This is an excerpt from the foreward of the forthcoming book, “Limping with God: Jacob and the Old Testament Guide to Messy Discipleship,” written by Chad Bird (1517 Publishing, 2022).
One of the most heartbreaking and liberating revelations that confronts us in our growing-up years is that all our heroes are characters in a tragedy. Those to whom we look up in devotion will, almost without exception, become those whom we look down upon in dismay. I remember, as a young man, being awed by a leader in our church. His character. His eloquence. The way he truly was a man of God. When later I heard the whispers about his philandering, then the growing volume of the rabid small-town gossip, my heart shrank within me. I felt stupid. How could I be so naïve as to look up to him?
If I were able to write a letter to the younger me, I would simply say, “Listen, you’re not stupid. You just have yet to plumb the depths of humanity’s radical frailty.”
We have a tendency, in church circles, to close our eyes to this patent truth. We suppose that the best models of the Christian life are heroes or heroines of the faith. Sunday School material, of course, has mastered the art of inculcating this moralistic ideology, with various Old Testament paragons of this or that virtue held up before our children’s eyes as the person they should aspire to be. Noah the Obedient. David the Brave. You know the predictable titles. Anyone with even a passing familiarity of these stories knows that our children are being lied to—or, to put it more charitably, half-lied-to. Biblical stars, like famous people today and of every generation, have a large pile of bones rattling around in their closets, and often spilling out onto the floor for all the world to gawk at. Or, to change the metaphor, in the dark basement of every human heart, heroic or otherwise, the wolves of evil scratch and growl—and often escape, with disastrous consequences.
One of the reasons I have devoted my life to studying and writing about the Old Testament is because, in these stories, there is a remarkable exposé of these wolves. Here we spy humanity’s occasional beauty (yes) and ongoing ugliness (also yes). Rather than whitewashing the flaws of their characters, the biblical authors paint them in lurid and glowing colors. In fact, some of the narratives are so embarrassingly honest that I cringe to think that these poor souls have had their dirty underwear swinging in the breeze of Scripture for millennia. Yet there they are—unlaundered, raw, nasty, evil, and extraordinarily human. I can only hope that part of the heavenly bliss for these characters will be in not knowing that their lives have been the objects of sermon material for ages!
Or perhaps they do know. And are glad. Glad in this way: they are thankful that we can read their stories and (to borrow C. S. Lewis’ famous phrase), say, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” And they can smile from the page of Scripture and say, “Oh, no, friend. You are far from alone.” Indeed, our flawed and frail friends of the Bible give us a profound hope. That hope is not built upon them, but upon the fact that the perfect God chose to use such profoundly imperfect people in his kingdom.
Among such people was a man whose life we will explore in this book, the man named Jacob.
There is much in Jacob’s character, actions, and motives that I find extremely distasteful, which is exactly why I identify so closely with him. He is everything about myself that I wish I were not. Even in utero, he is looking out for #1. He takes full advantage of the disadvantages of others. He tells lies. He plays favorites. He fights with God. For all these reasons and more, Jacob is the model disciple. The model disciple in that there is no effort to clean him up and make him look more presentable to the world so as not to embarrass God for having chosen such a deceitful man to be not only his follower but the very man after whom the Old Testament community of believers was named: Israel.
Jacob’s crimes and punishments are paraded in public, as is the Lord’s stubborn and gracious commitment to him.
Jacob’s story is the story of a God who doesn’t select the sainted or pick the pious, but who regularly pans for gold in the sewers of this world. And, even there, he doesn’t find gold but plain old stink-covered rocks that he washes, polishes, and gilds with grace.
Such is Jacob.
Such am I.
And such are you.
I have entitled this book, Limping with God instead of Walking with God or Running with God, not because there would be anything wrong with those metaphors, but because, as Jacob limped away from his famous wrestling match with God, so we all get by on bum hips and bad knees. Following Jesus, we gimp our way down the dark and slippery paths of life. As we do, we discover, ironically, that the longer we follow him, the weaker we become, and the more we lean on our Lord. Finally, at our most mature, our eyes are opened to realize that we’ve never run or walked or even limped a single day of our lives.
We’ve been on Christ’s shoulders the entire time.