My oldest son lay splayed, chest down, across the rug on our living room floor. His frame stretched nearly the span of the room. Wyatt challenged me to an arm wrestling match, so I crawled down to ready myself for this latest rite of passage, this test of strength and will. I buried my elbow in the plush rug and gripped his right hand. I looked Wyatt in the eye, giving him the icy stare that I’ve learned makes him hesitate for a split-second, makes him wonder if he’s taken on more than he can handle. Wyatt chuckled nervously and tightened his grip, his palms sweaty. He flexed his shoulders and shifted nervously, like a racehorse waiting for the starting gates to open.
On the cusp of his 14th birthday, my son already looms over me by 3 inches, boasts hairier legs, and has lots more energy. His shoes could be mistaken for mid-size schooners. For several months now, Wyatt has lifted weights with the high school football squad. He’s discovered the thrill of that first awareness that his body is strong and growing stronger, that manhood is no longer a far-fetched idea. All of this exhilarates him, as it should. But I see, every now and then, how he also pulls back, uncertain. What am I capable of? What are my limitations? Am I ready for all this?
I remember this disconcerting sensation during my final year of high school. Playing H-O-R-S-E in our driveway, I wanted desperately to beat my dad, but the truth was, I didn’t want to beat him too often. I wanted to show how I could hold my own, but I was not ready for him to pass whatever the mantle is that passes from a father to a son. I wanted him to carry this responsibility further. Somehow I knew that I was not yet prepared to have this weight on my shoulders.
Sometimes defeat can bring more joy and more freedom than victory.
Wyatt and I locked eyes and hands, then waited for the count of three. Wyatt threw his full might into the contest. I felt his surge of raw power; my arm trembled. Within a few moments, though, Wyatt’s strength wavered. Aware he was losing momentum, he shifted his weight and exhaled a loud, menacing grunt, his neck muscles bulging. Slowly, I inched his arm downward. Wyatt quivered under the strain, but he would not relent. Finally, with one swift move of my arm, his wrist buckled, and I pinned him to the floor.
I expected frustration, maybe an excuse or protest. But Wyatt grinned wide, almost laughing. “Dad, you really are strong. Some day I’ll be strong like that.”
Sometimes defeat can bring more joy and more freedom than victory. The biblical patriarch Jacob discovered this paradoxical truth when he found himself face to face with the Lord’s angel. Jacob’s name means “supplanter” (or “deceiver,” to be more blunt). The name fit. Jacob wrangled to get most everything he wanted. With shrewd chicanery, he outwitted his brother Esau, snagging the family birthright, and, with his mother’s help, wheedled his father’s blessing. Jacob also pulled off a brilliant coup to gain control of an impressive portion of his father-in-law’s enterprise. Possessed of a sharp mind, keen business sense, and strength of both will and body, Jacob was a winner. He manhandled life and always ended up on top.
I think we all need such a gift—to face God and come up short.
But now Jacob, who had been on the run ever since scamming his older twin, was returning home, and for maybe the first time, he felt fear, the kind that turns your blood to ice. And Esau, who by this point had become a powerful warrior leading a clan, would confront his swindling brother. If Esau intended to exact revenge, Jacob would be unable to defend the entirety of his family or flock.
So on the night before Jacob crossed the river back into his homeland, he lay under the midnight sky, overwhelmed with uncertainty, when (in perhaps one of the more bizarre stories in Scripture) an angel leapt out of the dark. A grueling wrestling match ensued, lasting through the night. Jacob was nothing if not relentless.
To finally dispatch Jacob, the angel expended some otherworldly power and touched (merely touched) him on the hip, and Jacob was incapacitated. None of his schemes, his quick wit, or brute strength could help him now. If he had believed he was a match for God’s emissary, he was mistaken. Jacob was now helpless, crippled before the divine mercy.
With the match concluded, the angel told Jacob to let him loose, but Jacob said he would yield only when the angel gave him a blessing. While (as I imagine) trying to suppress his admiring smile, the angel blessed him. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob,” the angel said, “but Israel” (Gen. 32:28). Jacob meant “deceiver,” but Israel means “He strives with God.” Jacob had always brawled and won, always handled whatever came his way. However, those skills would not be enough for what God had in mind. God wanted to offer him His help, but apparently Jacob would have to fail in order to receive it.
To step into the fullness of his life, Jacob would need to cry uncle; he would have to suffer what the novelist Frederick Buechner calls a magnificent defeat. Only then would Jacob discover the unexpected gift: how freeing it is to embrace a God far stronger than us. Jacob would learn how liberating it is to relinquish ourselves to a God powerful enough to carry us into our good future. I think we all need such a gift—to face God and come up short.
Of course, I will eventually endure my own magnificent defeat, this time at the hands of my son. One day, he will overpower me with his strength. He’ll pin me down, and the short challenge will seem too easy. My failure will be right and good. One of the best ways to win is to lose.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft