ome people say we can learn in peace what God seems best able to convey in conflict. But if gold could be refined without fire, someone would have figured out a way to do that by now. It cannot be done with precious metals, and it cannot be done with precious people, either.
So if times of trouble can become gifts of God’s grace, we have to be open to the possibility of encountering either one at any time.1 We also have to, at some point, come to understand that we belong to God and He to us. He is my God. Your God. Sometimes it takes a time of trouble for us to acknowledge and accept His gift. This is what Jacob learned.
Genesis 25:19-26 describes the miraculous births of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau. Verses 27 through 34 describe their youth, highlighting how Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew.
Jacob knew the birthright was supposed to be his because his mother, Rebekah, undoubtedly had shared with him the prophecies God told her. Genesis 25:23 (NLT) says: “And the Lord told her [Rebekah], ‘The sons in your womb will become two rival nations. One nation will be stronger than the other; the descendants of your older son will serve the descendants of your younger son.’” Jacob knew the birthright ought to be his—in God’s time. But he circumvented God’s time and operated on his own.
Genesis 27 fans the flames of Jacob’s trouble. His father Isaac’s health was failing fast. He called his oldest son, Esau, to bless him before he died. Isaac told Esau the hunter to hunt and bring some meat home for a meal first; then he could bless him. But before he returned, Rebekah convinced Jacob to dress up like Esau and steal his father’s blessing.
From the moment Jacob deceived his father, his brother, his own conscience, and sinned against God, he did not have peace of mind. His relationship with God was not firm. In fact, it appears to have always been shaky. When questioned by his father, Isaac, regarding how quickly he was able to find the meat, he revealed the kind of relationship he had with God. Genesis 27:20 (NLT) says: “‘Because the Lord your God put it in my path!’ Jacob replied.”
In Jacob’s time of trouble, God was not his God. He was “the Lord your God.” Jacob did not yet have his own personal relationship with God. And he was running for his life. He was running away from his brother’s anger, according to Genesis 27:41 (NLT). Jacob was depressed. There was no hope for tomorrow.
When night came, Genesis 28:11 (NLT) says he took a rock for a pillow and tried to fall asleep. And in the morning he was shaking, not only because it was cold in the middle of the night, but also because he had a wake-up call. The Lord appeared to him in vision. Genesis 28:16 (NLT) says: “Then Jacob woke up and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it.’” He did not realize, in the midst of his trouble, that the Lord had been with him. All this time. All night long. Not just at home, around the tents, in worship, but long after all the lies and deception—even in the middle of nowhere. And so, in verse 19, he called that place Bethel—meaning the house of God. Apparently you can recognize God, be raised in His house, and even periodically talk to Him without having a relationship with Him.
The story continues. Genesis 28:20 (NLT) says: “Then Jacob made this vow: ‘If God will be with me and protect me on this journey and give me food and clothing, and if he will bring me back safely to my father, then I will make the Lord my God.’”
Then, not now. If my father’s God—not my God—brings me back safely, then I’ll make Him my God. While we, like Jacob, may not realize the reality of our broken relationship with God, we can be sure God in His mercy and grace does. Genesis 28:13 (NLT) says: “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father, Isaac.” God understood where Jacob was in their relationship, but accepted him anyway and continued working in his life! No wonder Jesus says in John 6:44 (NIV): “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Even though Jacob hadn’t gotten to the desperate point at which he recognized his need of a personal God, he was beginning to come around. And so as long as Jacob was growing, whatever the future held and whatever the times of trouble brought, God was there watching over him. Never did He leave him or forsake him. And never will He leave or forsake us, either.2 Even to the ends of the earth.
Which, according to Genesis 29, was where Jacob ran off to live next. There he met Laban, who tricked Jacob into marrying Leah before Rachel and changed his wages numerous times while Jacob lived (and suffered) as a shepherd for 20 years.3 But Jacob did not forget about Bethel. The last part of Genesis 31:5 says: “But the God of my father has been with me.” Even near the end of his stay with Laban, he repeated the same thing. “Except for the grace of God—the . . . God of my father, Isaac—you [Laban] would have sent me off without a penny to my name.”4 It seems incredible, but in spite of all the time that had elapsed and in spite of all the times of trouble he had encountered, his relationship with God had still not changed significantly. Jacob had yet to be refined. God was still not his God. Many of us are the same way.
Many of us grew up in Christian homes. We believed in God. We were taught to sing about Him; even to pray to Him. But we don’t know Him personally, perhaps because we have not encountered a trouble great enough for us to confess our desperate, daily need of Him. And God, in His mercy and grace, understands that—even if we do not.5 In the meantime, He still longs to be Lord of our lives. Revelation 3:20 (NLT) says: “Look! Here I stand . . . and knock. If you hear me calling and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal as friends.” For that to happen, we must ask and keep asking Jesus to come into our lives.
We must believe what the Bible says about Him and us. John 1:12 (NLT) says: “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” But believing is not enough. Jacob believed in God, and so do the devils.6
So finally, we must confess our need of Him. 1 John 1:9 (NLT) says: “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.” Times of trouble, while inevitable in a sin-scarred world, can be gifts of grace if we repeat our ABCs each day—if we Ask Jesus to come into our lives, Believe His truth about ourselves and God, and Confess our need of Him; which for some reason is something Jacob, and many of us, usually learn last.
Genesis 32:6, 7 (NLT) describes the prelude to Jacob’s greatest time of trouble. “The messengers returned with the news that Esau was on his way to meet Jacob—with an army of four hundred men! Jacob was terrified at the news.” On his return home, confronted with a great time of trouble, Jacob finally began personally searching for God. Genesis 32:9 (NLT) says: “O God of my grandfather Abraham and my father, Isaac—O Lord, you told me to return to my land and to my relatives, and you promised to treat me kindly.”
Yes, Jacob began the same way: “O God of my grandfather and father.” But notice this: then he added himself to the picture. “O Lord, you told me to return.” It wasn’t about his parents anymore. Jacob was as interested in seeking God as God had always been in seeking him. After 20 years of rationalizing his deceit and excusing his lack of trust in God, he began to see that his actions had eternal consequences. Not just for himself, but for his family, and all that he owned. And an overwhelming sense of unworthiness and conviction washed over him. He cried to God in Genesis 32:10 (NLT): “I am not worthy of all the faithfulness and unfailing love you have shown to me, your servant.”
Out of desperation more than anything else, Jacob finally decided to spend some special and specific time with God.7 As he slumped to his knees in the darkness pleading for God to intervene, suddenly a hand grabbed his shoulder from behind and, with his adrenaline pumping and his mind racing, he began wrestling his assailant.
Who was he wrestling against? The Bible, in five different versions, declares it was “a man.” But how could any “man” wrestle all night? So let’s look at it from another perspective.Jacob was in a crisis. He was facing his greatest time of trouble and an enemy he could not defeat. So he finally came to God and began earnestly searching for Him, and in response God immediately answered his prayer. Immanuel didn’t have to come near, because He was already there! Jacob was used to haggling and deceiving, which is what the name “Jacob” means. But for the first time in his life he was facing someone who did not haggle. Who would not bargain. Who would not settle for some. The Lord was saying, “Give me all. I want all of you or none of you.”
Jacob was wrestling with that high cost of discipleship.8 He was thinking, Oh, Lord, I will give you my sins and my deceptions. But you gave me these children and blessings. Do you want me to trust You with these, too? All that I have? What about my wealth? What about the good things that I have secured? You want me to surrender those things, too? And the Lord said, “I want to be Lord of your life and your relationships and your finances. Give me all.” But no, Lord, Jacob was thinking, some of these have to be mine.
Every time we come to the Lord in prayer, He responds to us the same way. “Let Me be above all.” This makes us feel like Jacob wrestling against God. We pray for gifts of God’s grace minus any times of trouble. We want to be refined without fire. We desperately want His promises and power, but are willing to live without His presence. So we fight against God just as Jacob did. Sometimes all night. Sometimes all our lives. Making up excuses for our lack of trust. Deceiving ourselves. And “earning” our blessings from a God whom we really haven’t accepted as our own. But in the midst of our greatest times of trouble, like Jacob, we can hear the Lord encouraging us: “Give Me your whole heart.”
This was the time of Jacob’s greatest trouble.9
But it became a gift of God’s grace.10
Jacob was wrestling and struggling, and then out of mercy,11
just as the day was breaking, “the man” simply touched his hip and dislocated it. And Jacob fell to the ground, humanly helpless, finally trusting entirely in God.12
Times of trouble can be gifts of God’s grace because they bring us to the desperation point in our lives more effectively and efficiently than all the other times combined,13 which is, according to 1 Peter 1:7 (NLT), one reason that He allows us to go through them. “These trials are only to test your faith, to show that it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold.”
When “the man” touched the hip of Jacob, he was broken—and he fell. And what happened physically shows us what happened spiritually. Jacob’s heart was broken before God. Just when it felt like he had lost, he finally won.14 “Then, in the distance, Jacob saw Esau coming with his four hundred men.”15 And when they finally neared, a miraculous thing occurred. Jacob bowed low and then “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him affectionately and kissed him. Both of them were in tears.”16 After making peace with Esau, Jacob told his brother, “God has been gracious to me.”17
Early that morning, Jacob died, and a new person was born—Israel,18 which means “God has saved.” The old creature was gone.19 A new creature was born.20 Perfectly surrendered—still being made holy.21 Because Jacob was willing to be refined by fire and to rely on his God, his greatest time of trouble became a gift of God’s grace.
1 I’d like to thank my friend Edward Marton for his help in shaping my thoughts on this idea.
2 Isa. 41:10; 43:1, 2; Matt. 28:20, NLT.
3 Gen. 31:38, NLT.
4 Gen. 31:42, NLT.
5 Jer. 17:9, 10, NIV.
6 James 2:19, NIV.
7 Gen. 32:24, NLT.
8 Luke 9:57-62, NLT.
9 Jer. 30:5-7, NLT.
10 Heb. 11:9, NIV.
11 Matt. 24:22, NIV.
12 Gen. 32:30, 31, NLT.
13 Rom. 5:3-5, NIV.
14 Matt. 24:13, NIV.
15 Gen. 33:1, NLT.
16 Gen. 33:4, NLT.
17 Gen. 33:11, NIV.
18 Gen. 32:28, NLT.
19 2 Cor. 5:17, KJV.
20 Gal. 6:15, KJV.
21 Heb. 10:14; Phil. 1:6, NLT.