In one sense, this dramatic effect of the encounter is not inappropriate to the sort of customer Jacob was. The shady supplanter — the trickster of the birthing place, the manipulator of a blind father in the dark intimacies of private life, is now publicly flawed. He lamed others in the private, family domain; now God has lamed him in the public one. But however we look at it, the result of the struggle with God is a dis-eased life, a dis-abled walk, a pronounced hobbling. It’s notable, of course, that in the New Testament story Christ went out of His way to heal the lame. Cripples, hobblers, the disabled, leapt to their feet and walked away without a limp. And such en-abling has been happily siezed on by Christians — whether they’re determined triumphalists or just those who crave an uneventful, unhindered serene kind of walk with God.
And in certain moods and moments that’s what Charles Wesley would celebrate with tremendous power: ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee’. In other moods, though, Charles Wesley felt, and properly so, both for and with Jacob — alone, in the dark, struggling, questioning, in ‘self-despair’, as our hymn has it, confronting an enigmatic deity who is, for the moment, holding back the ‘secret’ of his love. And both sets of typologies for the religious life — the liberated, confident walk, and the struggle in the dark that results in a new name, but also a laming — are central to the Jacob experience, and thus also to the Christian story. It would clearly be distortive to place greater emphasis on the one side or the other, to be excessively partial to either as it were, the enticements of religious triumphahsm and the counter-attractions of religious despair or discomfort. But since, nowadays, we are continually incited to triumphalism rather than despair, it seems worth stressing that not only would it be untrue to much Christian experience if we denied the dark side of the God-experience, the darker nights of the soul, the wilderness episodes, the commonly felt sense of God’s having averted for the moment His gaze from His people, it would certainly be untrue to the exemplary Jacob story: transformed by God by renaming and a dramatic empowering; but also transformed by laming, a dramatic disabling and deforming.
Valentine Cunningham, “It Is No Sin to Limp,” the University Sermon delivered at the University of Oxford, 12 May 1991