I remembered the story from my childhood well, but it never meant as much to me until today. The picture from my now falling apart children’s Bible (right) is one that has been etched in my mind for more than 30 years.
Perhaps you remember this story too: the night when Jacob wrestled with God.
The readers digest version of the story goes something like this: there were two twin brothers, Jacob and Esau (Abraham’s grandsons) who didn’t get along well- even supposedly fighting in the womb. Esau was the oldest and in that culture, a lot of benefits (aka birthrights) came with that eldest status. However, Jacob conspired to take what had belonged to Esau, and one day Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of soup (a crappy trade if you ask me). Later in an attempt to seal the deal for his future, Jacob found their father blind on his deathbed and tricked him into giving for himself the blessing that had belonged to his older brother.
Esau, as you can imagine, wasn’t too pleased. He wept at the loss of the blessing, and vowed to kill Jacob in retaliation.
And so, Jacob fled.
The brothers went about their lives until years later when Jacob sends some servants ahead to Esau to try to patch things up. The message he received back was that Esau was headed his way with 400 men- news that made it look like the end was near. Scripture tells us that night Jacob was in fear and “great distress.” It goes on to tell us that he sent his family and all his possessions across the stream, but that he remained on the other side of the stream that night alone… and that’s when he wrestled with God.
The story tells us that he wrestled with an angel all night long (an early theophany), and actually started to get the best of him. The angel asked to be let go, but Jacob refused- saying he’d only let go in exchange for a blessing. So, the angel touched his hip (actually hurting him, to which my 12 year old says “wasn’t very kind”) and gave him a blessing: the angel changed his name to Israel, and made him the father of a great nation because he had “struggled with God and overcome.”
I’ll let you go read the story yourself (Gen 32), but this story took on new meaning for me today because I got to stand in silence along that stream where Jacob (Israel) wrestled with God.
It was here, at this lonely spot in Jordan, where a man stayed up all night in anguish, and wrestled with God.
While I had never been to this spot before, as I stood there I realized I had a deeper connection to Jacob than I had previously realized- and perhaps you do too.
We’re all wrestling with something, I think.
For Jacob, his situation was complex: a man who had made some serious mistakes, but yet had been called and blessed by God in spite of them. Still, his failure, his fears, his shortcomings, and his mistakes all crept into his field of vision and began to cloud out the fact that he was loved by God- and God was determined to do good to him- regardless of his past actions or present emotions.
To be who God longed for him to be, he just needed to believe it again. So, he sat up all night on the banks of this stream here, and wrestled with God.
I can’t count the nights that I’ve been Jacob. Restlessly tossing and turning, being plagued by mistakes I made long ago, haunted by feelings of unlovableness and inadequacy, yet longing to actually believe that God is with me and determined to do good to me, regardless of what I’ve done, or how I feel.
I’ve looked at current problems, mistakes, shortcomings, and plain ole cases of bad luck, and wondered if he was out to destroy me for some unforgivable mistake I’ve made along the way. I’ve looked to the future and wondered if it would be filled with curses or blessings.
I’ve prayed. I’ve cried. I’ve felt anxiety sitting on my chest like a team of elephants, and like Jacob– I too have wrestled with God.
I’ve asked my questions- those that always seem to elude clean and easy answers. I’ve gone round and round with him begging, sometimes even demanding, that I have answers the mysteries which never seem to reveal themselves, or that I might too have a small morsel of his blessing.
So many emails and message I get from the thousands of you out there all seem to express similar sentiments: you’re wrestling with God over something too.
And, while I don’t have clean or easy answers for the things that anguish my heart or yours, I do want to encourage you by pointing to the banks of that small stream I visited today…
A place where one of the fathers of our faith spent a sleepless night wrestling with God, and demanding his blessing.
What I love about how the story of that night ended, was that Jacob didn’t give up- he was determined to keep wrestling with God until God blessed him– and he did.
Too often we’re encouraged to simply “have more faith” or just “read our Bibles” as if there’s a pre-scripted answer for all of life’s questions contained therein… but there’s not. Instead, what I remembered today is that God loves us, and is determined to do good to us regardless of what we’ve done, or how we feel– but that he truly honors those of us who embrace the struggle, and wrestle with him on those nights when we are desperate for a reason to believe it again.
God can handle the match. He can handle your questions. He can handle your doubts. He can even handle your demands for a blessing.
In fact, I think he actually prefers those of us who wrestle with him. For Jacob, he became the father of a great people– the people of Jesus. And I couldn’t help but believe as I stood on the banks of that stream where Jacob stood so long ago, that he might actually prefer those of us thousands of years later who keep the tradition of wrestling with God alive.
Whatever you’re going through friends, please embrace the struggle. Wrestle with God. Refuse to let go. Embrace the unknowns, the doubts, the hurt, the anger, the… everything. Embrace it all, and wrestle with God over it.
But regardless of how that wrestling match turns out or how long it lasts, above all, please remember this:
Like Jacob, God is overflowing with love for you and a desire to do good to you– regardless of what you’ve done, or how you feel.
He wants to join you in the struggle to actually believe it again– and if you’re willing to wrestle, I’m convinced that he’s the God who still shows up.
Peace to you from Holy Jordan–