Over two months have passed since Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston and the communities surrounding it. The congregation I serve, Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, is partnering with Fuller Center Disaster Rebuilders to host volunteer work groups coming from around the country to help rebuild homes. Every night after dinner, these groups gather for a time of reflection, with the invitation to share, “Where did you see the face of God today?”
This question brought to mind one of my favorite biblical stories in Genesis 32-33. Jacob is coming home after years separated from his immediate family. Jacob cheated his twin brother, Esau, out of his birthright and stole his blessing. The last time Jacob had seen his brother, Esau was determined to kill him. Jacob is understandably afraid that his brother has let this resentment fester. Could Jacob not only be risking his own life, but the lives of his wives and children by returning to his homeland?
To add to Jacob’s fear, he is told that Esau, being aware of Jacob’s return, is coming to greet him, along with 400 men. Jacob sends ahead of him loads of gifts for Esau, hoping to appease his twin. And then he sends his wives and children across the Jabbok River, though he himself stays behind. “And a man wrestled with him until of the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24). Jacob refuses to let the man prevail, even when the man injures Jacob’s hip. The man finally offers Jacob a blessing, giving him the new name “Israel.” After the man departs, Jacob names the spot in which he wrestled “Peniel” and observes “For I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). Jacob from now on walks with a limp, and yet his life is changed for the better.
Then, Jacob encounters Esau. To everyone’s surprise, Esau embraces Jacob. Jacob replies, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). I suspect even the reader expects Esau to arrive with swords blazing. Esau lets go of vengeance and instead forgives his brother.
This story strikes me differently as I superimpose it on the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey. I often associate seeing God’s face with blessings. Jacob sees God’s face in the blessing of the wrestler and in Esau’s embrace. But limiting God’s gaze to blessings fails to acknowledge that Jacob sees God’s face in the midst of struggle and fear.
God appears to Jacob in the very lowest places of his life – not only when Jacob first ran away from home (and dreamed about a ladder of angels going up to heaven), but as he returns home and fears the loss of his life, his family and his possessions. This night of wrestling transforms Jacob. How curious that Jacob sends everyone ahead of him across the Jabbok River. Could it be that he is once again trying to save his own skin? But the next day, he leads the way as his family encounters Esau. Perhaps this is a sign of Jacob wanting to protect his family – of finally taking responsibility for his actions. And then, God extends forgiveness to Jacob in the face of his brother.
God shows God’s face not in security, but insecurity. Not in moments of confidence, but in moments of fear and anxiety. In times of suffering, I often question God’s presence and care. What would it mean for me to look even more diligently for God in those times? In this season of rebuilding after Harvey, how might looking for God’s face help us persevere? Could this practice of seeking God in suffering build hope in our communities?
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.