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Living with a Limp

When your day is long
And the night
The night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life
Well hang on
Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

— REM, “Everybody Hurts”

It’s true, everybody hurts at some point in life. Live long enough and you will experience your share of minor scrapes, twisted ankles, broken relationships, panic attacks, and unfulfilled dreams.

As we start 2020 and close out not only a year but also a decade, I’ve been drawn to a rather strange story in the Hebrew scriptures. It involves two brothers (Jacob and Esau) who are grandsons of the great Jewish patriarch, Abraham. These two brothers have quite a history.

In Jewish culture, the firstborn son inherits the leadership and influence of his father, as well as an increase in inheritance. This is called the birthright. Esau is the oldest of the two and should have received his father’s blessing. Unfortunately, for Esau, he is also the more likely to make bad decisions based on momentary circumstances.

After a long day of hunting, Esau returns home very hungry. Thinking he was so hungry he might die, he trades his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25). With a little more trickery and help from his mother, Jacob eventually secures his father’s complete blessing.

Later, in Genesis 28, Jacob has this experience with God:

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord , and he said: “I am the Lord , the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:12-15

God reaffirms to Jacob the promise he had made to Abraham.

The next few chapters tell of how Jacob falls in love, gets chased out of town, and eventually begins to prosper. Then God does something unusual: He instructs Jacob to return to his family of origin, which includes Esau.

Genesis 32 begins with Jacob recognizing that what God is asking him to do seems (from his perspective) incompatible with what God has promised for him. If God wants him to prosper, why send him back to a brother who might want to kill him?

How many times have you encountered this same sort of disconnect when the promise of God doesn’t seem to align with your present circumstances? This internal conflict leads to a most unusual story.

After preparing some gifts for Esau and sending his family away for protection, Jacob is involved in the first sporting event in the Bible: He wrestles with God. The entire story is found in Genesis 32:22-32. By the end of the match, Jacob is given two things that will long outlive the night of wrestling: a new name and a limp.

The new name is Israel, which likely means “struggled with God.” When you think of the nation of Israel’s history with God, the name fits. In fact, we all have a bit of Israel in us.

The limp is an interesting part of the story. When the divine wrestler realized that Jacob was determined and wouldn’t quit, he wrenched Jacob’s hip socket and gave him a limp. Every future step would be a reminder of this encounter. And what did Jacob encounter?

He encountered God.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”’ – Genesis 32:30

He encountered God and left with a limp.

But he had struggled with more than just God; he had struggled with people as well. According to the divine wrestler, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Genesis 32:28)

In this life, we will struggle against God and humans. It’s also very likely that we will walk away limping. Not crippled or incapacitated. Not forever on the sidelines. But definitely changed. Perhaps we will never walk or run the same way again.

Like Jacob, I’m often determined to have my own way and to not quit until I get it.  Every so often God wrenches my hip socket to remind me to be dependent on him. This often forces me to slow down and take a path I otherwise wouldn’t consider.

But not all limps are divine gifts.

Some limps are the result of living in a broken world filled with broken people. More than once I’ve been side-swiped by a broken person whose intent was to cause damage to me. To be fair, I’ve side-swiped a few people, too. Why do the Scriptures talk so much about greed, jealousy, anger, and envy? Because broken people break things.

But God is gracious. Even at the end of an exhausting wrestling match that results in a limp, Jacob is able to recognize the blessing of what just happened: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Genesis 32:30).

He saw God in the midst of his struggle and knew God hadn’t tried to kill him. His life was spared. I imagine when Jacob encountered those human struggles, he remembered that wrestling match and was reassured of God’s presence in his life.

Everybody hurts.

Everybody limps.

With the help of God, you will learn to walk and run again. It may be different than before, but that was when you were less dependent on God. God may not change your name like he did for Jacob, but rest assured – he will change your life.


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  • Professor at Warner University
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  • presenter at the WFX National Conference
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