Fear Turns Into Freedom:
Jacob’s Encounter With His Brother Esau
by John J. Smid
In our human life experience, we can go about life seeking significance in our own strength coming up empty handed. Salvation at its core is recognizing we cannot please God without faith. It is a deep recognition that we cannot save ourselves but must repent of our own self will and receive His gift.
Throughout my own life, I always felt desperately insignificant. I remember the questions ringing in my ears often; “Do you hear me?”, “Does anyone care about what I am going through?”, “Do I have any value here at all?” But I often felt pretty smug about my own ability to support myself. I could do it without anyone’s help. I had developed a pretty strong sense of independence. It felt too painful to depend on others and find that I didn’t think they were there for me anyway.
I thought it might be good to talk about a story like mine that was revealed in the book of Genesis chapters 32 & 33. The relationship between Jacob and Esau is one that has brought many controversial discussions and queries to the table of discussion. But for me, Jacob’s story showed me just how much God reached into my own life. God moved me to a personal honesty that brought about my own transformation from self will, to dependence on God, and a new way of relating to others.
Stop for a moment and think about Jacob’s childhood. He was a young man who was hungry for the blessing of his father. He was so hungry that rather than accept life as it was, being the younger brother, he went after the blessing of his father in his own strength.
Being encouraged by his mother to deceive his father Isaac, he manipulated his way into his father’s blessing and stepped all over Esau’s birthright. The cloud of guilt hang over him and undoubtedly, he carried this deficit into his everyday life. I feel confident that he was often looking around the corner for the boom to drop and the truth to hit him between the eyes.
Many of us have attempted to gain the benefits of a blessing the wrong way. Some of us have manipulated favoritism from our parents, or emotionally separated from them when we felt as though another sibling was specially favored. What are we likely to do when we live under these family circumstances? We attempt to find a good cover up, living in deception. We can even enter into things that come to a painful end.
Some of our cyclical behaviors can actually come from seeking our own significance the wrong way and coming up empty handed, searching to answer the questions; Am I loved? Am I significant? Does anyone care?
We move on with the story. Jacob was facing a meeting with this brother that he had betrayed long ago. Esau had announced to him that he was in fact going to pay him a visit, not alone though. He was bringing 400 men with him. Jacob was so fearful he began to pray, (my paraphrase) “Oh, God, Lord of my life, you promised that if I went back to my family, you would bless me! I am calling in my ticket right now! Save me from the hand of my brother, surely he will attack me!” (Gen. 32:11) The call to obedience now beckons him. God said he must go back to his family.
At some point in our life God may ask us to return to our family of origin to deal with those relationships that have so often felt negative or broken. Sometimes our personal blessing has to wait until we have reconciled our past.
Family gatherings are often like this potential meeting for Jacob and Esau. Prayers going all over the place based on our relational breakdowns. We experience fears, insecurities and barriers, all because we have unsettled business with our loved ones. Mom, Dad, brother, sister, where do you stand with each other? Are you living a life of separation, or walking on eggshells because you haven’t been honest. Have you reckoned with the truth?
Jacob had no idea where his prayers would land him. But, he was hanging on to the promise that God had given him. He needed the blessing and knew he had the counterfeit in his hands. He carried on as an impostor all of his life. Knowing he had robbed Esau he had developed a pretty large barricade between him and his brother. Paranoid of the potential of doom he had found himself not only praying deeply from his heart but also, in his self will. He had set up his own personal protection.
“Wives, children, concubines, all of you go forth and protect me. I will be destroyed and I need you to become my front.” (my paraphrase)
Deflection, dishonesty, artificial and barriers all in place to protect this poor man. Poor man? What about these poor women and children?
If in fact Esau was angry and in attack mode – who was going to protect them? Maybe all the gifts he had arranged would stave off this potential for harm. All sorts of goats, ewes, camels and peace offerings – yes, maybe these will hold him back! He was determined just like years ago – he would conquer this in his own strength. Little did he know what God would do. Little did he know that he was about to embark upon one of the most significant events in his life. God was about to break his will and finally show him His severe mercy.
At my most desperate place I gathered serial promiscuous relationships around me. I was hungry to find that one person that would say to me, “I care.”, “I will never leave you.”, “You are the most important person in my life.” In my own angst, the cycle became my focus but it just didn’t seem that I could find what I was looking for so the desperation didn’t go away, it actually increased.
Coming into a living relationship with God requires us to let go of our way and embrace His way. As humans, we often have developed a fine system to cover up – to protect our lives from being hurt again. We have set up fortresses to protect us from our fears. We have often used people or substances as barricades, comforts for our own insecurities. When are we going to get honest with ourselves and admit our shortcomings? Sometimes this comes when we least expect it. At times, it comes as a result of our deep cries to the Lord in our distress!
As a matter of fact, the most significant freedom we have ever received was just after Jesus Christ Himself cried out in blood sweating distress!
So, the move was on and Jacob had sent his family on ahead of him. He was now alone. One point I want to make about Jacob being alone, having left family, friends, work mates, and away from all the familiar comforts he had placed around him, he came to a place where maybe God can finally get in. Have you ever been alone like that? When you were alone, did you do some personal thinking, some life evaluation?
When a very painful but desperate relationship ended, I was alone. I was in a very poor place with all of my family and now I didn’t even have this man in my life. I felt incredibly alone. I had no one that I could turn to. I had been thinking about God and in my own despair, I finally grabbed on to God through a small but heartfelt prayer; “God, get me out of this. Can you help me?”
Jacob was getting ready to sleep and before he knew it he was wrestling with “the man” This is the term used in the NIV bible. It has a mysterious ring to it. Jacob was winning in the battle. Jacob had built himself up to a high level of accomplishment in his self will. He was strong in his own way. But “the man” found a way to put him down. He would break Jacob’s hip. Jacob fell to the ground in pain and no longer could battle. So he did what seemed best.
In this position of humility, he grabbed onto “the man”. He held on so tightly, and for such a long time, that in the morning “the man” had to ask him to let him go. “No, I won’t let you go until you bless me”, Jacob said. God was at work answering his prayer from the other day.
“The man” responded with a question, “What is your name?” In the Old Testament times this demanded a confession as a response. In giving his name, Jacob would have to tell his story. “My name is Jacob” One of the biblical meanings is ‘heal chaser”‘ He had been chasing the heal of his brother all of his life. In this wrenched position, Jacob had to get honest and literally confess his sinful cover to “the man”.
Jacob then asked “Who are you?” He was fully aware of who he had been wrestling with. “Why would you have to ask that, Jacob?” “the man” said. In this battle, Jacob had come face to face with the living God. God had given him what he had asked for. Jacob confessed his sin and began an amazing heart change. He now saw God’s severe mercy at work in his own life. He knew that God could have just smashed him like a bug on the sidewalk. He knew His vulnerability. He left that night a changed man with a significant limp.
This became a reminder of the breaking of his self will and his self protection. God was in the process of building a new creation. He gave Jacob a new name, “Israel” In our walk with God, He may bring us to many significant battles but for many of us the most important one will be the one where we find His mercy for the very first time.
After my own prayer, God came in and gave me some relief from the pain and I saw for the very first time that He in face, was real. He also cared for me. He had heard my voice. This was the beginning of a very personal relationship with Him that began a process in my own life of the heart changes I needed.
We must come so close to the face of God that we will never forget that He spared our very lives. We surely would have died if it were not for the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. If we are still trying to sustain ourselves our own way we will never really experience true freedom. It isn’t until we experience the breaking of our own hips that we will get past our broken cover-ups and let God finally become our Lord!
So, what happens to Jacob after this horrendous event? He still lines up the barricade and peace offerings, but after the line-up he does something unexpected. He goes to the front of the line and bows to the ground as he sees his brother and 400 men coming his way. This is not the Jacob we saw just a few lines earlier. This is a new Jacob walking in a strength that is not his own and in a humility he has never known.
For some, repentance comes from an experience of seeing God face to face. This does not mean that we are free from the problems we had going on, but rather we are new creations with some of the same problems, only now have new ways of facing them. Esau was on his way just like we thought, but Jacob has had a paradigm shift in his perspective.
After my own “face to face” with God, I knew that I had much more work needed in my own life. I could now face the deeper problems with a newly found humility. I no longer tried to make excuses for my choices and mistakes. It was hard, but underneath it all, I understood my own human frailty.
With a greeting that included a few hugs and kisses – that most dreadful Esau met Jacob. Things did not go as he had thought. Why not? Well, probably a combination of reasons but does it really matter? All we know is that Jacob made it through this with flying colors and Esau and Jacob have reconciled. So much so that Esau invited Jacob to go with him. The new found humility made a difference. Maybe Esau wasn’t even mad, but none the less, they were brothers once again.
Something else came about here. Jacob finally sees the value of their lives. He turned down the invitation to go with Esau because he had something much more important to take care of – his family. He now is walking in the discipline of protection and provision of those who deserve it. Not like before when he was using them to manipulate his potential enemies and possibly even as a sacrifice to protect his own life.
“It’s time for me to set up shop and make a place for us to live. I am at peace now with my God, my brother, my past. I can now live in peace with my present.” (my paraphrase)
At this time in your life, what is the temperature of your family relationships? Sure, it is wonderful to share a cup of coffee with neighbors or work mates. But, think about what would it feel like for you if you were sharing these warm experiences with your sister or brother. Sometimes our work mates are closer in relationship to us than our own blood family.
How long has it been since you felt at peace with sister, brother, mom, dad? Will you wrestle with “the man”? Are you willing to let go of your pride and let God in to your fears? Do you see these relationships with fear and trembling? Are you afraid you will surely be attacked, manipulated, used?
Ultimately, how is your relationship with God? Do you perceive that He has failed you? Do you think that somehow you missed out on His blessing?
Seek Him with all of your heart and He will be found. But, it may be through a very challenging “battle” where you have to get honest with yourself and with Him. In that honesty and humility, I believe He will reveal to you how amazing His love is.