I’m not much of a fighter. I learned this the hard way a couple of years ago, when I signed up for Tae Kwon Do martial arts class. My son Ian was taking Tae Kwon Do, and I was often dropping him off and picking him up, so I thought, “Why not take lessons with him? It’ll be good exercise!”
What a mistake! Every class concluded with “sparring.” It was sort of like MMA for kids. This was when you’d put on headgear and boxing gloves and special protective shoes and a chest guard… pair off with another student about your size and height… and start kicking, punching, wrestling, and wailing on one another before the instructor announced the end of the round.
Except… as a 48-year-old at the time, I was usually the only adult in the room, except for the instructor. So, unlike everyone else, I couldn’t get paired off with the other white belts who were at my very low skill level—because most of them were little kids! Instead, I would get paired off with the tallest kid in class, who was a 17-year-old, a blue belt who was on the cusp of earning his black belt—the best fighter in the class by far. And he’s 17. He’s not mature enough to know he should “hold back” or “respect his elders” or take it easy on the old man. So he’s punching me in the face every chance he gets. We have headgear, but our noses are unprotected. Ouch! And he’s so good I don’t even see it coming. There’s literally my blood on the mat. I’m embarrassed. I’m worried about losing a tooth. And I’m seeing stars.
And I’m so worried about getting hit, I forget to breathe. So after a couple of minutes I’m exhausted.
Can you imagine how Jacob felt, sparring with this mysterious man for six or eight hours? With no protective gear? I can’t!
Let’s talk about how Jacob got into this situation…
Beginning in verse 9, Jacob prays his first real prayer, at least that we’ve seen him pray in the Bible. Jacob isn’t much of a praying man; he’s a man of action, even when his actions get him in trouble.
After all, let’s remember how Jacob got in this mess: Twenty years earlier, he cheated his older twin brother, Esau, out of his father’s blessing and birthright—which meant that Jacob was now entitled to inherit most of the family fortune. Esau was so angry with his younger brother that he vowed to kill him… So, with his mother Rebecca’s help, Jacob flees home. And he stays away for 20 years, during which time he fights with his Uncle Laban, he marries two of Laban’s daughters, he has a bunch of children, and he gets fabulously wealthy in the process.
But now, finally, God tells him that it’s time for him to come home… which means coming face to face with Esau, the man who vowed to kill him 20 years earlier.
Understandably, Jacob is scared. That’s why he prays this prayer.
And it’s a good and faithful sounding prayer—except everything Jacob does before and after this prayer betrays a lack of faith.
But let me explain…
Jacob has made elaborate plans for appeasing his brother’s wrath before he starts praying. And then after he prays, he describes in detail what those plans are. We skipped verses 13 to 21, but we learn there that his plans include giving Esau a gift of at least 550 goats, sheep, camels, cows, and donkeys. Why? Verse 20: “For he thought, ‘I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” In other words, if Esau is still mad after these 20 years, and Esau does intend to harm Jacob, these very generous gifts will “butter him up,” will bribe him, will soften his heart toward Jacob, or at least he hopes, so that Esau won’t kill him, his family, and his servants. That’s Jacob’s plan!
From a worldly, practical point of view, Jacob’s plan makes perfect sense!
The problem is, he makes all these plans before he bothers to pray.
I recognize myself in Jacob? Does that sound familiar to anyone else besides me? I hope so!
See, like Jacob, I’m really good at making plans apart from God. Either I say, “God, please bless these plans I’ve already devised for myself; make sure they work out well.” Or when my plans turn out to be a disaster, I say, “Lord, please fix this mess that I made when I trusted in my own wits, my own understanding, my own strength, and didn’t bother seeking your will.”
Thank God he always does fix my messes, but still… What happened to Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”
I like leaning on my own understanding! I like trusting in myself!
Lisa, my wife, had a formative spiritual experience when she in college at Auburn. Her church there was growing… It was very popular with college students, and they were running out of room. A good problem to have, right? So they needed to decide whether they were going to stay where they were and build on top of their existing property—or whether they were going to buy a new, larger property nearby and build there.
And here’s the thing: Their pastor wasn’t like me and Jacob at all. He and his church leadership genuinely did not know what the right course of action was. There were pros and cons on both sides. But instead of simply relying on himself, and fighting it out, and voting on it, and making plans, the pastor challenged the church to pray about it for 40 days… Can you believe it? To pray… and not just pray in the privacy of their own homes, at their own convenience, on their own schedule. No, he invited church members to come to the sanctuary… at 5:30 in the morning… Every weekday morning… For 40 days… To pray about this decision they had to make!
Remember… This was a college town… with a church made up largely of college students… College students aren’t supposed to want to get up at 5:30 in the morning and do these sorts of things! But they did! And not only that! The pastor asked the church to fast every Monday during those 40 days. And they did!
And at the end of those 40 days, the church discerned what God was calling them to do. So the pastor and the church didn’t need to pray one of those “clean up this mess” kind of prayers afterwards—the ones I’m used to praying!
A few years after this happened, Lisa and I went to the first service in the new sanctuary they built!
Well… Jacob didn’t go to Auburn University. Like me, he is an “act first, pray later” kind of guy.
But still… I like this prayer. And what I like most about it are Jacob’s words in verse 12: “But you said…” But you said…
Jacob is afraid. And when you’re afraid, the very best thing that you can do is to remind yourself of the promises of God. But you said… Jacob, of course, reminds God of the promises he made, but guess what? God hasn’t forgotten his promises. But God knows that we human beings often and easily do forget his promises. And I believe God loves when we remind him of the promises that he gives us in his Word. That’s the best remedy for fear I can think of. The specific promises that Jacob reminds God of are the ones that God made to him in chapter 28, verses 13 through 15.
But what are some promises that you and I need to remember and remind ourselves and remind God of when we’re afraid and going through a difficult trial?
How about Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Philippians 4:19: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” And of course Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Follow Jacob’s example… Pray those promises to God! He loves to hear us pray his promises back to him!
Now, you may be tempted read this prayer of Jacob and think, “Well, it wasn’t a very effective prayer because, after all, Jacob is still deathly afraid after he prays it.” One pastor I listened to said, “Jacob shouldn’t have stopped praying until he was no longer afraid.”
I disagree. Jacob’s prayer is not, “Make me feel better about tomorrow’s meeting with my brother”—in which case his prayer would have been an utter failure. No, his prayer is much bolder than that: his prayer is for God to do something—to intervene in the world outside, to keep the promises that God made to Jacob, and to protect him and his family from his brother’s murderous wrath!
I think we often pray those “make me feel better” kinds of prayers because we don’t really believe God has the power to do anything else. If so, let’s repent and believe in God’s power!
Because God answered the bold prayer that Jacob prayed, not the namby-pamby prayers that we often pray from a lack of faith!
But maybe you’ve read ahead in the story. You’ve read chapter 33: You’re thinking, “Not so fast, Pastor Brent. As it turns out, unbeknownst to Jacob, after 20 years his brother, Esau, is no longer angry; he’s gotten over it. He doesn’t care about the past; he’s just overjoyed to be seeing his brother after all these years. So he didn’t even need to pray that prayer.”
I disagree. How do you know that things wouldn’t have turned out differently if Jacob hadn’t prayed this prayer?
Let me explain something that I think is very cool about God and the way he answers prayers. C.S. Lewis makes this point in his book Miracles. Christianity teaches that God isn’t limited to time—he transcends time; his stands outside of time, even as he interacts with time-bound creatures like you and me. Therefore, for all eternity, God has known the prayers that you and I are going to pray—and our Father enjoys answering the prayers of his children; he wants to answer our prayers.
The ordinary way that God answers our prayers, however, isn’t to work a dramatic miracle that breaks the laws of physics. He certainly can do that when he wants to, but that isn’t the ordinary way. The ordinary way is through what’s called providence. To an outside observer, providence means that things are just running their course, without divine intervention, without anything supernatural happening. Yet God is working through the ordinary to help us and to answer our prayers. This is the normal way God works in the world, and he can do so, in part, because he knows everything, including all the things that we’re going to pray for in the future. So with this foreknowledge, he sets into motion events in the past that will answer our prayers in the present.
Does that make sense?
So God, foreknowing that Jacob will pray this prayer on this particular night, began softening Esau’s heart—perhaps years earlier—so that this beautiful reconciliation with his brother would take place.
So God did answer Jacob’s prayer! It’s just that he started answering his prayer years before Jacob even prayed it. He can do that because he’s God!
But let’s talk about how he answered Jacob’s prayer. Because he did so in a way that went far beyond Jacob’s prayer for physical safety and protection. He didn’t merely “save” Jacob from his brother, after all; he saved Jacob’s soul. The “good” that Jacob prayed that God would do for him back in verse 12 wasn’t merely an immediate and temporary good—“protect me from my brother tomorrow”; it was an eternal good. Yes, God answered his prayer—but God also gave him infinitely more than he asked for…
And, strange as it seems, this wrestling match at the end of the chapter was the most important part of God’s answer to Jacob’s prayer—not the reconciliation with his brother in the next chapter.
After all, look at verse 7:
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”
Do you see what Jacob is doing? While it’s true that Jacob has a teensy bit of faith—at least enough to pray this prayer—he’s still hedging his bets. He’s still making contingency plans. He still has a fallback.
Yes, of course he hopes God is going to do all that God has promised to do for him, but he’s not betting his life on it: Just in case God doesn’t live up to his promises; just in case God doesn’t soften Esau’s heart; just in case worst comes to worst and Esau attacks him, he’s going to make sure he won’t lose everything—by splitting up his household into two camps. So if Esau attacks the first camp, the second camp can escape, and Jacob won’t lose everything! He’ll still have half of his fortune left over if his faith in God doesn’t work out.
He has a fallback to his faith. And God does not like fallbacks.
Jesus teaches us that faithfulness to God means surrendering everything… it means trusting the Lord so completely that you don’t need a fallback. It means treasuring the Lord so much that all other, earthly treasure pales in comparison. It means saying, along with Paul, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Unless or until Jacob has this kind of faith—unless or until Jacob learns to treasure God more than any earthly treasure, including the “treasure” of his own life—God is going wrestle with him. God is going to fight him for his own good. Which is what God does here.
For the first several hours of this wrestling match, Jacob believes that this shadowy figure he’s wrestling in the dark is merely a man. Who knows? He might even think—given that it’s pitch black outside and he hasn’t seen his brother in 20 years—he might even think Esau has planned a sneak attack him. Or maybe Esau has hired someone else to attack him. But do you know when Jacob realizes that he’s no longer wrestling a mere man?
When, in verse 25, it says that this so-called man “touched” his hip socket and put it out of joint. That Hebrew word for “touched” does not imply violent force… but the lightest touch. Who but God could do that? And of course we know Jacob perceives him to be God, and not merely some angel or demon, because says later, in verse 30, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” So for these many hours, God was wrestling Jacob the way a father wrestles his small child—by holding back, by refusing to use anywhere close to his full strength, by restraining himself. And Jacob realizes this.
And here’s my key point: After realizing he’s wrestling God, Jacob also knows that his life is in danger. Indeed, scholars suggest that the reason that God tells Jacob to let him go, in verse 26, is because God knows that if Jacob sees God’s face in the full light of day, the glory would destroy him: as God later warns Moses, no one can look directly at God’s face and live. Besides, Jacob knows he’s fighting against the same God who permanently injured his hip with a light touch; Jacob knows this same God could wipe him out if he wanted.
But unless or until God also breaks Jacob’s arms, Jacob figures he’s going to hold on for dear life! Why? Why doesn’t he let go? This is Jacob, after all!
This is same man who cheated and lied to his brother and father to gain an earthly treasure… This is the same selfish man who ran away from home 20 years earlier out of fear for his life instead of risking his life by trying to reconcile… This is the same man who up until this moment, was willing to pay a fortune to save his life… this same man is now ready to lay it down!To lose everything… to put everything on the line… Why? In order to gain the kind of treasure that he can only receive from God!
He counts everything else, including his life, his family, his fortune… as rubbish compared to what he’ll gain from God.
In other words, Jacob will have God… or he’ll have nothing else.
God, finally… is enough for Jacob!
What a painful, costly kind of blessing this is for Jacob to learn this! By all means, God’s grace is amazing—it’s the best thing there is—but sometimes grace hurts. And God is willing to “injure” us—figuratively if not physically—so that we will be in a position to receive this grace!
He did it with Paul, for instance, with what Paul calls his “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know exactly what the “thorn” was, but as with Jacob, it was something that caused great pain. Paul writes:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The way Paul describes it, it’s as if we can be so full of ourselves, we have no room for God’s grace. So God intends to wrestle all that pride out of us in order to give us more of himself… more of his grace, more of his strength, more of his power.
If you are a Christian, God loves you enough to “wrestle” with you, too. Maybe he’s doing so right now. And maybe it hurts. But on the other side of this fight, do you know what you’ll say?
You’ll say, “It was totally worth it! If it took that fight, that struggle, that trial, that pain, that turmoil, to bring me to this place, where I can receive more of God’s grace, then it was totally worth it!”