Striving. Manipulating. Conniving. Pleading. Nagging. Currying favour.
This is life – as most of us grow up knowing or living it.
As kids, we quickly learn to compete for the attention and favour of our parents – with our siblings, or with our parents’ jobs or other commitments.
As students, we study hard to get good grades and better our classmates and peers.
As working adults, we do our best to ace that interview and land that job over the other candidates. And in the office, we learn to navigate the murky waters of office politics, going for the big projects to raise our profile, mastering the art of networking and apple-polishing on our bosses to get into their good books, and ever so casually dropping seemingly harmless and factual comments about our peers in front of their staff or bosses to put them in a lesser light, all so we can push past the competition to clinch that promotion.
When we are dating, we cover up our flaws and remember to put our best foot forward to appear more attractive. After we are married, we nag at our spouses and our kids to get them to do what we want.
Before everyone else, at all times, we make all efforts in presenting our best sides to keep up our favourable public image and reputation.
But when we face a major challenge, whether unexpected or of our own making, we drop all pretence and start pleading with the doctors and experts and every known deity to get out of that situation.
All because we think: if anyone’s to be looking out for me, it’s got to be…me. Until we realise there are some things we can’t do for ourselves.
But here is the good news today: it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to live life fighting your own battles.
Jacob was a man who found that out the long way. He lived his life grabbing and conniving to get ahead. At his birth, he came out grabbing the heel of his twin brother. He swindled his older twin’s firstborn birthright of double portion blessing by getting his brother to pledge it to him in return for a pot of stew when his brother was hungry. When his aged and dim-sighted father asked for his older twin brother to pronounce the firstborn blessing, he pretended with a clever disguise to receive his father’s blessing upon himself instead.
But as a result of his deceit, he lived with the fear of his brother’s wrath and he had to run away. Nonetheless, God met him along the way and promised to bless him and his descendants. Then he came to a place where he met a girl, fell in love, and agreed to serve her father for 7 years in return for her hand in marriage.
But on the wedding day, Jacob got the first taste of his own medicine when his father-in-law deceived him and gave him the older sister by the cover of the night instead. To marry the girl that he loved, Jacob had to serve his father-in-law another 7 years. If that wasn’t bad enough, his father-in-law repeatedly sold him short by changing his wages 10 times.
By the favour of God upon him, Jacob was able to gain the flocks of his father-in-law. His fears of disfavour from his father-in-law and his brother still plagued him though, leading him to run away from the former taking all he had, and journeying to meet and appease the latter with gifts. To play safe, he divided his party and made backup plans in case the meeting with his brother went awry.
That night, God came to him in person as a Man and he even wrestled with God the whole night, begging for a blessing that God had already given him when he first left home. Jacob’s striving finally came to an end at daybreak when God touched his hip joint and put it out of joint, and God changed his name from Jacob (which means ‘supplanter’) to Israel, meaning ‘Prince of God’.*
For so many of us, Jacob’s story is our story. We live life in a dog-eat-dog way, making our own plans, sometimes getting an edge over others, other times losing out to others, often looking back fearing the repercussions of our actions.
How comforting it is to know that God is not just known as the God of Israel, the God of faith-filled Abraham and his son and heir Isaac, but also the God of Jacob. Our striving and fighting for ourselves come to an end when we meet God.
God knows how we are naturally inclined to strive and fight for ourselves. But once we are in Christ, God wants us to know that we no longer need to live like ordinary Jacob, always grabbing what we can and canning what we grab, but we have come into a higher life of princes of God, where the blessings and free favours of God are freely given and freely received.
Because when we encounter Jesus, we encounter grace.
*The story of Jacob is recorded in Genesis 25-35.
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