Many have read the story of Joni Eareckson, (now Joni Eareckson Tada). Joni had a lot of things going for her. She was an attractive, popular, athletic and very active teenager. She was also a Christian. What more could she ask for? But Joni’s life was far from what God intended it to be. She wrote in her book, Joni, that her teenage life revolved mostly around her own ego and desires. Upon graduation from high school, Joni knew that things were not the greatest between her and the Lord, and she prayed that He would do something to turn her life around so that she could be used for His glory. God answered Joni’s prayer in a most unusual way. He permitted her to break her neck in a diving accident and permanently lose the use of her arms and legs. How could He allow such a tragedy? Joni struggled with this question for several months following her accident. Then she gradually began to realize that God really wanted to draw her closer to Him and would bless her life through this traumatic experience. In reality, God was breaking the “old” Joni down so that the “new” Joni in Christ could become a blessing to others.
Today, Joni’s beautiful relationship with God radiates from her wheelchair to millions of people – through her drawing, writing, speaking, her daily radio broadcasts and her organization dedicated to helping the handicapped. Completely fulfilled in Christ, Joni now says she would not want it any other way. She signs each of the pictures she sketches (with unbelievable skill, holding a felt-tip pen in her mouth) this way: “Joni, PTL.” Her “Praise The Lord” signature is a constant testimony that blessing can come from brokenness.
Being broken before being blessed is a scriptural principle, and God uses different breaking-down methods in each of our lives. And His methods aren’t just physical; they vary, depending on the particular hang-ups and blind spots of each growing Christian. The sudden loss of a job, or the unexpected burden of undesirable responsibilities may be part of the breaking process. The “broken before blessed” principle is very dramatically taught, in Genesis 32:24-31, from an event in the life of Jacob.
Perhaps a little background for this portion of God’s Word may be helpful. Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of the great patriarch Abraham.
As Jacob grew he believed in the God of his fathers, but he was certainly not what we would call “totally committed.” In fact, the picture we get of Jacob from Scripture is that of a young man who was selfish and always looking out for “number one.” Even when he was a teenager he cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright – the family rights and privileges Esau would inherit as the firstborn (Gen. 25:27-34). Then some years later he tricked his aging father to get the paternal blessing which also rightfully belonged to the firstborn twin, Esau (Gen. 27).
At this point Esau was so furious that he determined to kill Jacob as soon as their father, Isaac, died. Since Jacob had no chance against Esau in a fight (Gen. 25:27), he left home. Cheating, cunning, conniving Jacob was on the run! But God was not done with this runaway. Jacob had a lot of lessons to learn, but he would eventually become the man of faith God wanted him to be (Heb. 11:21). God never gives up on any of his children. We can be sure that in spite of our selfish and “me first” ways, the Lord is at work behind the scenes. He is steadily chopping away at our proud hearts. He wants to break us down and open us up for blessing (Ps. 51:17; Phil. 1:6).
Jacob put several hundred miles between himself and Esau. He went to the land of his mother’s relatives and settled there for 20 years. He married and began a large family. (His sons were later to become the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel.) During these 20 long years, Jacob “reaped what he had sown.” God taught him and disciplined him in this distant country.
It certainly was not by chance that Jacob had to learn to respect the rights of the firstborn by being forced to marry Leah (Gen. 29). It wasn’t by chance that Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, happened to be as cunning and selfish as Jacob himself. Time and time again, they locked horns and tried to selfishly outwit each other (Gen. 28-31). But God used all these circumstances to break Jacob down and prepare him for blessing. How often the Lord will bring us into contact with people and circumstances that rub us the wrong way! This is one of the methods He uses to get rid of our rough edges. You don’t smooth a rough plank by rubbing it with cotton – you use an abrasive!
In Genesis 32 Jacob finally went home. On the way, he received word that Esau was planning to meet him with 400 men. Jacob was scared and prayed for his life! He divided his party in two for safety, and then sent most of them ahead with gifts to appease Esau. He even put his family in front of him as part of the buffer between himself and his brother. Maybe the still-crafty Jacob planned to run and save his own skin if he saw that Esau would not accept the gifts or show mercy to his family.
While Jacob waited alone that night, a Man came into his campsite and began to wrestle with him. What was said or how the “fight” actually began we don’t know, but we do know that Jacob’s opponent was no ordinary man. Hosea 12:4 indicates that the stranger was an “angel” of God. In fact, Genesis 32:30 intimates that this heavenly visitor may have been the pre-incarnate Son of God temporarily taking on the appearance of a man (Gen. 18). God wrestled with Jacob!
Jacob had learned a lot of lessons already, but, like all of us, still had a long way to go. Until Jacob was thoroughly broken of his selfish, scheming ways, he could not go further in his relationship with God. So God met him alone and wrestled with him one-on-one. What a lesson for us! Is God wrestling with you because of some area of your life that needs to be broken down? What about submission to authority? What about priorities? What about God’s will for your life?
The wrestling match was not over in a few minutes – it went on all night. God could easily overpower us, but He does not “zap” us or violate our wills. Instead, He patiently wrestles with us in order to break us down. Near dawn, the Lord put a “move” on Jacob which evidently caused pain to the ball-and-socket joint in Jacob’s thigh. It wasn’t an illegal hold, but just the “touch of God” in a critical area. Has the Lord “touched” you in this way yet? The “touch of God” may be painful at first, but it is part of the breaking down process that leads to greater blessing in your life.
Jacob was now no longer able to wrestle – he could only cling to God. At last he realized his helplessness, weakness and dependence. Now he would not even be able to run from Esau. His only hope was to hold on and ask for a blessing from the Lord. What a turnaround in the life of Jacob! Each one of us must come to this point. Sometimes it is the area of our greatest natural strength or ability that God must “touch” in order to cause us to depend on Him. The Lord says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
The next thing we read is that the Lord asked Jacob his name. Why? Before Jacob could be blessed he had to own up to the reality of what he really was: “the supplanter.” This is the meaning of “Jacob” – and how well it characterized his life of deceiving and scheming to get what he wanted from others. By telling his name to God, Jacob openly confessed his wrongdoing. Confessing our sin is part of the breaking process. Before God can fill our lives with his blessings we must own up to our past failures. This is humbling, but necessary.
The stigma of the old name was removed and Jacob was given a new name, Israel. There is some question as to the exact meaning of the name “Israel,” but from the context of Genesis 32:28 as well as Hosea 12:3-4 it seems to mean “he who strives or perseveres with God.” Quite a change – from “supplanter” to “one who perseveres with God.” Notice that this verse adds that Jacob prevailed with God. This, of course, does not mean that Jacob won the wrestling match, but that he realized defeat and clung to his only source of hope. The breaking process worked a miracle in Jacob’s life, and it still does in the lives of believers today.
Jacob tried to get the stranger to reveal Himself by giving His name, but was unsuccessful. Jacob still had a way to go before the Lord would disclose Himself to Jacob, as He had done with Jacob’s faithful grandfather, Abraham. (See Gen. 35:1-15 for this stage in Jacob’s life as a believer.) But for now the breaking process brought blessing, and the realization that God Himself had touched his life (Gen. 32:29-30).
The view we have of Jacob in Genesis 32:30-31 is a beautiful spiritual picture of the growing Christian who has undergone the breaking process and prevailed: “So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’ Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel (Peniel), and he was limping on his thigh.” The sun is shining on the one who has wrestled all night. He is making forward progress, but with a permanent limp as a reminder. Here is a believer who is broken, but blessed.
By David R. Reid
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org