Essay

The Blessing and the Limp

By November 18, 2019 11 Comments

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. (Genesis 32:22-24)

Of all the stories in the Old Testament, I think the story of Jacob wrestling with (presumably) an angel of God all night in the muddy reeds of the Jabbok River just might be my favorite. Maybe that’s because this text was one of my very first sermon assignments in seminary, and it deeply unsettled me (in a good way). Or maybe it’s because the older I get, the more I find this story to be such a fitting metaphor for a life of faith, which really does feel like a wrestling match most of the time.

These nine verses offer a picture of God that is quite different from what most of us are used to. It’s startling, even rather scary. What do we do with this picture of God as an unnamed assailant who pounces on Jacob in the middle of the night and wrestles him to the ground? The great preacher, Barbara Brown Talyor, talks about it this way:

You do not hear much about God causing the chaos [in life], or even having a role in it. On the contrary, it is God’s job to make it stop. God is supposed to restore the status quo and help everyone feel comfortable again. Isn’t that how you know when God is present? When the danger has been avoided? When your heart stops pounding and you can breathe normal again? …It is an appealing idea, but unfortunately the Bible does not back it up. In that richly troubling book, much of God’s best work takes place in total chaos, with people scared half out of their wits: Elijah, trembling under his broom tree, pleading with God to take his life; Mary, listening to an angel’s ambitious plans for plunging her into scandal; Paul, lying flat on his belly on the Damascus road with all his lights put out. …No one in his or her right mind asks to be attacked, frightened, wounded. And yet that is how it comes, sometimes, the presence and blessing of God (Gospel Medicine, Cowley Publications (1995), pp.107-8).

That last sentence especially strikes me. “And yet that is how it comes, sometimes, the presence and blessing of God.” Jacob liked having God’s presence and blessing on his terms. So long as God fit into his agenda and met his conditions, then he would claim this God as his own.

Taylor points out that, like Jacob, we tend to be more attracted to a God who resembles the big blue genie in the Walt Disney film Alladin. We want a God we can control by summoning him when we need him, make our wish, and then safely send him back into the lamp.

But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no genie in a lamp. And that’s a good thing! This is a God who has made a covenant with his people, as well as with all creation. A God who is faithful to keep this covenant. But this covenant is on God’s terms, not ours! As it turns out, God’s plans and purposes are far greater than anything we could wish or bargain for.

I want to suggest that this story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is really a story about grace. Granted, it is not the grace that we tend to envision—that sweet amazing grace that nudges us along “softly and tenderly.” We like that kind of grace. It’s unobtrusive and it’s not too demanding. It’s the kind of grace that makes us feel safe and comfortable.

But the grace that grabbed a hold of Jacob (which is ironic since his name means “grabber”) is a rough and tumble kind of grace that pursues us and wrestles us to the ground, locking us in its wounding hold. I’m talking about grace that comes in the form of unwelcome intrusions in life—disruptions, struggles and disappointments. Things that blind side us and knock us flat on our back, fighting for our life. This is a grace that hurts–a grace that leaves us limping. But it also leaves us blessed. And that makes it amazing grace nonetheless.

More often than not this is the kind of grace it takes for God to lay hold of our lives in Christ, to shape and mold us according to his purpose, and to move us in a certain direction. This is the kind of grace it takes for God to free us from the illusion that we are in control—that we were ever really in control in the first place. A grace that wrestles and wounds.

I’m not suggesting that God is behind every experience of struggle in our lives. That would be an oversimplification and it risks trivializing the pain of those who suffer. And sometimes the chaos in life is because of bad choices we’ve made. But even if God is not causing the chaos, we can have the assurance that God is with us in every struggle, perhaps closest to us when it feels the darkest. And that somehow, by the mystery of divine providence, all things are working together according to God’s good purposes.

In these moments of intense struggle, if you dare open your eyes, you just may catch a glimpse of God’s face–a face both terrible and glorious. And you may notice his arms holding you, these arms that wound and heal. As you wrestle, cling to God for dear life and dear death—yes, cling and don’t let go. Like Jacob, insist upon a blessing. You will come away with a limp, that much is true. But that’s not all. By God’s grace, you will also come away with a new name: “One who struggles with God and prevails.” And this is what makes the struggle worth it.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

11 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Right on, thanks. Another example: every time in the Gospel of Mark that the Lord Jesus talks about his death and resurrection, his disciples are terrified. Which makes it no wonder that the Gospel ends with the women being terrified, it fits the whole them. The doctrine of the Resurrection is such a gracious gift, but personally I find it terrifying also. I have to hang on to Jesus just to accept it.

    • The 12 Editor says:

      Thanks for connecting this with Mark’s Gospel, Daniel. I remember getting an email once after my Easter sermon from “out of town” guests who were disappointed about the way I talked about pain and death and the confusion of the empty tomb. They said something to the effect, “We were hoping to come to worship today to have an upbeat experience and celebrate wit the disciples the joy of the resurrection.” But as you say, Mark’s abrupt ending leaves us running out of the tomb with these women, dressed hiked up to their knees, scared out of their wits. Not that we don’t have joy in the Resurrection, but as you say so well: “The doctrine of the Resurrection is such a gracious gift, but personally I find it terrifying also.” That’s because it changes everything, don’t you think?

      • Daniel J Meeter says:

        Exactly, and it’s outside of my control, and my life is in God’s hands, and eternal life scares me, so I really have to trust in God on this one. Yes, the Resurrection changes everything. I heard N T Wright give a lecture once, and he reported a conversation with a London cabbie, who said to him, Without the Resurrection, it’s all just rock and roll.

  • mstair says:

    “ … the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no genie in a lamp. And that’s a good thing! This is a God who has made a covenant with his people, as well as with all creation. A God who is faithful to keep this covenant. But this covenant is on God’s terms, not ours!”

    Thank you. A good reminder I am holding to this week!

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    The Africa Study Bible (2016) notes that Jacob’s primary challenge before and after this story of wrestling with God is the hostility with his brother. “After this struggle with God, Jacob’s relationship with his brother was settled…when [they] met there was no anger in their conversation.” When we fix our relationship with God we find a way to fix our relationships with others. If Jacob and Essau can make peace with each other what is our excuse?

    • The 12 Editor says:

      Rowland, thank you for making this connection, and situating the wrestling match so well within the larger context of Jacob’s relationship with Esau. I love that comment from your African Study Bible. And your question is so penetrating: “If Jacob and Esau can make peach with each other, what is our excuse?” Yes, amen!

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Rowland,
      Did Jacob and Esau make peace? I like to think so, in a way, but in the end, Jacob said, “Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” Seir is due south, in the land of Edom, but Jacob makes his way to Succoth, and one wonders about this peace, at least from Jacob’s perspective. Jacob tells Esau, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” If Brian is right, and I appreciate his insights, then one wonders if Jacob uses the term “favor” in simple terms. I sense more nuance, an uneasy peace, as if they will not kill each other, but they need distance, because there is blessing between them, but also a limp.
      I wonder if the story of Jacob and Esau might find echoes in Jesus’ story of the Father and his younger (Prodigal) son. Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him and they wept. Esau’s embrace was a picture of radical grace, for who runs with embrace and kiss, but Jacob can’t quite take all that for he insists on gifts that keep the grace at something of a distance, just as he will keep his brother at something of a distance.
      The story is complex, as the wrestling with God is complex, and this seems about right, at least in my encounters with God and people and myself. Thanks for words to wrestle with …

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Hey Brian,
    Right on again, with you posts here. You might have mentioned “God” forces us to face the consequences of our choices.
    Defrauding Esau of his birthright was coming back to haunt him. “God” was forcing him to struggle with the consequences of that choice.
    All that you have fleshed out about the struggle and the holding on and the “blessing” is pertinent. Thanks. I’m holding out, holding on. God will se me/us through to a brighter day. Ahead. John

  • The 12 Editor says:

    Thanks for your comments, John. You always make me think, and I appreciate that! I’m with you, holding on and holding out hope for a brighter day. I’m so grateful that our God is a God of Resurrection. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Blessings on you, my friend.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Brian, for your take on Jacob’s wrestling match with God. So many interpretations of a story that was most likely legend. I like your interpretation in that it explains why bad things happen to good people, such as with Jacob or with Job. And we could find other passages (Psalms) that demonstrate good things happening to bad people. That also is true of almost anyone’s life. We put up with good and bad without any explanations from God. Of course we do get plenty of explanations from people. Maybe these things just happen without rhyme or reason. Maybe the author of Genesis was just making his own attempt to explain Jacob’s injured hip, and so he put it on the angel or God. Do we really know?

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