Claim the Hidden Blessing

As we move into a new year and a new decade, here is a story that has had great resonance for me through the years, and never so much as in 2009, when I have felt I was wrestling for my very life. The challenges of the past months have often felt overwhelming, yet I can see that I’m stronger for it. In some ways it has been a year of death as well as birth, and I cannot tell you what 2010 will bring, but I do know I am better prepared to work, pray, live, and love more fully and effectively because I learned so much during this “dark night of the soul.” 

And Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day…. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” 
But he [Jacob] said, “I will not let you go unless You bless me!”
So He said to him, “What is your name?”
He said, “Jacob.”
And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 
Genesis 32:24, 26-28 NKJV

Even coming out of the womb, Jacob was trying to get ahead. The “supplanter” or “one who grasps the heel”—that’s what his name meant. Twins Jacob and Esau wrestled in the womb and though hairy Esau was the first born, Jacob followed close behind, holding onto Esau’s heel. The younger brother spent most of his life striving to best his slow-on-the-uptake elder brother: bargaining for his inheritance, stealing where he could not borrow or beg. Jacob relied on raffish charm and wily cunning to get by and get on in life. 

A bargainer, a trickster, that was what people thought of when they thought of young Jacob. When he stole his father’s blessing from Esau, Jacob the fox knew that his lumbering brother would be coming after him like an angry Rottweiler, so he got on the fastest camel he could find and rode out of town. Before he left, his mother, Rebecca, put a bug in Jacob’s ear: “Go see your Uncle Laban back east in Paddan-aram. I’m sure he can find a place for an up and coming young man like you.”

As a young man, Jacob needed room to flex his muscles and wrestle territory, goods, and even love from life. He needed greater scope for his talents than he could find on the old homestead. When you stood Laban and Jacob side by side, you could tell that they were kin. It wasn’t so much that the good looking young man resembled stolid old Laban physically. But they were kindred spirits, bargaining and haggling like two used car salesmen trying to sell each other the deal of a lifetime. Laban would best Jacob in a deal. Then Jacob would turn the tables and Laban would find himself paying more than he bargained for. Jacob, who had thought himself pretty good at the bargaining table, had met a master of the deal in his Uncle Laban. But the apprentice learned quickly, and soon Jacob had bested Laban in one too many deals. It was time for Jacob to hit the road again.
He decided to go back home and look up the family, visit the old place, and show the hometown how well he had made out in the world.

And so Jacob came to the river Jabbok. He sent peace offerings ahead across the river to Esau—camels and donkeys and sheep. But he didn’t know if the bribe would work. And something in Jacob was yearning for more than the old relationship based on bargaining and sleight of hand. He wanted more, but what he wanted could not be bought with goods or money. He couldn’t bargain for it, either, because what he longed for was gift, not merchandise. 

Jacob sent the women and children and servants ahead across the river Jabbock. Night had fallen and Jacob was left alone on the other side. He would cross over the river into the land of his inheritance the next day. The last time he had crossed this border twenty years ago, he had been running away from his angry brother and had dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder. He had received God’s blessing in a foreign land. Now he was returning to face his brother, seeking God’s blessing and protection yet again. 

Suddenly a man appeared and he and Jacob began to wrestle. Who was this man? The biblical narrative is deliberately vague here, allowing you to fill in the blanks. Hosea mentions the Angel of the Lord. But there is no precise definition of who or what this wrestling contestant might be. When the contest was over and Jacob limped away, he said he had seen the face of God. 

The two wrestled all night in this dreamlike encounter. They were equally matched, as if Jacob’s opponent was a perfect twin. Was God testing his strength or was Jacob wrestling with his shadow? They wrestled through the night. Finally the opponent touched Jacob in the thigh, a place of vulnerability. The Hebrew word indicates the touch of God, as in a heart being touched. It was an indication that the opponent Jacob had been wrestling with in the darkness was far superior, and that Jacob was not in control and would not be able to make any bargains this time. 

Still Jacob held on and would not let go till the Lord blessed him. And the Lord did bless him. As the sun rose, God told Jacob that his name was no longer Jacob (trickster, supplanter), but Israel, which means Prince of God or one who strives with God. There is a play on words in the Hebrew, for the terms Jabbock, Jacob, Israel, and wrestled all have a similar root. Even in a life and death struggle it seems that God can’t resist a good pun. Jacob had wrestled all his life with man and now he had wrestled with God. Jacob named the place Peniel, which means the face of God. Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face and lived.”

Jacob did enter into the land of his inheritance the next day. He met Esau face to face and the brothers made peace. He found the gift of his inheritance and saw his children prosper. Jacob lived a long life after the encounter at the river Jabbock. He was known by his new name of Israel. All of his sons would share in the family inheritance when Jacob died. They were the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob’s family would become a great nation.

When you feel as if you are wrestling for your life, do as Jacob did. Hold on tight, and claim the blessing from God with a strong and focused faith. The chaos and confusion of life may wrestle you to the ground, but always know that there is a hidden blessing to be found in every situation. 

The dark night of the soul is when you face your own shadow. Instead of running away from what is frightening or despicable in yourself, you wrestle till the shadow finally gives its blessing. When Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, it was his own shadow as well as God’s light that he grappled with. And he held on until he could win a blessing from the contest. 

Affirm that even your most fearsome adversary offers a hidden blessing and that a deeper Truth lies behind the changing circumstances and situations you find yourself experiencing. Choose to see with the clear eyes of a faith that cuts through the confusion to the Love which is stronger than death, greater than any challenge life can throw at you. 

Affirmative prayer

I know there is a blessing in the midst of this chaos and confusion, and I demand to see it, to know it, and to claim the blessing as my own. I bless each situation, each challenge, and each person involved. I thank you, God, that You are in the midst of all of this, guiding me and bringing wholeness out of brokenness, grace and blessing in the midst of sadness and loss. You are my Light in the darkness, my Joy in the midst of sorrow, and I find You within, oh Heart of my own heart. 

Quotes for Mediation

He had fallen on the earth as a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute.
--Feodor Dostoevski, The Brothers Karamazov

Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.
--Thomas Merton

What no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things.
--Søren Kierkegaard

Finding one’s way in the desert is much easier by night than by day… In the years I spent in the open desert I never once got lost, thanks to the stars.
--Carlos Carretto

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.
Ephesians 6:12 (NKJV)

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining.
I believe in love
even when I do not feel it.
I believe in God
even when he is silent.
--Inscription found on a cellar wall in Cologne in the aftermath of WWII

When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; 
And where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.
--Rabindranath Tagore

Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as from a root.
--G.K. Chesterton

If we could just be, we would be able to relax from the anxiety of becoming something that we are not, getting something we don’t have, and trying to shape reality according to our own desires.
Kabir Edmund Helminski 

The only way to loosen the ties that bind us is by finding freedom from within—freedom not from circumstances, but from our conditioned thoughts and emotions.
--Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan 

Most of our energy goes into upholding our importance. If we were capable of losing some of that importance, two extraordinary things would happen to us. One, we would free our energy from trying to maintain the illusory idea of our grandeur; and two, we would provide ourselves with enough energy to catch a glimpse of the actual grandeur of the universe.
--Carlos Castaneda