder why Jacob didn't throw in the towel within minutes. Surely his spirit was torn, bouncing back and forth between the 'fall-back' point of his human ambitions and his 'big, hairy, audacious dream' of godly spirituality. Maybe, as Laurie points out in his book, Jacob simply did what had been the trait of his whole life: struggled. Laurie points out an all too-important lesson that Jacob teaches us in this moment…."In recognized weakness lies our strength." Jacob spent his whole life up to this point struggling between his human fragility and his desire to pursue God. He never achieved the overpowering of the old nature with the new…..he failed, cheated and connived his way to get the things he felt due him, and yet had moments of spiritual clarity that he recognized God's presence. By our current 'corporate church environment', Jacob was such a failure that he'd never even be an elder in the church…..probably not even a greeter at the entrance.
"God met Jacob in this surprising way in order to reduce Jacob to a sense of his nothingness" Laurie writes, "to cause him to see what a poor, helpless and weak man he really was." Jacob, always second place who struggled to be at the top came into direct confrontation with his humanity and clung not to its weakness but to the reality of God…..weeping as he wrestled with God for the blessing he knew he did not deserve, that his life did not reflect and that he knew relied solely upon his determination to hang on despite the real fear that God would decide the same.
The result of this wrestling…..a limp. God displaced his hip and forever altered Jacob's life. He would live with some pain, as I am told is a result of an injury that would cause someone to limp the rest of their life. He would never be fully able to take care of himself and his family as a robust, healthy and strong man. There would be limitations, perceived through others or by his physical condition, but still there.
Yet, after God touched him and left him with the reminder of the event, He blessed him and brought him into the promise that He had intended for Jacob; Israel, he would forever be known as and from him would the great nation of the same name be born…….from that nation a Savior would rise to bring about the next step in the story of God about the redemption and restoration of man.
Laurie quotes E.M. Bounds and his book The Necessity of Prayer in his book. It touches the deepest parts of me as I journey much like Jacob did before he wrestled with God. Many nights have been 'haunted' by prayer, the utterance of a broken, rejected and passionate man that fights daily against his old nature and finds failures. A man who urgently utters the insistent cries of his heart to be used, no matter how, in the events of the greater story…..to be not someone but a vessel of a beloved son that draws others from the darkness of this world into the warm and loving embrace of God's grace and truth. In The Necessity of Prayer, Bounds writes,
"Importune prayer is a mighty movement of the soul towards God. It is a stirring of the deepest forces of the soul, toward the throne of heavenly grace. It is the ability to hold on, press on, and wait. Restless desire, restful patience, and the strength of grasp are all embraced in it. It is not an incident, or a performance, but a passion of the soul. It is not a want……but a sheer necessity."
It is "the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man" Laurie says that James talks about. It is something profound, intense and totally God-driven, that is a driving privilege of a child of God that defies 'speaking it into existence' or 'naming and claiming.' It is the broken realization that in our fragility we are still undeserving, unworthy and incapable of the wondrous and impossible dreams of Godly vision that God entices us with but we are, because of the connection and salvation born by the beating of our new heart, beset with a deep yearning for….a deep longing to be….used for His glory. Despite the life of our past, the failures of our present and the hopelessness of our future from a human perspective.
It is, in my own life, the realization that I may spend the rest of my days struggling, failing, moving and falling back upon the image of a rejected son….uncomfortable and uncertain except in the deepest recesses of my heart of the image of a beloved son….and it is by that brokenness, that realization of the utter hopelessness of my nothingness that God's glory and power and love will shine into the lives of others, bringing a greater awareness and understanding of the power of God's plan and the peace of His salvation.
In Jacob's life, we see how God makes good on His promises to take that intended for evil and turned to good by God's extraordinary grace……as evidenced most powerfully by a son who enjoyed a beloved status sold into slavery by resentment that would be instrumental in the preservation of the nation….."And God sent me before you to preserve you a remnant in the earth, and to save you alive by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt." (Genesis 45:7-8 ASV) That man was Joseph.
In my life, unseen and unknown, maybe there is a Joseph that God has purposed for the greater work of preserving His children in the times ahead that I will be a part of getting them started on the journey towards that purpose, a part of drawing them along into the shaping and mentoring that Joseph needed to test his mettle, so that when that moment where he stood as Esther did and Moses did and Peter did and Paul did…….the realization of God's glory and their part within that story are made known in such a manner that defies human understanding and knowledge, drawing those still lost into His grace.
Jacob, "deceiver', became known as Israel, "one who has struggled with God."
His struggle changed a group of people into a history of God's fatherhood….and brought about another step in the progression of God's larger story in the history of all of humanity.
That's not such a bad legacy to leave, nor a life to live.
For the glory of God suffer we all, for our own victories for His grace do we wrestle with Him in the night.