Walking With a Limp
A meditation on Jacob's wrestling match with God
© 1983 by Paul Thigpen
I walk with a limp these days. Several months ago I fell off a pasture gate (what would you expect from a city boy?) and severely sprained my ankle. The healing is still not complete, so every step reminds me of my fall.
Not long after that incident I was re-reading in Genesis 32 the story of Jacob's all-night wrestling match with God. Because of my recent experience, a narrative detail of the account caught my eye for the first time: After this pivotal encounter with the Lord, Jacob, too, walked with a limp (John 32:31).
The natural is often a shadow of the spiritual, both in the Scripture and in daily life. So I read more closely, asking the Lord what was the significance of that limp. In studying Jacob's life I found that his story can be read as a parable of our own. I concluded that his limp served to remind him of three critical results from his encounter with the Almighty God.
A Night of Reckoning
The events that night in Peniel — the name means "the face of God" — must be understood in the context of Jacob's life as a whole. The patriarch's biography up to that time had been one long tale of deception, cowardice, and manipulation — hardly a model of holiness. This evening was critical because his sins were finally catching up with him: His cheated brother Esau was approaching with four hundred men. Jacob had sent ahead his family, servants, and possessions; he would have to face the hour of reckoning alone.
That is, he thought he was alone. But Jacob had his conscience to wrestle with, and soon God Himself appeared in order to grapple with the man He had chosen to sire a nation. Evidently the Lord had decided He would have to apprehend that wily deceiver and make him face up to his past so he could be fit to face up to his destiny.
The story is unusual even by biblical standards. It's not often that God participates in physical contests with men. But to me the most surprising part of the episode is that God couldn't overpower Jacob (John 32:25). What does it mean, "couldn't overpower him"? Why, He could have annihilated him just by speaking the word!
Yet the scene makes sense if besides grappling with God. Jacob was also grappling with his sinfulness that night. I've come to the personal conclusion that the Lord didn't pin the man because He never forces us to surrender; He leaves our free will intact. God was dealing with a son, not a slave, and He wanted Jacob to face up to his sin by crossing the river to face his brother — not dragged there bound against his will, but walking freely.
Freely — yet with a limp. The Scripture tells us that Jacob went the next day to meet Esau, and was saved from retribution. The story has a happy ending. But Jacob walked with a limp that day, and my speculation is that he did so for the rest of his life.
Why would he continue to limp? I believe his lameness was a reminder. That night, you see, Jacob — which means "deceiver" — had become Israel — "he struggles with God." God had given him the blessing he demanded, and it consisted of the revelation that the patriarch was by nature a struggler. A new name would be a continual reminder of his rebellion against God and of the constant striving that is necessary to walk in holiness.
But just in case the name wasn't reminder enough of his weakness, the Lord gave Jacob a limp as well — a physical souvenir from their wrestling match. It would prick him every time he took a step, and like the Apostle Paul's thorn in the flesh, it would keep him from boasting. A persistent echo in his memory, the ache would whisper as he walked, "You saw God face to face, yet your life was spared" (John 32:30).
Avoiding Rough Terrain
If Jacob's pain was anything like mine, that limp was more than a reminder: it was a navigator. I tend to avoid pasture gates and rough terrain these days, and I'll bet Jacob learned to steer clear of trouble as well. The writer of Hebrews sums up the situation soberly: "Make level paths for your feet,' so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed" (Hebrews 12:12). Jacob's crippled hip, by recalling his weakness, warned him to watch where he was going.
The patriarch's experience probably parallels mine in another way as well. You don't see me running anywhere these days, and my guess is that Jacob was also restrained that way. In fact, considering his demonstrated tendency to run from the consequences of his actions, God probably had that very handicap in mind for him.
Jacob had fled from his cheated brother and escaped from his father-in-law. But the pain in his hip kept him from running away any more. Whenever his actions caused problems, his limp would remind him, "No use trying to escape. Face your responsibilities the way you had to face Esau."
A Marked Man
Finally, Jacob's limp must have made him a marked man. It wasn't a sign just for him — others were bound to notice the way he walked. They probably concluded that he was a veteran of some battle. Many people may even have asked him about his lameness, giving him a chance to tell them just how important that battle had been, and how God had spared him in it.
If we too desire a transforming encounter with the living God, we can be sure that when it comes, it will change our lives, confront us with our fallenness, and leave us hurting. The resulting spiritual limp will no doubt keep us wincing. But only the man or woman who knows that kind of divine discomfort will know the deliverance that follows it.
Pride, it seems, dogs our steps all our days, so that we need a reminder with every step of who we are and where we've been. It takes a limp to reaffirm our weakness, to help us avoid trouble, to keep us from running away. And it's a limp in our walk — the mark of maturity that the Bible calls "humility" — that says so powerfully to others, "I saw God face to face, yet my life was spared."
Not surprisingly, my frequent prayer these days is that my ankle will soon be free of pain. But I also pray — with fear and trembling — that God will apprehend me and put His mark on me, so that my spirit might always walk with a limp.
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