What happens in Solitude?
Last week we talked about sadness and solitude. What is going on in the spirit when God calls us into solitude? A great example of somebody meeting God in solitude is Jacob. I'm referring to the story where Jacob wrestles with an Angel. It turns out that the Angel is the pre–Incarnate Messiah. Many scholars believe that Jacob’s name means heel grabber. (In modern Hebrew, the phrase “on the heals of” is b’ahkov… the same root as Ya’akov [heel].) We can see in Jacob’s life that he was crafty and manipulative.
With most manipulators, there comes a day of reckoning. Jacob’s comes after he has had much success, and because of God’s promise to Abraham, Laban did not harm Jacob. What Jacob did not understand is that his success was because of God’s favor, not his shrewd calculations. But now comes the day of reckoning—he is going to meet his brother Esau, whom he has deceived so long ago.
Jacob’s worst nightmare is on the way… and they’re twins!
Esau sends word that he is coming, and he has 400 men with him. Instead of crying out to God, Jake begins to calculate. He divides his people into two groups, hoping at least one may escape. He sends several groups ahead of him with gifts for Esau, hoping to pacify him. Next, he sends his wives and all of his possession over the river. He was left alone. It is not exactly the bravest move in the world. But here, alone, in solitude, Jacob comes face to face with his real self. There is no one to manipulate—no Laban, no Isaac, no Esau.
It is there in the solitude the Lord meets with him. And they wrestle all night long. I was a wrestler in high school. I can tell you that after the first few minutes, you can barely breathe. You are both out of breath, just waiting for the short round to end. I am not sure they literally wrestled all night long. Either way, it is a metaphor for us that each one of us will wrestle with God until we are willing to be honest with ourselves. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) called this “the dark night of the soul” that many believers will go through as part of their transformation.
Jacob wrestles with God. Do you remember the outcome of that wrestling? God says to Jacob, “What is your name?” Now God knows Jacob’s name. Since, biblically, name has to do with the nature of the one who is named, God is saying to Jacob, “What kind of person are you, really?” And Jacob says, “I am the manipulator. I am Jacob, the supplanter.”
Jacob’s whole life has been marked by his first name, which became a physical trait. He starts by grabbing the heel of his brother at birth. (Remember that Jacob and heel have the same root.)
K. A. Matthews adds some insight.
Physical strength characterized Jacob’s life: at birth grasping the heel of Esau (25:26), moving the stone to water Rachel’s sheep (29:10), and working Laban’s herds for twenty years in difficult conditions (31:38–40). Here he vigorously clinches the “man,” who in what appears to be desperation injures the patriarch in a failed attempt to free himself. The irony is that Jacob’s physical weakness will recall the transformation of his moral strength.
Now, in his physical weakness, he will experience inner reformation. It is in that place of solitude, sadness, and pain that we have to look to God and not to ourselves. But looking to God means being willing to be disciplined. Willing to change. We don’t always want that.
Not Jacob, but Israel
God changes Jacob’s name, which is a changing of his character. “Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Gen. 32:28). “Jacob has struggled with his brother (chs. 25, 27), his father (ch. 27), his father-in-law (chs. 29–31), and now with God (ch. 32).” It is in his struggle with God that he finally finds healing. He goes from being the “heel grabber” manipulator to being one who wrestles with God—Israel. It is interesting that we find no one else in the Bible named Israel.
Notice that God initiates the struggle with Jacob. God knows what we are hiding and how to expose it—not to hurt us, but to free us. When God tracked you down and put you in that crucible of loneliness, it is only because he’s looking for your greater good. And when we become honest, we are close to a breakthrough.
Solitude Changed the Man
Before Jacob’s dark night of the soul, he did everything he could to insulate himself from meeting Esau until he knew that he was coming in peace. But the next morning, as Esau was coming, the text says, “[Jacob himself went on ahead (of his wives and children) and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother” (Ge 33:3). The new Jacob, or Israel, has a newfound trust for Yahweh. But he never would have experienced his transformation without solitude.
I want you to understand something. I am wearing a watch that has the ability to vibrate if I get an e-mail, a text message, or if there is breaking news. The second day after I purchased my Apple Watch, I turned off its ability to Alert me of anything. How can we find solitude if we are addicted to having instant information all the time? Jacob did not experience God in 30 seconds. It was an all-night wrestling match with the Almighty (Even if somewhat metaphoric).
It is easy to find God, but it will cost you time. God is not hiding from you, but he may not be where you're looking. He's not on Facebook, and he doesn't have a YouTube channel. But you may find him on a walk in the mountains, a hike in the desert, or upon waking up in the middle of the night to pray for an hour.
 Mulholland, M. Robert . Invitation to a Journey (Transforming Resources) (pp. 160-161). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis–Leviticus (Revised Edition), ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 255.