Better than Bethel

The memory had come out of nowhere, if you can even call it a memory. It was more like a "knowing"...a feeling, a sense from a previous place and time. I had entered the sanctuary to spend time with the Lord, randomly selecting a padded chair towards the back, not expecting to "feel" such a moment. Since no one was around to scold me otherwise, I had casually kicked my feet up on the row of chairs in front of me and settled in to listen for His voice. Just as my heart was beginning to calm, that feeling - like that of a distant memory - had washed over me. You know the kind of feeling when you smell a fragrance and are brought back to your childhood? Maybe you are walking through a crowded mall and catch a whiff of baking bread from Auntie's Anne's Pretzel shop only to be transported in your mind to your grandma's kitchen? It was that kind of feeling except without the fragrance; it was that kind of memory where I am transported back in time. I opened my eyes and smiled; I knew this feeling well: this was the memory of Camp Peniel.


I had spent many a childhood summer at Camp Peniel in the foothills of Missouri. I gathered here with cousins and friends to swim in the coldest pool possible, to sleep in the hottest cabin imaginable, and to walk the largest hills conceivable...at least to my seven year old imagination...and I loved every mosquito-infested, humid moment of it. But all of those wonderful things were secondary to the real reason why Camp Peniel existed and the reason it existed was found in it's very name: Peniel. Taken from Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestled with the Lord, Peniel means "face to face with God." This camp was created to create an atmosphere to encounter God and I can gladly say that Camp Peniel lived up to its name because it is here that I first received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a moment that radically shaped my spiritual walk with the Lord. The name Peniel had become an anthem for my heart - a cry to know God more! To meet the Lord face to face as Jacob had!


So, thirty years later and hundreds of miles away, as I sat in the sanctuary and randomly sensed that feeling of being back there, I knew the Lord was speaking to me in His unique way. It happened again a few days later and then a few days after that - that feeling of Camp Peniel. I wish I could say I had heeded his voice more closely afterwards, but alas - I moved on to quickly. I simply stopped and enjoyed the feeling and said, "Thank you for what you did in me there, Lord. Please do it again!" It seemed sufficient at the time, but now I know, the Lord was communicating something different.


At the time, I was carrying my unborn child and little did I know then what the Lord already knew: that I was going to lose her before she was born. It wasn't until a few months after miscarrying that the Lord brought me back to what I had missed in his message of Peniel: the wrestling with God. In Genesis 32, God had a gift prepared for Jacob - that of seeing Him face to face, of receiving a name change (from a name meaning Usurper to his new name meaning Prince with God), and receiving a blessing. But this blessing - this change of identity, this encounter with the Living God - came, not when Jacob was resting like at Bethel, but when he wrestled with God...and this was the lesson God had tried to communicate to me that day in the sanctuary. God knew that I was about to enter a wrestling match unlike any other I had known, and if I would embrace it and not run from it, I would receive a blessing unlike any other I'd ever received.


There is a blessing God has for us in every season - in resting and in wrestling. One is not in opposition to the other for they each serve a purpose. At Bethel, Jacob had his first encounter with God. True to his name, Jacob the Usurper was on the run for swindling his brother, scheming with his mother, and lying to his father. Now, his brother is trying to kill him and he is running for his life. While he stops to rest at a town called Luz, he has a vision of a ladder with angels ascending to heaven and descending to earth. At the top stands the Lord who looks down on Jacob and tells Jacob who He is: the Lord God of his father and grandfather. He proclaims the same blessing to Jacob as he had proclaimed to Abraham and Isaac and promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes. It's such a powerful moment, that when Jacob awakes from the vision/dream, he changes the name of the town to Bethel, meaning, "House of God." Luz is typically translated, "almond tree" but it can also be translated as "devious, crooked, departing from [good]." Sounds a lot like Jacob, doesn't it?! Here at Luz, God encountered the devious, crooked Jacob and, in essence, declared to Him, "I want you to be my house! I want you to be my Bethel, Jacob, so I promise not to leave you until I have done all I promised (Gen. 28:15)".


This Bethel encounter is one that most every believer dreams about receiving! How I would love to find myself in a moment of rest only to awaken to see God in the heavens proclaiming His name to me! It's incredible stuff. And at first glance, it would seem like no other encounter with God could be better. It seems like the whole package: angelic activity, prophetic promises, tangible presence, visions of God in heaven. And yet, God had something "more" for Jacob - he had Peniel. He had more than a ladder of God up here and Jacob down there prepared: he had a "Face to Face" scheduled for him.


Before Jacob's Face to Face, Jacob must cross the brook Jabbok. Jabbok means "to empty itself." All the years of toiling since Bethel had brought Jacob through the journey of breaking his will or - in other words - of emptying himself. I had no idea when God brought me back to my memories of Peniel, that I was about to be emptied of so much. My womb would be emptied, my heart would be emptied, my dreams of a future would be emptied. And in the place of being emptied of everything but pain, I wrestled with God. I wrestled with God. And I had no idea what a gift this would become.


When God brought me back to Peniel after my loss, I read the account in Genesis 32:22-32 and was shocked by what I saw. I had so exalted Peniel as the place of Face to Face that I had failed to see that the only reason Jacob was face to face with God was because he wrestled with Him. And it wasn't a gentle tossing about - this was a struggle that lasted through the darkest part of the night. It was absent of Bethel's rest, absent of Bethel's light. But it had something Bethel didn't have. Bethel, while a place of incredible encounter, still kept God at a distance - up high and lofty - but Peniel is the place that brought God so close, they were cheek to cheek. But it didn't come from rest - it came from the wrestling. Bethel is the place where God makes a proclamation and you are left speechless. Peniel is the place where you seek answers but only find more questions (32:27, 29). But it's these questions that bring God closer than Bethel. Because Peniel is the place where your wrestling with man and God connect. In other words, it's the place where humanity & divinity clash, where flesh & faith collide, where struggling meets prevailing. It is here, I am learning, that God empties me of "neat and tidy" theology and replaces it with a heart that simply says, "I don't know and that's okay." In the place of Peniel, I can confess to God, "I only have more questions and yet I know You now more than ever."


God knew before I did that I was about to have a Peniel moment with Him. If I had not had a Bethel moment first, I don't know if I could have held on through the long night of wrestling. And if I had not leaned into the pain and leaned into the questions while I wrestled, I wouldn't have received the blessing of knowing Him face to face. It's a funny thing, this walk of faith. But I am learning that, whether in the resting or whether in the wrestling, God has something for me there.





© 2018 by Desiree Dunleavey.

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