Pastoral Perspectives

A Time to Wrestle

Someone asked the pastor, “What is happening?” So I asked the person back, “So are you scared?” We were talking about events that had happened in the world, especially the wars, atrocities and unrest in regions like Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq/Syria, Nigeria, etc. So are you scared? We may not have to face these things here while opportunities abound for us to amass wealth and possessions. Yet there are things that can scare us, like a not-so-encouraging medical report or news that someone in the family had run afoul of the law. Think of the late Dr Richard Teo who had these parting words before succumbing to cancer, “I can’t hug and cling on to my Ferrari forever…” or action superstar Jackie Chan whose son was detained for drug-related charges. Suddenly all the things that we have worked so hard for seem meaningless when we have to face such things. What can we do?

Jacob was a schemer who had cheated his brother Esau of his birth right, deceived his father Isaac for blessings and prospered at his uncle Laban’s expense. The last thing he heard regarding Esau before fleeing home were these words: “Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself about you by planning to kill you.” So in Genesis 32, Jacob was on his way back and he sent messengers to Esau with news of his great wealth, hoping to find favour with his brother. But he was told instead that Esau would be meeting him with 400 men. And he was greatly afraid and distressed that he was prepared to give away his wealth in order to appease his brother. After all the effort that he had gone through to amass all that he had, these things suddenly meant nothing when he had to face his brother. What could Jacob do? He had a wrestling match!

As a young Christian still influenced by pagan ideas, I once thought that Jacob had actually arm-wrestled God and won! And when dawn came, God had to go (like how a vampire had to) and so played dirty by dislocating Jacob’s hip in order to free himself. But God, being a gentleman that he is, blessed Jacob for his hard fought victory. But now I know better! So what happened that night? It began when Jacob was finally left alone that the man came and wrestled with him. Did Jacob really defeat him? But how could he when the man easily loosened his hip socket with a touch? So what happened was probably a physical encounter with Jacob not knowing who he was wrestling with but hung on nevertheless. I believe it was a test for Jacob to see if he would give up, just as the tree was a test for Adam to see if he would give in, and the breaking of dawn signalled the end of his test. The loosened hip was not a last-ditched effort to break free but a sign to let Jacob know who he was wrestling with and a permanent memorial to remind his descendent his encounter with God. And so Jacob became Israel because he hung on and prevailed.

Jacob might have feared Esau but his brother was only a manifestation of his problem. Jacob’s real problem was that he did not know God though he was in a way a 3rd generation believer. Why do I say that? When Jacob fled his house and God met him at Bethel in his dream, he made a vow that the LORD, i.e. Yahweh, the God of his father and grandfather, would be his God if He would provide for his needs and let him return home in peace. Such a conditional vow could only mean that Jacob had not personally accepted his household’s God. But that night he simply prayed for deliverance based on God’s promises and his unworthiness. That night, Jacob finally knew God for himself and so he was able to lift up his head to face his brother Esau though he would still not know what the outcome might be. However the great fear and distress that he had seemed to have evaporated like the morning dew.

In the same way, humanity’s real problem is sin and separation from God, the Author and Source of life, and it leads to all kinds of fears and chaos here on earth and eternal death thereafter. And so mankind creates images of gods of all kinds to deal with it and would willingly worship any such god that seems able to relieve their fears and provide for their needs and protection, i.e. conditional acceptance. But God has provided a way out, i.e. through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. As Paul puts it, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1) It is only when we have peace with God that we are able to face fears and trials in life like Jacob did.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is this: Is Jesus truly my Lord and Saviour? Some of us may well be 2nd or 3rd generation believers but each of us will need to wrestle with this question personally. How may we do so? Learn from Jacob! He was left alone with nothing and he trusted God’s promises and recognized his unworthiness. So we need to come before God with nothing to offer, trust his words and recognize our sinfulness. When we do so, we will know and remember that the Cross is the sign to remind us of the price he paid and the gift of the Holy Spirit is the permanent memorial to remind us that we belong to God and will one day enter his glory forever and ever. And when we do so, we will be able to lift up our head and face the trials of this world even though we may not know what the outcome will be.