Jacob had a problem—a paralyzing, terrifying problem. His intentions were good. He THOUGHT he was following God’s guidance. But if he was, then why was he now in such a frightening position?
No longer able to peacefully co-exist with his father-in-law, Laban, Jacob decided to pull up his tent stakes and move on. Loading his camels and mules with all the necessary provisions for a long journey, gathering up his wives, children, servants and livestock, the caravan headed for less-populated territory. Jacob wanted to be free of his father-in-law’s domination.
Uncertain of their destination, the band of travelers followed their leader until they came to the border of the land of Edom. Weary of walking from dawn to dusk, Jacob suddenly remembered that he knew someone in this strange land. His brother, Esau, had settled in the village of Seir. Eagerly, he sent messengers to his brother. It would be good to see him after all these years.
Anticipating a joyful reunion, imagine Jacob’s distress when he heard the couriers’ report—We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him. Four hundred men? Jacob was terrified! Here, he was expecting a festive family get-together with a brother he had not seen since their father’s funeral and Esau had mustered a small army against him!
Some folks say that, in a life-and-death situation, your entire life flashes before your eyes. I’m certain that Jacob’s did that day. Facing almost certain extinction by an advancing force of troops, Jacob recalled when he and his brother were much younger.
Jacob’s twin, Esau, had returned from working in the field, faint with hunger and begged for something to eat. Jacob, in turn, finagled a trade—Esau’s birthright as the first-born for a bowl of stew. Convinced he was going to starve to death anyway, Esau conceded—unconcerned that he had traded away a priceless possession.
Then, there was the matter of the blessing. At his mother’s insistence, Jacob had tricked his blind father into pronouncing the coveted first-son blessing on him, the second-born. In both instances, Jacob had stolen that which was not rightfully his.
Surely Esau didn’t still hold a grudge about that! But, apparently, he did. Why else would he be coming to meet his long-lost twin with a four-hundred-man army?
Jacob panicked. Then, he prayed. Finally, he sent a peace offering to his minutes-older sibling—over 550 of the animals. That done, Jacob began to worry about what nightfall would bring. Fearing an attack under cover of darkness, he moved all of his family and the rest of his livestock to the other side of the river where there was some measure of safety. As night fell, Jacob was alone in the camp.
Yet, he was not alone. He had his memories, his guilt, and his fear. And this thirty-second chapter of Genesis tells us a man wrestled with him till daybreak. Tradition says it was an angel (at least)—or the Lord Jesus Christ (at most). In the light of what the passage tells us (and in view of Jacob’s somewhat underhanded conniving), it does seem likely that he was engaged in a mighty battle with his conscience.
Consumed by guilt for the shameful way he had dealt with his twin, Jacob was nearly crippled by fear. The dislocation of his hip symbolized that crippling—yet, still Jacob wrestled. As he fought, he demanded that the Stranger bless him. Although the day was breaking—even though his was in great pain, still Jacob struggled—not willing to yield to the crippling fear—refusing to give in to the temptation to quit.
All night, Jacob wrestled with the stranger. With the morning light—after hours of struggle and turmoil, Jacob received the blessing he sought. Not only was he victorious over his fellow wrestler, but he had overcome the fear and guilt that held him captive. Even more than that, Jacob was a stronger man—more certain of himself because he had struggled with (and overcame) his fear, guilt, and painful past. NOW, he could confidently face his brother.
With that blessing came a promise. Your name is Israel–one who has power with God. Because you have been strong with God, you shall prevail with men. Because Jacob had been victorious in his wrestling match and had overcome his fear/problem, he was a stronger person. His spirit was strengthened by the struggle. His faith was made stronger because he wrestled with his fear and guilt and emerged victorious.
What Does This Mean For Us?
The lesson Jacob would teach us is one we all need to learn and share with others. All too often our prayers are like that of the impatient soul who wished to reform and prayed, “God, grant me patience…and I want it RIGHT NOW!” We want answers—immediate, concrete, simple answers—to life’s conundrums, instantaneous solutions to the problems and questions of faith. We want “right now” visible or audible answers to our prayers and petitions and difficulties.
Most people want an “easy” faith—a faith of mountaintops, miracles and answers. There aren’t many who are willing to be a Jacob and struggle with the issues or questions of faith. The lesson Jacob would teach us is a simple one.
Often, without great struggle, there is no strong or great faith.
Without doubting and questioning, there is no depth, power or certainty to our beliefs. It is through the testing, the struggle and the conflict that our faith grows strong. James explained it this way: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. (James 1:2-3)
The man, woman or young person who must wrestle with doubt, fear and failure will, if persistent, emerge from the fray more secure in themselves and more certain of their own strengths and abilities. The individual who must struggle to believe—to hold on to their faith in the face of overwhelming odds, will often find their foundation firmer, their faith more certain than the one to whom belief came easy.
Not Just Jacob Wrestled
The disciples believed in Jesus. They were certain of His message and ministry. Yet, when the going got rough and Calvary’s cross loomed large, their faith evaporated like the frost in the morning sun. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe—they did! But their faith, up to that point, had not really been tested. It was weak and flabby, like and undeveloped muscle.
A lesser man than Paul would probably have thrown in the towel when confronted by the world like he was. Consider his testimony from 2 Corinthians 11
23 I have…been put in jail…been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again and again. 24 Five different times the Jews gave me their terrible thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I was in the open sea all night and the whole next day. 26 I have traveled many weary miles and have been often in great danger from flooded rivers and from robbers and from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the hands of the Gentiles. I have faced grave dangers from mobs in the cities and from death in the deserts and in the stormy seas and from men who claim to be brothers in Christ but are not. 27 I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. Often I have been hungry and thirsty and have gone without food; often I have shivered with cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.
Yet, it was this same persecuted prophet—this same alienated apostle—this ostracized disciple of Jesus who would say to the Philippians I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. And to Timothy, Paul could confidently declare, “Of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet, I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him for that day.”
A Stronger Faith Is Possible
How could he be so sure? How could his faith be so strong? Because he had wrestled with the questions of faith and struggled with uncertainty and doubt. He confronted the individuals and situations that would question his faith and he decided that what he believed was worth holding on to!!
As Jacob would not release his fellow wrestler until he had received a blessing, so Paul refused to let go of his faith until it blessed him. And, like Jacob, because he held on and would not give up the battle, Paul emerged victorious—strong with God, secure in his faith and able to prevail—to win—with man.
What is your problem? Your Fear? What doubt are YOU struggling with? In what areas is your faith being tested, tried, wrestled with?
Take a lesson from Jacob. Don’t give up the fight! Hang in there! As you struggle and wrestle with a problem—as you pray about it—as you tenaciously demand a blessing and an answer, God will give it to you if you faint not. “I will not let go unless you bless me,” Jacob said. Hold on! Don’t quit! By holding on, you will be blessed. Your faith will be made stronger. You will overcome and be victorious.
Like Jacob, because you have been strong with God, you shall prevail with men. With Paul, you will find I can do all things in Him who strengthens me. Indeed, the promise if 1 John 5 will become a reality in your life. Whatever is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that overcomes the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?