Alone Again

Don Miller’s first book “Blue Like Jazz” may be the most recognized of the several he has written but I have a special fondness for his book “Scary Close.” In it he chronicles his years of failed relationships, isolation and painful drama. Don is honest about his tendencies to manipulate, use and ultimately alienate people out of fear – fear of being honest about himself and with others. He writes that his actions were not altogether intentional but always inevitable: “A weasel doesn’t know he’s a weasel, he just does what works to get food.” But in Don’s life there was a moment when he changed — and that’s his story to tell. 

I’ve thought about another story of one who struggled with the same relationship-destroying pattern: Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah. Today we would likely label Jacob a sociopath — cunning, deceptive, detached, manipulative and ambitious. He was often cruel and incapable of being loyal. He lived by his wits — and was extremely successful.

But, like Don, there was a moment when Jacob changed – the long night when he wrestled with angels. We all know the story. Jacob is preparing to see his brother, Esau, for the first time in 20 years. The last time they saw each other, Jacob was running for his life and Esau was consoling himself with the thought of killing his brother for stealing his birthright.

On the run again, Jacob has sent messengers ahead with expensive gifts in hopes of pacifying and bribing his brother. But when he hears that Esau is on his way with 400 soldiers, Jacob divides his family and all of his possessions into two groups and sends them ahead: “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.” Jacob is resigned to losing half of his family and possessions to save his own life. To Jacob, this loss means little. It’s just collateral damage — the price of surviving. His only attachment is to himself.

Jacob is alone but he’s always been alone. This is not a dark night of the soul for him. He is not questioning his life or his part in what may happen in the morning. This is a man at the peak of his power who has worked his way from nothing to extraordinary success. This is a man who has always chosen to live in isolation to protect himself — this time from the certain revenge of his brother.

That night, even after being crippled by the angel, Jacob holds on and demands another blessing. Another blessing? He already has the one he stole from Esau that gave him everything he could possibly want. Even God had already blessed and promised to watch over him and never leave him.

For what is Jacob asking? What would be the blessing for one who already has so much?

This moment reminds me of the rich young ruler asking Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life: “Jesus looked at him and loved him. One thing you lack.” There is something lacking, something missing in Jacob. His disengagement has allowed him to betray, misuse, manipulate and feel nothing his entire life.

I think that is why the angel asks, “What is your name?” He knows Jacob’s name, but he wants to hear him say it. It was God’s way of holding up a mirror to Jacob and saying, “Yes, this is who you really have become. You are everything your name describes — crafty, shrewd, grasping, deceitful, unfeeling and utterly alone.”

Mugged By Grace

And it is then out of love that God touches Jacob and gives him a blessing that changes his name, his nature and his life. It’s not a choice on Jacob’s part any more than it was for the apostle Paul when Jesus blinded him and said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Jacob and Paul, undeserving as they were, not only were spared, they were chosen.

In the novel Lila, Marilynne Robinson writes of the notion that illumination often hurts…that there are times when salvation aches before it heals: “When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.”

For the first time, Jacob knew pain and loss as well as love and forgiveness. He was mugged by grace, and the uncaring and detached manipulator is gone forever. The sun rises the next morning on a new man:

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 

He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.

Amazing grace, isn’t it?

Jacob lives out the balance of his life tethered to those he loved and the people who came to revere him. His life remained hard and always a struggle, but he no longer lived inside himself  – alone.

And when the end came all Jacob asked was to be gathered to his people. Once the hopelessly detached wanderer, he drew up his feet in the bed, breathed his last and went home.

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