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Grappling with God

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Jacob Wrestles with God

I have a confession to make. I used to love punk music. Although I have mellowed out, I still enjoy it occasionally. One of the bands I enjoyed listening to was Green Day.

They had an acoustic song called Good Riddance, from the album Nimrod, and I had a little ritual I did every time I was about to start something new in my life, like starting university; starting my first job; moving to Scotland; getting married; moving to Kenya; and coming back home to South Africa; I would play the song the evening before the next milestone. It prepared me emotionally for what was to come next, allowing me to reflect on my life; where I’m from; memories of my family and friends; my achievements and my mistakes; my fears; and sometimes even my pain. The lyrics go like this:

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time.

It’s something unpredictable But in the end, it’s right I hope you had the time of your life.

So take the photographs and still frames in your mind Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time Tattoos of memories, and dead skin on trial For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while.

It’s something unpredictable But in the end, it’s right I hope you had the time of your life.

Jacob’s Memories

Over three and a half thousand years ago, Jacob may have had a similar kind of ritual that allowed him to reflect on his life and where he was heading. Perhaps he hummed an ancient tune with similar lyrics as he packed all his belongings, set his two wives, his children, and servants on camels, and quietly headed off in secret in the stillness of the night towards the ford of the Jabbok to avoid confrontation with his uncle, Laban, fearing that he would not let him leave with his family (Genesis 31:17, 20–21).

One can imagine Jacob remembering where he came from, reflecting on his life up until this point, remembering his family and friends back home; his achievements and his mistakes; his fears; and his pain. He remembers the stories that his father, Isaac once told him, like the day he lay bound on the stone altar about to be slaughtered by his father, Abraham, in unquestioning obedience to God. And how God provided a ram to be sacrificed in Isaac’s stead. And how God blessed Abraham because of his obedience, even when it did not make any sense to him (Genesis 22:1–18).

He reflects on the story his mother, Rebekah, told him and his twin brother when they were born. Esau was born first, but then he came forth clenching his brother’s heel, which earned him the name, Jacob, meaning, heal grabber; supplanter; and trap layer (Genesis 25:19–26).

As Jacob begins to think about his older brother Jacob, anxiety sets in. But he knows he must continue his journey homeward. Even though it was twenty years ago, the emotions are as real as if it all happened yesterday. He remembers how he tricked Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew when he had returned home hungry after hunting (Genesis 25:29–34)—It reminds me of the day I came home hungry from a full day of lecturing when I was a missionary in Kenya when we did not have very much money or food, and my wife, Cath decided to make us brown lentil pancakes. I’ll give her due, at least she was resourceful and creative! Jacob, with the help of his mother, disguised himself as his brother to get the birthright that was meant for his older brother. His father, Isaac, now an old and semi-blind man thinking Jacob is Esau bestows his blessing upon him, the blessing that was meant only for the first-born son (Genesis 27).

Like a sharp pain in his chest, Jacob remembers Esau’s rage and his father’s sense of betrayal (Genesis 27:30–45). And how he fled for safety to his mother’s brother, Laban, in Haran because Esau wanted to kill him (Genesis 28:1–5).

As if he almost forgot, Jacob had a very strange experience on his way to Laban. It was a remarkable spiritual encounter with God in a dream where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending from it, with God standing above it. In this dream, God confirms the covenant that he had made with his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac, that they would have many, many descendants and that they would be blessed. God promised to be with Jacob and to bless him, giving him and his descendants the land on which he lies and that his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth and will spread across from north to south and east to west (Genesis 28:13–15).

He remembers after the long journey how he finally met his uncle Laban, and how he fell in love with his youngest daughter, Rachel. Laban offered him work for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage (Genesis 29:18–20). But after seven years he deceived Jacob and gave his older daughter, Leah, as his wife instead (verses 21–28). The disappointment and humiliation still linger. Like Jacob’s father, Leah, too had poor eyesight (verse 17), and she wasn’t the one he fell in love with. Jacob had to work another seven years for Rachel (verses 26–27). The text implies that he only had to wait a week and then marry Rachel, but he still had to work an extra seven years. Laban was taking care of his daughter, Leah, because she would be difficult to marry off. For she had poor eyesight. Yet, Laban had tricked him the same way Jacob had deceived his father, Isaac, in getting his brother’s birthright (poor eyesight and trickery are recurring themes when you look at Jacob’s story in context).

Jacob’s Anxiety

As they head off, Jacob looks towards his two wives, Leah, and her younger sister, Rachel whom he loved, and then he looks at their sons and his daughter. But it does not take long before Laban realizes that he has been tricked by Jacob and that his entourage has left without notice because Jacob had feared his uncle. And so, Laban chases after Jacob and company (Genesis 31:22–23). Laban catches up with him and the two of them meet. Despite the enmity between them, they eventually make a covenant together and leave on friendly terms (verses 44–55).

But there is still the matter of Esau, and while Jacob knows he needs to make his way to his homeland, he fears his brother, that he would attack him and his family. Jacob receives word that Esau is coming with four hundred men. Gripped by anxiety, Jacob divides his family and his herds so that if the first group is attacked by Esau and his men, the other group could escape to safety. He sends the first group of servants with gifts ahead of him to appease Esau, or as we would say, to butter him up (Genesis 32:3–8).

Now, remember that Jacob had a divine encounter with God on his way to Laban 20 years ago (Genesis 28:10–22). Well, now that he is returning home, he has another encounter with God.

Jacob Wrestles with God

Keep in mind that Jacob is about to meet his estranged brother, Esau, and is feeling very vulnerable in his fear and loneliness. Jacob sent everyone ahead of him across the stream. He is alone, and an angel or the pre-incarnate Christ—it is difficult to know—appears and grapples with Jacob until daybreak. This man, if we can call him that, could not overpower Jacob, so he touched his hip socket and wrenched his hip making him weak and unable to walk properly for the rest of his life. The man said, “It’s daybreak, let me go.” Jacob refused unless he blessed him. The man asked Jacob for his name and said no longer will you be called Jacob, from now on you will be called Israel, because you have struggled with God and with people, and yet you have overcome (Israel means “he struggles with God”). And so, the man blessed Jacob, now Israel. Israel called this place Peniel because it was here where he met God face to face, and yet his life was spared (Genesis 32:22–32). Grappling with God transformed him and changed his identity.

Our Grapple with God

We must look at Jacob’s strange encounter in the context of his entire life, because when we do we begin to notice similarities in our own lives. We might not have had such dramatic encounters with celestial ladders, angels, or an evening when we physically grappled with God. And yet there is so much that we have in common. We all have deep regrets in our lives, I can think of several of my own. Some of us have deceived others, and others of us have been tricked, deceived, or even scammed. And I think I can safely say that many of us have been hurt by others too. And it should also not surprise you that you and I have hurt others in one way or another. And at times, some of us might feel hurt and disappointed by God, if we are to be honest with ourselves. We feel that he has let us down even though we have remained faithful.

It would be quite natural in our struggles with God and ask why we are suffering, why we are hurting, and even to ask God where are you in all of this? Pete Greig once authored a book on this topic called, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer. The title of the book says it all.

This is the reality not only of life but in our Christian walk, like Jacob, life is a struggle with God and with other people. I can remember in my own life countless times where I have endured such a struggle. If I tell all of them to you now, I won’t have illustrations for future sermons. But one such struggle my wife and I have endured is that she has had seven or more miscarriages. We really wanted to have children, and yet after a few weeks of pregnancy she keeps miscarrying. It was particularly difficult for me to see my wife in such emotional heartache. I remember struggling even to pray the third time Cath miscarried.

Yet, God shows up in our deepest loneliness and vulnerability. He is there with us. But do not think that meeting God face to face is always going to be a bed of roses. No, as C. S. Lewis once alluded, “God isn’t safe, but he is good, and he is a God of love and power.” The God of the Bible is not tame and meeting him sometimes comes at great cost. For Jacob, it was a wrenched hip and he limped for the rest of his life. Why God did that, I don’t know. But often meeting God means pain and suffering, yet it transforms our lives forever, especially if we have struggled with God and with other people, and if we seek God’s blessing, not the blessing of others. That was Jacob’s problem, he spent his life hurting people around him to steal their blessings for himself. He sought the blessing of his father, Isaac, and his uncle Laban, rather than looking to God for his blessing. Jacob received God’s blessing only after he had grappled with him (Genesis 32:29). And it is no coincidence, I don’t think, that Jacob was warmly welcomed by his brother Esau and the two were reconciled to one another after having received the blessing of God (Genesis 33:4–11).

Jacob’s Life of Tragedy

Yet, Jacob’s life was still marked by tragedy. Even after God’s blessing, a Canaanite prince defiled his daughter Dinah (Genesis 34). And then there is the death of his wife whom he loved. She died during childbirth, giving birth to their son Benjamin (Genesis 35:16–20). But don’t think for a moment that just because God has blessed you all will be well. You know the story of his favorite son, Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers who told their father that he was eaten by a wild beast and the tremendous heartache that it brought him, thinking he was dead (Genesis 37:12–36). Finally, there is a terrible famine throughout the land (Genesis 42:1–5).

Blessings More Than You Can Count

Long story short, Jacob is finally reunited with his son, Joseph, in Egypt who is now second in power to Pharaoh. Jacob and the rest of his family eventually settle down in Goshen, Egypt under Jospeh’s care (Genesis 47:28–47:12). In his old age, he lies on his deathbed. And unlike his father who intended to give his blessing to his oldest son (never mind that he was tricked by his youngest son). Jacob had been divinely blessed by God, and so he calls all his sons together because he has more than enough blessings to share with every one of his sons, and more than that, but also for their future generations to come (Genesis 48–49). Those blessings even reach you and I, through our savior Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:2–3). God comes to us and reveals himself to us in our struggles and then transforms us, giving us a new identity (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:17), together with gifts of faith and courage, and gifts of freedom, despite our pain and failures.

Our grappling with God brings about blessings, often through pain and suffering, but those blessings are not meant primarily for us but for others. Catherine and I see this in our own lives through the adoption of our boys and the blessings that our suffering has brought them, and in turn has also brought us.

Let me explain this another way. I became familiar with Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son while we were missionaries in Kenya because a large copy of it was left in our storeroom by the previous people who lived there. Stand up close to it with your nose just inches from the painting and you see darkness and whatever else you might see is unclear and confusing—this may represent pain and suffering. But take a step back, and you will see it’s a painting of the Prodigal Son in the warm embrace of his kindly father. So, it was with Jacob if we take a step back and look at his entire life story. I invite you, likewise, to take a step back and look at your own life, and you will not only see the blessings of God despite your anxiety or suffering, but that God is also with you, holding you in his warm embrace.

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2 comentários

03 de ago. de 2023

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your encouraging 'piece'. It is like a letter from The Lord God to me. Now I understand my challenges and blessings, or should I say my blessings and the challenges that have accompanied them.



Robert Falconer
Robert Falconer
08 de ago. de 2023
Respondendo a

Wonderful to hear from you, Matodzi. Thank you for your encouraging words. I am so glad that this piece helped you. Many blessings.


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