Superman on Trial:  A Question of Injustice (Matthew 5, Romans 5, Genesis 4)

With Injustice 2 now out on store shelves I think it should be considered safe to open up the plot on the first game and how it intersects with this newly released fighting masterpiece.    And there are some intriguing and highly resonating questions that are presented in both of these games that do not have easy answers.  As a warning, spoilers for the original Injustice as well as a healthy dose of Biblical introspection follow…

Let me start by admitting that I am personally not Superman’s biggest fan.  Nothing against those of you whose heart swells every time you hear his theme music, but for me everything just seems to come a little too easy for the son of Krypton.  He lacks both the pathos of Batman as well as the humanity of the Flash.  Lois Lane dies?  No problem, he just flies around the sun, reverses time and course-corrects.  When Flash does something similar he nearly destroys the multiverse by creating Flashpoint, but for Superman it’s just business as usual on a moderately busy Tuesday.  And while Batman toils in the shadows doing the dirty work without a single superpower to his name, good ol’ Supes flies around with his bulletproof self enjoying the benefits of super-human strength without too many drawbacks.  So when the original Injustice title released it wasn’t much of a surprise to me that when he was finally faced with an unthinkable loss he became a violent global dictator.  Honestly, it was what I had worried was inside of him all along.

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, than Superman completely lived up to this mantra by turning on all those who disagreed with his tactics as he made the decision to prevent any further evil by taking complete control of the planet and destroying all those who stood in his way.  Heroes such as Flash and Batman tried to guide him away from this self-destructive course, but honestly how do you stop an emotionally damaged, nearly invulnerable alien who is convinced that humanity lacks the capacity to chart their own course and must either accept his rule or perish?  A combination of heroes,  villains, and a Superman from another universe are forced to put aside their grievances and work together to finally end the tyrannical rule of Kal-El.  This leads directly into the new story in Injustice 2 as Batman and company face an incredible difficult choice… when faced with an unstoppable threat do they unleash Earth’s mightiest hero knowing that they were barely able to subdue him the first time?  Or do they attempt to face this new threat and leave their greatest hope of victory on the sidelines?  Decisions, decisions… and this leads us into deeper pondering of more eternal significance.

One of the most poignant questions asked by those who have difficulty believing in God is, “If God is all-powerful, why does he permit evil exist?”  Why is there so much pain and suffering, death and loss when a good and just God could stop it all with just a word?  And I believe that within this question one has to take a long hard look and determine what manner of Divine Being we truly believe in so we can have a fair answer to these questions.  When children senselessly die in our streets and so many people of all ages face the threat of violence simply because of their beliefs, skin color, or place of birth it is a question we MUST be prepared to answer as followers of the one true God.

Let’s start by considering what someone is really asking when they challenge the reality and goodness of God by pointing to the bad that surrounds us.  To live up to the unstated inference, anytime someone asks this question they are requesting a dictator god similar to what Superman became in Injustice.  Crushing all evil sounds good in theory, but in order to fully suppress it one must control all thoughts, actions, and decisions of those who are incapable of making the right decisions on their own… meaning US.  The only way to remove our ability to make evil choices is to remove our ability to make choices at all.  And to be blunt, that would not work too well for any of us and would make God a pretty difficult Being to follow, much less love.

Time to look to the Bible for answers on how a just God permits injustice to exist.  First, we will divide the question into three parts:

1) How does Scripture define justice?

2) Why does injustice exist?

3) Why doesn’t God stop it?

To start with, let’s find what God has to say about the evil things people do to each other.  And before you crack your Bible open to the Old Testament and prepare for a boring discussion on old commandments and laws and how far away you have to walk from bacon-wrapped shrimp, let me stop you right there and bring you to a much more relevant group of verses straight from the tongue of Jesus Christ Himself.  In Matthew 5:21 we find Jesus in the middle of the discourse called the Sermon on the Mount, and it is within this we gain full insight into how God views sin and what an absolutist view of sin prevention actually looks like.

Jesus uses two distinct and very different sins from the Ten Commandments to give a God’s-eye view perspective of right and wrong.  First, He unveils God’s position on murder, issuing equivalent judgement to those who speak hurtful insults to others with hatred in their heart to those who actually follow through on the evil thought with murder.  Then He follows with an example of someone who looks at another person with lustful desire, explaining that this conscious act carries the same consequences as physically committing the act of adultery.  And if that doesn’t challenge you enough, he finishes by explaining that if your eye or hand causes you to sin, it is wiser to remove it from your body than to persist in sinning and face the judgement for those sins.  Interestingly enough, I don’t bump into too many people who have removed their hands and eyes.  They must not struggle with the same things I do, I guess.

So when we look at justice from a Holy God’s perspective it becomes painfully clear that we are all guilty of not only physical sins, but also sins of thought that carry equivalent sentences of punishment.  If we faced the consequences of these actions (both were punishable by death) at the point of our sinful thoughts humanity would cease to exist in short order.  The truth is we all want justice when we or a party we consider innocent have been wronged, but for justice to truly be served we would all face the exact same fate.  Scripture records that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and more to the point based on these parameters we are all guilty of thought crimes punishable by the death penalty.  So to answer the first question, justice is defined as punishment for even the thought of committing sinful behavior.  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to cast my vote on mercy and grace because if we stick with justice as the cure I won’t be here to finish writing this.  Or at the very least it would be much, much harder without my hands and eyes.

So let’s move on to question 2.  Now that we know none of us are truly prepared to exist in a world of immediate justice based on God’s standards, why does this predicament exist to begin with?  The birth of original sin is recorded in Genesis, but I would like to look a little deeper than the origin story by going to Romans 5:12-21, where something very critical emerges.  In these verses as well as several others it is made clear that it is through Adam’s sin that death entered the world.  Punishment that previously did not exist was created as a just response to the sin that occurred.  But why Adam’s sin?  Why was it his mistake that caused this when it was Eve, not Adam, who took the first bite of the forbidden fruit?  The Injustice plot thickens…

What was the principal difference between what Eve did and what Adam did?  One could make all manner of theological arguments based on Adam’s role as the first member of mankind or his status as head of household on their tax return that year, but the truth is they both took the exact same action.  They both held the same fruit and took the same bite.. so why the difference?  And Scripture is quick to point out that while Eve was deceived by the serpent, Adam had the luxury of observing that Eve did not suddenly drop dead at the moment of her sin and made his decision accordingly.

It is crucial we catch this because it is the answer to the question of why injustice still exists… Adam sinned by eating the fruit, but it was a conscious choice he made after determining that the consequences of the sin did not appear to be fatal.  Just like Adam, we sin because we think we can get away with it.  The consequences are not immediate in most cases so for a brief period of time we can make the wrong choice and continue on about our day, covering it up about as effectively as the fig leaves from Adam and Eve’s new fashion line.

Injustice at every level exists because God’s mercy in allowing us the opportunity to recognize our sins and repent prior to judgment is often misread as a lack of consequences.  And as humanity becomes ever more clever in our methods of hiding from our mistakes and covering up our shame, we mentally divorce ourselves even further from the actual long-term ramifications of wrong-doing.  So now that we know that we God’s standards for justice are actually much higher than we are prepared to operate under and we as humans are solely responsible for the presence of injustice on this planet we have to answer the final question.  Why doesn’t God stop it?

For our final Scripture we turn to 2 Peter 3:4-9, as we pull back the curtain on why God doesn’t do more to stop the injustice in the world.  Now while these verses are specifically referring to why the Lord has not yet returned to complete His judgment of the world, they also give insight into why the Lord appears to hold back His hand when He could just as easily unleash His giant fist of justice on evildoers.  Peter records that “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”  In order to give each and every one of His children the opportunity to repent He stays His hand to a degree that makes many of us uncomfortable and as frustrated as the older brother of the prodigal son.  You remember him right?  The one who was frustrated that his younger brother had taken his inheritance and wasted it on a sinful life, and yet his father welcomed him back home with open arms upon his repentance.  The older brother fumed and refused to join the party because he wanted his younger brother to pay for his choices and this simply wasn’t fair.  But God values each and every one of His children, as hard as it is to believe.  He loves those who have committed even the vilest of sins and is giving them every opportunity to get their lives right with Him.

As our final case study we will jump all the way back to the book of Genesis as our Injustice tour of Scripture comes full circle.  We reviewed the original sin committed by Adam and Eve, and now we will go straight to the crime scene of the first murder committed by their son Cain.  In Genesis 4:6 we find God attempting to reason with Cain, who is upset that his brother’s offering to the Lord was accepted while Cain’s was not.  Like most of us, Cain is pointing his anger and frustration outward (in this case at his completely innocent younger brother) rather than dealing with the root cause issue in his heart with God.  And we find that rather than condemning Cain, the Lord is incredible reasonable in His dialogue stating. ”  Why are you so angry?  And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.  And it’s desire is for you, but you should rule over it”.  There is a lot to unpack there, but for today we will simply look at how patient and long-suffering God is with Cain who is currently mulling actual MURDER in his thoughts.

God, who knows all things, knew what Cain was thinking and knew what he was planning to do.  God could have stopped him.  He could have struck him down before he even had the chance to commit the act like an evil dictator Superman.  He could have waited until Cain was in the act and THEN he could swoop in with a Divine force field and save Abel’s life.  But He didn’t stop it… He allowed Cain the opportunity to choose the right choice all the way up to the end, and then after the horrible deed was done He approached Cain and gave him the opportunity to tell the truth about what had happened and to repent.  This remains the Father’s modus operandi with each of us… He chooses not to remove our free will in making choices and even provides a space for us to repent and own up to our choices.

It is easy to accept His mercy when it is showered upon me, and I appreciate that He has chosen not to slap the death sentence on me each and every time I have deserved it either through sins of action or sins of thought.  But I also must accept that He extends that grace to those that I would rather He not, because they are His children too.  The Lord does not support Injustice, but He has made the decision that His children will be free to serve Him, themselves, others, or the devil if they so choose.  And His patience with each child extends much farther than we would often prefer.  If we were God we would have spared the righteous Abel by stopping the murderous Cain in his tracks.  But that is why it is good that we are not God, because our justice is biased by the sins we understand or find more acceptable than others.  By that logic all of us would already be in our graves to prevent us from committing the sins that each of us have.  God sent His Son to a world populated by sinners so that we would not perish, but so that like the thief on the cross next to Christ we would inherit eternal life, even if it comes in our final breaths.  It may not seem fair, but God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts.  And His justice is much higher than our thoughts can understand because His love for us is deeper than any of us can truly comprehend.


The Stigma of a Negative Rating and the Untold Story of The Sneak King (Genesis 35)

It is a mixed blessing living in this digital age of immediate accessibility to information combined with an endless stream of content being generated by people across the planet.  While it is certainly handy to be able to get directions at the push of a button and find answers with a simple query on the nearest smartphone, as a society we have lost something incredibly valuable in the exchange… the ability to discover something new without already having an opinion formed by another’s experience.

Think about it… before you go to a new restaurant you read the ratings to see what others have thought about it.  Maybe you peruse pictures of what the plates of food look like or check social media to see if your friends have tried it.  They may all have completely different ideas on what tastes good but it still influences your decision-making process before you have even gotten in your car.  And it’s no different in the world of gaming, as everyone from official gaming sites to individual personalities on social media forums have a review of each and every game complete with a rating and story synopsis before you have had a chance to consume the experience for yourself.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can be quite convenient to avoid wasting your valuable currency on a game stuffed full of bugs, or to check the content of a game prior to purchasing to insure it fits what you find appropriate for yourself or your family.  But if one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, it may be possible that a game that you would truly enjoy may simply suffer from negative press and poor ratings from people who simply don’t have the same taste as you.  As a case in point, I would like to present to you in all of its jumbled and unappreciated glory, the magnificence that is Sneak King.

If you are one of the multitudes who missed this, you have denied yourself the opportunity to play as the one and only Burger King in a stealth adventure that requires sharp reflexes, cunning, and a burning desire to surprise your hapless victims with a delicious croissanwich sandwich.  As the titular Burger King, you will climb scaffolds, infiltrate buildings, and most importantly deliver your concealed chicken fries and whoppers to people who must be snuck up on and forcibly given your fast-food offerings.

Not enough for you?  In addition to this awesome setup, you are also tasked with performing a celebratory dance after each successful food attack, which is set up in a risk/reward structure that requires excellent timing and rhythm to pull off.  But if you are truly elite and worthy of wearing the crown that only a true Sneak King can possess, you will not only successfully sneak up undetected on a construction worker as they exit a port-a-potty to hand deliver a tasty whopper sandwich but also top this off with a well-choreographed dancing flourish.  If that synopsis doesn’t make you track down a second-hand copy of this game which is one part Splinter Cell mixed with a healthy dose of budgetary limitations and complete insanity, I’m just not sure we have the same palette for video games.  I hope we can still be friends.

The truth is this game is not for everyone, and reviews for it were pretty unkind.  But because of my love of many terrible games along with the absurdity of the concept I loved it.  And there are many other titles that I have found delightful and entertaining but other gamers and reviewers have not shared my enthusiasm for them. If I had listened to others opinions before forming my own, I may have been steered away from many incredible and unique adventures that I really enjoyed.  But when reviews and previews and just plain VIEWS are so prevalent it’s very difficult to indulge in anything without finding someone else’s opinion on it first and having your outlook adjusted accordingly.

As we have been finding over the past two weeks, names have a special significance in the Bible and in many ways acted as a “preview” of the individual and their path in life.  But sometimes the name can be given unfairly based on the skewed viewpoint of the individual providing the christening, and in the case of Genesis 35 we will find an individual who was on the wrong end of the naming process before they even had a chance to launch.

BEN-ONI/BENJAMIN: Let’s briefly  fill in the background of the situation so we have some context to this tragic story.  Jacob, who has been renamed Israel, has two wives named Leah and Rachel.  They are sisters who have had a fairly bitter rivalry ever since they became “sister wives” and a primary source of competition between the two of them was childbearing.  Simply put, Leah had been tremendously successful in providing her husband with multiple sons but to this point Rachel had achieved a grand total of one.  This was a great source of frustration for Rachel and as we find her in Genesis 35:16 her seeming success with delivering another child would sadly be her swan song in the Scriptures.

This labor was an incredibly difficult one, and giving birth to this child that had meant so much to her just a few short verses earlier brought her to a place of incredible pain and unfortunately to a bitter ending.  As the midwife attempted to provide some good news that Rachel had successfully delivered another male child, all Rachel could see was that this final act would come at the cost of her life.  Drawing her final breaths, the last recorded actions of Rachel was to name her newborn son Ben-Oni, which translated means “Son of my sorrow”.  As her soul departed this plane of existence she placed a horrific burden on this innocent soul who had yet to even open his eyes.

A tragic end to the life of Jacob’s most desired bride, but more importantly a doomed beginning for the infant child who would carry this name for the remainder of his days.  This name would be a constant reminder that his birth had cost his mother her life, and robbed his father of the love of his life.  What an awful amount of baggage to heap on such tiny shoulders.  With no concept of the language he was hearing as this name was uttered, he was already a failed man walking.  And just like an unfair review or a misguided opinion about a game, movie, or any other area of life that can be rated and scored, this happens to us and around us all the time.

Maybe it’s not your given name on your birth certificate, but it was branded on you just the same.  Maybe it was a moment when your parent told you that you would never amount to anything.  Or when a partner in a relationship let you know how much of a failure and disappointment you are.  It could be an employer who destroyed your confidence by informing you that you simply aren’t good enough.  And more to the point, it happens each and every day as people hurl racist, sexist, body-shaming, and hurtful labels and names at others either in person or in an even more cowardly fashion over social media.  And we carry these burdens that were unfairly thrust upon us not realizing that just like Rachel and Ben-Oni, this did not come from an informed place, but a place of pain.

Rachel was reacting to a pain that little Ben-Oni wasn’t even aware of, and he became an unwitting target due to his proximity and inability to resist.  Slapped with a negative review before he had a chance to breathe, this could have cursed this poor child’s entire existence as he wore this shame and was forced to acknowledge it each and every time his name was called.  But this might be where you stop me and say, “Wait a minute… I know all the names of the 12 tribes of Israel and I don’t remember one called Ben-Oni”.  And you would be correct.  Here is your bonus gold star for paying attention in Sunday School.

See, the child’s father knew that this was not who he was and would not let him remain in this cursed state.  While Ben-oni’s birth inadvertently led to Rachel’s death, his father neither blamed him for this nor wanted him to spend his life agonizing over it.  He looked at his child and proclaimed that his name would be Benjamin, which is translated as “Son of my right hand”.  This was a name of strength and confidence.  The right hand represented a favored spot, and was considered a place of honor in seating arrangements.  Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, and when the Father divided the sheep and the goats the sheep were placed on his right hand side.  Jacob refused to let his child be defined by the negative review of one dissatisfied person as he saw something worthy of receiving the favored position in this previously poorly named child.

Like Benjamin, we were born into a cursed name, and I don’t simply mean as sinners although that is also true.  No matter how wonderful or well-meaning the people who raised us have been, at points throughout our lives we have been the recipients of negative reviews, unfair characterizations, ignorant stereotypes, or trapped in a moment where a mistake was made that we cannot remove from our profile.  And each day we carry that 1-star rating over our heads, a neon sign flashing the name we were given that simply won’t stop following us around.  Failure.  Liar.  Thief.  Adulterer.  Loser.  Addict.  Hypocrite.

Now for the good news.  Your Father does not call you by those names.  You are not the child of His sorrow, even though the requirement for you to be birthed as His child did cost the life of His Son. You are also the child of His right hand, and He renamed you as He held you for the first time covered in the blood of His precious Son who died so you could be born.  Gone are the reminders of the pain you didn’t mean to cause.  Erased are the references to a moment you didn’t intend to create.  Banished are the negative attempts to define you from people who lashed out from their pocket of pain to spitefully label you.  He sees beyond the moment to the real you, the one you are becoming and one day will fully be.  And when we choose to call ourselves by that name and see ourselves the way our Father sees us, we can see that those old labels are only used by the misinformed who are still unable to see past their pain.

I hope this encourages you to move past the reviews you have received, even if they are fairly earned.  He was not surprised by how much you cost to become His child, and He considers you well worth the sacrifice.  He has a special name for you… you are the child of His strength, His favored child, the child of His right hand.  Allow His love to erase the damage done by carrying these unkind labels.  He has a better name and a better future chosen for you!

What’s in a Name? Part Two:  The Thor/Loki Dynamic (Genesis 32)

I may be in the minority here, but of all the conflicts that have been setup in the Marvel Cinematic Universe I have found the interplay between the heroic Thor and the villainous Loki to be the most human and compelling. For one, sibling rivalries are always bitter feuds in which neither side ever truly wins. The impact of a falling out between family members unfairly divides the entire family even when those without a dog in the fight attempt to remain impartial. But more than that, it is the juxtaposition between two very different and complex personalities, skill sets, and outlooks on life that sets apart this epic struggle for supremacy between the muscular and manly Thor and his trickster younger brother. And the more I dig into it, the more I realized that I have heard this story before… in the book of Genesis to be specific.
Not sure what I am referring to? Maybe this will help… the story starts with the older brother – a rugged, outdoorsy hunter who was truly a “man’s man”. The heir to his father’s substantial wealth, he was his daddy’s pride and joy. Like a walking Old Spice commercial, he SMELLED like the great outdoors. A little crass and impetuous perhaps, he had little time for household tomfoolery and chased food and wives when he wasn’t chasing down wild game. But this isn’t Thor the heir of Odin’s throne, it is Esau, son of Isaac and heir to the covenant of Abraham. And just like Thor, he has a conniving younger brother who is all too eager to outwit his older sibling and take the throne that he believes is better suited to him. And so it begins…
JACOB/ISRAEL: Now for the entrance of an incredibly complex individual who undergoes one of the most substantial personal arcs in the whole Bible. He explodes onto the scene in Genesis 25 with a birth that announced his nature to the world right from the start and earned him his name. The second born of twins, his hand was clasped to his older brother’s foot as the stronger brother emerged first to presumably claim the birthright as the oldest and dominant brother.
As the younger twin emerged from the birth canal still grasping his brother’s heel he was christened “Jacob”, which literally was defined as “he grasps the heel” and carried the meaning “he deceives”. And as Jacob would live up to his “trickster” reputation for the majority of his days, one has to wonder how much of what comes next was already built into his DNA and how much was the result of receiving such a branding before he even opened his eyes for the first time.
Jacob proceeds to play the “Loki” role to his older brother’s “Thor”, tricking his stronger but less tactical brother into selling him his birthright in a moment of weakness, and then claiming the blessing of his father through an elaborate facade that would make the shape-shifting Loki jealous. Preferred by his mother, the two work together to take advantage of his father’s blindness and through their subterfuge convince Isaac that Jacob is actually Esau. Jacob lies, cheats, and steals the Abrahamic covenant blessing from his own flesh and blood. And much like Loki, his outright theft of the throne was the final nail in the coffin for an already strained relationship between the two brothers, and the trickster chose discretion as the better part of valor and fled, never to see his beloved mother in this life again.
But this wouldn’t be much of a story without a redemptive arc, would it? Despite the despicable means by which he procured it, the blessing was always intended for young Jacob. It was prophesied before his birth that the older brother would serve the younger, but Jacob seemed convinced that he would only achieve the promises of God by taking matters into his own hands. Much like the prodigal son, Jacob didn’t trust the process and made the decision to take by craftiness that which was already His by promise.
Jacob was truly living up to his name, and continued to leverage his deceptive mental acuity rather than lean into his spiritual faith as he made things right for himself through trickery and misdirection. He escaped his childhood home with both the blessing and the birthright, and used some mad science to unscrupulously build himself a fortune in livestock right underneath the nose of his equally duplicitous uncle. And once that jig was up, Jacob made a midnight escape from ol’ Uncle Laban’s farm with a large amount of ill-gotten gain to set him up for his next escapade. But unbeknownst to Jacob, his time was up and the day of reckoning was at hand.
Jacob escaped the wrath of Laban only to find himself heading directly towards his older brother Esau, who was approaching him with four hundred men and twenty years of unresolved issues. Anticipating the worst, Jacob immediately began doing what he does best: calculating the odds of survival and trying to cheat one final victory out of this apparent no-win scenario. After splitting his family and belongings into two separate camps to give at least one group a fighting chance to escape, Jacob prepared two lavish bribes and sent them ahead to soften up his older brother ahead of their meeting. And after having done everything he could think of to survive and fight one more day, he offered a prayer to the Lord, sent his family across the river for safety, and spent his final night before the confrontation alone.
When it is the night before an important meeting at work, a major event like moving, a critical medical exam, or when you are about to be murdered by your enraged older brother and his private army it is very important to get the right amount of rest. Knowing that this was quite possibly the final day in the life of Jacob, you would think he would at least get a final night of peace before walking the green mile. God, however had other plans for this night. There would be no sleep on this night… this truly would be the last day in the life of the conniving Jacob, just not the way he was anticipating.
The Bible captures what happens next with enough ambiguity to keep Bible scholars busy for decades, but the result is still crystal clear. The NKJV says that a “Man” wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the day. The capitalization of “Man” implies deity, and theories abound as to whether this was an angel, a pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus Christ, or perhaps God the Father appearing as a man similar to how He appeared to Abraham when discussing the future of Sodom. Rather than engage in a lengthy treatise on the identity of who this mysterious midnight wrestler was, I believe we will benefit more from unfolding the story from Jacob’s point of view. The truth is that regardless of who decided to grapple with him that night, Jacob didn’t know who it was either and was simply responding to an unprovoked attacker on that night. At his breaking point and out of room to retreat, Jacob found himself in a life-or-death struggle that made the problems of tomorrow meaningless. If he didn’t survive this surprise encounter he wouldn’t be around to worry about Esau and what fresh problems the new day would bring.
Jacob may have mentally surrendered to the idea of sacrificing himself to Esau so his family would survive, but he had no intentions of losing this battle and a wrestling match ensued that literally lasted until the sun was coming up. I’m not sure what experience you have with wrestling, but I was on the wrestling team in high school and typically a match wouldn’t last more than a total of six minutes, and that included two time stoppages. And at the end of those six minutes, I would feel like my entire life-force had been drained from my body. It was a battle to see who would either make a critical tactical mistake or reach their exhaustion point first, and literally every muscle in your body was used in your attempt to subdue your opponent. I can only imagine what an all night royal rumble with a divine being would feel like when I was exhausted after six minutes with a 125 lb. high school athlete. Jacob reached deep down and found that there was more to him than being a savvy con man, and at the point that it would have been easiest to give up and simply let this unwinnable situation become the end of his story Jacob persevered and finally took the first step into becoming who he was truly meant to be.
Jacob refused to submit, and the Scripture records that the Being with whom Jacob was engaged in mortal combat with saw that the sun was coming up. This iron man match was running out of time. He then dislocated Jacob’s hip and instructed Jacob to let Him go. Wait… what? Jacob was now the aggressor here? Even with a dislocated hip and no chance of winning? I’m not sure at what point this happened, but somewhere within Jacob’s Wrestlemania matchup with God a moment occurred in which Jacob decided that for the first time he wasn’t going to run and neither was his opponent. This would not end the same way it always had in the past. And when the Lord looked at Jacob, he no longer saw the trickster and deceiver named Jacob. He saw something more. He saw ISRAEL. And when Jacob flatly stated that he would not release his opponent until he received his blessing, Jacob finally received the blessing that he had been searching for his whole life. Not the blessing that he stole from his brother and impersonated to receive from his father. Not the blessing he connived from his uncle. Those blessings didn’t change Jacob, nor did they satisfy him. But with one sentence, the Eternal Potter finally took this difficult lump of clay and transformed it into what it was destined to be.
With the announcement, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and man and have prevailed”, Jacob the heel-grabber finally died and someone new was birthed. As Jacob and his still displaced hip was now left alone to ponder this unique event in human history, he began to realize something had changed and stated that he had a face to face encounter with God and survived it. And even though Esau was still on his way and nothing visibly changed about Jacob’s situation, HE was now changed as he took his first steps in the shoes of Israel, which means, “prince with God”.
Jacob may have been his birth name, but the God who calls things that have not occurred as if they have already happened saw Israel in Him before he was even born. So what name have you been saddled with? What future was baked into you from childhood, even if you were partly to blame? I know many times in my life I have become so tired of being called something negative or accused of doing something wrong that I finally got tired of it and decided if that’s how they see me, then I guess that’s who I will be. It’s a horrible response to be sure, but if I am already labeled as a failure, a loser, or worse than my motivation to prove that person wrong can only go so far before I finally succumb to the weight of the label.
As we saw with Jacob/Israel, it may be human nature to lean into the groove that others have carved for you but God has other plans… He sees the potential within the prodigal. He has a name for you based on the finished product you will be, not the lumpy clay you may currently resemble. He looked at Jacob and saw the nation he was destined to birth and the generations of men and women who would proudly call themselves Israelis in honor of their flawed but determined patriarch. We cannot control the labels others place on us, and it is even harder to remove the stigma attached to the names when we have lived up to those negative attributes previously. But I encourage you to keep on wrestling… keep holding on to the Lord and refuse to quit.
Jacob did not win the fight… he simply never stopped fighting and that was all it took to achieve victory. You may already be exhausted and your situation may be both as urgent and hopeless as Jacob’s… just endure to daybreak. The night will undoubtably seem forever long and your opponent may feel like you are struggling with God Himself… but don’t give up. And when you suffer a seemingly game-changing setback the way Jacob did when had his hip dislodged… pray and fight even harder. Your true nature and destiny will finally emerge as a result of the conflict you are currently battling, and as Jacob learned it is only when you make up your mind that surrender is not an option that the victory can finally be found.

What’s In a Name?  Part One: Scorpio, Switch, and The Labels We Wear (Genesis 17)

Branding is an exceptionally powerful part of the gaming medium, and licenses have either succeeded or failed many times simply due to the effectiveness of the marketing campaign and a catchy title.  The console side of the business is no exception, and over the years you can really gain a lot of insight into both the mindset and the future of a company by how they choose to identify their signature product.  Take Sony for example.  Their very disciplined approach to their brand is exemplified by the simplicity of their naming system, forgoing any sense of creativity and simply labeling each successive system PlayStation 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.  Simple, easy to understand, and a reflection of their straight-forward consumer approach.

Nintendo, on the other hand, prefers to match to the beat of their own drum with mysterious code-names such as the “Revolution”, “Dolphin”, and “NX” before finally settling on unique constructs such as the Wii or the Switch.  Their playful and creative approach is clearly reflected in their branding choices.  Turn your gaze to the past and you will find the bold but slightly over-reaching gallery of console names from my favorite mistake, Sega.  The promise of names like Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast conjure up larger-than-life visions that unfortunately none of these products were able to live up to.  And then you have Microsoft, the company that continues to try to think outside of the box despite literally naming their product a box.  While the Xbox brand name was certainly a catchy start, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly they were trying to accomplish with the “360” moniker and now the even more confusing Xbox 1, which is actually either the Xbox 3 or even higher if you are counting the various redesigns they have created.  And now with the project code-named “Scorpio”, they are poised to release an even more powerful version of their very successful Xbox one, but once again the final name that is chosen will have massive repercussions for years to come.

I am certain that we will have that answer within the next several weeks, and it will be interesting to see if the Scorpio code name actually sticks or if there is a superior branding plan that will more adequately describe this system to prospective buyers.  But this actually reminded me of some Scriptures where God chose to rebrand people by literally changing their name that aligned them with their true purpose.  You may be surprised at how often this happened, and anytime you see God do something more than once there is a pretty good chance there are some insights to be gained from it that we can apply to ourselves.

ABRAM/ABRAHAM and SARAI/SARAH: In Genesis 17 we find that the Lord is in the midst of making a covenant with Abram that would dramatically affect the course of human history.  This was not immediately apparent at the time though, as Abram was nothing more than a financially successful nomad without a single heir to his name.  But the Lord sees all the way through to the endgame, and despite  Abram’s advanced age and Sarai’s empty womb a promise is made.  And to seal the deal on this, God decided that a full “under new ownership” sign would be planted on the birth certificates for each of them.

Abram had the misfortune of having a name that meant “exalted father”, which is a bit rough when you consider he was rocking an empty cradle with Sarai.  And the meaning of names held great importance in those days as we will find over the next several examples, so each time Abram had to introduce himself as the “exalted father” it is likely that he would be asked, “Oh, really?  How many children do you have?”  Probably not ever a fun question to answer.  I am assuming it would be kind of like me introducing myself to everyone with the name “Brad Pitt”, then watching their amused looks of pity as they compare me to someone who I have very little in common with visually.  Other than the fact that we both have the same number of limbs, it’s a bit of a poor match.  And Abram was reminded every day when he heard his name that he was a walking oxymoron, a complete photo-negative of what his name implied.

So when God makes this covenant with Abram, He goes beyond mere words.  The Father changes both the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah with the explanation that simply being exalted father was setting a low bar.  The Lord saw that empty womb as the birthing point for not just many children, but a NATION.  Indeed, Abraham’s new name meant “father of many nations”, and the genealogy of much of the world can be traced back to this one man with the seemingly embarrassing and   deceptive name.

We may not put as much emphasis on names and their meaning as a society, but we are all familiar with LABELS and how they can have a very similar impact on how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive God, and how others perceive us and our relationship with God.  For example, if I say the phrase, “Unmarried pregnant teenager” that conjures a certain mental picture in many people’s minds, and it is probably less than flattering.  But labels can be deceiving, because I was actually referring to Mary the mother of Jesus Christ right there.  Funny how a preconceived notion about a label can skew your viewpoint, right?  Or what if I asked you how you felt about racist, hypocritical, occasionally vulgar outdoorsman and whether he should be a pastor?  What image comes to mind?  Is it the apostle Peter, who along with the other apostles looked down on Gentiles and Samaritans as lesser people and denied his Lord with curses?  Probably not, but the label is accurate.

So now for my question to you.  What labels do you carry, fairly or otherwise?  Maybe you earned your poor reputation like Peter, or perhaps you were unfairly mis-characterized like Mary.  Either way, you are not bound to those or the shame they carry any more than Abram was left to carry the ignominy of a name that may have matched who he was, but not who he would BE and how he would be remembered.  If that hits you on the nose, rest assured it does the same for me as well.  And in our next case study we will dive into someone whose name may have been accurate, but it also invites a “what came first, the label or the behavior?” question.

Until next week, remember that the label you were born under and have carried for your entire life does not define you, and it’s not how God sees you.  To the world Abraham was anything but a father, but to the Lord he was the father of many nations.  Just because it hasn’t happened yet has no bearing on the view of the One who sees the end from the beginning.  And He sees the finale to your story from the start as well and  has rejected the cruel inferences of how you have already been cast.

You are not the divorced one, the broken one, the abused one, the angry one, or the useless one, even if you have experienced these things.  You are not defined as the convict, the hopelessly addicted, or the lost cause.  You may have betrayed some people, disappointed others, and you have probably failed multiple times… welcome to the party.  I’ll join you at that table.  Those labels are not your future and they aren’t going on your name tag.  Embrace the name He has given you, even if you don’t look like it yet.  Abraham didn’t suddenly have a nation of children surrounding him when the Lord renamed him, but I have a pretty good feeling you know many of his children now.  There’s  not a corner of this earth that has not been impacted by the nations of children that were just waiting to be birthed from Abraham, and He has called you to birth something on this planet as well.  The Lord didn’t fashion a single cell of our body that does not serve a purpose, and He didn’t waste a single day of creation making something simply to say, “Never mind on that, what was I thinking?” and wad it up and toss it away like a poor sketch on a piece of paper.  He is very intentional about each life He grants, and while your purpose may not always be apparent it is still baked into your name just the same.  As we will see next week, who you have been isn’t always who you will be…