How Change Feels: Lessons from Jacob’s Fear, Distress, and Restlessness

Restlessness along with fear and distress can indicate the need for transformation; rather than running from these feelings, find and deal with their source.

forest in winter

“I didn’t sleep at all last night” is what I hear when I read the account of Jacob’s evening before reuniting with his brother Esau and his entrance into the promised land of God. It’s also the impetus for personal change and community transformation.

Jacob’s story can be found in the book of Genesis, primarily in chapters 25 through 33. There, we learn that he is conniving, manipulative, and deceitful; he marries into a family that is conniving, manipulative, and deceitful; and his kids cause him grief because they are conniving, manipulative, and deceitful.

Background: Jacob deceives and is deceived, disconnects and reconnects

As a young man, Jacob tricks his father into passing along the family blessing to him, instead of his older brother Esau who should have the inheritance according to tradition. Though he wins the blessing, the relationship with his family is severed and he escapes to a foreign land to avoid immediate consequences.

In his new home, he falls in love with Rachel and agrees to work for seven years to gain the right to marry her. But Jacob’s future father-in-law (Rachel’s father Laban) tricks him into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. Laban justifies the deceit by saying that Leah is the oldest and should be married first. Jacob then works another seven years to earn the right to marry his true love Rachel.

During this time, Jacob grows in wealth and becomes the father of 12 sons. He believes that God has been with him and has helped him to prosper.

Largely to remove himself and his family from Laban’s reach, Jacob decides to return to his homeland. But as he gets nearer to his home, he realizes that he must confront (or be confronted by) his older brother Esau. Genesis 32:7 reports that Jacob is “in fear and great distress” at the prospect of the meeting. He’s heard that his brother is accompanied by 400 men and fears an attack. To preserve a remnant of his family, Jacob separates his camp into two groups, hoping that at least one will survive.

Jacob doesn’t sleep very well the night before his meeting with Esau, hoping at first for a reunion and now fearing the worst in a confrontation.

On this particular night, described in detail in Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob is left alone and wrestles with a man until daybreak. The exchange at dawn gives clues about what transpired in the mind, heart, and soul of Jacob that evening: the man doesn’t defeat Jacob but injures him; Jacob still demands a blessing; the man gives him the name of Israel because he has struggled with God and men and has overcome; Jacob marvels that he has come face to face with God and still lives.

This episode is considered a pivotal point in the life of Jacob, marking the beginning of transformation.

Jacob’s uneasiness spurs transformation and community restoration

There’s a lot of meaning packed into that enigmatic evening and I can’t say that I fully understand all that transpired. But I can share how Jacob’s experience resonates with my own, particularly how transformation feels. What I learned from this passage and my own experiences:

Circumstances incite change

Sure, I can decide to adopt new habits and set new goals at any time. But, very often, changes in the world (the economy, the environment, the community) and changes in my personal circumstances are drivers of transformation.

Fear and distress accompany change

Even when I move from a bad situation to a much better one, making a transition is difficult. Obviously, I want to avoid dangerous situations, which fear often alerts. But my distress is often unwarranted, as fear is — they simply signal that things are changing rather than indicating dire consequences. Stepping into unknown is scary.

Change doesn’t always feel good when it happens; only later can I see its value.

Restlessness is a sign something needs to change

That feeling that something isn’t quite right (which often involve sleepless nights) prompts an honest reflection, not just about my past but about my future. Restlessness often tells me that I should consider how I need to move in a different direction.

Transformation involves confrontation

For me, this process means confronting God (honestly, more out of exasperation than obedience) and asking Him to be clear about what He is asking me so that I can take the next steps. Interestingly, taking action helps remedy the distress and restlessness.

Finally, one of the puzzles of this story is the statement that Jacob has wrestled with man and God and has prevailed; that is, Jacob prevails presumably over God even though God has injured or marked him. Here’s the story from Genesis 32:24-31 (World English Bible)

Jacob was left alone, and wrestled with a man there until the breaking of the day. When he saw that he didn’t prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled. The man said, “Let me go, for the day breaks.”

Jacob said, “I won’t let you go, unless you bless me.”

He said to him, “What is your name?”

He said, “Jacob”. He said, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”

He said, “Why is it that you ask what my name is?” He blessed him there.

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for, he said, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” The sun rose on him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped because of his thigh. 

I think that this part of the story means that God isn’t afraid to show His power. Just as significantly, He won’t defeat me into submission or manipulate me with promises of glory or safety.

It’s my choice whether to enter into this story of transformation. The wrestling and restlessness bring clarity to my situation so I can decide how to act. If I think and act like Jacob, I become a different person and my relationships are renewed.

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