Attacked in the Dark by God
Five steps you can take to wrestle out your fears with God
No, no one shall be forgotten who was great in this world. But each hero was great in his own way, and each one was eminent in proportion to the great things he loved. For he who loved himself became great through himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he who loved God became greater than all of these. Every one of them shall be remembered, but each one became great in proportion to his trust.
One became great by hoping for the possible; another, by hoping for the eternal; but he who hoped for the impossible, he became greater than all of these. Everyone shall be remembered, but each one was great in proportion to the power with which he strove.
For he who strove with the world became great by overcoming himself; but he who strove with God, he became the greatest of them all. Thus there have been struggles in the world, man against man, one against a thousand; but he who struggled with God, he became greatest of them all..”
— Johannes De Silentio, 1848, (One of the aliases of Søren Kierkegaard), Fear and Trembling
What are you afraid of? Do you strive with God over your fears?
The above quote describes the faith of Abraham. The “greatness” to which it refers to over and over again is the greatness of faith Abraham showed in offering his son Isaac on the altar.
It depicts Abraham struggling with God, but struggling in the sense that he was confronted with the command to sacrifice the one thing God promised him; the one thing he loved. Can you imagine his deep love for Isaac?
Can you imagine how, in his thoughts and prayers he contended with God—worked out his faith with fear and trembling so that he could obey his Lord?
I love this quote and how it frames the faith of Abraham as striving “with” God. It reminds me of Jacob’s striving.
Wrestling with God in the Dark
The image above is Rembrandt’s painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord. Commentators love to explain how this confrontation is cloaked in mystery. What do you think? Have you read it recently?
Let me set the scene for you.
Jacob knows his estranged brother, Esau, pursues him. So he sends servants to go on ahead of him to offer Esau—who approaches with 400 men—gifts. He’s afraid of Esau and of what he might do when he catches up to him.
He prays to God: “Oh Lord, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau.” After he prays, he takes action.
Jacob sends over all his possessions and his gifts and family to the other side of the Jabbok River. He’s left alone in the camp.
What happens next changes his life forever.
“A man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break.”
There’s so much here in this encounter—my mind ignites with questions:
Why does God attack Jacob in the night?
Why must Jacob release him because the dawn was about to break?
Why can’t (or doesn’t) God overtake Jacob?
Why does God injure him?
I read once that we can only wrestle with God through the strength of God. This reminds me of Moses and Elijah who were both sustained by God in order to stand in the presence of God. Elijah was given food to eat by an angel, then he experiences the terrible wonder of God’s glory.
Moses was enveloped in the glory cloud atop Sinai for 40 days and nights. How did he eat or drink? What or who sustained him?
I never thought about God sustaining Jacob while Jacob wrestled with him. Oh, the depth and mystery of that kind of mercy and grace! That God should allow a man to tangle with him during the night and not crush him into dust.
I never thought about how Jacob poured out his soul to God—Help me, God! Rescue me, he cried! And what happened? God attacked him in the dark.
“Eh, but Tim,” you say, “No one can see God’s face and live, let alone wrestle with him all night.”
“Ah yes,” I reply, “Indeed, they cannot. Except when they can.”
The Angel of the Lord (God himself) asks Jacob to release him after wrestling through the night. But Jacob does not relent. Indeed, he asks for a blessing! Does God bless him?
Not right then. Instead, he asks Jacob’s name. But he’s God, right? He knows with whom he fights. So why the ask?
Think of a king who be-knights a warrior. It is like a ritual. The warrior states his name. Then the king repeats the name but then renames the warrior by giving him the honour of a new title.
And so does God to Jacob. He be-knights him. “I dub thee, Sir Jacob!”
No, no, no.
But something like that, right?
“You shall be known as Israel.” A name among names. A name never to be forgotten throughout the whole earth, even to this day as I write here in my study.
After he is renamed, Israel asks for the name of his attacker, but the attacker does not give him his name. Instead, he asks him why he wants to know his name. Why does God ask this?
Remember, Moses asked to see God’s glory. But before he showed him only a small glimpse of the back of this glory, God told him his name.
But that is ages from this encounter. Here, Jacob wants to know his name—though he probably already realizes with whom he struggled. And God answers his request to know his name with a blessing.
A blessing and an injury.
A struggle and a triumph.
Fears met with fighting.
We’ve only begun to unpack this passage, but already I’m encouraged. Already I see God, coming at me in the dark—a figure strange and strong, engaging me with his hands and breathing and strength. And I realize he’s not like me, even as he struggles with me and I with him.
And I realize that if I persist in my struggle with God, the blessing will come. It will come, but so will injury, so will great toil and weariness. But if I can gather myself like God tells Job to do, I can somehow gain the affection of God, the honour of God.
In the dark, where my fears come out to take hold, there I find God and he also takes hold. And when I find him, I don’t let go. Not so I can boast of hanging on and contending with him. No. Instead, so I can somehow attain his blessing—even though he might injure me, even though the night is long, even though the struggle is real and long and hard.
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Please God, Walk Beside Me
And yet, how often do we ignore our fears? Do we even admit we have them? Or do we play the part of the courageous one? Nothing hurts us, nothing scares us, everything is fine.
"... I'm not afraid when you walk at my side." (Ps. 23:4, The Message)
I like to say, "I don't fear much." And that might be true on the surface. But when I get myself quiet and honest I find there are pockets of fear that arise from shadowy places.
I fear not being a good husband. I fear I mess up too much as a father. I fear mediocrity in my career. I fear my pride, and how I often let it push me away from the people that I love. I fear letting friends down.
When I survey the innerscape (my word for the landscape of my soul), I find valleys of the deathly shadows that too often go ignored.
How about you?
What prompts shadows of fear?
My Weak Reach
Fear stays as it is as long as we ignore it. Fear grows the longer I try to beat it on my own. But if I can just muster the strength to admit I am weak. If I can just muster the honesty to say, "Oh God, heal my bleeding." Then something in me begins to grow.
My friend Sarah Hagerty describes the act of the bleeding woman who reached out for Jesus as her "weak reach." That image is beautiful in the frailest of ways.
It speaks of desperate need. It bellows of belief. It shouts of transparency. It whispers of honesty.
How can I bring myself to do that?
Am I willing to humiliate myself before the crowd and let Jesus feel my weak reach?
Fear dies in the beauty of my weak reach.
Life Blooms Beyond My Weak Reach
God made us not to wallow, but to overcome.
He gives us his voice if only we would listen. He gives us his strength if only we reach. And he meets us in the dark places, the dark times, and willingly struggles with us—giving us the strength to do so. He sustains us so that we might find blessing in the pain.
Beyond the reach life blooms. Fears dissipate. Not because we are fearless. But because we're honest enough to say we're fearful.
In my weak reach, my fears become miracles of healing. I am the dad who learns. I am the writer who keeps on. I am the husband who understands dying. I am not afraid.
When I stray, fear snakes in. But when I keep to the path and hold tight to Jesus's hand, the wonders of faith become real. For ...
"Your trusty shepherd's crook makes me feel secure."
"Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life."
"Who would dare tangle with me?" For I am a son of God.
"Nothing can get between me and God's love."
I am not fazed by the treachery of life. The everydayness looks heavenly when I cling to my Shepherd's crook. It begins with the honesty of a weak reach.
A decision to stay and not stray. A decision to look for glory when fear paints everything black. For I am the bleeding one no longer. I am an overcomer. And I am not afraid.
Thoughts for Reflection
It’s not fun to think about wrestling with God. We’d rather fill our time with more pleasant activities, right? But the wrestling doesn’t have to begin in a dark place near a river. We can wrestle with God as we do yard work. We can wrestle with God as we meet with friends. Stay aware of the “moments” God gives you this weekend. It might be a friend’s encouragement to you when you least expect it like I received this morning. It might be the overwhelming peace God gives you on an afternoon hike as I received with my wife last weekend. Be on the lookout for God’s graces. They come unannounced.
What fears plague you right now? What fears have you packed away, unwilling to wrestle the out? Fears fester when left un-dealt with. What steps can you take this weekend to deal with those fears that you’ve shoved aside?
When was the last time you contended with the Lord? What is keeping you from deepening your relationship with him?
Five Steps You Can Take to Wrestle Out Your Fears with God
Cry out to him - Before Jacob met God at the Jabbok River, he cried out for God’s help. He was honest with himself and with God. He laid his need at God’s feet.
Get alone - Jacob sent everyone across the river so that he could be alone. Being alone with God is key to doing real business with him. Look at your schedule and carve out some real time to get away from the house, from the neighbourhood, from distractions. God meets us in the silence of solitude. But we must take the steps needed to step out of the ordinary day-to-day, and find time alone with him.
Be willing to fight - This seems weird to us. “Why would I want to fight with God,” we might say. But God does not expect us to be robots. Through his son and his sovereignty, he relates to our world of brokenness and suffering. He knows we are frail and need his strength to contend spiritually with him. But how many of us are willing to wrestle with him? The wonderful thing about wrestling with God is that he can take anything you can dish out. In fact, he wants you to. He invites your pain because he can give you peace. Your hurt and mess-ups do not incite him to rage on you. Instead, he’s ready and willing to remove the guilt and shame, if only you and I bring it all to Him and lay it at his feet.
Persist with God - Jacob persisted with God. He didn’t release him until God blessed him. Don’t throw up a prayer and move on. Keep going. Keep praying. God love’s the persistent prayers of his children. You do not bore him when you ask for his strength over and over again. Though dark times come, though the day’s activities stand before you, demanding your time, don’t relent!
Drop the tough facade and step into the power of your weak reach - You don’t have to be perfect, or strong, or the person who never gets hurt. You don’t have to carry your burden alone. But you must reach out from your place of pain and invite him into your suffering. He knows it won’t be pretty. He knows you may throw a few punches out of frustration and weariness and anger. Fling yourself into him. He can take it.