There’s a story of a man who walked into a bar, ordered a drink, then threw it in the bartender’s face. As you might imagine, the bartender wasn’t pleased.
“What’s wrong with you?” he yelled.
“I’m so sorry,” the startled patron replied. “Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to do it.”
“You didn’t mean to do it?” the bartender snapped. “This is a bar. People drink here. They don’t throw drinks! Get out of this bar and don’t come back!”
The embarrassed man slowly made his way back to the other side of bar, his head hanging low. “I’m so sorry,” he mumbled. “I have this compulsion, and I can’t help myself.” The downcast customer determined to get help for his condition. He visited a psychiatrist for several months and was sure that he was cured on the day he returned to the bar.
As he entered, the bartender recognized him instantly and eyed him warily. “You again?” he groused. “Didn’t I tell you not to come back here?”
“Sir,” the man brightened, “I’m cured. What happened the last time won’t happen again.”
The bartender was unconvinced, but he relented. The man ordered a drink. No sooner had the drink been served than, splash! Once again the customer emptied the glass in the bartender’s face.
“I thought you said you were cured!” the bartender yelled.
“I am cured!” the man retorted. “Now when I throw a drink in a bartender’s face, I don’t feel any guilt!”
What do humans do with guilt? How do we deal with the psychic baggage from past indiscretions and failures?
Ethicist and theologian Lewis B. Smedes, in his book Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve, recounts a story of Joseph Stalin, the dictator who ruled the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1929 to 1953.1 Some historians estimate that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 20 to 25 million people, sending many to their deaths confessing to crimes they did not commit. How was he so effective at getting such confessions? Torture had something to do with it, of course. But Stalin reportedly had a psychologist on payroll who was a master at extracting confessions from innocent people. He did it with something known as the Mongolian peasant principle.
To illustrate his technique, the psychologist told of a poor man who walked into the well-appointed office of a wealthy general. The general offered him 1 million rubles if he simply pushed the red button near where he was sitting. The visitor was understandably concerned about what would happen once he pushed it.
“Not to worry,” the general assured him. “When you push the button, an old Mongolian peasant dies in a village very far way. The local people have been hoping he would die.” The man pushed the button and left with his loot in tow.
Years passed and the poor visitor had not spent any of his riches. In fact, he became so wracked with guilt for what he had done that he eventually took his own life.
The point of this story? Stalin’s psychologist closed the tale by adding that all he had to do was find the Mongolian peasant in his clients’ heads,and they would confess to almost anything. Such is the power of unaddressed guilt.
Human beings will do just about anything to free themselves of guilt. But guilt is undaunted. It creeps, it stalks, it haunts us. Perhaps this is what Jacob felt on the day when the messengers returned saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he also is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (Gen. 32:6).2
In case you have forgotten the story, Jacob conspired with his mother to take his brother Esau’s birthright (Gen. 27). What follows is a backbreaking, humbling sojourn in Mesopotamia, the home of his uncle Laban.
After 20 years on the road, Jacob got a startling message from God: “Go home.” Genesis 31:1, 2 chronicles the changing winds in Laban’s home. Jacob had become persona non grata. “Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you,” God said (verse 3). In that moment, God fingered Jacob’s Mongolian peasant.
Notice that God is the one who forces the crisis in Jacob’s life. Sometimes we think that only Satan sets obstacles in our way, but this is not always the case. Satan may instigate, but God at times gives approval. Just look to Job (Job 1:8). Remember that God promised to bring a great nation out of Jacob’s loins, but Jacob had unfinished business in his past.
It is encouraging to think that even though Jacob had sinned against God and his family, God did not forsake him. Regarding the ladder shown to Jacob during his flight into exile (Gen. 28:12), Ellen White wrote: “The Lord knew the evil influences that would surround Jacob, and the perils to which he would be exposed. In mercy He opened up the future before the repentant fugitive, that he might understand the divine purpose with reference to himself, and be prepared to resist the temptations that would surely come to him when alone amid idolaters and scheming men. There would be before him the high standard at which he must aim; and the knowledge that through him the purpose of God was reaching its accomplishment would constantly prompt him to faithfulness.”3 God blessed Jacob before he had even repented. What a God!
It bears repeating that God’s direction for Jacob to return home was simple and clear. Go home, and I will be with you (Gen. 31:3). Yet Jacob complicates this simple directive. He decides to “help God,” because surely it couldn’t be as easy as just going home, not after all that he had done. Jacob’s strategy of sending emissaries ahead to Esau (Gen. 32:3-5) may not have been born of God’s direction. Esau’s response was immediate and terrifying. He raised an army of 400 men and began heading for the brother who, 20 years earlier, had turned his life upside down. Esau was coming.
Jacob decided to help God, in a manner similar to the way his mother, Rebekkah, had “helped” when she drew up the scheme to take the birthright (Gen. 27) from Esau. Her action consigned Jacob to 20 years of unrelenting guilt, while betraying Isaac and Esau. Who can read Esau’s devastating cry for his father’s blessing and not be touched (verse 34)?
Jacob likely assumed that Esau felt that he was returning to take what was left of the inherited wealth Easu had long believed was his own. Esau, Jacob was certain, had revenge on his mind.
Beginning with the dispatching of his messengers, Jacob’s response seems prudent. It makes sense to send messengers ahead with gifts and words of affirmation to someone you have wronged. But God had not asked him to be prudent; He had asked Him to be obedient. Human prudence would not stop Esau from coming, no matter how justified it appeared.
When Jacob received the fearful news that Esau was on his way with 400 men, he undertook further strategy, driven by guilt and fear: “So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies” (Gen. 32:7). Surely there cannot be anything wrong with planning, right? Shouldn’t we “count the cost”? Yes, Jesus says (Luke 14:28). But there are times that our very prudence deprives us of God’s blessing for those who obey Him and follow His every word. Jacob’s planning did not stop Esau. Esau was still coming!
There was panic in Jacob’s prudence, panic in his planning, even panic in his prayers. But God hears the cries of His children.
Genesis 32:9-12 records that after the panic planning, Jacob prayed! Isn’t that just like us? We do everything else we can before seeking God, when we can only do more than seek God after we have sought Him. Human strategy for facing any crisis begins with God, yet our first response is often panic when it should be prayer.
In his prayer Jacob called on the God of his grandfather, the God of his father, and the God whom he knew. Guilt and fear will change the tenor of one’s prayers. Jacob even reminded God of His previous directive. “You told me to go home,” Jacob seems to say. “I didn’t come up with this on my own. You promised You would be with me. Please help me.”
I imagine that God must have thought to Himself, But did I ask you to help Me?
“I am not worthy of the least of all Your mercies and of all the truth which You have shown your servant” (Gen. 32:10). Is it not amazing how “unworthy” we get when all our plans have failed and Esau is coming? Jacob’s prayer is deep, heartfelt, and productive. However, this does not mean that he was no longer stressed. The next few verses record more attempts to placate Esau—all to no avail. Esau was still coming!
There was panic in Jacob’s prudence, panic in his planning, even panic in his prayers. But God hears the cries of His children. After Jacob had done all, he had decided to “spend the night in prayer, and he desired to be alone with God. God could soften the heart of Esau. In Him was the patriarch’s only hope.”4 That is when a hand grabbed him.
What followed was an hours-long wrestling match that changed Jacob’s life forever. Clawing and scratching, grunting and tussling, Jacob wrestled his antagonist with every fiber of his being. His sins ever before him, he pleaded with God for assurance that all was forgiven, that he and his family would be saved from Esau’s wrath.
As the battle neared morning, the Angel with whom Jacob had been wrestling urged a cessation of hostilities. When the Angel saw that He could not prevail against Jacob, He “touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him” (Gen. 32:25).
“Jacob’s persevering faith prevailed.” Armed with the realization that his antagonist was divine, “he held fast the angel until he obtained the blessing he desired, and the assurance of the pardon of his sins. His name was then changed from Jacob, the supplanter, to Israel, which signifies a prince of God.”5
Jacob refused to let go of God. His physical strength was superseded by his “physical faith.” He reminded God of His promises of forgiveness. Sometimes we may not be able to give God much more than His promises to us. He promises to forgive our sins if we confess them (1 John 1:9), and we should remind God of it. He promises pardon to the wicked who forsakes his way and the unrighteous man who lets go of his thoughts (Isa. 55:7); we must press God until He honors His Word.
Jacob’s desire for God’s blessing was so intense that His faith “weakened” God. Sinners who cling to God by faith, no matter how weak or powerless they may be, will prevail. Jacob sank his “claws” deep into his Deliverer and “forced” Jesus to submit! Can you imagine such a thing?
American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner captured it best when he dubbed this biblical narrative The Magnificent Defeat. God allowed Himself to be “defeated,” that Jacob might be transformed and the will of God go forward. Jacob’s humility, surrender, and sincere repentance “weakened” God, and ours can as well. God wants us to conquer Him!
It should not be lost on us that every blessing Jacob received that night was “post-hurt.” His experience of forgiveness was post-hurt. The change of His name was post-hurt. The blessing received was post-hurt. Even the realization that all would be well when Esau arrived—post hurt; for God intervened to change Esau’s heart during Jacob’s night of wrestling.6
Jacob’s panic took many forms, but his perseverance with God removed the burden of guilt and brought peace with his brother. What a marvelous and merciful God we serve!
Dwain N. Esmond is an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate. He is husband to Kemba, father to DJ, and relational ministries pastor of the Emmanuel Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist Church.