By Mike Baird
Faculty, College of Theology
The Jacob Journal is a reflection on the life and times of the biblical character of Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah.
The All-Night Fight
As I sit down to write this journal entry, my hip has started hurting again. It’s not that I am getting old—the hip pain is a reminder of an all-night fight I was involved in.
You probably have a scar somewhere on your body that reminds you of a fight you were in or a close call with danger. Old injuries keep coming back in more ways than one. There’s the pain and then there’s the memory.
Fortunately, those two are not the same for me. The memory itself is not a part of the pain.
My all-night fight was the lowest point in my life and the highest point in my journey. Isn’t it odd how one single event can be the best and the worst experience you have ever had?
As I look back, I know that this one night was so critical because the stakes were so high. I had never had more to lose and yet more to gain.
If you have read the record, you know I was about to have an encounter with Esau and I was expecting the worst. I knew that on the morning after that all-night fight, I would see my brother and have to settle the account. I was petrified that he would do all the accounting and I would be left with nothing.
I was afraid for my life!
It should be no surprise that I prayed. You have read my prayer in the record. Notice that I still couldn’t call him MY God, only the God of Abraham and Isaac. Also, notice that I took up bargaining again.
“Lord, you’re the one who told me to come back here. I’m in this mess because of you. Remember you promised you would protect and prosper me and my family. Now’s the time, God!”
The only good thing about the prayer was that in my desperation I was turning to Him, not relying on myself. I must say I had made some progress in my faith journey. I’ve been told by many saintly people that God hears a prayer of desperation, too.
I’m glad He listened to my need and not to my demands. God’s answer took the form of an all-night fight. It took me some time to fully understand what had happened.
A few years after the all-night fight took place, I was sharing the event with one of my children, Judah. He asked a question I have pondered for many years now: “Who were you fighting against?”
At first, of course, I thought I was fighting with another human being, albeit someone I had never met. I was fighting to protect my family and goods, which were just on the other side of the river.
But as the night wore on, I began to realize that my frenzied thoughts were not about the danger to my family. I was struggling with my fears and doubts about God and about myself. As I fought, I thought of all the struggles and fights I had had with Laban, with my father and with my brother in my youth. I thought about all the times I had fought with loneliness and fear. I thought about all the times I had resisted God in my life, telling him I would do things my own way.
Who or what was I wrestling with that night?
This man is an angel!
That’s what hit me just about the time the man reached out and grabbed my leg and wrenched my hip. I guess I tore some tendons. The pain shot through my whole body. It woke me up.
I had been fighting as if in a dream, but the pain brought me to my senses. The struggles in my mind and heart vanished for a second, and I knew that I was looking at God face-to-face and that I had only one option – surrender to Him.
After years of reflection, I have come to see that my life had been one long fight, or a series of many fights with just about every significant person who had been a part of my life. The common denominator in all these fights had been me!
Could it have been that the struggle wasn’t against an opponent standing in front of me, but with my own selfish, stubborn heart?
As the old nomad saying goes, “I was my own worst enemy.” You need to know that I didn’t win the all-night fight. I surrendered. I decided to quit fighting what I knew was right and best. I decided to give up the struggle and simply let God make of me what he could.
Somewhere in the night, I quit fighting against the truth and started “fighting” for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Of course, you don’t fight for that, you surrender to it.
Perhaps that is why at the very moment when my pain was greatest, the angel told me the fight was over and he was leaving. God was saying, “You missed your chance at Bethel. Don’t close your heart to me now.”
I knew in that moment that I had to confront my soul’s last resistance to God; I had to grab hold of God or let him go forever. I had to decide to live in God’s blessing and will, or turn my back, flee for my life and take care of my struggles and fears by my own wit and power.
This was a moment of critical decision. The words just came out. “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
I wasn’t talking to a man.
I wasn’t even talking to an angel.
I was talking to God.
And for the first time in my life, I wanted God’s blessing more than anything else. It wasn’t an act of desperation. I wasn’t a demand. It was a flat statement. Deep down in my soul I was giving in to the truth. I wanted God.
I wanted Him in my life and thought. I wanted to walk with Him every day, not just crisis days. I wanted to feel the power of the blessing Isaac had bestowed upon my hurting soul so many years ago.
But now I wanted that blessing to flood every corner of my being. Isaac couldn’t give me that. Nobody could. Only God. Only God could take away the bad memories and heal the soul scars. Only God could take away the guilt and fear and doubt. Only God could conquer the Jacob inside me.
And in that moment, He did.
The man said, “What is your name?”
You’re avoiding me, God.
That’s what I thought. But as soon as I spoke my name out loud, I knew what He was doing. He was giving me a new name. For the third time in my life, someone was playing the name game with me. This time the name was not given to mock or manipulate. How joyous it is when God does His work of love and mercy in your life.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel.” The name Israel means “he who struggles with God.”
As I look back, I can see that the name summed up my old life, a constant struggle against others and God for my own selfish way. But that name also confirmed in me my newfound faith in God. The name declared me to be one who fights with, alongside of, God. God was no longer my foe. He no longer had to fight against me. Now He would fight with me, alongside of me, as my savior, ally, friend.
Notice that my name changed, not God’s. The change was in me. God had been on my side all along. Now my will, my heart, my life were open to Him.
I am glad God confronts us, does not let us wander away into the darkness. I’m so glad He will not let us self-destruct in our pride and selfishness. I’m so glad He pursues us until every last vestige of rebellion and greed and selfish desire is washed out of our soul.
I used to think that God’s best for me would come in the form of flocks and family. Now I understood that His best for me was a transforming grace that changed me from the inside out. It is not easy work, for Him or for us, but it is his best work.
I have often thought that if a person were to meet God on the road one day, and He were to introduce himself, he would say, “Shalom. My name is Love.” How else can you explain how a self-consumed person named Jacob can come face to face with God and leave being renamed Israel?
He waits patiently as the fires of passion, greed and destruction and the fires of life just burn away our stubborn wills and reduce us to helplessness. Then, instead of leaving us to die, He gently calls us to Himself in the moment we can no longer resist His help, when we realize He is the only one who can help.
That is patience, indeed.
Patience, wisdom, mercy, grace and love.
Questions for Reflection:
- Despite his distance from God, Jacob prayed to God throughout his life. His spiritual journey can be traced through his prayers. Look at your prayer life. When and how do you talk to God? What does it tell you of your progress toward genuine faith?
- As objectively as possible, consider the pros and cons of surrendering yourself to God without holding back. Will this bring you peace and freedom? Is there a better way to deal with the circumstances of your life?
Follow Jacob’s journey as he finds God by checking out all of the Jacob Journal entries.
About the Author
The 21st century author of this journal is Mike Baird, PhD, retired professor of Christian studies. The ideas and insights found here come from a life lived, not from a fantasy world. It is his prayer that you will see yourself mirrored in some of Jacob’s struggles and decisions, and that you will discover the timeless spiritual resources which Scripture and the Holy Spirit speaking through it have made available to us.
Dr. Baird originates from Glendale, AZ. He received his BA at Grand Canyon College (now GCU). His MDiv and PhD were completed at Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary, Fort Worth, TX (Go Cowboys!). He and his wife have three children and five grandchildren.
He has enjoyed teaching college students for the last 35 years. He is a member of First Southern Baptist Church, where he teaches a Bible study class on Sunday mornings and sings in the choir.
What he has enjoyed greatly over the years is participating in the Ethington Theatre Series as a guest actor. He has been in 27 productions, his favorites being the Shakespeare productions.
He encourages students to use their time at GCU to clarify and sharpen their sense of calling. You are here to equip for the work of the Kingdom. Don’t squander the opportunity.