Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winning Over God

Winning Over the Almighty @ Peniel
“Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Gen 32:28)
Overcoming Life - Jacob's Style
Jacob has been having a smooth ride so far. From birth, he shows strong indications of a competitive spirit in him by grasping at his brother’s heel (Gen 25:26a). He is a master at trickery able to deceive both his brother and his father. While his brother Esau can hunt, Jacob can cook. The pining of Esau’s hunger and the timing of Jacob’s stew delight resulted in one of the world’s most unfair trades: Surrendering a birthright for a bowl of red stew. Jacob though born second, overcame his brother in terms of wit. What Jacob lacks naturally as a #2 ranked son, his penchant for winning against all odds ranks first. However, Esau’s verbal agreement to relinquish his birth-right is not enough to seal the deal. Jacob has to receive the coveted prize of all: Isaac’s blessing. So while Esau was busy hunting for short-term game, Jacob was scheming for his long-term rewards. In Jewish culture, the blessing of the father represents the ultimate prize any son can receive. It has been said that the blessings of a Jewish father is like his last precious words on earth, to be given out only once in his lifetime. Jacob left nothing to chance. He was prepared. Aided by his mother, he provides stew, dresses up like his brother, imitates his brother’s voice, and cleverly coaxes Isaac to bless him. Jacob wants this blessing very much.

On the other hand, Esau could not care less, until it was too late. Jacob was blessed. Esau was not. Jacob went on to achieve many more great things. Esau remained under the shadow of his young brother, holding a grudge (Gen 27:41). Jacob's achievement continued. He was shown a heavenly dream (Gen 28). He found himself a decent job (Gen 29). He married not just one but two lovely women. Soon he became a happy father blessed with many children, thanks to the wives and their maids who were constantly squabbling to be ranked top of the household. Jacob also found much success in raising cattle. With glittering successes with his brother, his father, his relative (Laban) and his own household Jacob became one of the most prosperous biblical Patriarchs in the history of Israel. This life of scheming, planning and seeking for the best deals in life continues in Jacob until the scene at Peniel (Gen 32:30).  Imagine with me. Suppose a person has obtained nearly everything this world has on offer, there will soon come a time when he/she will ask: “What’s next to overcome?

Overcoming Life's Hurdles - Maslow's Style
The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow, developed his famous hierarchy of needs that depicts very clearly the various levels of human needs toward self-accomplishment. From physiological needs, to safety, to love & affection, to esteem and finally self-actualization, Maslow’s model seems to map out Jacob’s ‘career path’ very well. How will Jacob achieve his final level? What other prizes are there for Jacob to compete for? He allowed his fanatically competitive spirit to get the better of him. Maybe, the ultimate prize is success itself. Success becomes ‘self-actualization’ personified. He unknowingly wrestles with none other than the LORD himself, in the hope that he can be successful over ‘success’ itself. The Gen 32 passage is paradoxical. The LORD seems to have defeated Jacob (32:25).  Yet it is stated that Jacob has ‘overcome’ (32:28). How can there be 2 winners? Will there be two gold medals for this pre-Olympic days wrestling match?

Perhaps, Jacob’s perspective of winning and the LORD’s perspective are different altogether. The LORD may defeats Jacob in the physical contest, but Jacob’s persistence deserves an honorary award. It is Jacob’s ‘never-say-die’ attitude that impressed the LORD. Let me suggest that we can do the same in persistent prayer.

How We can Overcome: Via Persistent Prayer
I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Gen 32:26)
Isn’t that hauntingly familiar? Earlier on, didn’t Jacob try to trick his father to bless him instead of Esau? Perhaps, even though Jacob is now old, and more mature, his competitive nature is still strong. With his father Isaac, he used all his cunning to receive blessings. With this stranger, Jacob used all his available ounces of energy to wrestle, so as to receive the final and most precious thing he knows: A blessing.

I will not let go’ reflects a determination not to be trifled with. ‘unless you bless me’ shows the way to end the contest. The LORD listens. The LORD shows mercy. The LORD blesses Jacob. Jesus too displays a similar attitude. He tells a parable of the persistent widow who ultimately gets the justice she wants (Luke 18:1-18).

I will not let you go unless you bless me,’ is an attitude we must bring with us as we pray. If we ask God in a half-hearted manner, it reflects negatively about our true desire. Half-hearted prayer is no prayer at all. It is like saying words without actually meaning it. It also puts God in a difficult position whether by giving in to our careless wishes, we become spoiled. Half-hearted prayer is like a son asking for $100 with an attitude of ‘whatever,’ or 'anything goes.' It could also be a subordinate asking for a particular budget with little intention of using it for the benefit of the company. It could be simply doing things for the sake of doing it, lots of smoke but little desire. Such prayers do not deserve an answer.

John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience comes not out of a half-hearted request but an earnest, painfully persistent prayer to God. He wrestles constantly with his faith. He wants more, much more than what the world has to offer. He wants God. He asks and he receives, much more than he anticipates.Isn't this what prayer is all about, desiring God persistently and fully?

Let me close with one other comment about blessings. Wesley received the blessing, through which he blessed many others in the process. That is the true calling of the blessed. Blessed in order to bless others. A blessing is not something to be given to us for us to bury in our backyard. It is to be used to bless others.

Thought: In our daily lives, do your best. In our prayer life, seek God’s ultimate rest. When we pray, how WHOLE-hearted are we? When we intercede, how persistent are we? Tell God, I will not let you go until you blessed me.

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