A bizarre middle of the night experience in the life of Jacob happens to be the subject of one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament. It’s found in Genesis 32:22-31 (CEB).
Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him.
The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
So put yourself in this guy’s sandals. From the deep middle of the night, a stranger leaps onto Jacob. It probably scares him to death. You know how you feel when something awakens you when you’re in a deep sleep? I’ve had migraines as a result of jumping out of a bad dream because my mind doesn’t know the difference between sleep and reality.
But for Jacob, this is a very real thing.
They struggle all night along until the stranger touches the socket of Jacob’s hip, and it jumps out of joint. He’s lying there – newly crippled and helpless. And so, like a drowning man clutching the forearm of the one trying to rescue him, he refuses to let go of the stranger until he receives a blessing from him.
“Give me a blessing!” Jacob demands. “I will not let you go until you give me a blessing.”
The stranger screams, “Let me go.”
“Give me a blessing.”
“Let me go.”
“I will not let you go!”
“Let me go!”
“I will not let you go!”
Freddy Mercury would be proud.
The shouting goes back and forth. Finally, the stranger blesses Jacob. He leaves, and Jacob walks away from the encounter, now limping.
Years later, if we were all sitting around a campfire with Jacob, and one of us asked Jacob what the point of the “wrestling-with-God-all-night-long” thing was, he’d probably say something like this:
“That was a crazy night. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. How can I? Every time I try to walk, I’m reminded.”
And then he’d probably get real quite, and he’d lean in a little with his eyes staring at the ground, just on the edge of the rock he’s sitting on. We’d lean in a little too. It would be one of those moments pregnant with wisdom. And he’d probably say something like this…
“WHEN YOU FULLY ENGAGE WITH GOD, YOU GET TWO THINGS: A BLESSING AND A LIMP“.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’d admit that our lives bear the validity of this message. Sometimes we live in the joy of blessing, but other times we live in the heartache of pain. And anyone who engages fully and wholeheartedly with God gets both.
SOMEONE SOMEWHERE AT SOME TIME LED US TO BELIEVE THAT TRUE INTIMACY WITH GOD IS ALWAYS A FEEL-GOOD EXPERIENCE. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH.
For those of us who are pursuing Christ and who are recognizing how great and persistent Christ is pursuing us, we will always experience two things – A blessing and a limp. And most strands of Christianity tend to lean to one side over the other.
One strand of Christian teaching emphasizes only the blessing side of life. The entire reality of a relationship with Christ is all about encountering victory and healing and prosperity and a pain-free life. I’m friends with people who are pursuing this kind of a relationship with Jesus, and with regularity I watch them limp over to the blessing side – the extreme blessing side – all the while denying they’re limping as they get there. The tendency here is to negate anything painful or broken in our world. These are good and amazing people who deny that their lives are crumbling down around them. There is only Sunday, and somehow they’re able to skip over Friday. There is resurrection without crucifixion. And when we see these good folks in our church gatherings, they’re always “fine”. Everything is always “fine”, usually followed by a “God is good” declaration.
But there’s another strand of Christian teaching that finds itself on the other extreme. These are people who are taught that there is no hope in this present age, only in the age to come. There is always some wrong thing happening in their lives, and their faces show it. There is only Friday, and they can’t seem to get to Sunday. There is crucifixion without resurrection. Many artists I know land here, and I myself can land here if I’m not aware of this propensity.
I wish we could learn to live from the middle of the blessing and the limp. I wish I could, at least. It’s not a balanced place at all, but one full of constant tension and pull from both sides. Tie a rope to one hand and pull right. Tie another rope to the other hand and pull left. This is your life with God, living in the middle of a world that’s been redeemed, and one that still groans for redemption.
We must embrace reality here. We must have the courage to consistently exhibit a God-inspired intentionality to pivot and sway and bend from both the blessing and the limp, a little bit like a shortstop waiting for the batter to rope one in his direction. Our churches and our world need real people – people who live with both hope and disappointment, fear and faith, blessing and limp. Even Jesus Christ experienced both the pain of the crucifixion and the rebirth of the resurrection.
JESUS HIMSELF EXPERIENCED BOTH THE CRUCIFIXION AND THE RESURRECTION.
Our own intimacy with Jesus will always produce both a crucifixion of sorts, and a resurrection or rebirth – a signpost pointing hard in the direction of new life. And both will happen in the here and now.
The people around us need both. Real people living in the real world are impressed with our blessings, and that’s really important. But they’re inspired with our weaknesses and failures and missteps. We both impress them with what God has given us, and we inspire them with what God has pulled us through. The people I follow the most are limping with a smile. And God gets the glory in both instances.
THE PEOPLE WE’RE DRAWN TO THE MOST ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE LIMPING WITH A SMILE ON THEIR FACES.
The Sacred Imprint of God on our lives will sometimes feel like an all-night wrestling match that leaves us smiling and crying at the same time. Get used to it, I say. We’ve been fashioned to live in this exact tension.
At least for now.