I am a thinker, a planner, a strategizer. But there are times when all my thinking and planning and strategizing doesn’t pan out the way I want. And there are times when, no matter how much I think and organize and coordinate, I am still truly powerless to control the entire situation.
Do you ever feel this way? – that you have exhausted your resources? -that you have strategized the heck out of a situation and still cannot solve the problem? -that your only options are Bad and Worse?
I love the story of Jacob in the Old Testament. He was a trickster, a con artist. He completely conned his brother Esau out of his birthright. Then, in fear of his life, he ran off to Haran. In Haran, his Uncle Laban tricked the trickster. After working for his uncle for seven years, Jacob thought his reward was marrying the beautiful Rachel, whom he loved. Instead, Laban fooled him into marrying Leah. So Jacob had to work another seven years to have Rachel as his wife.
Needless to say, the family dynamics were pretty dysfunctional. The undesirable Leah had many sons for Jacob while the much-loved Rachel struggled with infertility. Jealousy, anger, blame – all festered and boiled over in the family.
Jacob and Laban continually argued over fair wages, and Jacob strategized to increase his flocks of animals and weaken Laban’s. Then Jacob and his wives and all their children and servants took their livestock and their goods and sneaked away, back toward Canaan, where Jacob’s family lived.
Naturally, Laban and his clan pursued Jacob. They eventually had a daytime-talk-show-like moment of confrontation, reconciliation and forgiveness in the hill country. So Jacob and his large family continued on their way back to his family, back to Esau, who wanted to murder him the last time they saw each other. Jacob sent ahead a bribe with all his people, and he stayed alone in the camp on the other side of the river.
That night, a heavenly or angelic stranger came into Jacob’s camp and wrestled with him. All night, until daybreak, they wrestled. Finally, the man wrenched Jacob’s hip out of socket. Still, Jacob would not let go until this angelic stranger blessed him. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means he struggles with God. After receiving the blessing, Jacob realized the stranger had been God himself, and he called the place Peniel, which means the face of God.
There Jacob was between Laban and Esau, between the options of Bad and Worse. He had done his best to make amends with Laban, but he couldn’t go back. In fear and distress, he had sent ahead every gift he thought would convince Esau not to kill him. His entire life of strategizing and manipulating and grabbing for what he wanted culminated in this moment. There was nothing more this trickster could do. On the riverbank, Jacob was alone, face to face with God.
Finally, when he reached the end of himself, when he had wrestled and struggled until he was spent and disabled, Jacob received the blessing he had longed for his whole life.
Frederick Buechner describes this moment in the Bible as the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” The apostle Paul would clarify later in the Bible that it is in our weakness that God blesses us with his strength.
As long as we are strategizing and feverishly grabbing at what we want and manipulating circumstances to try to get our way, the real blessing will remain beyond our reach. It is when we come to the end of ourselves, alone with God, wrestling it out, facing our failures and mistakes that he gives us the blessing we really want. Like Jacob, we may be injured in the process. We may walk with a limp the rest of our lives. But God meets us in our vulnerability and brokenness and wrestles with us through the hard stuff.
I love that Jacob held onto the stranger he knew was from God and wouldn’t let go until he got a blessing. In my humility and weakness, as I face my failures and surrender to God’s strength, I want to hold on and refuse to let go of him until I receive the blessing of his strength made perfect, of his mercy, of his love.
When we are completely spent, when we are out of resources, when our bucket is empty and our well is dry, when all our plans and strategies have not succeeded, when we are absolutely powerless to do anything more, when we have wrestled and fought and we lay incapacitated on the rocky ground — that is when we are finally ready to receive the blessing.
Don’t lose heart. Hold on to God. His presence and strength, struggling with him and overcoming – those are the blessings. Now, limp on across the river with me.