Gustave Doré, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)

By Rev. Paul Graves 

When I consider the special General session in February, my mind somehow gets stuck on a wrestling match.

For years, one of my favorite biblical characters has been Jacob. When I think of Jacob and wrestling, I find myself on the edge of the River Jabbok. I believe that incredible story has some things to remind us about how valuable it will be for General Conference delegates to wrestle with God in St. Louis—before and while they wrestle with each other. Join me as we watch Jacob wrestle with God.

The story is found in Genesis 32:1-33:17. As you read and reflect for yourself, please pay attention to four key phrases/words: POWER OF NAMING, HUMILITY, RECONCILIATION, and BLESSING. Please don’t settle for an allegorical interpretation of the story. Go deeper. Look for meanings hidden by easier interpretations.  

In ancient Israel, the power of naming of individuals embodied their most fundamental character. Jacob’s name means “grabber”, “one who grabs by the heel.” That action began at his birth and didn’t stop.  

The naming power didn’t stop with persons either. The naming of gods was also a way that persons identified the fundamental character of a given god. So to possess the name of a god was to have access to the power of that god. Wow! We didn’t invent that trick after all.

As Jacob and the stranger finished their wrestling match, Jacob asks for God’s name but is denied it. God’s true character won’t be compromised by a grabber.  

But then Jacob reveals his name and character to God. And God changes the grabber’s name to Israel, “one who struggles with God.”  

I suspect these are righteous things to remember in St. Louis.  

I also suspect it’s always been easier to wrestle with each other rather than with God; hence the pettiness and vitriol we often find. For years, I’ve wondered if our major family squabble has been more an effort to keep from dealing with our desire to control others, rather than wrestle with God.

Secondly, it took all night for Jacob and God to wear each other out. But Jacob found his hip wounded in their draw. He limped through the rest of his life. Humility became his constant companion. I can only hope humility is a constant companion in St. Louis.

For the last 47 years, I’ve too often see only humiliation, not humility, as a primary driver of the conversations driving our denominational obsession with homosexual orientation.  

In the Dec. 19, 2018 edition of Christian Century (p. 35), Professor Stephanie Paulsell reminds us that “Humiliation isolates us in shame, but humility helps us to see our life in relation to other lives and to ask how our choices affect others.” Will both character traits will rise up in St. Louis? 

The Jacob story isn’t just about Jacob, you know. He headed to the River Jabbok with his family and animals to nervously meet his twin brother Esau. Yeah, the one he cheated out of his birthright so many years ago. He was waiting for Esau’s arrival when the God-stranger showed up.

In his manipulative desire to “reconcile” with Esau, he had sent various gifts ahead to his brother. Reconciliation was merely a business transaction for Jacob. I can’t help wonder if too much transactional business will be attempted in St. Louis. A lot of disruptive church business has been transacted since 1972.

Deep-down reconciliation may not happen in St. Louis. But cheap reconciliation mustn’t happen either. For any kind of lasting “way forward” to occur, delegates must meet delegates as persons, not merely representatives of a particular “Plan Protector.”  

Reconciliation at the Jabbok was first an act between Jacob and God, not Jacob and Esau. Can it be any other way for us? I don’t think so.  But so much personal humility is required! Not from God, but from Jacob—and from us, whether we’re in St. Louis or at home.

So we might refresh our memories of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Let’s discern a new creation because in Christ the old has passed away. Limping our way into that new creation as the UMC is likely in our future.  

Let’s also refresh the multiple layers of reconciliation-truth we can embrace in I John 4:20-21. How can we say “I love God” and hate our brothers and sisters, whom we see?  

God’s blessing just waits for us to claim it. But how can our integrity embody that blessing when we let fester the inner conflict between what we say with our mouths but cannot honestly live in our hearts? 

To be sure, Jacob’s blessing in vs. 29 wasn’t made pure immediately, because his grabber character still lived. But his transformation was on its way!   

That Kairos moment of fulfillment came through the spiritual dynamics of the POWER OF NAMING, HUMILITY, RECONCILIATION, and BLESSING. 

I’m convinced those dynamics are essential if our denominational transformation can move ahead in St. Louis. But it likely needs a good wrestling match with God to happen before, and during, the three-day wrestling match in St. Louis.   

If that happens, perhaps Jacob and Esau will find that reconciliation is closer than they might think possible today.

The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair for the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.


  1. Well written, Paul. You have provided a very helpful biblical perspective to the Special General Conference proceedings. May we all be faithful in wrestling with the Holy One’s presence and message of radical biblical love.

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