August 1, 2010 | By Derick Parfan | Scripture: Genesis 32-33
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In preparing to obey what God revealed to us in His Word, we sometimes face threatening situations. When God wants you to quit a job which often compromises your faith, you might be threatened with losing 25,000 pesos a month. When God tells you to share your faith to your friend, you might be threatened with the possibility of losing a friend or a good name in school. Fear – whether of men or of some threatening situation – if left unchecked, may paralyze us. It may cloud our senses of what we believe about God and his promises. It may numb our muscles and fail to take a step forward in faith and obedience. It may cause us to respond in ways that betray our lack of trust in God.
In Genesis 32, Jacob would be facing a threatening situation, a situation of his own making. After 20 years of serving his uncle Laban in Haran, God told him to return to his father’s land in Canaan. So he obeyed the Lord’s instructions and took his family and his properties. But there would be a problem. He would meet Esau, his twin elder brother, on the way. He was afraid of him, of his revenge. What should he expect? After all, he took his birthright from him and in conspiracy with his mother robbed him of the blessings of his father? Twenty years may not be too long for Esau to forget the man who caused him misery. Esau’s desire for revenge was still pounding in Jacob’s heart. He still fears Esau. And if he cannot deal with this fear, it may paralyze him.
The Israelites, whose roots came from the twelve sons of Jacob, were hearing this story from Moses. After they were delivered from slavery in Egypt and wandered in the desert for close to 40 years, they were about to conquer Canaan, as God told them to. Faced with armies mightier than they, they have reasons to fear. It was just like what happened a little more than a year after they left Egypt when they cower in fear of the giants in the land. God does not want them to face again their enemies with knees shaking. Before they conquer the land, they need to conquer their fears. Or else, it may paralyze them.
Our situation today is no different. As God’s people, we are to walk the path of obedience. Along the way, we may face situations that might threaten us and might even cause us to retreat because of fear. And if we cannot overcome those fears, it may paralyze us and hinder us from fully obeying the will of God. So, how do we then need to face our fears?
This is the question that Jacob needs to answer. In Genesis 32, we see Jacob starting on a journey from Haran toward the land the Lord promised his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham to give to their descendants. God knows that Jacob needs the assurance of his presence. That is why he sent a host of angels on his way back home. He called that place Mahanaim and said, “This is God’s camp” (32:2). It is clearly a reminder of God’s promise to him 2o years ago in Bethel after he saw in his dream angels of God going up and down a ladder that reaches to heaven: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (28:15).
Jacob had just experienced that divine protection from Laban. But now he may have forgotten that. As a precautionary measure, he sent messengers to Esau. He unnecessarily puts himself in a position of a servant and elevates Esau as ‘lord.’ He even wants to give away the blessings God gave him in Haran! Hoping to hear good news from his messengers, he was instead shocked by what he heard. “Your brother Esau is coming to meet you with his 400 men!” Jacob was terrified and he was trembling in fear, “Oh no, I have brought this trouble upon myself and my family. My brother is now coming to kill me. What will I do now?” In fear, he thought it’s a good idea to divide their group into two, so at least he can spare the other group. While doing this, Jacob was hearing Esau’s voice 20 years ago, “I will kill him!” as if it was spoken seconds ago. He was hearing Esau’s murderous threat in full Dolby Digital Surround while God’s words and promises were but like a whisper in his ears.
It’s the same with us who knew God’s promises like, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”; “You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.” We already knew and experienced God’s promise to do us good when we obey his will. Yet, we are paralyzed with fear when we are faced with a threatening situation, like the uncertainty of tomorrow or getting the ire of someone we love because we choose to obey God. Oftentimes, the threats of men or situations ring louder inside our ears than the assurances of God’s word.
Faced with a threatening situation, how did Jacob deal with his fears? Well, Jacob got it right when he prayed. Afraid, he doesn’t know of anyone else who can help him, right? Reminding God of his promises and how Jacob obeyed his instructions, he appealed for grace once again, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I fear him (he is honest to admit that he fears). But you said, ‘I will surely do you good.’” Do you see here how he confessed to God that even though he heard God’s promises loud and clear, he was struggling on how to fit that to what he is going to face? He had just prayed, and he can let God take care of that matter, and say, “Good night, Lord. Now I can sleep well without worrying about seeing my brother’s face.” He did not really say that. He thinks he needs to work overtime and do his part in this situation and help God out. In a misguided attempt to please his brother, he prepared 550 gifts – goats, rams, camels, cows, bulls, and donkeys – perfect for Esau with his 400 men. He instructed his servants again to go ahead and tell this message to Esau, “I am your servant. You are my lord. Please accept these presents.” By accepting the gifts, Jacob hopes that he would see his brother’s face in favor and not in furious anger. But doesn’t he know that the One on his side is already enough so he can face even an army without fear? Clearly, he needs to know more about that.
We face a situation and it causes us to fear, so we pray for help. Good. But we want also to help God fulfill his promise by doing unnecessary work. God promised to provide for our family, so we work overtime (even on Sundays) so we may have enough, even if we have to sacrifice our relationship with God or our time with our family. In our effort to obey God, we sometimes end up disobeying him because of our lack of trust that he will work in our situation. We want to lessen our fears by doing it our way, at least partly. But that’s not how God wants us to deal with our fears. The question is not how we want to deal with it but how we need to deal with it.
How does God want Jacob to face his fears? That same night, Jacob took his family across the ford of Jabbok. His wives and children were on their bed now, some of them snoring. But their snores were not the reason Jacob cannot sleep. He taught he saw Esau walking in the woods. It was dark and he could not recognize the face. Slowly and afraid, he approached him. He was caught by surprise when the man suddenly grabbed him. Jacob was now in a wrestling match! He was old but he still thinks he has the muscles to keep fighting. So he fought hard. He did not notice that they were wrestling for so many hours now, and the sun was now rising. The fight was so intense that the mysterious man just touched Jacob’s hip and it was put out of joint. Jacob was still grabbing him and won’t let go. Physically, he doesn’t have the strength anymore. But his heart was oozing with courage because he realized who this man was. This was not just a man. “I was wrestling with God himself,” he thought. Resolute, Jacob said to him, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He wept and pleaded for the blessing (Hosea 12:4). And he received it. In fact, he already received it. He just needs to remember it. As a sign of blessing God said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (32:28). Then God blessed him. Jacob would never forget that experience. As a memorial, he named that place Peniel, which means the “face of God,” and said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” To see God’s face can be a very scary thing because it can cause one’s death. It didn’t happen, though. Instead, he experienced the grace of God. That overnight match reminds Jacob of his struggle not just with Esau but with God who was wrestling with Jacob’s faith all his life.
It is not that Jacob came out in the end prevailing in that match. It is that God prevailing over Jacob’s fears. But before he can do that, he needs to strip Jacob of his self-sufficiency and heal his paralyzing fear. For that to happen, God wants Jacob to seek his face before worrying about Esau’s face. That’s what Jacob did. He came out of that match no more Jacob, not anymore the deceitful fighter, but Israel, God fighting on his side. Those Israelites entering the promised land would remember why they were called Israel and not Jacob. As they fight their enemies, they will fight not with spears and arrows and human strategies, but with God who will fight for them. Where is fear when God is with them?
God prevails over our fears when we realize his gracious presence and take hold of his promises by resolute faith. That is how we need to deal with our fears, that’s how God wants us to deal with our fears – by letting God himself prevail over it. God wants to strip us of our self-sufficiency, so that God may prove his sufficiency to graciously deal with what we fear the most.
And do you know what God will do in our situation as a result of that? Let’s look at how the story of Esau and Jacob’s sibling rivalry ends. The sun now shining brightly, it’s time for the moment of truth. “Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him” (33:1). So his messengers were not lying after all. So in order of priority he put his servants’ families first, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and her only son Joseph at the back. The safer place for the ones he loved most. I don’t know how that would affect his family afterwards! Even after that wrestling match, we can see that his fears were not totally wiped out. But it was substantial enough that he put himself in front and prepared to meet Esau face to face.
Only a few hundred meters were now separating them. He could now discern the expression on Esau’s face. Was he smiling or was he angry? He cannot look straight. He bowed to the ground. 100 meters, he bowed again. 50, he bowed again. 10, he bowed again. He could not get up anymore. He heard Esau running toward him. What was he going to do now? Before he could react, he felt Esau’s hands touch his shoulders, and then embrace him so tight that he could not breathe. Fine with him. Jacob’s face was now touching Esau’s, both wet with tears. The situation he feared did not happen. Anger was turned into mercy, hatred into love, revenge into a happy reunion, an enemy into a friend and a brother once again. He doesn’t need the gifts anymore, only now as a testimony of God’s blessing. Looking straight into Esau’s eyes without fear, Jacob said, “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me” (33:10-11). The two brothers had then separated in conflict; they were now separating in peace. Jacob had left Canaan to seek refuge away from his brother’s threats. Now he was entering the same land as one who has found refuge in God. He had already experienced the grace of God. He experienced it again, as God turned a threatening situation into a situation that undeniably he alone can create. He saw the face of God in their wrestling match. He saw it again in Esau’s face. Fear did not paralyze him.
So, how do we need to face our fears? Certainly not with our half-hearted faith and unnecessary human effort, but with a faith which grabs and will not let go of the promises of God. This is the faith which sees the face of God and experiences his underserved goodness in seemingly threatening situations. That doesn’t come easily, though. We will oftentimes struggle to get it.
My wife and I believe that God wants her to resign from her work at World Vision due to our current situation. We need to move from Quezon City to Baliwag in September. We are expecting a baby after 5 months. We believe it will be for the good of my wife and our baby if she will quit her job. Threatened with losing more than half of our current income plus additional expenses with the pregnancy and the coming baby, we have a reason to fear. It is not easy. But we know it is the will of God. So we wrestled with Him in prayer and with tears. As we do, we remembered his grace in the past and in the present, and are expectant for more of his grace in the future. We face our fears by seeking the face of God.
Fear of future uncertainties and threatening situations need not paralyze us in obeying the will of God. So, we need to face our fears by seeking the face of God. As a father, you know that it is best for your wife and your children if you will stay at home even it means lesser financial security compared to working overseas. Or as an employee, God wants you to disobey your boss because he is asking you to do something against the will of God. Doing so brings the risk of non-promotion and even losing your job. Are you now facing a threatening situation? How do you deal with it? You’re praying, of course. But is your faith mixed with attempts to make your situation more convenient? Or are you earnestly and desperately seeking the face of God more than anything else? You might want to take an hour later today or tomorrow and confess to God what you fear and ask him to reassure you of his promised presence.
Can I say that all my fears were gone now? I hope they were. There will always be traces of fear now and then, especially when my wife submits her formal letter of resignation on Monday. But those fears are now but a whisper compared to the resounding promises of God. Join me in singing with David who faced a lot of threats in his life, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?…You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’” (Psalm 27:1, 8).