This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Genesis 32:24-31:
And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [the Face of God], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
These may seem like extraordinary circumstances, but ask yourself how much you have (or have had) in common with Jacob at that moment.
Jacob was afraid. He was facing all that he had been, and all that he would be. He was running from one man he hated straight toward another who hated him. Going back was not an option, making it ahead was far from certain. He was alone, in the dark, in a desert place. And there in the darkness he’s taken unaware. But he fights back. Jacob didn’t know how close he was to drowning in the Jabbok river, or how close he was to seeing the face of God.
The thing about darkness is, you don’t know how close you are to anything.
Years ago, in a blog post about prayer, I wrote the phrase, “Better crippled by God than — well, just about anything.” I didn’t know then that I was heading into one of the darkest seasons of my life, catalysed by the very thing that had inspired that blog post. I didn’t know how I would struggle through that darkness, drown in it, even, how before it was over I would have to choose between “a good life” and a God life.
But recently it all came back to me.
It was after dark and my friend and I were winding our way through the narrow alleyways of our neighborhood. I don’t remember how he said it, I just remember the effect it had on me, because the guy he said he could “see me with” had said he could see us together himself, just the week before that.
“Why do you think so?” I tried to keep my voice level. My friend couldn’t have known, and he’s not the type who would say something like that without putting thought into it.
“He walks with a limp,” he answered.
“He . . . he what?”
“He walks with a limp. Like Jacob. You can tell He doesn’t just know God, he’s wrestled with Him . . . you know?”
I knew very well. I knew what joint in the world’s way of doing things God had pulled out of socket to make him walk through this life differently. I knew the moment in his life when that tendon was touched. I knew how that made us similar.
“The Christian life is a maimed life,” Oswald Chambers once wrote.
There are many things that are perfectly legitimate, but if you are going to concentrate on God you cannot do them. Your right hand is one of the best things you have, but Jesus says that if it hinders you in following His precepts, then “cut it off.” The principle taught here is the strictest discipline or lesson that ever hit humankind. When God changes you through regeneration, giving you new life through spiritual rebirth, your life initially has the characteristic of being maimed . . . There has never yet been a saint who has not lived a maimed life initially. Yet it is better to enter into life maimed but lovely in God’s sight than to appear lovely to man’s eyes but lame to God’s.
Better crippled by God than just about anything.
I think about Jacob when counting my blessings feels a lot like counting my losses. I think about Jacob because all I want is to be Jesus’ best friend, even though I know that all of Jesus’ best friends lived horrible lives in the eyes of men, and died brutal deaths at their hands. I think about Jacob in the darkness when God is far off. The thing about darkness is, you don’t know how close you are to anything.
Drowning — or seeing the face of God.
Unless you go into that place, into the night, into the desert, you cannot come out as one touched by God. Until you walk with a limp, you cannot bear the name of a nation.
Frederick Buechner wrote a fictional autobiography as Jacob, called “Son of Laughter.” In it, Jacob says of that night,
I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but that I only dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.
For that — that glimpse. Don’t let Him go. Wrestle the night long. Fight until day breaks.
But know, you will come out marred. You may even lose your life. But only those who lose their lives can ever possibly find them.
“For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”