Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 1

An Unusual Interpretation of the Day Jacob Wrestled God

Jacob-Wrestles-with-God

“We tried to get into your church, but the ushers wouldn’t let us in.” Two high school girls from my youth group berated themselves for not following my church’s unspoken rules. “Some men at the door told us we couldn’t wear shorts in church. We’re soooo sorry!”

The vein in my left temple throbbed as I told them I was the one who should be sorry. Our youth group had been praying for two seventeen-year old girls who had just joined the group and had never attended church anywhere. They came—on a hot, muggy Chicago Sunday. Two ushers-turned-bouncers stopped them dead. “Oh no. You can’t come into church looking like that.”

The girls turned away crestfallen, and told me their story at youth group. They blamed themselves. They felt guilty for not measuring up to God’s standards.

Score one for legalism.

Anthony snorted and laughed out loud during my sermon, and later apologized for disrupting the service. He reacted to my mention of a chapel in Italy that contained the Scala Sancta. The “Sacred Stairs” were reported to be the very steps on which Jesus climbed to stand trial before Pilate. As the story goes, St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, commanded them dismantled, shipped to Italy, and reassembled in Rome.

I explained that, for centuries, faithful pilgrims climbed up those stone stairs on aching knees, pausing to pray on each of twenty-eight marble steps. To this day, no one may stand on the Scala Sancta. Pilgrims climb up on their knees, and exit via another stairway on their feet. For this act of contrition, penitents are promised a plenary indulgence—full pardon from the temporal punishments due all unrecompensed sins to date.

That’s when Anthony snorted. He later explained that he’d grown up in Italy, and his grandmother made him climb the Scala Sancta every week. He told how she stood by weeping, wringing her hands, and praying for his eternal soul.

I admire her dedication, but can’t agree with her theology. Score another one for legalism.

Every Christian is a recovering legalist. We come from a long line of legalists, all the way back to Adam and Eve who sewed fig leaves to cover their shame. Instead of approaching God as empty-handed charity-cases, legalists approach him as religious success-stories who, through their hard work and sacrifice, have earned a spiritual paycheck. “Come on, God. Pay up.”

God has a way of knocking the legalism right out of us.

Case in point, Jacob. Genesis 32 tells the strange story of his wrestling match with God. Is it true that we must win a contest with God before he gives us what we need and want? Or is this story a biblical case-study on God’s way of delivering a knock-out blow to legalism? Let’s see.

The Context: A Personal Judgment Day

Jacob is about to collide with the brother he cheated years ago. He’s frantic, thinking Esau is out for blood. He dreads the heavy hammer of retributive justice – well-deserved – and scrambles for a solution.

He does so in a schizophrenic way. His first approach to deliverance is through grace. In v. 9, he appeals to the goodness of God, who “promised to prosper” him. The Hebrew word tob, translated “prosper” refers to God’s settled disposition to do good this his people.  Then, in v. 10, he confesses, “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness [hesed] and the faithfulness you have shown your servant…” The word hesed refers to God’s policy of bestowing benefits on those who don’t deserve them and haven’t earned them. Hesed is a part of the Hebrew vocabulary of grace. Jacob prays a grace-based prayer.

Too bad he didn’t stick with grace. Jacob immediately shifted into legalism mode and, by his actions, undercut everything he just prayed.

The Human Solution: Paying the Price Ourselves

Jacob’s second approach to deliverance is through blatant bribery. He sent ahead treasure-laden caravans to buy his brother’s forgiveness. He offered goats, camels, rams, bulls, and donkeys.

We might laugh now, but how many times have we done the same thing? How many times have we sought divine deliverance through caravans of offerings, rituals, good behaviors, self-sacrifice, and religiosity? How many times have we expected God to answer our prayers on account of a week’s good behavior? Every time we try to pay our way out of judgment or into a blessing, haven’t we stepped into Jacob’s dusty sandals?

Legalism thrives in the dank atmosphere of self-atonement. We may not climb up stairs on our knees, and we may not believe in religious penance, but legalism degrades our Christian walk into a moment-by-moment penance. We so easily take onto our shoulders the hulking burden of paying for guilt—a burden than only Jesus Christ can and did bear in full on Calvary’s cross.

I’ve been a Christian for decades, yet still I catch myself undercutting the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. I know it’s stupid, but I have a mental closet crammed with fig-leaf garments I’ve sewn together to cover my guilt and shame. The essence of legalism is humans by human effort seeking to merit the blessing of God.

It’s time for God’s loving whack upside Jacob’s legalistic head.

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Should we wrestle God for answers to our prayers? What was Jacob thinking? What do you think God was thinking? What have you heard about this story? How has it been interpreted for you? 

(Click here for Legalism’s Knockout Blow, part 2)

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4 thoughts on “Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 1

  1. Pingback: Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 2 « maxgrace.com

  2. So glad that my friend, Kim Hecht posted this on facebook so that I had the chance to read it. This really touched my heart and I thank you for that. May God bless you and your family!

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