Your name will now be Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with people, and you have won. Genesis 32:28
~Pain is the price of admission to life on Earth. It comes to us all and can strike at any moment~
Battle weary, burdened and in need of rest, the trials and tragedies of life continue to overwhelm us, draining our strength. We want to lash out. We want to blame. We want a target for our pain. Things appear difficult, impossible in fact which brings a question to mind ~ have you ever wrestled with God about it? Maybe your imagination can’t stretch that far. But maybe it is in prayer and conversation with Him that we wrestle for answers and understanding. Do you think we have the right to go to God and beat on His chest? To take Him to the spiritual mat, as it were, and challenge Him with tough questions? I say yes because He says yes. Sometimes God is the Wrestler at Peniel.
Perhaps some explaining is in order. There is an old Bible story about Jacob. His bio is fascinating and you are welcome to check it out. Meanwhile I’d like to zero in on a portion that touches me deeply . . . in that deep soft spot where gnawing pain resides, although thankfully it is more subtle now with the passage of time. However it is pain I must learn to live with and I imagine you agree if you, too, have lost a beloved child.
Pain didn’t start with us, however. We have to go way back to the beginning of time and there we will find pain. Bible stories are proof enough that to follow God is to walk not with a swagger, but with a limp. God has always used pain in the lives of those who choose to follow Him. Pain is never our choice; it is what is chosen for us. Why? Let’s see if a particular Bible story can shed some light on the topic of pain.
There are many examples to choose from and three, who have had personal experience with pain, come readily to mind: Peter, the arrogant hot head, Saul, the violent persecutor who became Paul, and Jacob, the lying swindler who is the subject of today’s story. All three men discovered first hand that God never leaves us where we are, but rather turns us into something useful for His glory. Let’s pick up Jacob’s story in Genesis 32. You may follow along if you like while I attempt to share a bit of his story in my own words (with the help of Pastor Brian Zahnd, wolc.com, who brings Bible characters to life in his storytelling).
Jacob was a twin. He followed his brother Esau out of the birth canal holding on to his heel. Thus he was born a supplanter or “holder of the heel”. He became a fast talker, a manipulator, a hustler. He honed his instincts to size up and use people on his way to the top. He cheated his brother out of his birthright and went on to con his uncle who conned him back. His definition of success was to swagger through life with the confidence of a con man. Life was a race and he wanted to cross the finish line first with his backpack full of riches.
But as it often happens, Jacob’s life suddenly took a nasty turn when he got word that his twin brother was hot on his trail with murder on his mind. Jacob quickly divided his family into groups sending them to safety while he stayed behind to face his brother alone. He prayed that God would save him from the wrath of his brother. Alone in the darkness, with the words barely out of his mouth, he was knocked to the ground by an unknown assailant. Esau? No, it couldn’t be Esau. This guy was way bigger and stronger than he remembered Esau to be, but there was no time to figure out who his attacker was for he was in for the fight of his life.
Let’s “invite” Jacob to continue the story in his own words. ~ Down we went into the weeds and reeds, tumbling over and over in slimy mud. Who is this madman? Desperation gripped me in a cold sweat. It was hard to get a grip on this guy, but if this fight was to end in death then I was going to give it my all. My mind raced ahead, grimly reminding me of my evil deeds, one on top of the other. Is this how my life will end? Will I never get to tell Esau how sorry I am for everything? For stealing his birthright?
We fight on into the night, the silence broken only by the sounds pounding flesh. I willed my body strength, but we were ridiculously mismatched. Clearly he could take me, so why didn’t he and get it over with? It’s obvious he’s playing with me. I’m his prey, his pawn. Just as the foggy whisper of dawn nibbled at the edge of darkness, he made his move. It looked like a lightening bolt passed between us and zapped my hip. Searing pain like a hot knife engulfed me. I writhed in agony on the ground. Did I catch a glimpse of his face or was that pain talking? He was trying to pull away now, but I clung to his neck with a grip tighter than I knew I had. I would not let go. The agony of pain was nothing compared to the agony of soul. My wretched life passed before my eyes . . . it couldn’t end this way. I must have a blessing. Please . . . I must have his forgiveness! Defeated and crippled for life, would he now leave me here alone? I held on for dear life. I felt his hot breath on my neck when he finally spoke,
“Let me go, for day is breaking.”
I dug my nails into his skin. Through clenched teeth and with a voice strained from fatigue and pain I cried,
“No! I will not let you go unless you bless me!”
Then he asks me my name. I told him. Then he said the most amazing thing,
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and men and have overcome.”
I relaxed my grip, stunned by his words. Though in agony I could hardly wrap my mind around the blessing I had just been given. I was no longer Jacob, “supplanter”, but Israel, meaning “‘God prevails”. How awesome. I could scarcely take it in but I would have plenty of time later to replay the greatest event in my life. Now I must ask him one more question,
“Please tell me your name?” He leaned down to my ear and softly spoke, “Do you really need to ask?”
No, I didn’t. My heart knew. I began to quiver with emotion from head to toe. I had wrestled with my Maker . . . and survived to tell my story! How is that possible?
And Jacob said, “I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive”; so he named the place Peniel. Genesis 32:30
As hard as it is for me to admit and even harder to be thankful for . . . over time, lots of time . . . I have come to be thankful that You brought about pain in my life. For it was in the horrific crucible of losing my son that I truly found You.Thank You for reminding us through Jacob’s story, that it is through wrestling with You that we prevail. Amen.