Heavy going in today’s reading – not just because there’s so much of it but because there’s not much uplifting or encouraging in there. Deceit, theft, scheming, blaming the innocent, rape, deceit again, mass murder for the sake of a vendetta.
Wrestling with God
But in the middle of it there’s one story that stands out, in chapter 32. Before he crosses the Jabbok river to face his brother Esau after twenty years away, he prays. This might not seem like a major step, but in all of his story so far, this is the first time where he actually talks to God and asks for his help.
I don’t blame him for praying. After all, he had good reason to think that Esau might be a bit annoyed – the last time they met was when Jacob cheated Esau from the inheritance and fled after their father’s death. And Jacob hasn’t really changed completely. He’s still planning and scheming, working out how to send his flocks and then his family ahead of them in order of least to most precious to him; to break the news of his prosperity gradually to Esau but also to manage his risk if it does all go wrong. And of course he’ll go last. Just in case.
But that doesn’t mean that his prayer isn’t from the heart. He’s having at last to face up to the consequences of his actions, as his scheming catches up with him and he has to confront the past. And my confidence that his prayer is real comes mainly from the next bit of the story. Having sent everyone and everything on ahead, Jacob wrestles with God. I read this as being a physical description of the struggle of real, determined prayer to bring my will and my future fully into line with God’s plans and will. It’s costly and exhausting – not just a quick ‘Dear God, please sort this out for me quickly. Amen.’ And it changes us – making us more vulnerable to God and sometimes to those around us too. But it’s the best way to get our lives back on track when we’re lost.
How bad do things have to get before I really pray? For Jacob it seems to have been pretty bad. He had to face a situation that he knew he couldn’t control or scheme his way out of. For me – what? Perhaps we would save ourselves a lot of trouble if we realised sooner rather than later that we were going to have to rely on God, and got on with it.
The power of forgiveness
Jacob’s prayer was answered – and, like many answered prayers, had probably been answered before it was prayed, except in how Jacob felt about it.
Jacob tries to ease the meeting with gifts, to buy Esau’s goodwill – but Esau seems to be as good at forgetting past wrong as he was bad at thinking about future consequences. He’s still, perhaps, living in the moment. He welcomes his brother back as if nothing had gone wrong between them. Forgiveness is a powerful thing, and opens up all sorts of possibilities. It’s not easy – any more than wrestling with God is easy – for most of us who have longer and harder memories than Esau. But I’ve heard too many times ‘I’ll never forgive her for…’ and I don’t think it’s ever ended well. Forgiveness is God’s work in us – and our work for God.
And perhaps Jacob has been changed by his night of wrestling. I can’t imagine him giving Laban more than he had to. But he insists, and persuades his brother to take the offered gift even when it’s been refused. Perhaps his heart has softened a bit, or become strong enough to overrule his head for once.
Prayer doesn’t just change the world – it changes us.