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Genesis 32:3 – 33:4
Some 20 years have passed since Jacob stole his father’s blessing from his brother Esau, two whole decades since Jacob last slept alone and scared in the middle of nowhere. Back then, Jacob’s brother was out to kill him; he was a lying, cheating fugitive who nevertheless received the blessing of God.
While Jacob slept, angels went up and down a ladder to heaven, and in Jacob’s dream God’s very self stood right next to him and made some big promises—land abundant and countless offspring, good influence far and wide, a legacy of blessing to all.
If Jacob had been awake, he might have questioned his sanity or at least argued that he was not worthy, but lying still in the utter dependence of sleep he could not help but marvel and receive.
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” the dream-God told him, “and [I] will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
So marvelous was this dream, so unexpected and undeserved the blessed promise, that Jacob made a vow of his own, promising that if God did remain with him, if his needs were met and he was able to return to his homeland in peace, then the Lord would be his God, and he would give back to God one-tenth of all he had. 1
A lot has happened since then. Jacob had to do 14 years’ hard labor to win the hand of his true love Rachel. For the most part, though, time has been good to Jacob; God has been good to Jacob. The former fugitive now has two wives, two mistresses, 11 children, and more livestock than he can count. He is a successful, powerful man.
Jacob’s Facebook posts are nothing but sweetness and light: photos of his beautiful wives, happy children, rich food, exotic vacations. Every post ends “hashtag BLESSED,” in all caps, sometimes with a winking emoji face, as if his good life is a private joke between him and God.
But Facebook is not real life, and all is not well with Jacob. It is not only that some of his riches have come at his father-in-law’s expense. It is not just that, every now and again, gazing out over the wonder of his life, Jacob feels an emptiness that he doesn’t understand, doesn’t like, and denies as much as he can.
It is that God has told him to leave this place that has become home and go back to the land of his own family. It is that Jacob must, finally, come to terms with his past.
Because it is Jacob’s ongoing guilt about his past that fills him with fear and prevents him from walking faithfully and confidently into his future. It is Jacob’s deeply buried pain that prevents him from becoming all he is meant to be.
And so it is that Jacob, being Jacob, tries to bargain and bribe his way out of the situation. If a life can be bought back, Jacob can pay the price. If God’s protection can be claimed like a parka left at the coatcheck, Jacob still has his receipt. If an enemy can be neutralized by a combination of appeasement and force, Jacob will fake humility and show strength. If even one iota of the outcome can be controlled, Jacob will do everything he can to make it just so.
And so he sends messengers bearing gifts beyond measure. He divides his family and his flocks. And he prays with the fervor of a desperate man, the longest prayer recorded in the entire book of Genesis, a mix of fearful pleas and self-serving claims.
But here’s the thing: Jacob sets the bar so low. Like many of us, he cannot imagine the goodness God has in store for him. As we so often do, he projects his own fears and failings onto others—even onto God. Even if he has grown and changed over 20 years, he can’t believe his brother has. Even if he remembers God’s promises to him, he can’t be sure that God does.
Jacob sees enemies where there are only people just like him. Jacob faces opportunity and sees danger. Jacob looks into his past and sees that there is no way out.
He does everything he can to make a way through, and then he surrenders to sleep—alone in the darkness, not knowing if he will live to see another sunset.
But he is not alone. There in the place when he can no longer deny his shady past or escape its consequences, there in the moment when guilt, regret, and fear fill his heart, God the Deliver shows up again—because God sets the bar high. What God wants for Jacob and for us is so much more than mere survival, so much more than good behavior. God wants us to know peace and reconciliation, healing and wholeness, forgiveness and mercy, even joy.
Oh, we don’t really know who Jacob’s wrestler is—and that is as it should be. Because we’re all wrestling with something or someone—aren’t we?
You name it: disappointment, shame, difficult relationships, fear, loneliness, depression, pain, aging, illness, finances, guilt for the things we shouldn’t have done, regret over the things we should have done, the reality that we will die.
Like Jacob, we try not to dwell on such things. Like Jacob, we actually try to ignore them most of the time. We make ourselves busy; we self-medicate; we try our best to control what we can. And in the fleeting moments when we step out of our Facebook lives and admit how we’re really feeling, we’re not sure when to hang on and when to let go, when to keep praying for our heart’s desire and when to trust that God knows, when to struggle with all our might and when to give up.
Our deepest hearts are so tender, our broken lives so precious to the One who made us. And yet we tend to set the bar far too low.
Because there is blessing even in the struggle, healing even in the brokenness, hope in the wrestling with what is hurtful and scary, disappointing and unknown.
Consider Jacob, injured and hurting, looking the wrestler in the face and saying, “I will not let you go, until you bless me. I will not settle for this; I believe God can make something good of it.”
Imagine: What if we said the same thing to our struggles, our challenges, our fears?
Imagine looking our illness or aging, our loneliness or sadness square in the face and saying, “I don’t like you. I know you’re changing me; you might even want to defeat me. But I will not let you. I will not let you go until you heal my deepest wounds and transform my greatest fears.”
What if we took another look at a difficult relationship, a situation we feel we can’t change, a challenge we cannot seem to overcome, and said, “God, I really don’t like this but I believe you’re in it somewhere. I’m sick of it and I just want to walk away from it, but I’m going to live as if you can bring some good out of it.”
What if we faced into what is difficult instead of trying to deny, ignore, or repress it? What if we believed that our struggle, our darkness, our pain contains a blessing God wants us to have? What new places might be opened in our hearts? What new things might we see? What new hope might we feel? What blessing would we discover?
We, like Jacob, might find ourselves limping but looking into the very face of God—not in our dreams, but in the eyes of the one we’ve been running from, in the arms of an enemy who forgave us long ago, in the tears of recognition and acceptance.
Jan Richardson says Jacob’s blessing requires us “to want it, to ask for it, to place [ourselves] in its path.”
“It [will demand] that you stand to meet it when it arrives,that you stretch yourself in ways you didn’t know you could move, that you agree to not give up. So when this blessing comes, borne in the hands of the difficult angel who has chosen you, do not let go. Give yourself into its grip. It will wound you, but I tell you there will come a day when what felt to you like limping was something more like dancing as you moved into the cadence of your new and blessed name.” 2
This is the blessing God wants for us. May we not let go until we get it.
1 Read the story yourself in Genesis 27 and 28.
2 See Jan Richardson’s full blessing here: http://paintedprayerbook.com/2017/08/02/the-wrestling-is-where-the-blessing-begins/