Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wrestling with God

Jacob the patriarch didn't always seem like such a nice guy. He tricked his blind, possibly senile father who couldn't tell the difference between his son's hairy arm and one covered with the fur of an animal. I think I like Esau better. Just look how graciously he received his manipulative brother after all those years: "But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him." (Genesis 32:4) And yet God said, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (Romans 9:13) Why?

Romans 9 tells us that it was because Jacob was one of the elect and Esau was not. Quite simply, Jacob was chosen before he was even born. So the Calvinists are right. But in Genesis 32, we see Jacob using his free will to wrestle with God all night even when God told him to stop, and God blessed his persistence. So the Arminians are right. On the other hand, God established his sovereignty by touching the tendon of Jacob's thigh and giving him a limp. So the Calvinists are right. But God declared Jacob victorious by saying that he had struggled with God and man, and had overcome. So the Arminians are right.

Or maybe the truth is a divine paradox that cannot be separated into two mutually exclusive doctrines. And if we take a dogmatic position on the issue, we miss out on the power of these apparently contradictory doctrines to balance each other out to move us forward on the journey of faith. Our job is not to sort it all out perfectly, but to respond to the Spirit's prompting in light of what God's living word teaches.

Quite apart from Jacob's election, there was something that distinguished him from his brother Esau: he was persistent. Jacob was a do-or-die kind of a man, whereas Esau's attitude was: "So what if I lose my birthright--I'm hungry!" Is that just a personality difference? No. Esau focused on the things of this world, while Jacob sought God's blessing persistently--he wrestled with God and overcame. Revelation 21:7 tells us that he who overcomes will inherit all these things. Revelation 3:5 says, "He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life." Revelation 3:12 says, "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God." Finally, Revelation 3:21: "He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne."

What does it mean to overcome? 1 John 5:4 says, "Whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." So we overcome through a living faith that advances God's kingdom in this world. That doesn't mean that this world is our ultimate destiny--God will make everything new--but God's power within us through faith brings more souls to him and fulfills his will in this world.

You might ask what that has to do with wrestling with God. If we want God's will, what's the point of wrestling with him in prayer? Wouldn't it happen anyway? Before sharing what I've learned in my own life I should confess that I relate more to Esau than to Jacob (I'm not much into stew, but if I was tempted with a bottle of coffee Frappucino I would have a major soul-searching struggle). Complacency and worldly-mindedness is a daily battle for me.

But God has brought major crises into my life that have forced me to come to him in prayer, most notably my daughter Ingrid's epilepsy and developmental delay that was diagnosed when she was five months old. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I prayed almost continuously for her during the three months she was in various hospitals with constant, uncontrollable seizures. I fully believe that my persistent prayers were God's will, but he didn't heal Ingrid. Instead, after I'd worked myself into a prayer-frenzy he taught me the true meaning of surrender. It has nothing to do with admitting defeat and everything to do with receiving him in all his fullness. It's about putting him first even if I don't get what I want.

This is important because Hebrews 12:1 defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for." Through faith, we have Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. So God wasn't saying to me, "I'm not going to heal your daughter." He was saying, "You're going about it the wrong way, but now that I have your attention I will teach you something."

Over the years, God has been teaching me persistent surrender--wrestling to lay hold of God's will through faith, or by his power. The persistence keeps me praying, but the surrender puts God in the driver's seat of my life. This is a lesson I've had to learn again and again, because my natural inclination is either to be in control or complacent. Surrender and complacency are two very different things, because through surrender we open ourselves up to God, but complacency shuts him out.

And I don't believe that God's will necessarily happens by default. Jesus tells us to pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Why bother praying for God's will if it happens regardless? We know that God's will is done in heaven, and it will be done on the New Earth. But is it always done in this fallen world? Not according to the Lord's Prayer. It is through persistent faith that we lay hold of God's perfect will--the advancement of the kingdom of God on earth. God was pleased with Jacob's persistence. "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it." (Matthew 11:12)

The more I persistently surrender, the more power God has in my life, and the more I can "work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [me], both to will and to work for His good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12) So the Arminians are right after all. Or is it the Calvinists?


Becky said...

That's a really good post - you wrote it in a way which both made me think and also smile. It is hard to get the balance right between the Calvinist viewpoint and the Arminians - but what you said is good.

Anette Acker said...

Thanks, Becky!

Cindy said...

That's a very good explanation of the Jacob/Esau story. I've always had trouble with that story. And you can imagine the problems I had trying to explain it to Rick when he was little.