The Struggle

In the 1988 Olympics, 10 minutes before the start of the 400-meter race, Derek Redmond had to withdraw due to an injury in his Achilles tendon. Can you imagine struggling hour after hour in training to make the Olympics, only to withdraw from the medal round 10 minutes before the race due to an injury? Redmond left Seoul without a medal. The following year Redmond experienced 5 separate surgeries. He worked hard to recover from his injuries and finally qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

            Redmond made it all the way back to the semi-finals. This was finally going to be his time to show the world that his struggle would pay off in gold. He was the top finisher in two qualifying heats. He lined up at the starting line, with years of struggle behind him, the gun went off, and he burst from the line. Redmond had the lead going into the back half of the race when he heard a pop. His tore his hamstring. His dreams of winning the gold medal were over, but the race was not. The medical team raced out with a stretcher to help, but Redmond picked himself off the ground and continuing struggling toward the finish the line. His face grimaced in pain with every step. He struggled for this day for four years. He was going to finish the race, but he could barely walk.

            As Redmond continued to struggle towards the finish line limping in agony, his father jumps the railing, barrels past a security guard and runs towards his son. Jim Redmond made it to son. His son threw his arms around his father sobbing as his father softly said, “I’m here son. We’ll finish together.[1]” As father and son struggled towards the finish line together, arm in arm, several people tried to tell Jim that he could not help his son, but he brushed them off. He would not leave his son. Derek Redmond’s struggle did not earn him the gold medal, but it enabled him to cross the finish line. He finished the race with a limp, being carried by the love of his father.

            As Redmond lived his whole life to cross the finish his race at the Olympics, we are called to finish our race to glory. The Christian life is a race. We are called to struggle to finish the race. Hebrews 12:1b, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1b-2) At the end of Paul’s life, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). Are you struggling to finish the race? Are you struggling for the promise land?

            Jacob was in the promise the land, but was forced to leave the land because he deceived his father into bestowing upon him the blessing of the firstborn. His brother, Esau, wanted to kill him, so Jacob went to his grandfather, Abraham’s, homeland. While in Haran, Jacob would be locked in a battle of deception with Laban. Laban would deceive Jacob into marrying Leah, securing seven more years of labor from Jacob to marry Rachel. Jacob would deceive Laban to receive the healthy flock securing great wealth. Jacob would flee Laban and try to make his way back to the land of promise. Jacob, the deceiver, would need to change if he was going to enter the promise land. As we examine Jacob’s struggle, I want to ask you two questions to see if you are struggling to finish the race to cross into the promise land. First question,

Are you Struggling in Self-Sufficiency against God?

            Jacob had struggled against God his whole life. He struggled with Esau in the womb holding on to his heel at birth. He struggled against Esau, deceiving him into selling his birthright for stew. He struggled against his father, Isaac, deceiving him into blessing him with the blessing of the firstborn. He struggled against Laban, deceiving him to receive the healthiest among the flocks. Jacob left the promise land alone and had become a wealthy man with a large family and 11 sons. Jacob was a self-made man. He was independent and self-sufficient. He was wealthy and prosperous. By worldly standards, he had achieved it all, but he was still outside the promise land.

God will not allow self-sufficient, independent people to enter the promise land. Jacob must change before he will be allowed to enter the promise land. After Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden, God made sure that no one would return to His land without trusting him. Genesis 3:22-24,

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22-24)

God placed his angels to guard the entrance into the promise land. Jacob decides to return home to the land of promise and on his way we see in that Genesis 32:1, “the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’” God could not allow the self-sufficient, independent Jacob into his “camp,” just as God will not allow self-sufficient, independent people into his heaven.

            Years later, Jesus looked at a self-sufficient, independent rich young ruler and told him that if he was going to inherit eternal life, he must go and sell all and give to the poor and then follow Jesus. The rich, self-sufficient ruler walked away sad, because he did not want to give up his wealth. Jesus then said to his disciples,

Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” [In other words, how can we cross the finish line of our race to the promise land?] But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-26)

Genesis is about salvation. Genesis answers the question, “who then can be saved?” As Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, so, too, when we believe God’s Word about the promised Son it to will be counted to us as righteousness (Romans 4).

            Jacob was trying to enter the promise land. Jesus said, “For many, I tell you will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24) How will Jacob be able to enter the promise land? God must break Jacob’s proud, self-sufficiency, as God must break ours. We will not enter the promise land if we struggle in our pride and independence against God. If we think our good works will allow us to enter the promise land, we are struggling against God. If we think we deserve to enter on the basis of anything other faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are striving in self-sufficiency. Friends, many will try to cross into the promise land, but will not be able to enter.

            C.S. Lewis called pride the great sin. He believed man’s quest for self-sufficiency without God was the spark that brought the world into misery. He writes in Mere Christianity,

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind… it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.[2]

And Jonathan Edwards similarly writes of Christians,

The first and worst cause of errors that abound in our day and age is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christ. It is the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit to darken the mind and mislead the judgment. Pride is the main handle by which he has hold of Christian persons and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces to clog and hinder a work of God. Spiritual pride is the main spring or at least the main support of all other errors. Until this disease is cured, medicines are applied in vain to heal all other diseases[3]

How do we know we are struggling in self-sufficiency against God? We neglect prayer. Our prayer life is an indicator of whether we are struggling in self-sufficiency or humility. This was true for Jacob’s life. Jacob had many reasons to pray and submit himself to God, but we do not see him pray until fear overtakes him.

            There are several times in Jacob’s life where he gives honor to the Lord for his success. He built an altar after seeing the ladder where angels were ascending and descending from heaven. He gave God credit for the success in working among Laban’s flocks. Although there were moments he gave God credit, we never see him make his decisions in submission to God. It isn’t until he is about to cross over into the promise land to see his brother Esau that Jacob realizes that he cannot enter on his own. He cannot face Esau alone. Jacob must have the hand of God. Jacob sent messengers to try to soften Esau’s anger, promising him wealth, but the messengers returned saying, Genesis 32:6, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Four hundred men. Esau is coming towards him with a small army. What is Jacob to do?

            Jacob’s first response shows his self-sufficiency. The first thing he does in response to his fear is to try and solve the problem himself. Genesis 32:7-8,

Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”

Jacob is still scheming using his human cunning to minimize the consequences of deception. And yet, he knows deep down that his only hope is Lord, so we see him pray. It is the longest prayer in Genesis and the first time we see Jacob pray.

And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” (Genesis 32:9-12)

Jacob finally admits that he is not worthy of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Jacob admits his need. And he confesses to the God of his fathers. This confession is the beginning of Jacob’s change, but he still has scheming heart.

            Jacob sends his wealth over in phases to soften Esau’s anger. He is still hoping and resting in his scheming to save him. Jacob thought to himself, Genesis 32:20, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” Jacob didn’t know how to struggle with God for his entire life was lived against him. Can you relate?

Second Question,

Are you Struggling in Self-Sacrifice with God?

            Jacob has sent most of his wealth ahead to meet Esau, but he can’t sleep. He knows that this is the day of reckoning. Genesis 32:22-23, “The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.” He sacrifices all. Jacob is surrendering his life and possessions creating a sense of suspense in the narrative, but in theological retrospect, we see that Jacob must face God alone.

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:24-26)

The narrative does not reveal who the man is that Jacob struggles against. The man touches Jacob on the hip and cripples him. Jacob is still fighting for the blessing. In asking for the man to bless him, we realize that Jacob believes this either to be God or one of his messengers. Either way, he has the power to bless him.

            Jacob wants a blessing from the man, but the man first asks Jacob a question. He said to him, “What is your name?” Remember this question has been asked Jacob before when he was in his father’s tent the last time he asked for a blessing. His father asked him his name only for him to lie. This time, when the stranger asks, “What is your name?” he says plainly, “Jacob.” I am the cheater; the deceiver, the schemer, the liar, heel-grabber. I am Jacob. He is finally able to admit his sin. He is able to confess who he really is; a prideful, self-sufficient cheat.

            Friend, do you realize how hard it is to answer that question? We are taught from birth to try and defend ourselves and to justify our mistakes by comparing ourselves to others or minimizing the offense, but we are “Jacob.” We are schemers, deceivers, and prideful, self-sufficient cheats. The Bible says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All have robbed or cheated God from his glory. Jacob confesses the truth and God shows him grace. It is the last thing we expect to happen to him as it is the last thing we expect would happen to us. The stranger reveals who He is by saying,

Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

God changed Jacob’s name. He no longer is one who struggles against God in deception, Jacob but now one who struggles with God for his blessing, Israel.

Jacob received his blessing because of God’s grace. Now God’s people would always be known as those who struggle with Him to experience His blessing. Every time they would hear Israel, they would remember that they are not worthy of the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, but God showed them mercy.

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob's hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:29-32)

Many scholars believed that Jacob was wrestling with the pre-incarnate Christ known as a Christophany. For God, the text says, met Jacob face to face. Jacob was delivered just as he asked the God of his fathers in his prayer. Jacob thought he needed deliverance from Esau, but he really needed deliverance from God. God only used earthly circumstances to expose his real need. What earthly circumstances is the Lord using in your life to expose your real need?

            Jacob, now Israel, would meet Esau face to face and experience the earthly deliverance and reconciliation with his brother. Jacob says to Esau, “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.” The main human obstacle from keeping Jacob from entering the promise land, Esau, steps aside and allows Jacob, now Israel, to enter, “And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan (the promise land)….There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel (meaning God, the God of Israel). (Genesis 33:18; 20) Jacob no longer addresses the God of his fathers, but now addresses his God, the God of Israel. God made a way for Jacob to enter the promise land. God had to change Jacob to Israel before he was able to cross into the land. He walked with a limp, but he crossed the finish line.

            The people of Israel would have heard this story as they were about to enter the promise land. Their forefathers were proud and self-sufficient and perished outside of the land of promise. Israel would have been reminded that they needed to trust God, for He has already given them a new name. They are no longer Jacob, but Israel. They are called to struggle with God for his blessing. As Jacob met his enemy Esau and was delivered, so too Israel would be delivered from the Canaanites. God was calling Israel to trust him and to remember that He will go before them. God said to Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9). God is with you. It is as if God is asking, “What is your name?” You are Israel. Always remember your name.

And like Israel, God must change us before we are able to enter the promise land. The only way we are able to cross the finish line if receive a new name. We must receive the name of Him who chose to walk with a limp on our behalf. Genesis 3:15 says to Serpent that he would bruise the heel of the promised seed. Jesus would experience the “bruised heel” on the cross. Jesus would die to pay for our pride and self-sufficiency. He would be identified as “Jacob” on the cross so we would be able to be grafted into “Israel.” Jesus was bruised on the cross, but he crushed the head of the serpent in his resurrection from the dead. Jesus delivered us from our greatest enemy, death, giving us the opportunity to enter into the land of promise by the mercy of God. He invites all to enter, but we must be changed first. We must receive the name of Jesus Christ. We must lose our life for Jesus. We must sacrifice our self-sufficiency for the way of the cross. We must forsake all and follow Jesus.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jacob humbled himself and became Israel. Saul humbled himself and became Paul. Simon humbled himself and became Peter. Have you humbled yourself to become One with Christ? Have you received the name “Christian” by turning from your sins and trusting in bruised heel of Jesus (the cross) and the crushed head of the serpent (the resurrection)? Are you with Christ?

I love the picture of Derek Redmond struggling so hard to finish the race only to realize that he could not cross the finish line without the help of his father. “I’m here son. We’ll finish together.” God does that for us. God sent Jesus from heaven to become a man so that we could enter the promise land. In the incarnation of Jesus, God says to you and me, “I’m here my children. We’ll finish together.” Beloved, we must “walk with a limp.” We must admit our sin and identify ourselves with the bruised heel of Christ. It is only then that we realize that God is the one who will carry us across the finish line into the promise land. Therefore, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus who says, “I am with you. We will finish this together.”


[1] accessed 5.21.2016

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone edition, 1996), 109, 111.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 1:398–404.