Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Wrestling with the Truth

When Jacob wrestled physically all night with a man who turned out to be God, surprisingly, neither prevailed, and finally God dislocated Jacob's hip to bring the struggle to an end. I can understand why Jacob ('father' of the 12 tribes of Israel) got disappointed - no, not disappointed, but angry - with God when things were not going well for him on his return to Canaan after 20 years exile. Can we prevail over God to get his blessing on our plans, when he has some other thing in mind for us?

When disaster hits or you miss out on "the one good thing" that you wanted above all else - a job, a partner, a house - or even a 'good thing' like a cure from an illness or the 'fixing' of a broken marriage, the first question is, "Why, (me), God?" Has it all gone wrong as a punishment? Is it a test of my faith? - (and yes, it certainly is doing that all right!) Where is God's plan for me in this mess? How could a Sovereign God let it happen?

When Christian people I know have been thrown to the edge of depression by such 'undeserved' traumatic events, I used to find it very hard to answer their questions, until it all happened to me.

The answer to my own anguished prayers at a time of extreme trauma came when I was drawn, for some reason, to read the story of Jacob wrestling with the "Angel of the Lord" in Genesis, 32.

Although Jacob and Esau were twins born to Isaac, it was the second-born twin (Jacob) that was destined to inherit God's promise given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. But Jacob - whose name means 'deceiver' - thought he had to give God a helping hand by tricking Esau out of his birthright. When Jacob fled his brother under the guise of finding a wife from Abraham's kinsfolk in Haran, he had to work for 7 years for his first wife (Leah), another 7 for the wife he wanted in the first place (Rachel), and another 6 years for the flocks and herds he accumulated.

But this was all just a preparation for his return to face Esau and fulfill God's promise in Canaan. Afraid of Esau's reaction, he divided his flocks and household in two (one with each wife) and sent them on ahead to meet Esau. Alone, Jacob wrestled with the "Angel of the Lord" all night before crossing the river into Canaan.

The part of the story that hit me was that rather than let Jacob proceed as his old deceitful self, the Lord disabled him to ensure his submission. Only then did God bless him and renew the covenant promises given earlier to Abraham, and with the blessing, re-named Jacob as "Israel".

Why did this story strike me so forcibly?

Because I had been "crippled" in my own circumstances (both in health and in work situation), and I couldn't understand why my prayers had been falling on deaf ears. Then I could see that I was wrestling with God myself. I would not give up things, good in themselves, that had become the most important things in my life, and let God's plan take over whatever that might prove to be.

Any Christian will see how the teachings of Jesus demand the highest levels of trust, obedience and self-sacrifice. Sometimes God permits us to have life-crippling experiences to put us back on the track He wants us on.


  1. "I would not give up things, good in themselves, that had become the most important things in my life, and let God's plan take over whatever that might prove to be."

    Been there, done that, paid a high price.

    Incidentally, Phil, I've always been taught that when the Bible says AN angel of the Lord, it means one of the arch-angels,but when it says THE angel of the Lord it means an incarnation of Christ. Have you ever heard it explained that way?

  2. Well, Gorges, I hadn't heard that exact distinction (AN versus THE Angel of the Lord). It does make sense. But yes, this is one of (to me) the clear examples of the appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. Two posts back I dabbled in that subject and Mark Thompson made a similar comment. Thanks again, and hopefully in your own situation, with the benefit of hindsight, you have found that God's plan is an even bigger blessing - after all He did pay an even bigger price.

  3. I can't imagine wrestling all night long. How exhausted Jacob would have been. How much time to think about the identity of his antagonist, and to wonder why, at this point, God would impede his return home. Often it takes awhile to begin to see the picture as God sees it, to slow down, to take a step backwards, to reflect on what we've done and finally move forward again. Thanks for sharing, Philip!

  4. This was the crucial point for Jacob. We have to learn not to trust in flesh - and it can be a hard battle. It is very gracious of God to wrestle with us!

    Have you noticed:

  5. David,
    I hadn't seen your verse "An Angel Touched My Thigh", thanks for pointing it out. It really ticks the box, doesn't it? Another lovely piece, and I am enjoying your present series.

  6. I smile as I read this, because I think to myself, "it would have to be a man who wrestled, not a woman"...perhaps I am one of those who give in and let go easily?
    I loveeee this story.
    What a stubborn man Jacob was. The changing of the name was what got me..because it made me realise how very important a name is. I have never liked my second name for that reason. It means bitterness. I was born at Christmas so my mother named me Crystal, which was uncommon in the 1940's. Mary is for an aunty and great aunty and I hope for Jesus's mother. I have often wanted to change it to Joy, as that is a happier name.
    So Israel, what does that mean??
    I had to look this up and dicovered it means "God wrestler." Thank you Phillip, you have stirred up many feelings inside of me when reading this post. I have never thought of myself as "wrestling with God" yet I now believe, in a passive way, that's exactly what I have been doing when I partition over and over. I now think of that verse which says, "there is a time under the Heavens for all things." We can mess life up by racing in and wanting it now. We must look like wild wilful children to God. I am newly diagnosed with diabetes and I know in this, I have a lesson to learn. Being ill sets you back, but it also gives you time to contemplate...to take a Sabatical and spend time with Him.... Bless you Phillip. Hug!!

  7. Crystal Mary,
    Sorry to hear about the diabetes diagnosis. But your positive attitude couldn't be better, and I too have found that, with the benefit of hindsight, there is always a blessing in everything that happens. Some people say that the devil is in the detail, but my God is a God of every detail too - not just the big patterns in life.

  8. Interesting thoughts and perspective Philip. For some reason last night I was thinking I hadn't popped on here in awhile to what you've been posting about, turns out, this is one of the things that's been on my mind lately.

  9. Hi Glenna, Thanks for dropping in! Funny you should say that, but I had to give my testimony last night for the first time since being saved at the age of 7, and this story is what I linked it to personally. I've wrestled with the devil long enough to know you can't win that bout on your own strength either.

  10. Phillip,

    I'd very much like to pick your brains about a specific issue in relation to patterns of settlement in Down, but outside the traditional Hamilton-Montgomery effort.

    I only came across this blog fortuitously, having previously drawn a blank in terms of trying to track you down, as it were, after I became aware of your previous work.

    But this blog is probably not the place for my questions. And more importantly I don't presume that you have either the time and the inclination to engage in this subject. (Perhaps wrongly, I have the impression that you have "retired" from all that?)

    If you are inclined to help (and its a simple inquiry, at root) what is the right way to go about this?

    Thanks for your attention

    Kevin McGivern

    Mississauga, Ontario

    1. Hi Kevin, Happy to help if I can. try emailing me (address on my profile page)