One of the most intriguing passages in the book of Genesis is the story of Jacob wrestling with God in chapter 32. There are multiple interpretations of this story, especially about the identity of the man who wrestles with Jacob.Is this man an angel of the Lord? Is this the pre-Incarnate Jesus? The answer that Jacob receives is that he has wrestled with God. Most commentators agree that it was the angel of the Lord who fought with Jacob.
The chapter introduces us to Jacob returning from the land of Laban. From a lonely man running for his life, he is now returning with flocks that were the envy of the Middle East. After twenty years away, he is one of the richest men of that time.
During his nighttime struggle with the angel, there is a conversation that brings to light what has taken place in the life of Jacob and his family. It is true that God has blessed Jacob with the ability to get all those flocks, but the method of his acquisition was deception. He was Jacob the deceiver and he played the deception game with another deceiver—namely, his father-in-law, Laban. Jacob’s wife Rachel lies to her father and later, their children lie to Jacob about many important aspects of their lives. As a result of living in Laban’s household, there is an entire family of people who are comfortable with lies and deception.
In spite of his earlier deception, that night is important in the life of Jacob because he wrestles or struggles with God. The angel tells him that he has struggled with God and man and has overcome. This is so momentous that God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. Yet, because of that overcoming, Jacob walked with a limp until the day of his death. He is not the only one who wrestles—in Colossians 2:1, Paul writes that he struggles in his prayer for those whom he did not see. In Romans 8:26 we are told that the Holy Spirit groans (struggles) before the throne of grace on behalf of Christians.
I was reflecting on this story of Jacob as I assessed the past two years in my life. I have concluded 30 years at Central Baptist Church, and I felt that my time and ministry there have been completed. By God’s grace I have accomplished what I needed to do, and it was time to leave. I left abundantly blessed by the people that I served. My wife and I moved to Pennsylvania, we bought a new house, and I received the promotion and recognition that I sought in academic life. I imagined teaching and traveling for at least 5 more years. By the end of May, like Jacob’s flock, all things were moving in the right direction.
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But I was not aware that my wrestling night was around the corner. This year, I contracted poison ivy that has been with me for about three months, my left knee buckled a couple of times, and arthritis found a propitious home in my body. I used to be someone who rarely finished the children’s prayer “now I lay me down” before falling asleep, but my three new friends rarely allow me more than one hour of sleep at a time now. I typically wake up 3-5 times during the night. To borrow Thomas Paine’s statement, these are the nights that try men’s souls.
In these nights that I have wrestled with God, my theology has moved into a rebellious mode. I have prayed for healing, I have cried out to God, and I have argued with God about what he has promised and what he has delivered. I have come to realize that until I reached my 70s, I had rarely encountered any physical pain. Now pain seems very near in my joints and muscles and when it comes, it does not want to leave quickly. I have been arguing with God and reminding him of many things that I am sure that he forgot! I reminded him that he told us that if we pray by faith, he will hear us and as a loving Father, he will grant us our requests. I reminded him that shalom means wholeness and right now my body is not experiencing this wholeness. I reminded him that as He was able to provide that wholeness for Moses and Caleb, He is able to provide the same for his servant George. I also reminded him (like Moses and Asaph did) that he should do things for the sake and glory of his name—it is better for me to experience a night in which I will not wake up 3-5 times because I will be able to do more the next day. I would dread having these conversations where I challenge God if I were not familiar with the Psalmist, who often prayed like I have in these last three months.
Yet, despite my prayers and reminders, I find that these nights continue. While I experience God’s love and blessing in my prayers, I wake up with a limp every morning—sometimes because of my hips, sometimes because of my knees. One of God’s agents, my orthopedic doctor, tells me that I will probably need to have both knees replaced in the next few years. So, this leaves me with a couple of years to see if God will give me healing or if I will continue to limp until these arthritic knees are replaced.