06 Sep Sore Losers
September 6, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” Those are the blunt words of Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 60s. They reflect the attitude that anything less than being top dog is worthless.
Vince Lombardi, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach, seemed to agree. “If you can accept losing, you can’t win,” he said. And then there was the Nike ad that ran during the 1996 Summer Olympics that dumped all over second-place finishers when it proclaimed, “You don’t win silver; you lose gold.”
After the Texas Longhorns were beaten by Cal State Fullerton College for the World Series Baseball championship in 2004, the Texas team refused to attend the awards ceremony where they would have received the runner-up trophy. The snub caused a lot of people to brand the Longhorns as sore losers. Eventually the Texas coach issued a formal apology, but the original boycott of the ceremony demonstrated that many second-place finishers really don’t want to cheer the winners. If they can’t win, they’d prefer not to be “good losers.”
Fortunately, that’s not the attitude our biblical ancestor Jacob had when he suddenly found himself in an all-night wrestling match. Genesis 32 calls the unexpected opponent a “man,” but when the nocturnal brawl ended, Jacob said he had “seen God face to face.” Whomever it was, by the time the sun came up, Jacob thought he’d gone fifteen rounds with God.
Certainly in a contest between a mortal and the immortal, God is the heavyweight favorite. But in this night-long struggle, there was no indication that God could wipe the ground with Jacob any given moment. Rather, God seemed to limit his power so that the fight was a fair one, and Jacob held his own. He didn’t whip the celestial combatant, but he did not embarrass himself either.
As dawn breaks, the mysterious adversary knocked Jacob’s hip out of joint and insisted that Jacob let him go. Jacob refused — unless the man blessed him. So, the antagonist gave Jacob a new name, Israel, “the one who strives with God.” In turn, Jacob asked his opponent for his name, but the stranger will not give it. The opponent blesses Jacob but will not give Jacob all that he seeks. Some things have changed, but others remain as unsettled as they were before the match began.
With the rising of the sun, the stranger disappears, and Jacob limps away with less than he sought from the all-night battle. He survived seeing God face to face and received a blessing, but he did not get God’s name.
Still, Jacob does not head for the locker room to sulk. Jacob is sore—literally—but not a sore loser, for he has received more than he ever expected. He is no longer merely Jacob, the deceiver; he is now Israel, the one who strives with God.
Jacob’s experience reminds us that when we have a true encounter with God, we are never the same. Meeting God is a transformational experience, and if we are not a transformed people, we’re not God’s people.
Transformation was certainly evident in Jacob’s life. He was given a new name, and he walked with a limp for the rest of his days. But he wobbles into the future with something worth cherishing—an entirely new outlook.
Before his all-nighter, Jacob was known as “The Supplanter,” the brother who grabbed the heel of his twin in the womb and then did everything in his power to supplant, trip up, and replace his sibling. His conniving, in concert with his mother, is well-documented.
All that was changed by the transforming pain of his wrestling match. Jacob had been afraid of seeing his brother again after all the years apart, but those feelings were overshadowed by his experience of seeing the face of God during his long night of struggle and pain. When Jacob limped to the other side of the Jabbok, he was a transformed man, one who was both broken and blessed.
And this is one of the truths of Jacob’s all-nighter at Peniel: Pain can break us or bless us. Jacob had no interest in being “The Supplanter” after his painful struggle with God; he was done with his sly, selfish schemes. Instead, Jacob wanted only to bow before his brother and beg his forgiveness. He wanted to act in a way consistent with his new name “Israel,” to act like someone who has striven with God and prevailed. Limping toward Esau the following morning, Jacob has no interest in winning at his brother’s expense. Instead, he falls to the ground, desiring only mercy. Esau rushes toward Jacob, but rather than killing him for all the wrongs he has inflicted, Esau embraces him. He falls on his neck and kisses his brother, and together they weep.
“Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God,” says Jacob through tears, “since you have received me with such favor” (33:10). The pain of Peniel has transformed not only Jacob, but his relationship with Esau as well.
It shouldn’t escape our notice that Jacob is not the one who initiates this particular wrestling match. Sometimes in our rush to portray God as One who loves us unconditionally, we forget that there is a tough-love aspect to God’s compassion, not unlike the love of a parent who doesn’t give a child everything she asks for but instead, gives her what she needs in order to learn the hard but necessary lessons that help her grow toward maturity. Or, as the writer of Proverbs puts it, “for the Lord reproves the one he loves” (Proverbs 3:12).
Perhaps, like me, you have experienced something painful and it seemed that God was using that pain to needle you to change, to provoke and push through your defenses to ask for a deeper level of commitment. Perhaps you have had an experience where God had hold of you and would not let go, who was, as English poet Francis Thompson put it, the “hound of heaven” inviting you to surrender. This is no namby-pamby God who sits quietly on the sidelines of life waiting for us to take notice. There are times when God is in-your-face, confronting you through your conscience, through other people, through Scripture, through worship, through gut-wrenching situations or difficult decisions to get you to deal with him. In those times, it is not that we cannot find God; it’s that, like Jacob, we cannot get God off our back.
A similar dynamic must have been going on during Vince Lombardi’s reign with the Green Bay Packers. Sports writers noted that one particular player seemed most often the object of Lombardi’s anger. A Green Bay pastor had a team member in his congregation and asked him if the sports writers were right. “Definitely,” said the player-parishioner. “He’s Coach Lombardi’s favorite.”
Jacob’s glory in this dusk-to-dawn duel is not that he went looking for trouble, but rather that when it found him, when he was faced with the most formidable of foes possible, he stayed with the struggle until he received God’s blessing. And that’s where our glory comes, too. When we are assailed with guilt or doubt or our comfort is disturbed by an unwanted challenge, we always have the option to deny the reality of the experience, to write it off as an over-active imagination. Better than denial, however, is to go to the mat with God and stay in the struggle until we have received the blessing God wanted to give us all along.
The point of this story is not that pain is good, but that it can transform us in positive ways. It would be wildly wrongheaded to suggest that God desires our suffering. And yet, it is absolutely true that God can use our struggles to save us. Left to our own devices, we often behave like Jacob the Supplanter, engaging in all types of twisted trickery in our ambitious attempts to grab for ourselves as many birthrights and blessings as we possibly can. It’s only when God engages us in struggle, and wrestles us to the ground, that we see the path that is truly right and life-giving for us.
The problem is, such a change of plans is usually painful. We tend to pull muscles when we stretch in new directions, moving from selfishness to sacrifice. We get disjointed when we reach for new heights of honesty and integrity. We feel our insides churning when we let go of our craving for control and step out in faith instead.
Limping onto a new path isn’t always pleasant, but with God at our side we know that we are both broken and blessed. Jacob held tightly to the Lord throughout his all-night struggle, and so should we—this firm grip is the only assurance we have that we are part of a process that is changing us for the better. When the apostle Paul asked for a particularly painful thorn to be removed from his own flesh, the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
- Power is made perfect in weakness
- Compassion is made stronger in suffering
- Sensitivity is made sharper in adversity
- Dependence on God is made rock-solid in situations of struggle
Some might think of this in terms of perspective. When we encounter God, we undergo a perspective change, an attitude adjustment. Jacob could have said, “Well, I got whupped.” Or he could say, “Hey, I got a new name.”
God is in the business of changing our perspective. We encounter God and we’re a different person, with a different name. We might have asked for this, but we got that. We might not have gained what we wanted, but we got what God wanted for us. We might be sore losers in all of this. No struggle is pleasant. Our pride may be wounded, our bodies may be tired, our minds may be buzzing with new possibilities. We emerge broken. But also blessed.
Sore losers, maybe. But good losers always. Thanks be to God. Amen.