In his sermon on Genesis 32, Tim Keller defines “wounds of grace” as “the chronic physical limitations that a person endures after wrestling all night (literally or figuratively) with the living God and living to tell about it”. In this chapter, Jacob wrestles with “an Angel of the Lord” or “a pre-incarnate Jesus Christ” (as some have inferred). As a result, Jacob walks with a limp for the rest of his life.
These wounds come in various forms and levels of severity, and without exception, wrestling (figuratively) with God involves an altercation. In that altercation, we see ourselves for who we really are, and God for who He really is. It isn’t pretty, even if it’s a minor skirmish. It is the clash between our depravity and God’s standard. In sports (real and fictional) we see them all the time.
In NBC’s Friday Night Lights, Dillon High School football players Jason Street and Smash Williams experience wounds of grace on the gridiron, changing the trajectory of their lives forever. Both are destined for major college scholarships, but are dealt injuries in high school games that change all of that for both of them. For Street, the wound is severe, a hit that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. That’s an abrupt trajectory shift.
However it’s Smash’s “wound of grace” that most of us can relate to. His injury doesn’t prevent him from playing for a major college team, but it significantly alters his path toward achieving that goal. What does “wrestling with God” look like for Smash? It involves a torn up knee that brings him to a place where he has to become gut-level-honest about who he really is with his coach and his mother. They call him on his pride, and his addiction to steroids, and that hurts worse than the knee. Mostly though, they are agents of grace, calling him to trust something outside of his self for his healing. That healing, by the way, has nothing to do with the knee, and everything to do with his (mistaken) identity.
Sometimes, wounds of grace in sports are far more brutal. They come with career-ending and life-threatening calamity. rom the vantage point of the average fan, they appear to be utterly horrifying and merciless.
Most NFL fans would not easily recall the career of Steve Gleason. He played in the league for seven seasons, all with the Saints. He was a career special teams/bench player. Gleason did see the field long enough however to experience several concussions throughout his career. Recent studies indicate that concussions may be a contributing factor in ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Gehrig himself had 6 concussions during his baseball career.
Gleason is in the advanced stages of ALS. He is (effectually) paralyzed from the head down and can only communicate through a software program that enables him to speak by blinking his eyes. Gleason sees his affliction as a wound of grace. He highlights in the video here his favorite line from his favorite band – Pearl Jam.
“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead.
If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace
By which we live our lives with death over our shoulders” – Pearl Jam, “Sirens”
If we embrace our wounds of grace, something easier said than done, our trajectories are free to plunge downward, into the theology of the cross – into a very good place. The wounds come in a myriad of ways. If we’re honest, we would perhaps welcome them in manageable doses (“blow out my knee, but don’t put me in a wheel chair”) – but then if we could manage them, they wouldn’t cause us to look for our salvation beyond ourselves. As Jacob is told:
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Gen 32:28 NIV)