Gripped by Grace: Over My Self-Sufficiency (Gen. 32:1-32)
In a recent 2012 survey revealed that American’s confidence in many traditional values, including government, family, celebrities, leaders and even faith in God is alarmingly declining. 69 percent of those surveyed said that American values have declined since the 1970s. Only 17 percent believe that American values have strengthened since the 1970s. In fact, look at these additional numbers. The study also found that fewer Americans believe in God: 89 percent said they believe in God compared to 98 percent in 1967. For survey respondents between the ages of 18-29, only 81 percent said they believed in God.
But what do Americans believe in? According to the poll, we still have confidence in one thing—ourselves. That is, we believe in our own ability to get what we want through sheer hard work or moral effort. Seventy percent of Americans believe that “with hard work I can accomplish anything.” Based on these statistics, an article about this survey was appropriately titled “Americans Are Losing Confidence in the Nation but Still Believe in Themselves.”
So how’s that going for Americans? Antidepressant prescribing has risen nearly 400% since 1988, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So if it’s simply about “believing in yourself,” and “working hard to achieve it” why are people so depressed? 2009 also marked the highest number of suicides in 15 years.
Maybe America needs to hear what Abraham Lincoln once said. In 1863 he designated April 30th as a day of fasting, and prayer. Let me read a portion of his proclamation on that occasion:
“It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, who owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, [but]…Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown, but we have forgotten God.”
He saw the problem wasn’t the economy or the leadership, but the self-sufficiency of our lives. In fact, to the church in Laodicea in Rev. 3:14-22, Jesus said that church made Him sick. Some groups made Jesus angry. Other groups broke his heart. But this church made Him nauseous. Why such strong language from our Savior? It was their self-sufficiency: “For you say I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev. 3:17). This has to be our dilemma. St. Augustine coined and was later expounded by Luther the idea of “Incurvatus In se,” that is, our self is “curved inward on itself.” As a result, we are rebellious sinners, demanding that we master our own existence and not God or anyone else. This is the most self-destructive part about us and so God has to knock it out of us and we will see Him doing that today by “painful grace.”
As we continue on our story of Jacob, we find that he is finally free. After running away trying to master his own destiny, ripping off his brother and father, he ended up almost a slave to Laban, his uncle, who ripped him off. In the end, after 20 long years, he ends up with four women (two wives and two servants) and 12 kids, as well as lots of wealth, barely escaping Laban. Through all of this we saw God’s grace was trying to grip him:
- Over his appetites (Gen. 25:19-34)
- Over his scheming and masquerading (Gen. 27:1-45; 28:1-9)
- Over all his wanderings (Gen. 28:10-22)
- Over his quest for one true love (Gen. 29)
- Over his envious wives (Gen. 30:1-24)
- Over all his troubles (Gen. 30:25-31:55)
Yet we have not seen grace one area of Jacob: Over Jacob! Jacob is free from Laban, but Jacob is not free from Jacob! He’s still a slave to himself. He is self-sufficient. Though we have seen him grow, we still haven’t seen him broken. Remember Moses’ audience. They were slaves in Egypt and are about to end the Promised Land, just like Jacob. What was their constant problem? Self-sufficiency and unbelief. Here is another reminder to them that for them to inherit the Promised Land, it will not be done through deceit and self-sufficiency, but through brokenness and utter dependence. Who will free him/them (and us) from this body of death, as Paul would say (Rom. 7:24)? So the title of the message today is “Gripped by Grace: Over My Self-Sufficiency.” Let’s unpack this with this thought:
I. Self-sufficiency is insufficient (Gen. 32:1-21)
Jacob is pretty close to the Promised Land. Laban is gone forever. But Jacob also knows that there is unfinished business with his brother Esau. He had ripped him off 20 years earlier. Pastor Warren Wiersbe says, “Two decades before, Jacob had fled from Esau to Laban; and now he was fleeing Laban only to be confronted by Esau! It’s strange how we convince ourselves that we can escape the past and not reap what we’ve sown. We try to forget our sins, but our sins don’t forget us.” Could Esau have pent up 20 years worth of anger on Jacob? Jacob is freaking out thinking of that and then suddenly, look at Gen. 32:1: “the angels of God met him.” Notice it isn’t that Jacob met the angels of God. Aren’t you thankful that God meets us before we think about Him?
Remember that he left the land originally when he saw angels (Gen. 28:12) and now he returns and again he sees angels. God is reminding him that God’s been with him all of this time. He has never left him. And now as he struggles with confronting Esau, God comforts him. Peace is not just the absence of trouble, but the presence of God in the midst of the trouble. And Jacob says, “This is God’s camp!” He’s encouraged. He has a sacramental moment. God is urging him to draw near. How does Jacob respond? With self-sufficiency. Here are some signs of self-sufficiency, which really ends up being insufficient:
He’s actually going to pray in a little bit, but notice God reaching out to him does not change him. He moves from “God’s camp!” without talking to God and then to “Back to scheming my way out of this.” God’s got me! Yes! But I got the rest of this. He’s still freaking out about Esau. John Walton notes:
“I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now.” Implication, “I have not been hiding, avoiding you, or sneaking around behind your back.” “I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants.” Implication, “I am not coming to try to take anything from you. I have plenty. I am not going to try to trick you out of anything or lay claim to anything that you have acquired.” “I am sending this message … that I may find favor in your eyes.” Implication, “Why don’t we let bygones be bygones; forget the past and start over?”
He sends messengers to Esau like God sent the angels to Jacob. Note Jacob himself doesn’t go. If Esau is sitting there like a blood-thirsty lion, let him kill the messengers and not Jacob. Notice his buttery language to say to Esau: “My lord Esau” and “your servant Jacob.” These are not just pleasantries, but he is trying to show submissiveness because he is afraid Esau will kill him. And then he tries to win him over with gifts. “Please don’t kill me! Here’s a flat-screen tv. And an Escalade. And…whatever you want!” I’m sure there is guilt mixed in along with his fear. But he doesn’t go to God with it. Why? Jacob is doing what he’s good at: scheming.
God just met him. He saw God was with him. He noticed God was there ministering to him. But when it came down to it, God is out of the picture because fear of Esau consumed him. Isn’t that just like us? God meets us at a quiet time or at church or Bible study. We are encouraged, only to leave Him there and go back to our fear-filled lives.
Prayerlessness is a sign of self-sufficiency. Pastor Mark Altrogge says, “James says, ‘You do not have because you do not ask’ (4.2). You lack strength because you don’t pray for it. You lack joy because you don’t ask Jesus to fill you. You lack wisdom because you don’t seek it from God. When we’re self-sufficient, we don’t pray, and we don’t receive.”
B) FEAR, WORRY, ANXIETY AND CONTROL
When the messengers come back and they were like, “There is at least 400 men with him.” What? That’s a small army! Notice then “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” Jacob! Remember God’s angels are your army! But he forgets about that. Notice Jacob is not thinking logically. He doesn’t ask why Esau has this large entourage. He jumps to conclusions. Besides, wouldn’t it make more sense that if Esau was going to kill you, that he kill the messengers and sneak up on Jacob? But all he hears is “400 men with their spears ready to wage war on me!”
That is what fear and worry is. It exaggerates. Most of the stuff we worry about never come to pass. Worry is like sitting in a rocking chair, giving you something to do, but never taking you anywhere. Like a hamster in a cage, you go round and round with a lot of activity and anxiety, but never making progress. There is a healthy fear that gets us out of danger. But there is also an unhealthy fear, which leads us into anxiety, which is a lingering, constant fear that paralyzes us.
If fear is a thunderstorm, Tim Keller says, anxiety is a constant cold drizzle. And why are we like that? Sometimes it could be a medical problem, but usually it is pride and self-sufficiency. Constant worry is “rooted in arrogance that assumes, I know the way my life has to go, and God’s not getting it right.” Take a look at 1 Pet. 5:6-7. The main verb and command there is to “humble yourselves.” Whenever there is a verb followed by a participle, which means it ends in “ing,” the author is telling you how to do the command. So here he says the way to humble yourself is by praying your anxieties.
So if it is a sign of humility to cast all of our cares on the Lord, it is conversely a sign of pride when you worry.
Worry denies the care of a sovereign God. One author writes, “Worry is sin because it denies the wisdom of God; it says that He doesn’t know what He’s doing. It denies the love of God; it says He does not care. And it denies the power of God; it says that He isn’t able to deliver me from whatever is causing me to worry.” Worry is practical atheism. Worry gives you delusions of strength and keeps God from working on your behalf. Worship and worry cannot stay in the same heart.
When we are not trusting the Lord to be in control, we are trying to control our lives. We scheme to control and that brings us into more anxiety and fear and control because we start to see that only God can control everything. Faith is living without scheming. The reason behind this is our self-sufficiency. It is insufficient to remove our worries and anxieties, causing us to get more and more anxious
C) SYMPTOMATIC PRAYING
In Gen. 32:9-12, we find the longest prayer in Genesis. Has Jacob finally matured? You read this prayer and it is theologically sound. He recognizes the legacy of grace behind him (though He does not yet call God, “Yahweh, my God”). he is aware of God’s grace in his life, he is honest about how he is feeling and he remembers God’s promises. On the surface, it is a great prayer! And I’m glad he’s learned to pray more in his life and it is true that our heart is often a paradoxical mix of faith, fear and doubt.
However, it is an insufficient prayer. It is a symptomatic prayer. There is no mention of the real reason why all of this has happened in the first place. No mention that Jacob is Jacob, a schemer and manipulator and self-sufficient. He just wants the discomfort of what happened with Esau to go away. “Just take it away God!” He doesn’t deal with the root of his issues, just the fruit. He says that God promised to do him good. What is the good he’s thinking about? That Esau won’t kill him. Does he even know what’s good for him? He prayed “deliver me from the hand of my brother,” but the real issue is “deliver me from me!”
He just wants to feel better and the pain and guilt to just go away. He wanted God to “bail him out” in the hard times but he did not want to submit to God in his day-to-day living. Jacob had a surface faith in that he wanted the benefits of God but not a relationship with God. The evidence of such a life is symptomatic praying. You want the symptoms to go away, but God is looking at the cancer in your soul.
Notice right after the prayer, in Gen. 32:13-21, that the prayer does nothing for Jacob. Notice there is no verbal response from God. And he immediately resumes his own strategizing for meeting Esau. He continues his scheming. He sends everybody ahead and hides in the back. He has five groups saying the same message to Esau five different times. He sends 500 some animals (Gen. 32:15-16). This gift is larger than towns were likely to pay in tribute to foreign kings. What are you doing Jacob? “Well, God helps those who helps themselves right?” (a phrase, incidentally, this is not in the Bible). Actually, wrong Jacob. God helps those who cannot help themselves and cries to God for help.
Symptomatic prayer is dangerous. It is good that you are praying, but it can be deceiving and cloak for instant gratification of your problems, without getting to the real issue. And when you don’t deal with the root of the problem, just wait long enough and whatever you wanted to be over will be over and then something else will worry you. Sometimes I hear people praying, “I claim victory over worry and bitterness!” Really? Do you just claim it away? God says, “No, it is not the issue. That’s a symptom. It is faith in the gospel that will heal our worry and bitterness. Let’s go there and let me walk with you through that over time as you let my love on the cross and glory ravish your heart till your fear subsides. There is no fear in love. Fear is self-absorbed. Love is others-centered. Let my love fill your cup. I said I will never forsake you, and it is sheer unbelief that brings you to deny it.” Self-sufficiency is insufficient. All of his planning and scheming has gotten Jacob nowhere. He is helpless and afraid. Confess your self-sufficiency to the Lord today. But notice this:
II. God’s grace is all-sufficient (Gen. 32:22-32)
A lot of things happen to Jacob at night. He sees the staircase from Heaven at night (Gen. 28:11-12). He was deceived with Leah at night (Gen. 29:23). It is a picture of his spiritual condition. He’s been in darkness all of his life. His self-sufficiency led him there.
Having sent both caravans north across the river Jabbok (see picture), Jacob is alone, knowing the river can serve as a barrier. So he remains alone. He has done all he can. Tomorrow Esau will appear. His anxiety must have now produced insomnia. As Jacob waits in the night, he notices a figure advancing towards him. Was this Esau? Laban? Suddenly, the stranger grabs him and wrestles with him.
What is going on here? This “man” wrestles with him all night. Pastor Kent Hughes puts it, “Jacob could see nothing. The assailant was silent and nameless. But Jacob, no pushover himself, rose mightily to the occasion. And that long night (six or seven hours?) became one of burning sweat, dripping hair and beard, and slipping appendages. There came brief periods of labored breathing, and then renewed fury, gouging, pulling, butting. And then more rage—and more pain and thirst—and smothering frustration.” It would only be later that we see this was God in the flesh (v.30). Jesus Christ! Take note:
a) GRACE WRESTLES US INTO TRANSFORMATION
Notice God does not comfort Jacob into transformation. He doesn’t come by and have Jacob nestled against him as He pats his head. As Pastor Mark Driscoll says, “The presence of God is not like going to the spa. ‘Oh, you missed a spot. Could you wax my elbow, and where’s the aromatherapy? And I like that tape, the sounds of running water. And can we do more chamomile tea?’ That’s not God. Jesus shows up in a muscle shirt and whacks you around. That’s God.”
Self-sufficiency has to be wrestled out of us. As C.S. Lewis says, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” God opposes the proud, but gives grace comes to the humble (1 Pet. 5:5). The word “wrestled” is similar to the name “Jacob.” So we could paraphrase it…“he Jacobed him”!  Jacob the wrestler is “out-Jacobed.” Why wrestle? Because otherwise we never wake up to see our self-sufficiency. Jacob’s always been the one trying to get ahead and get the upper hand and always jockeying for position. Note that God took the initiative in wrestling with Jacob, not vice versa. God was bringing Jacob to the end of himself.
God meets him in the way Jacob needed to be met. God meets us at whatever level He finds us in order to lift us to where He wants us to be. To Adam and Eve, frightened in the Garden, He came as a heart-broken father (Gen. 3:9). To Cain, angry and envious, He came as a wonderful Counselor (Gen. 4:6). To Sarah, full of self-hatred and unbelief, He came as a gentle friend (Gen. 18:14). To Abraham the pilgrim, God came as a traveler (Gen. 18); and to Joshua the general, He came as a soldier (Josh. 5:13–15). And to Jacob the wrestler, He comes as a wrestler!
All his life, Jacob’s been a wrestler, even from the womb! He wrestled the birthright from Esau and wrestled the blessing from Isaac and then wrestled with Laban, but now God wrestles with him. Why? Because Jacob needed to see that Esau is not the problem. Laban is not the problem. Leah was not the problem. “Jacob, I am the one you’ve been wrestling with all of your life. This is the problem beneath all of your problems because you are trying to fight me out of your life. The problem is your lack of relationship with me.” He had prayed for deliverance (Gen. 32:11), using nāṣal (“Save me”), the same word he used later (nāṣal “spared,” v. 30). God answered Jacob’s prayer for deliverance in this face-to-face encounter and blessing. God answers our prayers better than we can ask! That is the root of the issue and God wrestles with us, jumps us at times, to wake us up to the real root of the issue.
B) GRACE BREAKS US TO SEE THE TRUE BLESSING
Jacob does not surrender and all of a sudden, this person simply “touches” his hip and it gets dislocated. Actually most likely it is more like his thigh muscle became “torn” or even “ruptured.” Notice it doesn’t say “yanked” or “pulled,” but “touched.” A simple touch causes incredible pain. In other words, this is no mere man. There is tremendous power being held back. Does Jacob realize this? Who has come into Jacob’s arms? He is finally broken, literally. His one leg is utterly useless. He will no longer be able to do something he’s relied on for years: He’ll no longer be able to run. And he knows this person could have easily incinerated him, but he hadn’t. He’s holding on despite the pain and despite the danger. Why?
Look at Gen. 32:26: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He realized that the source of true blessing was right in his arms. His brokenness stripped him of his self-sufficiency. He can’t even stand on his own. He can’t make it on his own. All of Jacob is no longer enough of Jacob. You are not enough for you Jacob. J.I. Packer says, “now he [Jacob] felt his complete inability to handle things, and knew with blinding, blazing certainty that never again dare he trust himself to look after himself and to carve out his destiny. Never again dare he try to live by his wits.”
God dislocates us to finally help us to see us. And if God has given you a blow in your life, weakening you, that’s good a place to be. Hold on. The more you lean on Him, the stronger you find Him to be. Remember he was trying so hard to get it out of his dad? Here is the approval you’ve been looking for Jacob. Remember he labored 14 years for beauty and love. He thought that would be the blessing. But here is the true beauty you’ve been looking for. He is the true blessing. It is knowing me Jacob as the center and source of your life that is true blessing!
C) GRACE TRANSFORMS US AT THE CORE
You want a blessing Jacob? Confess to me who you are. The real you. Why does He ask for Jacob’s name? In our day, our name might just be a name, but in that day, names revealed your character. Your name was your identity. This is where God goes. Who are you? For the first time, Jacob says, “Jacob.” I am the schemer. I am a fraud. I am a deceiver. I cheated people. I am the self-sufficient one. I am the manipulator.”
Ravi Zacharais observes,
“In asking for the blessing from God, Jacob was compelled by God’s question to relive the last time he had asked for a blessing, the one he had stolen from his brother. The last time Jacob was asked for his name, the question had come from his earthly father. Jacob had lied on that occasion and said, ‘I am Esau,’ and stole the blessing. Now he found himself, after many wasted years of running through life looking over his shoulder, before an all-knowing, all-seeing heavenly Father, once more seeking a blessing, Jacob fully understood the reason and the indictment behind God’s question and he answered, ‘My name is Jacob.’ ‘You have spoken the truth,’ God said, ‘and you know very well what your name signifies. You have been a duplicitous man, deceiving everyone everywhere you went. But now that you acknowledge the real you, I can change you, and I will make a great nation out of you.”
God asked Jacob his name not because He didn’t know it . . . He wanted to know if Jacob knew it. He wanted to know if Jacob was ready to come to grips with who he really was or whether he was going to continue to fight the Lord. Do you know what the greatest danger is to stay in our self-sufficiency? We will never see God’s face in that condition. You can’t see God’s face until you show God your real face. And in not seeing Him, is that not the greatest horror and tragedy of all?
So Jacob confesses. At that moment, God karate-chopped his other hip and knocked Jacob to the ground and crushed him. Is that what happened? No God replies with grace. Grace grips all of Jacob. God changes his identity. Jacob, you are no longer identified by how you operated, but now you are identified by how you relate to me. You are Israel, one who has striven with God (it literally means “God fights” ) and you won! What? (more on that in a second).
The darkness is over spiritually for Jacob as the literal sun rises. I love the fact that Jacob limps the rest of his life! His limp was a continual reminder of God’s grace! Our scars always remind us of our need for God. Every time he moved, he would be reminded of grace. No more swag. No more strutting. No, those who meet God of grace don’t swag, they limp. In a few years, people will not remember how successful you were in climbing the corporate ladder, how big your bank account was, how skilled you were…or how gifted you were… What they will remember is what they learned as they watched you limp. This story even affects the Israelites diet (Gen. 32:32) as they are reminded even as they eat that God strips us of our self-sufficiency to save us by grace. As A.W. Tozer has rightly said, “the Lord cannot fully bless a man until He has first conquered him. The degree of blessing enjoyed by any man will correspond exactly with the completeness of God’s victory over him.”
D) GRACE REWARDS THE LOSER
Jacob then asks for his assailant’s name. And God doesn’t answer that. Why? Because Jacob needs to simply look at his name to know the answer. Hamilton asks, “One wonders if ‘Why is it that you inquire about my name?’ is another way of asking, ‘Jacob, don’t you realize who I am?’ “You know who I AM, Jacob. Unlike you, My name doesn’t change—for I am the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). In Gen. 32:28-30, we see something astounding. God rewards Jacob! You have been fighting me and everybody else, Jacob. You’ve been a fraud and a schemer. And I reward you! Look at Jacob at this point. He’s utterly weak and completely powerless. He’s holding on to dear life. It’s been a long night. It’s been a long life. He deserved death. But God stands over him and says, “Winner!” How can God call a loser a winner? How can God accept the unacceptable? How can God crown a crippled one?
Jacob is confused. He is astounded that his life is spared in Gen. 32:30. How can he just get a blow that left him limping instead of a blow that should have killed him? How can God do this? How can He look at my life and all that I have done and say, “Triumphant!” He is unqualified for this. How can God bless someone so flawed? Grace doesn’t make sense!
This passage is not only about Jacob who became weak to find God. It is also God’s story of how He became weak to save Jacob and how He became weak to save us. Look back at Gen. 32:25. There is a peculiar phrase there: “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob…” What? This is God right?! How come He can’t win against this mere mortal?
I don’t know much about wrestling, but I do know that your opponent in a wrestling match has to be of the same weight class. So if you weigh 90 lbs and your opponent weighs 300 lbs, you probably are not going to last too long. If Jacob weighed about 200 lbs here and He is fighting against the God of the Universe, this is no match right? But God intentionally becomes weak. He doesn’t put all of His weight on Jacob. If He did, Jacob would have been crushed. God made Himself weak so that He failed to overpower Jacob. If He killed Jacob, God would have won, but he would have lost. He would have lost Jacob. So He lost, so He could win at the same time.
There is a place where God ultimately won through defeat. There is a place where God became ultimately weak. The cross. Jesus wrestled with the full weight of God’s wrath unleashed on Him. Jesus got the full weight of God’s justice for all of our self-sufficiency. He got the devastating blow of justice so we can get just the wounds of grace.
Jacob didn’t get the full weight. He just got a small touch to bring him to his senses and woke him up. Jesus got thrown down, pinned down, as he was pierced for our transgression and crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Is. 53:5). We should have been crushed because of our self-sufficiency. But Jesus was crushed instead and He held on, not for His own blessing, so that we would be blessed. God blessed Jacob who deserved to be cursed because one day God cursed Jesus who deserved to be blessed. So now when God comes to us, He comes like did to Jacob, wrestling us down not to kill us, but to strip us of our self-sufficiency, transform us and wake us up in love, leaving us limping, trusting every moment in utter dependence of our God. We can hold on when it doesn’t make sense knowing that Jesus held on to secure our blessing. Do you see a God who became weak for you? Only when you see that can you find true strength, grace made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
Quoted from “America’s sin of self-sufficiency,” from http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1997/december/684.html accessed 26 July 2012.
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