Keller: “God has to wrestle us into a transformed life rather than comfort us into one”

June 16, 2016

kellerAs I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon on Genesis 32:22-32, I listened to Timothy Keller’s sermon on the same text, “The Fight of Your Life,” from November 18, 2001. In it, he made a point that I found insightful.

Whereas we often think of Jacob as having a “conversion experience” by the banks of the Jabbok river—which is how I preached it—Keller points out that Jacob had already begun repenting and moving in God’s direction before then. First, Jacob was leading his family, his servants, and his livestock back to the Promised Land in response to God’s call in Genesis 31: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

God’s command to Jacob, and his obedience, is no small thing: Jacob still believes his brother intends to kill him—and will do so, apart from either divine intervention, Jacob’s own well-placed bribes, or both. So Jacob is literally risking his life to obey God.

Lest we’re tempted to feel morally superior to Jacob, how many of us have ever shown that much faith?

Moreover, near the beginning of chapter 32, Jacob seeks God in prayer for the first time (at least the first time in scripture). Jacob’s conversion may not be complete, but it’s getting there!

Keller says:

In all the teaching you’ve ever gotten, in all your expectations about how God operates, how do you expect God to respond to a man who has obeyed him at the risk of his life—has put his life on the line to obey his Word and follow his will—and is seeking him in prayer, and who’s filled with fear and at the end of his rope? How does God respond to a man who’s utterly obedient, seeking him in prayer, scared and at the end of his rope? What does God do to a man like that?

He clobbers him. He knocks him down, literally! He assaults him. He puts a hammer lock on him. And maims him for the rest of his life!

This is not, Keller says, a God of liberal religion who merely loves and accepts us for who we are.

But is this the God that your typical conservative church talks about? Oh, no. You know why? Because what you hear there is, “If you obey—and you obey to your own hurt—and you do everything right according to God’s will, and you pray and have your quiet time and go to church and study your Bible and do everything right, God will… clobber you? Knock you down? Cripple you for the rest of your life?

This is not a God of anybody’s religion. This is not a God of anybody’s imagination. Why is this text here? It must have happened. Who would have thought it up? What kind of idiot would think of a God like this? Who could have imagined a God like this? This must have happened. This must be a real God because nobody else could have invented him.

Keller compares this text to John 11, the raising of Lazarus. Just as God has a purpose for Jacob’s suffering, so God had a purpose for Lazarus’s suffering and death. At the same time, however, we see God in Christ melting into tears: he’s overcome with grief. God uses suffering for his purposes, but God isn’t remote from our suffering; he weeps with those who weep. Keller cautions us to keep these two ideas in mind: God uses suffering even as he suffers alongside us.

Having said that, this text, in a way that’s more vivid than any other place I know in the Bible, tells us that, in general, God has to wrestle us into a transformed life rather than comfort us into a transformed life.

Is that true in your experience? It is in mine!

I would also add this: As C.S. Lewis points out in The Problem of Pain, the fact that God treats us this way is nothing less than a consequence of his love:

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of the terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.[†]

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940; 1966), 39-40.

9 Responses to “Keller: “God has to wrestle us into a transformed life rather than comfort us into one””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    I have some thoughts here that may or may not be in line with your thinking here, but I’ll share them.

    I was a strict father, particularly with my 3 sons. I rewarded good behavior and accomplishment liberally, but I punished bad behavior severely. Only occasionally was “corporal punishment” involved, and only when a swift and immediate consequence was called for. More often it was punishment of removal of privileges, or imposition of difficult consequences. I am quite sure that my sons thought that it was way more than they “deserved”. But, they never forgot it and they learned that while they were under my roof, my rules applied.

    All three have turned out to be fine men. We have a good relationship and they “look after me” in my old age. They are good, but strict fathers themselves, but I would say they aren’t as tough as I was. In a way, I think that is also a testimony to the effectiveness of their experience.

    So, I understand a God who chooses to “refine us with fire”. In my stubborn rebellion, I probably wouldn’t be changed any other way. It’s the mule and the 2 by 4 experience. Nonetheless, I have also experienced the joy of His favor, and the comfort of His mercy.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    So, that is why I have been so “clobbered”! 🙂

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Hebrews 12:3-11

    For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; 6 FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

  4. betsypc Says:

    When I got clobbered several years back, I was fortunate enough to stumble into several books by M. Craig Barnes who gave me a practical Christianity that was most definitely not about cheap grace; Barnes understanding of grace is what gave me hope for the future:

    To long for grace is to discover life in the crucible of God’s creativity.
    That is always a painful and yet wondrous place to be.
    The pain comes in having to encounter the truth about the loss of our dreams
    and godlike illusions.
    But mixed into that despair is the wonder of the creativity of our God.
    We know he is up to something.
    Something that only God can possibly create out of this chaos.
    What will God do with our life?
    We continue to live with that question.
    We yearn for its answer.
    But to spend life receiving the mysterious creativity of God, well–it is enough.
    M. Craig Barnes, “Yearning: Living Between How It is & How It Ought to Be.”

    We never want to get too sentimental about grace.
    While most days it is God’s gentle refreshment to our souls,
    sometimes the river comes as a terrifying reminder that our lives are out of control.
    On stormy days, we may wonder if it was such a good idea to live so close to the stream.
    We may even wish that God would just leave us alone.
    But if the storm sweeps away everything that is not spiritually rooted,
    then even that is grace.
    The point of God’s grace is not to be nice to us
    but to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
    It carries us home to God,
    sometimes on a gentle stream,
    sometimes on a raging torrent,
    but always back to
    God.– M. Craig Barnes, “Sacred Thirst”

    Barnes also has an interesting take as to why we have to get clobbered sometimes:

    Don’t expect Jesus to save us by teaching us to depend on the things we are afraid of losing. He loves us too much to let our health, marriage or work [or doing church] become the savior of our lives. He will abandon every crusade that searches for salvation from anything other than God. So he delays, he watches as we race down dead-end streets, he lets our mission du jour crash and burn.–M. Craig Barnes, “When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change”

    Thanks to Barnes and others I have finally been introduced to the triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun and is most definitely worth worshiping. Unfortunately, it was after a lifetime of being a good church-going Methodist/United Methodist that I ended up so lost and confused I had to distance myself from all things church to discover an understanding of the triune God and myself that I never thought possible. And it felt very much like my own “mission du jour crash[ed] and
    burn[ed]”. I first had to get over the shock that I had been on a “mission du jour”.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Oh my goodness, I love this! Thanks, Betsy! My favorite part:
      But if the storm sweeps away everything that is not spiritually rooted,
      then even that is grace.
      The point of God’s grace is not to be nice to us
      but to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
      It carries us home to God,
      sometimes on a gentle stream,
      sometimes on a raging torrent,
      but always back to
      God.

  5. Grant Says:

    You are so right, It is a crucible sometimes. Too many of today’s Christians want that “cheap grace. They should read Bonhoeffer.

  6. Jim Lung Says:

    Interesting. Our Preacher this morning reminded us ot the ‘sting” in God’s grace. It seems that it’s almost necessary that we be wounded in some way to create a soft place, broken soil, if you will, a place where the seeds of His grace can take root.

    Or, as C. S. Lewis noted, every disability conceals a vocation.


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