The English hymn writer John Newton famously wrote a letter that outlined the “advantages of remaining sin” to a friend who suffered from deep guilt and remorse over his sin. Newton reminds his friend that being aware of the remaining sin in our lives causes us to be humble before the Lord and others, knowing that our only boast is in the mercy and grace of Christ toward us, not in the opinion others may have of our victories over sin.
Now, of course, there is a difference between simply being aware of remaining sin and glorying in that state. In Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2001), C. S. Lewis calls on his readers to resist temptation by comparing it to resisting the German army:
A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. You find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. (142)
While we are not allowed as Christians to take a perverse comfort in the fact that we are and will continue to be sinners, we must still be honest about our state. Only one man ever perfectly resisted temptation: not for just five minutes, not for just an hour, but for thirty-three perfectly obedient years. Jesus was faithful to his Father and obeyed the law of God in thought, word, and deed so that we who are united to him might enjoy his status as the covenant-keeping Son and heir of all things!
The Path of Discipleship with a Limp
As Christians, then, we walk the path of discipleship with a limp—still afflicted by the effects of remaining sin in our lives. I think that the Old Testament patriarch Jacob is a good analogy to our living with a limp today. Remember that Jacob, after tricking his father Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, flees to his uncle Laban’s house. There he becomes wealthy and powerful.
Married to two sisters, Rachel and Leah, he is blessed with many children. Eventually, Jacob’s family and wealth become a threat to his uncle Laban, and Jacob prepares to return home to Canaan to take up his inheritance—the same inheritance he received by deceiving his father, the same inheritance jeopardized by his brother’s angry threats against his life.
Jacob knows he must face Esau, but he doesn’t know if Esau will be gracious toward him or want to finally exact his revenge after so many years of Jacob’s exile. Genesis 32 tells us that Jacob prepared to meet Esau by sending messengers who would curry favor and project strength on Jacob’s behalf (vv. 4–5). The messengers returned with ominous news: Esau was coming to meet Jacob, along with an army of four hundred men!
Jacob responded to Esau’s display of strength by sending a peace offering: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred female sheep and twenty male sheep, thirty camels and calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys divided into nine groups. Each group was led by a group of Jacob’s servants. He sent wave after wave of animals and servants, saying the same thing: Jacob was willing (and able) to repay Esau all he had stolen in robbing Esau of the inheritance.
The night before Jacob met with Esau, he sent his family across the stream and waited alone. But sometime in the night, Jacob realized that someone else has joined him in the darkness, and he wrestled with this man all night long. After many hours of silent struggle, the daylight began to break. Jacob had held his own against this silent, violent stranger. Jacob hadn’t yielded. But with the first rays of light, Jacob felt the sharp pain of his hip being put out of socket. His pivot-power disappeared. Then Jacob heard the man’s first words: “Let me go” (v. 26). Can you imagine the desperation in Jacob’s answer, the pain as he tried to form his words? No longer looking for a move to pin him, he clung to him: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26).
Jacob was an amazingly strong man (he single-handedly removed the stone covering the well in Gen. 29), but his strength blinded him to the man’s identity. In verse 29, he asked the man’s name. Jacob, as he had so often before, blindly waded into battle, with a single eye focused on what he wanted—disregarding every sign to the contrary. Only afterward did he realize he had gone to the edge of the abyss and been rescued. That the man was God was a realization that dawned gradually upon Jacob. Surely he began to understand after he felt the man’s sudden strength, and his desire to leave before daylight could reveal him for who he was. All doubt was gone after the man renamed Jacob as Israel, the one who had striven with God.
God’s Strange Power On Display
The power of God on display in Genesis 32 is strange. Jacob “prevails” over God (v. 28). God’s power is manifested in his weakness! Jacob can only know God in God’s hiddenness and weakness, not in God’s power. Only as Jacob becomes weak in his struggle against God does his victory emerge. Isn’t it the same for us?
As Gordon Hugenberger says about this passage, “When we thought we had overcome him and crucified the Lord of Glory, it was at that moment of hiddenness and divine weakness that Jesus stays the hand of judgment and bears the nail prints himself.” Our wounds and weaknesses reveal our greatest strength. God is not out to make each of us a member of the Power Team, but he is out to reveal to us the crippling power of the cross. As we die to ourselves, our rights, our strength, our positions of power, the great victory of God becomes ever more evident in our lives.
That’s a hard word to hear. It was hard for Jacob, because he wanted to end his encounter with God with glory, a glimpse into the hidden majesty of God. In much the same way, the disciples in Matthew 20 pestered Jesus to see who might sit on thrones next to him. Jesus responded by pointing them to cups of judgment, baptisms by fire, and crosses of death. The lesson through it all is that glory comes through shame and victory through weakness. Prevailing faith walks with a limp.
Adapted from Eric Landry, “Living with a Limp,” Modern Reformation, March/April 2017. Used by permission.