Wrestling with God: Who Can You Become?

Magi become worshippers

To become all God has planned for us requires a journey of radical (“to the root”) transformation. How far are you willing to go?

It’s here again—that time of year with so many favorite stories. The wise men, the shepherds, the virgin, the Baby.

I’ve been reading for the last few weeks in Genesis, because all the stories start there. And I’m amazed at how even the lives of the ancient patriarchs seem to hold a mirror in front of my face.

This week the powerful story was Jacob’s. The man spent his early years wheeling and dealing. Scratching and clawing his way to success by the dint of his own efforts.

Jacob’s very name meant “heel grabber.” But God had a different destiny for him.

Who do you think you are?

Who are you willing to become?

Jacob’s approach to life reduced him to running for his life. Twice. As a young man, he had to flee his twin brother Esau after he manipulated him out of his birthright and cheated him out of their father’s blessing. Two decades later, he’s on the run again, this time as the outcome of a disastrous string of business deals with his uncle, who turned out to be a bigger trickster than Jacob himself.

With his uncle behind him and his estranged brother ahead, Jacob comes to the end of himself. In a clear turning point, he humbles himself and acknowledges that everything he’s gained is the fruit of the Lord’s blessing on his life—not his own efforts. He entreats the Lord for help. And in an odd passage I won’t tell you I completely understand, God shows up. Literally.

Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there.

So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (Gen 32:24-30)

When God shows up in your life,
is it ever to wrestle?

Jacob becomes Israel

Jacob (the “heel grabber”) becomes Israel (“who prevails with God”). (Eugene Delacroix after Gen 32:24)

As I’ve prayed through this story, the Lord has shown me a few things.

  • The mysterious “man” said Jacob prevailed, but in fact the contest went on exactly as long as the “man” allowed. The instant the “man” willed it, Jacob was out of business.
  • The “man” refused to tell Jacob his name—because Jacob already knew it! Jacob acknowledges afterward that this encounter was with Elohim—God himself.
  • Remember that Jacob had begged the Lord to deliver him. Sometimes faith means refusing to let go of God until you get the blessing you need.
  • God’s blessings may come in the unexpected form. This one came as a question. In the Bible, the concept of name includes more than a set of syllables people call you. It includes your reputation and character. So God makes Jacob acknowledge who he is—the “heel grabber.”
  • Once Jacob has acknowledged his bankruptcy, God offers him something. Not just deliverance from his brother, but a complete new identity. The only identity in which he can fulfill the destiny God ordained for him before he was born. (Gen 25:23)

Sometimes faith means refusing to let go of God
until you get the blessing you need.

I’d like to think I’m not a manipulator, a “grabber of heels” like Jacob. But I certainly have always been “clever” about getting things done through my own efforts. And like Jacob, I feel I’ve hit a wall. The mountains that need to move in my life right now are clearly beyond my strength. I have some family concerns I won’t elaborate on. And five years invested in a novel I’m hoping to see published. But… I just got a “no” from a publisher I’d pinned my hopes on.

Am I ready to give up my current identity that relies so much on my own efforts? To declare my old ways bankrupt?
Am I ready, after all of these decades of trusting in myself, to let go of that and let Him make me over?

If I want to walk into my God-decreed destiny, the answer must be yes.

Israel’s story ends when he dies at peace, surrounded by his twelve sons who will father the tribes of Israel.

Scripture is full of stories of transformation. In fact radical transformation—“to the root” transformation—is the only way people find their God-decreed destiny.

This is the season when we celebrate some really big miracles of transformation. I mean, if:

  • A stable can become a throne room;
  • An ordinary peasant girl, a virgin, can become the mother of the greatest King of all;
  • Reclusive shepherds can become His heralds;
  • Priests of a mystical religion can journey until they become His worshipers

I guess there’s hope for us all!

Stories like this are only possible due to the most amazing transformation of all. The Word whose power spoke the worlds into existence emptied Himself. Became an infant too weak to crawl. The “radiance of His [God’s] glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb 1:3) had to be wrapped in a diaper and put down on a bed of dirty straw.

The Temple Menorah Replica, Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter

Gorgeous recreation of the gold-plated menorah that once lit the Jewish Temple, on display (behind bulletproof glass) in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. It stands about, oh, eight feet tall!

The feast of Hanukah also celebrates transformation. A family of faithful priests became God’s generals and a forgotten cruse of oil lit a defiled Temple for eight days. Thanks to the miracle of the oil, the Temple could be purified and rededicated to its purpose. (A lot of people are surprised to learn Jesus and the first-century church celebrated this holiday, not Christmas! See John 10:22. Hanukah has wonderful relevance for Christians.)

By God’s power, the longest nights of the year are transformed as we celebrate the light. The light of the Temple Menorah; the Light of the World it prefigured. I think that’s why we resonate so much with this time of year.

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