God Fights

The letter from the Tax Assessor’s office gloated at me from the top of my mail pile. A cold chunk of granite suddenly lodged in my chest. What do they want now? Last year I paid them a small fortune – almost three times what we paid for my daughter’s car. 

Take a deep breath. Open the envelope. 

“The assessor’s office has been notified that a building permit was issued…” True. Earlier that year, I’d built a granny flat. I went through the permitting process against the advice of a wise friend. I’d wanted to do the ‘right thing,’ now I was going to pay for it. 

The rock in my chest grew.

“State Law requires property owners to provide construction costs…” I knew it. They want to add a fourth car to my taxes. Just what I need. This year’s market downturn already cost me a year’s worth of capital. On top of that, groceries and gas cost hundreds more a month.

I could almost hear my wise-friend’s voice. Why not give them a lower construction cost number and save thousands of dollars every year?

Why not? 

It’s a dog-eat-dog world and unless I fight like the other dogs, I’m going to get eaten. It’s a reasonable response. 

Sort of.

Does lawless or immoral behavior really work in society? I don’t know anyone who wants to move to Somalia to raise their family. I’ve heard gang members quoted dozens of times saying they don’t want their kids to grow up in that lifestyle. In my personal life, over the last 30 years, my moral shortcuts always ended painfully. Cheating the bookie works … until I lose my kneecaps.

The problem is, when I get scared, my instinct is to “do what I have to do.” It seems like fear drives a lot of my morally questionable decisions; fear I’m not going to have the security I want; fear I’m not going to get the love I want, the respect I want, etc.

What do I do?

The story of a guy named Jacob explains it all. Jacob was a con artist. He cheated his own dad and brother so badly, Jacob had to run for his life. He ended up living with his uncle who was twice the scammer Jacob was. After being swindled for twenty years, Jacob ran away again. 

Before he was halfway home, Jacob’s past caught up with him; behind was his angry uncle and a posse of violent relatives; ahead was an army of four hundred armed men led by his bitter older brother. The book of Genesis says Jacob was “in great fear and distress.” You think? Also, by this time Jacob had a huge family and lots of valuables; so he was afraid for their lives too.

The young Jacob would probably have tried to swindle his way out of this problem. But somewhere in the preceding 20 years of sleepless nights and long days burning in the desert sun, he’d discovered a secret more powerful than any army and sharper than any anger. So in the middle of the night, in coldest depths of his terror, he took the fight to God instead.

That night he wrestled with a ‘man’ who changed Jacob’s name. You see, the name Jacob means cheater. His name was changed to Israel, which means, God fights. 

Jacob had discovered the God who sees our suffering and who fights for those who stand firm. ‘Stand firm’ doesn’t mean don’t do anything, it means, don’t do wrong.

In the end, what happened to Jacob? His uncle had a dream that seemed to scare him badly enough he decided not to harm Jacob. Regarding Jacob’s older brother, we don’t know what God said to him, we just know that Jacob sent a whole lot of valuable stuff ahead of the meeting, probably enough to pay back what he’d stolen. That reunion ended with a giant hug and everything being forgiven.

I don’t know how it’s going to end with the extra taxes. But a while ago I made a decision not to give in to fear and do wrong things, including worry. Honestly, it’s almost laughable that this scared me at all considering what I’ve already come through. Several years ago I was afraid I’d have everything I owned sued out from under me, instead I ended up with more money than I’d ever had. Another time I thought my business would go under, and ended up growing a couple hundred percent. Another time I thought love had passed me by only to be given a family. 

I not only got what I needed, I got everything I wanted. Bear in mind, I did give God permission to change my heart.

I’ve learned to just let the chips fall. Dallas Willard liked to say that we do what’s right and let God clean up the mess. Job understood when he said, though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. Everything good that I have came from God, why would I think going against him will help me keep it? I’ve made a couple trips through the Valley of the shadow of death. Somewhere in the middle of those years of sleepless nights, I decided, “I will fear no evil.” Why? The most powerful being in the universe is with me. You’ve never seen a pack of dogs run with their tail between their legs until you’ve seen a lion chasing them. And I can tell you from experience, just like Jacob, he fights for me.  

And if you happen to be in the Valley or facing the Valley, I can also tell you from experience, it does have an end, and the way God uses it to cut the facets into your being is glorious, and so is the mountaintop on the other side.

Psalm 37:4-5
4 Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
(I’d recommend reading the whole chapter)

Isaiah 43:2
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Isaiah 49:15-16
15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands….

Genesis 16:13a
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,”

A postscript note for you exegesists and etymologists (are those even words?)

There is a lot of theological debate about the exact interpretation of the word Israel. Wikipedia breaks it down as the root śarah “to rule, contend, have power, prevail over”: and El:God. “El/God rules/ judges/ struggles/ fights”. I’ve heard a dozen definitions, all the way from a straight forward, Jacob fighting with God, to the struggle with God’s will being the very definition of a growing relationship with him. I suspect they’re all right. Jesus had a way of saying things with a dozen meanings too. In my life that’s one way the Holy Spirit makes the same words come alive to each unique person in their unique circumstances. Those who have ears, let them hear, right?