Maybe it was a meeting with someone you knew was critical of you.
Or you had to make a speech.
Or you were going to take a test.
Or, more seriously, you were to attend the funeral of a loved one.
Whatever it was, that experience will help you understand what Jacob felt as Genesis 33 opens.
Of course, his night-time of wrestling with God had resulted in a blessing. But not even blessings from God make all the bad stuff of this world go away. The Bible never promises that God's blessings or that having a relationship with God will make the bad things that happen during our lives on this transient planet disappear. Sometimes, in fact, our faith in the God we know through Jesus will bring us trouble and pain.
People of Biblical faith know that we live an already-not yet existence. God's Kingdom has already entered decisively into our world through Jesus Christ. In Him is God's ultimate self-revelation. Through Jesus, we see that God is for us, that the grace and forgiveness of God is available to all with faith in Him. Through Jesus, we know that God promises to be with us always. Through Him, we know that one day we will live with God. But we also know that the Kingdom hasn't fully begun. That awaits what the Bible calls "the day of the Lord," when the risen Jesus returns and makes all things right. Until then, we live by faith, an imperfect faith, the view of which is obscured by our finitude and sin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, was killed by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two. Bonhoeffer, desperate to end the demonic Third Reich's hold on his beloved Germany, had been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested and lived in a prison camp for two years.
During that time, says a foreword to Bonhoeffer's most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, he became known for the care he showed other prisoners. We're told:
His own concern in prison was to get permission to minister to the sick and to his fellow prisoners, and his ability to comfort the anxious and depressed was amazing. We know what Bonhoeffer's words and religious assistance meant to his fellow prisoners, especially during their last hours (even to Molotov's nephew Kokorin, who was imprisoned with Bonhoeffer in Buchenwald, and to whom the teaching of Christ was brought home); we know what Bonhoeffer's practical aid meant in prison...during political trials to those men of whom ten or twenty were sentenced to death by a military court every week in 1943 and 1944. Some of these (among them a British soldier), charged with sabotage, were saved by him (and his father and solicitor) from certain death. We have heard that his fellow prisoners were deeply impressed by the calmness and self-control which Bonhoeffer displayed even in the most terrible situations...Clearly, Bonhoeffer knew and experienced the presence of the God made known ultimately through Jesus Christ. He knew that God's Kingdom had already broken into our world. But he also knew that it was not yet fully present, that the world in its death throes could still be a dangerous, difficult, and deadly place, although its danger, difficulty, and death do not have the last word in the lives of those who entrust their lives to the crucified and risen Jesus.
In a poem, written during his confinement, and also presented in the foreword to The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer gives witness to this already-not yet perspective. It's called Who Am I?:
Who am I? They often tell meMaybe these eloquent words of Bonhoeffer's would have spoken well for Jacob as Genesis 33 begins. Jacob knows that he has God's blessings and God's presence with him. But he's also afraid of what evil his brother Esau may do to him.
I stepped from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making.,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
Genesis 33:1-4: Knowing that Esau is coming with four-hundred men, Jacob is afraid and he acts on that fear. He separates his family, so as to give each a chance to escape if the worst happens.
But Jacob's fears are unwarranted. "Esau ran up and embraced [Jacob]..., held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept." Esau, amazingly, holds no grudges against his brother. God obviously had plans for Jacob, in spite of his imperfections. The same may be said for you and me as well.
Genesis 33:5-20: Jacob, the recovering schemer, finds it difficult to accept that his brother has dropped his grudge.
Perhaps Jacob feels so guilty, he can't imagine that his brother has forgiven him.
Maybe Jacob's heart has been so calloused by his experiences with his father-in-law, Laban, that he can't imagine Esau being the straight-shooter he appears to be.
Or, maybe Jacob can't help but project his own usual self-centeredness and suspicion onto others.
Whatever the case may be, he is wary about taking his relationship with Esau to too deep a level, though this is clearly what Esau would like.
Agreeing to follow Esau to Seir--after making a lame excuse about needing to get a late start in order to accommodate his flocks and children--Jacob instead heads for Succoth. Although undoubtedly transformed by his encounter with God in Genesis 32, Jacob still carries a full complement of human imperfections and the baggage of years of bad and sinful habits.
This shows us another aspect of the "already-not yetness" in the lives of human beings with faith in the God of the Bible. They already belong to God forever. They already own forgiveness of their sins. But they're not the fully restored and sinless people they will be in eternity. They are part of God's new creation, but they're not yet what God has made them and Jesus has died and risen to make them.
[Here are links to the previous installments in this series: