Magazine Article

Times of Trouble

A survival guide

Chantal J. Klingbeil
Times of Trouble
Photo by Meca Jane Tabada on Unsplash

This is a lightly edited version of a sermon preached on January 28, 2023, at the Triadelphia Seventh-­day Adventist Church in Clarksville, Maryland. Elements of the oral presentation have been retained.​—Editors.

Have you known real terror?

We’ve all been afraid and anxious, but there are some moments when fear is absolutely raw.

It happened many years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. We were living in Peru and decided with a group of friends to travel high up into the Andes Mountains, on the altiplano, to a tiny village. After an adventurous journey involving delays and missed turns, we finally arrived at our destination in the dark. The little village high up in the Andes couldn’t be accessed by road. We had to leave our cars parked on the side of the road and hike up a narrow path to reach the village. Because it was already dark, we were met and guided to the place where we would stay. Our guide had a flashlight out in front, and the rest of us just held on to each other as we went to the house. We entered the large room by climbing up a flight of stairs.

After a full day of travel, including some altitude sickness, we just put down our sleeping bags and were all soon sound asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night realizing that I needed to find a bathroom. It was pitch-black. I found my way to the door by carefully feeling along the wall, and slowly opened the door. Outside it was as dark as inside. A night without any moonlight. Clouds must have covered the sky, because I couldn’t see a single star or even a shadow.

I slowly felt my way down the flight of stairs and along the rough mud wall to the corner of the building, and then I paused as I had heard something. I realized that I wasn’t alone. I heard something breathe. All the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I froze in terror. Somewhere near me was something,and I had no idea what it was. Then I heard the heavy breathing again. This sounded big. I don’t know for how long I froze there, but suddenly I had a burst of energy, and I practically flew back up those stairs. I no longer needed to find a bathroom.

The next morning dawned beautiful and clear. Together with the group I made my way down the stairs. I was interested to see if there was any evidence of my nocturnal encounter. I made my way to the corner of the house and was met by a shoulder-high wall. Peering over the wall, I looked into the large, long face of a—donkey.

No Joke

My brush with terror ended humorously. When we talk of terror, however, we normally don’t think it’s funny. Mention to most Adventists the phrase “the time of trouble,” and one can almost see the fear in the air. Today I’d like to go back to the original “time of trouble” mentioned in Scripture, which serves as both a preview and a map of all the times of trouble. Jacob’s time of trouble is described in Genesis 32. But before reading the story, let’s review the background to this time of trouble.

Times of trouble always have a backstory. Jacob’s time of trouble had a troubling backstory. We remember that Jacob was one of twins. His brother, Esau, was the older of the twins, and when Jacob was born, he apparently grabbed his brother’s heel. This is what inspired his name in Hebrew, which had a double meaning. The “one who grabs the heel” is also a deceiver or a cheat. That’s not a complimentary name. All wasn’t bad, however, because his mother had been given a divine message before his birth that the younger would inherit the birthright and become the heir and continue the line from which the Messiah would come.

What Jacob, born a deceiver, really wanted seemed out of reach. His potential just was never seen until maybe he believed that he didn’t have any.

Jacob hustled for the blessing. He wanted that birthright. He wanted the spiritual blessings that would come with it. We can see that Esau was clearly not fit to receive this inheritance by the way he quickly sold it for a pot of lentil stew. This whole exchange is somewhat suspect. How can one buy or sell a blessing?

Deceiving—And Being Deceived

Jacob’s sad story involves more scheming—this time with his mother—to get the blessing finally by pretending to be his brother. Life takes a sharp downturn for Jacob after this. He is forced to flee, for Esau has vowed to kill him. He flees to his uncle, and there the tables are quickly turned, and Jacob finds himself the victim of many painful schemes. He gets tricked into marrying the wrong woman. He has his wages continually changed on him. And then he becomes what seems to be a helpless pawn to his wives, who are two sisters, as they compete to have children. Despite all this headwind Jacob is blessed and flourishes financially. But homelife certainly isn’t easy. Finally, God tells Jacob to leave and go back home. After a tense getaway, with his father-in-law in hot pursuit, Jacob is finally able to leave. Having escaped his irate father-in-law, however, Jacob suddenly faces another challenging situation that leads to his great time of trouble.

A Long Journey Home

Genesis 32 describes what causes Jacob’s time of trouble. But I wonder: What causes times of trouble in general? I think it’s a combination of things. Sometimes circumstances outside of our control play into creating the perfect storm. But we also know that our great adversary, the devil, delights in causing as much pain and trouble as possible. In Jacob’s case we see lots of things that play into the devil’s plans. There is the sibling rivalry from prebirth. The parenting he had certainly didn’t make things better. And then there were Jacob’s choices. His desire to get the birthright was not bad. It was based on a belief in God’s promises. But Jacob still had to learn how to wait for God’s timing. Jacob hadn’t learned that God isn’t interested only in the result of our actions; He uses the process to draw us closer to Him. God will even use times of trouble.

Genesis 32:1, 2 begin on a very positive note with an angelic encounter intended to encourage Jacob on his journey home. He sees angels. This should be enough to encourage him and keep him confident through any issues ahead, right? How can one have a time of trouble after seeing angels?

Wait a minute. Have you ever been encouraged in your life? Has God ever done something special for you? Have you ever seen God’s providence or perhaps even a miracle? Have you noticed that as encouraging as that past experience was, when we’re faced with a crisis all of the past evidence seems to evaporate?

Jacob has sent messengers ahead to announce to his brother that he’s on his way back (verses 3-5). No one likes surprises—especially unpleasant surprises. Jacob calls himself “your servant” and Esau “my Lord.” He wants to make it clear that he’s not a threat; that he’s not coming home to claim the birthright. The report that comes back, however, instead of calming him, increases his anxiety (verse 6).

Spoiler alert: In this time of trouble God is about to become real and personal in more ways than Jacob can ever imagine. We get insights into Jacob’s state of mind as he prays. He is claiming the promises, which is one of the best ways to pray (verses 9-12). But his prayer doesn’t bring instant relief. Have you ever prayed and not had instant answers? I have. Sometimes God seems very silent. I suppose I often can’t hear Him over the noise of all my anxieties and fears. For Jacob, fear and tension grow, along with it a terrible sense of guilt. Jacob looks at his children, his wives, the servants, and he realizes that he has put them all in danger.

Ever the strategist, he divides his group into two, hoping to provide some sense of hope. He tries again to make contact with Esau by sending a pretty substantial gift along with the disarming message, and then in verse 24 we find him all alone.

Alone—In His Presence

This is not the first time Jacob has been alone. Running for his life, he slept under the stars with a stone for a pillow (see Gen. 28). It was there that Jacob was comforted by a wonderful vision of a ladder reaching from the earth to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. When he woke up, he called the place Bethel, the “house of God.” It was there that he committed his life to God in a new way. When all earthly help and comfort is stripped away, those are the moments God comes through. He doesn’t leave us hanging. He is present.

Once again Jacob is alone, and this time the stakes are even higher. This time he is responsible for many more lives. This time he realizes that the consequences of his sins are affecting many more people than just himself. And so Jacob begins wrestling. Wrestling with his sense of guilt. That’s a fight each of us must fight in our own personal times of trouble.

Satan has an extremely effective strategy. When we’re tempted to do something, say something, react in some way, or make a choice that is wrong, he makes it seem so inconsequential. But once we’ve made that choice, once we’ve taken that step, once we’ve taken a bite from that fruit, suddenly his strategy changes. Guilt overwhelms us. He tells us that we’ve gone too far, that we can never go back. We are no longer loved or lovable. This is such an effective move. It keeps us alone in the dark. Too scared, too guilty, to come to God.

And yet God couldn’t be clearer. There are so many verses. Remember John 3:16 or Isaiah 49:15, or, one of my favorites: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jer. 31:3). The list goes on and on. Yet in these moments we struggle to believe these verses. It’s easy enough to tell others that God loves them, but often it’s most difficult to really believe that God loves me. This is a faith struggle. Faith can sound like a real big and complicated concept—but it isn’t.

As Jacob is wrestling with his own sense of guilt, he suddenly feels a hand on his shoulder. He spins around, and with a burst of adrenaline he tries to shake off his supposed attacker. Apparently the Hebrew word translated “wrestle” in this chapter is expressed elsewhere as “embrace.” Terrified Jacob, guilt-ridden Jacob, spends the night fighting off God’s embrace.

Through those many hours of struggled breathing, straining muscles, and palpable fear, not a word is said. Near dawn something happens. Suddenly the divine Wrestler reaches out and touches Jacob’s hip. Jacob is defeated by a simple touch. And then Jacob’s wrestling partner speaks. All at once Jacob realizes that this is no enemy—this is a friend. Everything then changes for Jacob.

The Blessing

Jacob realizes that he has been wrestling God. Instead of fighting to get away, Jacob—with his dislocated hip and in great pain—fights to hold on. With every bit of energy and strength that he has he hangs on and refuses to leave even when the stranger says that it’s time to let go. Jacob finally believes that he is holding everything he’s ever wanted, everything he’s ever dreamed of. Jacob knows that all of his planning, all of his scheming, all of his trying, is no good. If he is to get that blessing that he’s always yearned for, it will have to be a gift. The only thing he can do to get it is to hang on with all his might and ask for it. It won’t be earned. It will come only as a gift.

Then something very wonderful, unexpected, happens. Jacob doesn’t just get a blessing. He receives a new name (verse 28). His new name is Israel. From now on his children will not be known as the children of Abraham or the nation of Isaac or even as the descendants of Jacob the cheat, the liar, or the man with a very difficult family situation—no, he is now Israel. Why? Because he has learned to hang on to God. He has learned that he brings nothing to the table. He has learned that even when we’re in physical pain, even when we are blinded by guilt and fear, we can hang on, and that’s all we can do. This is what God counts as victory!

The next morning a tired, pale, limping Jacob (or better, Israel) meets Esau unafraid. As we look back over Jacob’s time of trouble, we realize that while Jacob may have felt overwhelmed, terrified, and alone—he never was. God was working. God was intervening. God was speaking to Esau, and God longed to take Jacob in His arms. It took many hours of painful wrestling for Jacob to realize this, but once he did, he became a victor.

Our Times of Trouble

I don’t know where you are today. Are you facing a personal time of trouble? Are you wrestling with guilt? Are you trying to figure out if your bad choices have brought you to where you are or if you’ve just been hit by terrible circumstances? Are you afraid? Are you facing physical pain? emotional pain? Are you wrestling with worry for children, for parents, for a loved one? Do you feel alone? We are told that one day for those living in the last times of earth’s history there will be a great collective time of trouble too. How will we be able to face that? The same way that we face these smaller personal times of trouble. What can we learn from Jacob’s time of trouble? First, we bring our guilt—no matter where it comes from—to God and leave it there. We hang on to and store away in our memories His great and powerful biblical promises. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Then, instead of fighting off or wrestling out of His embrace, we hang on. In faith we hang on. We hang on to Jesus—even when it’s dark. Even when we don’t understand. Even when our past comes back to haunt us—we hang on and let Him lead us as the Good Shepherd through the dark valley, knowing that surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Chantal J. Klingbeil

Chantal J. Klingbeil, Ph.D., has been a cross-cultural missionary for nearly 30 years and served as an associate director in the Ellen G. White Estate from 2013 to 2023. She has recently moved with her family to Germany.