This Friday is the two-year anniversary of what I can only call the worst night of my life. I’m not going to dwell on the details of that night, not now. Because as traumatic as the night was, it was the resulting realizations that almost killed me. That’s not a hyperbole—I was suicidal again for a while, coming to terms with it all. The biggest realization, the hardest truth to swallow was that I, for all my relationship with Jesus, had zero faith in him to save anyone.
I had been discouraged by backward steps of my unbelieving friends and, as I saw it, God’s refusal to open their eyes, no matter how often I fell on my knees, weeping for them. I had been discouraged by the physical world, as well—awful, terrible things that happened to people I loved most, things I wish to God had never happened for their sakes. I had been discouraged by the blatant blasphemies and insults from other people I loved, I had respected, and who instead chose to condescend to me and twist the Word of God. I was at a point in my life where I thought if I just worked hard enough, volunteered enough in various ministries, and prayed enough, people would be saved. I didn’t realize at the time I was thinking in terms of my ability to save and not Jesus’.
So when the young boy was dying and I knew in my heart, without a doubt, he was already dead, and I had to gather his friends together and encourage them to pray for him, pray for healing, pray for a miracle, I felt like a fraud. I led a group of 8th graders in a prayer I didn’t believe. I was a faithless liar who thought, “If I can’t save this boy, no one can. Not even God.” I didn’t know all this at the time, of course. I was not near as self-actualized as I am now. It took a couple months of counseling and countless hours alone with Scripture and prayer to really grasp the magnitude of that moment. At that point, I became just like Jacob at Peniel.
Quick summary: Jacob, Esau, and parents were living in Canaan. After Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, he escaped to Paddan-Aram to find his uncle’s family. On the way, he sets up camp for the night, God appears to him in a dream, promises tons of blessings, protection, land, descendants, the works. Jacob sets up an altar, anoints it and names the place Bethel (meaning “house of God”), and makes a conditional vow with God, that if God fulfills all those promises then he’ll serve God as his God. He goes to Paddan-Aram, works a lot, gets a couple wives, has a bunch of kids, and then God tells him to go back to Canaan.
On the way back, Jacob is camped by himself when God appears to him again, this time in the form of a man. Jacob and God wrestle—physically wrestle—all night. Jacob is winning the match, but God touches his hip and knocks it out of socket. Jacob demands (another) blessing from God. God, in response, asks him one thing: “What is your name?”
Here’s where it gets good. Craig Groeschel once touched on this in a sermon—why did God ask Jacob his name? As Craig put it, God wanted Jacob to admit who he really was. Jacob’s very name meant “deceiver” and he’d spent all of his life up to this point living up to his name. He had deceived one person after another, and what God was saying to him here was clear: admit who you are. Acknowledge your sinful nature and admit your identity as a deceiver. Once he did, God changed his name from Jacob to Israel, blessed him, and left. Jacob had to come to terms with his identity without God before he could have a new identity in God. He limped on, stopping again at Bethel, this time to build another altar and name the place El-bethel (“God of Bethel”). God had fulfilled all his promises and Jacob was finally ready to serve God as his God.
So there I am, all over that story. My wrestling with God two years ago resulted in him asking me the difficult questions and forcing me to acknowledge my sinful nature. I had to admit my identity as a sinner without God before he could show me what it means to have a new identity in him, to be a new creation.
Two more things to notice here:
1. Jacob had a limp. He had been touched by God, it was painful, and it had lasting effects. Sometimes God leads us to difficult moments so he can open our eyes to his nature and make us aware of our identities, even our hidden motives. Sometimes it hurts and has lasting effects. I commented to a friend last night, “Friday is the two-year anniversary…I’m wondering how many years have to pass before I stop counting.” She, having been through a traumatic experience as a young girl, replied, “Probably not for a while…It will be 12 years…on May 2nd.” But I keep thinking, where I am now is because of where I was then. And I wouldn’t change where I am now, not for anything. My relationship with Jesus is stronger than I would have ever thought possible, and it grows daily. Walking with a limp just means I have to rely on him more than I did before.
2. Jacob built an altar. As if the limp wasn’t enough, Jacob needed to put up a permanent fixture, a sign to let people know, “This is what happened. This is why God is my God.” And, as an even more permanent (if that’s possible) sign, God wanted to include this story in the Bible so people for thousands of years would read about it and know what happened. My altar is a book I began writing back then, a manuscript sitting abandoned on my hard drive somewhere. I’m waiting to see how God wants me to build it. Until then, this blog is part of my altar, my way of saying:
“This is why God is my God.”