“The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.” (Gen. 32:31)
In this corner, Jacob, a man who had schemed his way through life beginning in the womb. Remember his little hand grasping his twin’s heel, trying to win the race down the birth canal? Here is Jacob, remembered for cooking a stew for which his impulsive brother traded a vast estate. Here is Jacob, who deceived his old and blind father into giving him the blessing that should have gone to his elder. Here is Jacob, whose name at its best can mean “one who strives” but at its worst connotation “one who cheats.” Here is Jacob who had lived out the latter meaning most of his life.
And in this corner, God, who needs no further introduction.
These two were destined to wrestle, and the great match took place one evening at the river Jabbok. Jacob was returning to his homeland, and feared for his life. Esau might not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was big, strong, and likely still angry. He had a right to be. Jacob knew it.
Jacob had spent his life trying to outdo everyone around him, and was largely successful. His scheming, however, had left a trail of bitterness, pain, and broken relationships. Had he learned anything? Probably not. He was just scared.
And that brings us back to the wrestling match. They went at it all night, Jacob and God. When the sun rose, Jacob was left with a thigh out of socket. The man who had never really lost would limp the rest of his life, but he never would have been the man God wanted him to be apart from that wound.
We do not have to be cheating usurpers to learn the lesson of this strange tale. The wrestling match at Jabbok is but one of countless illustrations of one of the basic axioms of God’s gracewaves.
You see, we spend most of our time attempting to avoid all pain. There is nothing wrong with that. We spend a great deal more of our time trying to make life as easy as possible. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. The problem begins with the fact that life is neither painless nor easy, and it never will be. Our greater error comes when we attempt to transform the Christian faith into a kind of spiritual anodyne. We want faith to be an insulation from all pain and suffering.
We are like Jacob in that respect, always trying to “win,” and surprised or disillusioned when life hurts. You will take a great step in faith when you learn the hard lesson that God’s greatest interest is in transforming your pain, not necessarily removing it.
Your wounds are the portals through which God’s grace enters more deeply into your life. He heals from within, so the scars remain. Or the limp. Ah, but what a glorious limp! For only after you have wrestled with God do you understand more deeply the wonder of grace and let go of more of the need to prove, defend, or promote yourself. This greater and cherished wisdom only comes through the wounds. Only through the wounds.
This is the principle Jacob learned at Jabbok. It is the same insight Paul gained through the abiding thorn. It is the glory that Jesus demonstrated on the cross.
This lesson is a hard one, and we resist it on many levels. That is why God is a wrestler. He keeps coming at us! In fact, the name Israel appears to mean “God strives” or “God persists.” God wrestled with a hard-headed Jacob, trying to turn him from a self-directed life that had brought him a great deal of misery, to a life of simple trust in Him.
God strives and persists in your life as well, trying to get across that same message. He is calling to you in your pain, not necessarily to remove it, but to teach you that only when you limp can you learn to lean on Him. We all limp, it’s just that some of us haven’t learned the lesson that comes with the pain.
I can’t say I’m proud of my limp, or any of my scars. But I am very glad I have them, for I know what I have learned, or let go of, through each struggle with God. These grace-filled lessons only come through the wounds. Only through the wounds. Don’t seek the pain. It will find you. But don’t fear it either. Each blow is an opportunity to lean more completely on your Father who loves you dearly.
Dr. Terry Ellis