I’ve been reading my Bible by following a You Version One Year Bible Plan… and earlier this year, I became madly in love again with the book of Genesis- it’s filled with tales of humanity lost and struggling and God making a path for His lost ones to reunite with Him. It’s brutal and bold and barbaric and elegant and miraculous and messy all in one. But perhaps what fascinates me the most about Genesis is that with every individual life that is highlighted, it’s like looking in a mirror- through these lives lived long, long ago, I see our own struggles and God’s heart to heal what is broken within each of us.
Jacob was one of those “mirror moments” for me. He’s a guy that in many ways I can relate to, and well, in some ways we all can. Nothing ever came easy to him- he had to deceive and toil and wrestle to make something of his life. His mother may have favored him from birth, but his father didn’t, and that messed with him. It began for Jacob, a decades-long-struggle, always on the hunt for what his own dad couldn’t provide. He short-changed his own brother and had to pretend to be someone else. (He literally wore a mask and pretended to be his older brother to get a blessing from his own father.) If that weren’t tragic enough, Jacob then ends up having to work 14 years just to earn the right to marry the woman he loved. Nothing came easy to this guy. He had to outwork, outsmart, and out-scam to get ahead.
I think that’s every one of us. Apart from the saving power of Jesus, we are all caught in the human cycle of hustling to make something of ourselves. Deep within each of us is this need for significance and approval. Without the affirmation of our Heavenly Father, life feels like a continual struggle to outwit, outsmart, outwork, and out-mask our way to the top or to happiness or maybe to both.
But something extraordinary happened to Jacob after a lifetime of struggling. All his struggles led Him to a wrestling match with God Himself…
22-23 But during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.
24-25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
31-32 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)
-Genesis 32:22-32 MSG
Who would have ever thought that God would enter a boxing match with an ordinary man? This story is strange to say the least, but it is filled with hope for you and me. God intervened in Jacob’s life and proved that until Jacob redirected his internal struggles to God Himself, he would never achieve what he was striving for. The same goes for us- for me and you. Below are some insights on how to turn our struggles to God and discover the hope He has for us. And for those who are Christian leaders or aspiring to lead in ministry, I’ve added in some thoughts for you too:
God met Jacob, and God has a way of meeting us, too. And until He does, nothing changes. I’m not convinced the job of a pastor or a church is to simply provide people with a step-by-step tutorial on God and the spiritual disciplines. I believe our top priority is to create space and awareness for people to meet with God. Yes, we absolutely need to equip people with knowledge, but it’s worthless without the presence of the living God. Let me put it this way, a worship leader can teach you to sing a worship song, but only the presence of God can turn that song into worship. I can teach you how to study the Bible, but unless you open your Bible with the faith that God will speak to you, how will scripture without the breath of God produce life within you? What sets us apart from the religious rabbis and scholars of Jesus’ day is that we are following the Living Jesus and not just the written law. The greatest gift apart from salvation is the gift of simply being able to meet with and be with God, and get to know for ourselves the Living Jesus. So leaders:
- Let’s preach, teach, and lead from a place of experience and not just theory. People need our personal revelation not our practiced rhetoric.
- Let’s pray for a move of God, don’t just plan for services and organize ministries.
- Let’s create conversation around communing with God, and not just behaving well.
Everyone needs a new name. And only God can give it. I’m fascinated by Jacob’s name change. He was Jacob, “He grasps the heel, supplanter, to trip or overthrow.” After wrestling with God, he became someone named Israel, meaning, “May God prevail. He struggles with God. God perseveres; contends.” Israel’s new name didn’t make him any less aggressive. Instead, it made him both brave (cuz, seriously, it takes guts to wrestle with God) and humble because in the wrestle, it was God who prevailed.
We live in a world of labels, and that cultural need can bleed over into the testimonies (stories of change) we celebrate in Church. We need stories that end nicely, that we can package and tie up with a neat bow. “He was once bound by addiction, but now he’s a liberator for others. She once was a victim, but now she’s an overcomer. She once was depressed, but now she is always overflowing with joy. He once was timid, but now he’s as bold as a lion.” But usually transformation is not a one and done deal; it’s a wrestle.
Of course, there are moments of miraculous healing and deliverance. Jesus is capable of bringing change in an instant. But after those moments, we still need to walk out our salvation. Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery from her accusers. He saved her life. And then He told her to “go and sin no more.” Even after receiving the miraculous salvation from Jesus, the woman had to live out, on a daily-basis, the freedom Jesus had given her. Sometimes, that’s a straight up struggle. Sometimes, transformation is a struggle. And that’s okay.
It’s okay to let things get messy. Jesus is okay with the messier parts of our hearts and lives. Just make sure to keep directing the mess to Jesus. He’s the One who can guide you through the journey to freedom. And please note: just like Jacob’s new name did not change his aggressive nature, the transformation Jesus has for you will not change your personality. It will simply redeem it. Becoming more and more like Jesus over time doesn’t mean you become Mother Teresa or Mr. Rogers. It just means you become more and more of the person God always destined you to be. So leaders:
- Let’s support someone’s journey, not exploit someone’s story.
- Let’s be open about our wrestles, not just our new names.
Israel had a limp. And the limp was a good thing. There should be a humbling to our faith. We wrestle, and in the process, something breaks. Ego breaks. Control breaks. Selfishness breaks. Envy breaks. Greed breaks. Poverty breaks. Offense breaks. For every one of us, whenever we enter a wrestle, something is going to break. That’s how we can tell is someone is wrestling with Jesus or just hiding behind Christian jargon- because someone who wrestles, gets a new name, but they also get a new limp. So leaders…
- Let’s set people up for reasonable expectations. People need to know a limp is coming. Following Jesus will make fishers out of men, but it will also require people to pick up their crosses. And we should make sure people know to expect both.
- Let’s honor the limp in each other. After the wrestle with God, the Israelites didn’t eat the hip muscle… out of honor. We should honor and celebrate the limp. The tenderness that comes after pain; the compassion that comes after loss, the humility that comes after the disappointment, the selflessness that comes after the sacrifice, should be honored and recognized. We should applaud our limps, because it’s a true sign we’ve seen God face to face. It’s perhaps one of the greatest signs of discipleship taking place.