I was a lot younger then and there are times when I wish I had my old body back. Wrestling was a real challenge for me. I grew, not just physically but mentally too. Unfortunately in my sophomore year I got injured. That was the end of my career. The school doctor told me I had to give it up or risk permanent neurological damage to my shoulder. That was a painful moment for me. Not only did I have to give up wrestling, I had to live with some pain which still flares up from time to time.
That experience in my life reminds me of Jacob. He wrestled too. And in the process he got hurt and acquired a limp. But Jacob received more than just an injury from his struggle. Jacob was a changed person.
Prior to his encounter with the man in the darkness, Jacob was filled with fear and guilt about his relationship with his brother, Esau. Now he was ready to reconcile, meet his brother, who he believed to be his adversary, face to face. And as the story goes, Jacob and Esau meet and mend their broken relationship.
Why did Jacob change? What was it about his wrestling match that night on the bank of the River Jabbok that set the stage for renewed friendship with his brother whom he had previously deceived?
The man that Jacob wrestled with that night was none other than God. That’s right, God. God stepped into the ring that night and met Jacob on the mat. Together they struggled and in the process Jacob’s hip was injured. When the encounter ended, Jacob was blessed and God changed his name to Israel.
We usually don’t think of God as one who wrestles with us. God loves us. God is supposed to be a nice guy, a kind of Santa Clause figure who is gracious and loving. Why would God put on leotards and duke it out with Jacob? Seems like strange behavior for a God who is caring and comforting.
Israel means, “The one who strives with God.” People of faith are not exempt from struggle. In fact, it is during those painful experiences in life when we grow. Sometimes we are enlightened and therefore make changes in our lives. We might even take on a new identity as did Jacob.
Our struggles are not just physical. They are mental, emotional and spiritual. We struggle with our beliefs. We struggle with relationships. We struggle with nature’s inflexible laws. We struggle with a changing society. When you stop to think about it, most of life happens in the ring, getting clobbered, ducking punches, falling down, sometimes getting knocked out.
Sometimes it is the weather we struggle with. It has been hot and humid recently. That has required us to alter our lifestyles. Some have to conserve water. Others have to refrain from venturing out of doors. The extreme heat causes us to adapt. Those who resist and take no precautions may suffer from heat stroke, sun burn or even something more severe. It is impossible to resist weather. Like the man who wrestled with Jacob, the weather engages us and we have to respond.
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It is also impossible to resist God. Up to this point, Jacob was trying to go it alone. He was resisting God, trying to hold God at bay. God, however engages us. God wants us to wrestle with the paradoxes of life. The more we live the more we learn there are no absolutes. Life seems to have ebbs and tides. Just as a boxer in a ring moves side to side and forward and back, we respond to critical life issues by leaning one way and then another.
Life events have pros and cons. Making a major purchase, committing to a relationship, choosing a career or deciding where to live force us to invest time and energy. The harder we fight, the better we will feel about the outcome. It may not turn out as we had hoped, but at least we can live with the memory that we gave it our best shot.
Jacob didn’t emerge from his encounter in one piece. He got a little beat up. He didn’t walk away from his encounter. He limped. But, the good news is he is a new person, a changed person.
When Jacob wrestled with God he was wrestling with his own dark side. It was a battle of the “wills.” His will versus God’s. His pride and ego came into competition with faith. If he held on to the past he would live forever in fear and never be reconciled with his brother, Esau. On the other hand, by accepting his new identity he could continue forward in life with new understanding and strength and with the assurance that God was with him.
My wrestling career was short-lived. Nevertheless, I gained strength, learned something about discipline and being part of a team. For me it was a life-changing transition. A young, insecure man, lacking in confidence grew in confidence and acquired an appreciation for the skills of others. As my life was put to a new test I matured, but it wasn’t without bumps and bruises.
This is a story about grace, but not in the usual way. For in this story God is tough. And sometimes God intervenes in our lives and meets us face to face. When our lives are simply a cake walk, void of conflict and struggle there is no growth. There is no wrestling with the things in life that appear unfair. There is no wondering, no exploring, no pondering.
Our faith is strengthened when we have to struggle. We grow and the experience creates newness and the opportunity for change, perhaps even a new identity. There will be times when God confronts us and challenges our will. We need not be afraid nor that we are being treated unfairly. There may be wounds but, like Jacob, we too can receive a blessing.
––Copyright, 1999, Dr. Keith Wagner. Used by permission.