As 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!
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.