Have you ever known someone who changed their name? It comes in many forms. Perhaps someone asked you to call them by their nickname, an honor signifying friendship and affection. Though unspoken, in the request is an extension of love and deepening trust. Perhaps they changed their name legally, an action almost always born out of trauma associated with their original name. Or they got married, giving another their last name or assuming the last name of another, signifying commitment, seriousness and longevity. Not only is a name change an acceptance of something new, it is a rejection of something no longer wanted or relevant.

Changing one’s name is always born of sorrow or joy, never a product of lukewarm nonchalance. It occupies the extremes of emotion, the extremes of change. Our names do not define us, they reflect us. They are an attempt to show others who we are.

One of the most powerful messages of renaming we find in the Bible is the story of God renaming Jacob. Jacob loosely means “he cheats”. Jacob had been a cheater and deceiver, stealing his older brother’s lawful birthright through deception and betrayal. But Jacob paid dearly for his treachery and caused his family and himself great turmoil and sorrow, as always is the case when we violate God’s will for us. His brother sought to kill him, his parents sent him away from his land and family, he was repeatedly deceived by his father-in-law, causing Jacob to marry someone he did not wish to marry and to work for his father-in-law well beyond the agreed-upon time. Due to the unwanted marriage, there was strife between his wives, each vying to give him more sons than the other and fighting amongst each other for his love and respect. His brother pursued him, with an army of 400 men, bent on killing him for his deception. Jacob was so terrified that he plotted to potentially sacrifice half of his wives and children so that he may escape harm, or so that at least half of his family would survive.

On the surface, Jacob had it all: many wives, many children and livestock, all the wealth of the time. But underneath he had fear, jealousy, strife and struggle driving his life. All of this terrible fallenness — all resulting from Jacob’s original deceit — culminated at the point where Jacob was about to meet the fate of Esau’s army. It was at this point that Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord emboldened by the Lord himself. And at the end of the fight, Jacob, physically and emotionally exhausted, pleaded with the Lord for his blessing.

Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

“What is your name?” the man asked.

He replied, “Jacob.”

“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”

“Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.

“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. — Genesis 32:26–29 NLT

When Jacob wrestled with God, he was granted the name Israel, but only after the Lord asked Jacob to verify his old name. Don’t miss the significance of this. God asked Jacob to recognize who he was before his reckoning. Jacob knew that by answering “Jacob,” he was conceding that, without God, he was “one who cheats.” Jacob had come to a place of utter physical and emotional brokenness, ready and willing to give up his old, godless ways in order to accept an identity in the Lord and to honor his name.

It is only when we wrestle with the Lord that we begin to understand who we are without him. Without God’s identifying mark, we are deceitful, selfish, treacherous people, bent on personal gain and marked for the death this selfish march inevitably leads us toward. As Christians, we have accepted the name God has given us through acceptance of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

My life was once marked for death and had all of the signs of this marking hidden underneath the beautiful, superficial facade of health, wealth and happiness. Now, as a daughter of the Lord, the fragile, false surface has been broken, and the foundation underneath has been established and grows stronger every day. Like Jacob, I had only to acknowledge my old name, reject its identity and accept the new. May we never forget our old names so that we may always remember who brought us here and gave us hope and everlasting life.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. — 1 Peter 1:3–5