Severe Mercy

jacob-wrestles-godWhen Christians in their weakness cling to God and his promises, they can face any opponent—from heaven or earth—as people transformed by God’s powerful, effectual, and even painful mercy in Christ. (Theme of Genesis 32:9-12, 22-32)

Have you ever felt like God is out to get you, like he wouldn’t let you have the one thing that makes you truly happy? Sheldon Vanauken thought so. Sheldon rejected his Christian upbringing and as a young man devoted his life to the high pursuit of pagan virtues: Love and Beauty. Sheldon met a young lady named Jean Davis and they fell madly in love, sharing the noble pursuit together. Van and Davy were happy for a while, but Davy’s fears began to haunt her in her nightmares, and she came to realize their source: her conviction of sin and fear of death. While living in Oxford, they sought answers from Christian friends, including C.S. Lewis, who was instrumental in leading first Davy, then Van to faith in Christ. To make a long story short, Davy matured in her faith but Van struggled. When Davy got sick with an unexplained terminal illness, she was ready for heaven, but Van became angry at God. He blamed God for taking the love of his life away from him. As he shared with Lewis his wrestling with God through his anger, pain, fear, and pride, Lewis spoke direct words to his friend. He explained that God was removing an idol from Van’s heart in an act of “severe mercy,” to save Davy from being corrupted by Van’s idolatry of Love without God, and to save Van from destroying his own soul. It was years before Van could see the truth of Lewis’s biblical insight. Since then millions have read Van’s account in his book A Severe Mercy, an achingly beautiful love story of faith, tragedy, and triumph.

Sometimes God’s mercy comes to us in painful ways. We want God to transform us into humble, submissive, prayerful people, but usually we want the victory without the struggle. We want to prevail through our strengths while ignoring our weaknesses. We glorify wrestling with God but not clinging to God. We are desperate to believe in a God who always dispenses mercy gently, never severely. But deep down you know God’s mercy, like heart surgery or fatherly discipline, is sometimes very painful in the moment. It can be difficult loving a God who can be both severe and merciful at the same time.

Remember Jacob had deceived his father Isaac into giving him the birthright and blessing that would have belonged to his brother Esau. Esau planned to kill him so Jacob fled the country. Due to his guilt, Jacob is still estranged geographically from the Promised Land and relationally from his brother. Now, after 20 years of exile, he is returning to his brother Esau and the land of his fathers. But his heart is not changed. So God confronts Jacob to spiritually transform his fear and pride into trust and humility.  Read the story in Genesis 32.

I. Estranged from God

A. A desperate prayer (vv. 9-12)

When I think of a desperate prayer, I imagine George Bailey’s prayer in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.  You remember the scene, when George had been given a glimpse of what life would be like if he were never born.  He runs around town tracking down all his friends and family who don’t know who he is, but rather think this stranger George is crazy.  Finally George can’t take this alternative reality anymore, and regrets his wish that he had never been born.  In despair  he prays, “O God, dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope, and I…show me the way O God.” This is a touching, heartfelt prayer of simple faith.

These kinds of prayers are precious to God. But Christians should let the Bible instruct how to pray desperately. Here in Genesis 32 is the first time the Bible records Jacob praying. His prayer (the longest in Genesis) is the heart of the first section of this narrative (vv. 1-21). It is a model prayer of distress in the form of a penitential psalm. Address to God (v. 9); rehearsal of God’s gracious favor to Jacob (v. 10); petition for deliverance from Esau (v. 11a); complaint that God should answer because Jacob is helpless (v. 11b); reminder to God of his promise to treat Jacob well and fulfill his covenant promises (v. 12). “This Jordan” identifies the Jabbok as an extension of the Jordan river, probably signifying that Jacob sees himself on the verge, but still on the outside, of the Promised Land of God.

B. Left all alone (vv. 22-24a)

1. After sending his servants ahead with his gifts for Esau, Jacob took all his household and the rest of his possessions, and sent them across the ford of the Jabbok. At this point in the night, Jacob had sent literally everything and everyone ahead of him.

Part of my usual sermon preparation is to ask God to help me learn experientially what the passage teaches. This week God gave me a small dose of feeling this sense of personal loss. Within a period of 24 hours we sold some old furniture I still loved, a family heirloom in our living room was shattered, and as you heard many of the church’s computer files were rendered unusable. I got the message! “Please Lord, that’s enough. I think I learned the lesson.”

2. It was so much worse for Jacob. Only he remains on the far side of the Jabbok. Thus Jacob was left all alone. Completely alone. At night. In the wilderness. Still outside the land of promise, the LORD’s land. Just like he had begun his sojourning 20 years prior (with just a walking stick), Jacob is now alone with himself. No one to deliver him. Why? He must encounter God alone, without provision or protection. (Note this is an important spiritual principle for how every single person must encounter God.) Try to imagine the scene. Animals prowling, including dangerous predators. Insects and other night creatures singing. The wind blowing. A chill in the air. Jacob is already afraid of how Esau with his army will receive him. Now more fear sets in. Being estranged from God, and feeling that estrangement, is often the setting, the environment, where we encounter God’s mercy.

II. Wrestling with God

A. The match (vv. 24b-25)

How does Jacob encounter God? A mysterious “man” jumps him in the dark, initiating the encounter. And so an all-night wrestling match begins. Jacob feared he might lose everything and everyone dear to him. Now all he has left is God’s promised blessing. And he will never ever let that go. No matter what. For if Jacob does not have the Lord of the covenant blessing, then he has nothing. But if he doesn’t let go of the Lord of blessing, then he has all he needs. God had sustained him when he had nothing and was running for his life from Esau. If God saved him once he could save him again. While Jacob stands to lose everything, he holds on to the only one who is able to bless him. And hold on he does!

B. The divine “touch” (v. 25)

When the sun rose the “man” saw that he did not prevail against his wrestling partner. Jacob was still persevering, refusing to give up. So the “man” touched Jacob’s hip socket, dislocating the hip, the wrestler’s pivot of strength. This “touch” highlights the strength of the “man.” It normally takes a lot of force to dislocate a hip. Listen to what the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says about hip dislocation.

A hip dislocation is very painful. Patients are unable to move the leg and, if there is nerve damage, may not have any feeling in the foot or ankle area. A traumatic hip dislocation occurs when the head of the thighbone (femur) is forced out of its socket in the hip bone (pelvis). It typically takes a major force to dislocate the hip. Car collisions and falls from significant heights are common causes. A hip dislocation is a serious medical emergency. Immediate treatment is necessary. Call for help immediately. Do not try to move the injured person, but keep him or her warm with blankets.

This supernatural “touch” (the same word is elsewhere translated “strike,” cf. 2 Sam 5:8; Job 1:19) is nevertheless a crippling blow to Jacob. Thus the wrestling match ends when through an act of severe mercy Jacob’s natural strength shrivels. At dawn it begins to dawn on Jacob who struck him—God himself!

III. Clinging to God

A. For the blessing (v. 26)

As dawn was breaking, God commands Jacob to let him go since the cover of darkness was lifting. Jacob replies that he will not let go until the “man” blesses him. What kind of blessing does Jacob want? Beforehand Jacob had “wrestled” with God in prayer, now he acts out his prayer. What did Jacob pray for? God’s favor despite his own unworthiness. Jacob knew he didn’t deserve the blessing of God’s covenant promise—to deliver him from his enemies, to show him gracious love and kindness, and to multiply his descendants as heirs of the promise. Therefore Jacob’s struggle was a matter of holding onto God in his weakness through desperate prayer (cf. Hos 12:3-5).

What kind of blessing are you clinging to God for? Is it the blessing of God, what he actually promises to you, or something else? Don’t you see those crippling touches you feel are God’s severe mercies to change you from the inside out? When you pursue the gift without the Giver, a blessing apart from the One who Blesses, you’ve made something good into an idol. Van made an idol of Love and Beauty. Jacob had earlier made an idol of being the heir of God’s blessing. They were only able to see their heart idols when they discerned what made them afraid, angry, or proud. Consider one common idol this time of year: Christmas. How do you respond when your hopes and plans for an enjoyable Christmas season are threatened? If you get angry at others for spoiling your plans or angry at God for letting this happen because you deserve some holiday cheer, you’ve got yourself an idol. If you double down on your efforts to protect your ideal Christmas, and it works, and then you feel proud of yourself for keeping things under control, then you’ve got yourself an idol. We don’t need to explore right now the idols you live for the rest of the year. But don’t you see that your fear, your anger, and your pride reveal the blessings you cling to apart from God? You need to cling to God for the blessings he promises. That is the only way your heart will change so you will desire what he wants to give you. And what does he want to give you most of all because it’s what you need most of all? Himself.

B. For his face (vv. 27-30)

1. When God asked Jacob to give his name, Jacob knew he was cornered. “Who are you?” God asked. “Deceiver, Supplanter,” Jacob replied. Jacob had to admit his devious past: that he lied to his father Isaac, swindled his brother Esau out of the birthright, and ran away from his family, his homeland, and his God. God was purging Jacob of his former identity by giving him a new name—Israel, meaning “he strives with God.”

2. Jacob’s experience was surely intimate, eye-opening, and life-changing. He is full of amazement at this encounter. For Jacob understood that normally to see God “face to face” is to meet one’s death. Yet because of God’s steadfast love and kindness, Jacob’s life has been delivered. So he named the place “Peniel” which means “face of God,” memorializing the plot of ground where he wrestled with God, clung to God, saw God’s face, and limped away a changed man. Despite the mess of his life Jacob had made, God will strengthen him. One commentator put it like this: “Meeting God face to face meant that he could now look Esau directly in the eye.” When a believer experiences the salvation of God, no other danger can strike the same kind of fear in his heart.

God sometimes gives you severe mercy to expand your spiritual vision, to open your eyes to his wonderful face. But you must understand his painful divine “touch” as a mercy, otherwise the experience can just as easily harden you. When you cling to God for anything without the desire to look into his wonderful face, your heart will remain unchanged. When God calls your name, he wants you to stop wrestling him, start clinging to him, and look at him. He wants you to admit who you really are. Jacob said, “I am a deceiver, a trickster, a self-sufficient and proud schemer.” When you feel the painful divine touch, recognize it as his severe mercy. Look at him and admit who you really are apart from God’s transforming grace in you. “I am a sinner, and I don’t deserve your steadfast love and kindness.” Then admit your particular idols, perhaps like this: “I confess that my life only has meaning if (1) I have power and influence over other, or (2) I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions, or (3) my family is happy and happy with me.” Strive to look God in the eye, clinging to him by leading with your limp.

C. For the limp (vv. 31-32)

So when the sun rose on Peniel, Jacob passed by, but limping because of his injured hip. His encounter with God has left him permanently changed—physically disabled and spiritually enabled. The limp reminds Jacob he is powerless and dependent when faced with God. The night of Jacob’s fear is transformed into the day of Jacob’s hope. The limp is the spiritual posture of the saint. The Christian does not prevail in physical strength but in spiritual strength. When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10). Believers gain the victory, but it is a crippling victory. In this way we are humbled and thus give glory to God.

Learn to love your limp. Cling to your limp. It is a gift, a kind of severe mercy that reminds you to prevail through Christ by desperate prayer, wrestling and clinging to God in your weakness. Don’t go looking for a limp, but thank God for yours. Praise him for your particular limp. Tell others about God’s goodness in giving you a severe mercy when you needed it most. And here is the most important lesson. Don’t miss it: never stop clinging to the One who limped for you.

This story of Israel wrestling God should remind us of Jesus who is the True Israel, the one who strove with God and men and ultimately prevailed. Jacob’s wrestling match is but a shadow of Christ’s wrestling with God on the cross. Jacob was alone with God, wrestling through prayer. Because of his sin and history of deceitfulness, Jacob did not merit God’s blessing, yet God finally blessed him when Jacob refused to let go. In his weakness, Jacob prevailed. But what hope is there for you and I when we let go, when our strength fails. Jesus is your hope! How? Jesus did merit God’s blessing, and when he wrestled with God in prayer on the cross, he was not delivered so you would be. Through his weakness others are made strong. Jacob walked away with a limp even though he had seen God face to face—a divine encounter that should have left him dead. Jesus died on the cross while his Father turned his face away. Jesus agonized for a divine encounter that should have brought him life. Yet through his death Jesus prevailed. Jacob struggled with and clung to God that his own sins might be forgiven, his own fears might be calmed, and that God might look upon him with favor. Jesus struggled with and clung to God that our sins might be forgiven, our fears might be calmed, and that God might look upon us with favor. And Jesus even walked away with his limp: with power, glory, and resurrection life, but also with wounds in his hands and side! Through the triumph of Christ believers also prevail. Through your weakness you move from wrestling with God to clinging to God, which makes you strong in Christ.


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