Wrestling with God

Wrestling is a sport that involves grappling with an opponent while trying to obtain a position of advantage using different methods or techniques. Surprisingly, it is a wrestling match that the Lord often uses to become our portal into faith. Jacob’s wrestling experience described in Genesis 32 can be used to shape our view of God and His blessings.  There are times when God only releases His blessings on us after a season of prolonged and sometimes painful wrestling with Him.

            In Genesis 32, Jacob is returning to His place of birth with his small tribe of wives and children after twenty years away and is mustering courage to reunite with Esau, the brother whose life he damaged through deceit and manipulation. Jacob is quite frightened because his estranged brother, Esau, is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob doesn’t regard this as a welcome party! It appears to be quite an army, which terrifies him! So Jacob splits up His household into two camps and sends them all ahead of him, to try and avoid complete annihilation. Jacob, restless and unable to sleep, is left to spend the night alone — no doubt in desperate prayer. On this lonely night, he can’t hide behind his vast wealth, his many servants, or his large and complicated family… they’re all gone. He is alone in the dark in a desolate place…until he’s not. Until a nameless, stranger leaps out of nowhere, throws him to the ground and proceeds to wrestle Jacob until daybreak. At some point during this strange contest Jacob realizes that he is wrestling with God. Now that’s quite a revelation! Then amazingly, when God decides it’s time to end the match, he dislocates Jacob’s hip and demands to be released. Jacob, in significant pain, replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). This response evidently pleases God, who pronounces this blessing on Jacob: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob (deceiver), but Israel (struggles with God), for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). That next morning Jacob then limps toward his tense reunion with Esau with a weakened body and a strengthened faith. Having wrestled with God, he knows his prayers regarding Esau will be answered. 

            This story may resonate with you as it does me. Have you ever found yourself alone in the dark in a desolate place?  How often, in that menacing darkness, have you done solitary battle with something you don’t recognize as God until much, much later? It is in relationship with God and in His all-encompassing presence that we fight the fights that bend, break, and remake us.  It is in God’s company that we face down our personal demons.  It is God alone who brings us to the ragged edges of our own strength so that finally, finally, we’ll surrender (a death of self), and allow ourselves to be transformed.  

            Take note of what God did when he wrestled Jacob. Jacob began the night dreading Esau’s arrival. He was full of fear and desperation. But he ended the night of struggle with God’s blessing and a renewed faith. All of our struggling with God in faith leads to rest, resting in Him that is. And isn’t it interesting that God did not simply speak to Jacob in a dream or vision as he had at other times and reiterate His promise with comforting words? This time God addressed Jacob’s fear by requiring him to wrestle all night. This probably felt to Jacob like a badly timed hassle when he just wanted comfort and assurance. However, later he realized just how comforting it was. Sometimes when we want God’s comfort, he sends it in unexpected and even unwanted packages. Surprisingly, God afflicted Jacob with an injury. This had the effect of making Jacob even more vulnerable to Esau, forcing Jacob’s faith to more fully rest on God and not himself. Evidently, from Jacob’s story, we learn that, if necessary, God will even cause us to limp to increase our faith.

Furthermore, wrestling with God changed Jacob’s identity. He was no longer to be known as one who received his blessing by deception. He was renamed Israel and received God’s blessing by prevailing with God by faith. This struggle turned out to be a profoundly gracious gift of restoration that God gave Jacob. Jacob’s tenacious faith pleased God and he rewarded Jacob’s request (Hebrews 11:6). When God calls us to wrestle with Him, there’s always more going on than we first understand and God always uses it to transform us for good. Jacob wasn’t the only person in Scripture to wrestle with God. David wrestled (1 Chronicles 13:11). Jesus wrestled (Matthew 26:39). These moments of personal struggle with God’s will are grounded in genuine relationship. That’s the kind of relationship God wants with us: one in which we learn (through experience) to trust his character, even when we struggle to understand and accept some of His choices. Wrestling with God is a matter of reaching out to Him as He is. It requires embracing his vastness and unpredictability. It may be kind of scary, but it’s the foundation for deep levels of trust in a faithful Father who is trustworthy even when we don’t understand.

            When God makes us wrestle Him for blessing, it is not because God is reluctant to bless us, even if that’s how it first feels. It is because he has more blessings for us in the wrestling than without it. Remember, God was the initiator and pursued Jacob for this match. Jacob was grappling in his own anxiety over Esau and his approaching army when God showed up. The wrestling drew Jacob out of his fearful preoccupation and forced him to focus on God. I doubt that Jacob wanted this forced focus or even believed he needed it at first. It wouldn’t surprise me if at the beginning Jacob had prayed as I might have, “God, would you get rid of this guy? This is the last thing I need right now.” But what he discovered was that the wrestling was a means of God’s grace, a channel for God’s blessing on Him. 

            So my friends, what is it you really need from God right now? What blessing do you want from Him and how badly do you want it? What I carry away from the story of Jacob’s wounding is the troubling, but solid truth, that blessing and bruising are not mutually exclusive in the realm of God.  We can limp and prevail at the same time.  I can’t dictate the terms of blessing.  I can’t say, “I want the blessing but not the limp.”  Sometimes, the blessing is the limp.  As dawn breaks, the stranger asks Jacob to disengage, and Jacob, tenacious as ever, says no: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  I love this line. I want to make it my life’s stance, because it assures me that sometimes, “winning” involves nothing more than not giving up.  Sometimes, the spiritual life is about little more than hanging on for dear life to a God who appears mysterious, bewildering, and a bit frightening.  Sometimes the whole of Christianity comes down to saying, “There’s so much I can’t wrap my head around, but I know there’s a blessing in this mess somewhere and I’m going to hang on until I find it.” God will meet you in your anguish, fear, and uncertainty. But He may not meet you in the way you expect or desire. Your greatest ally may show up looking at first like your adversary, inciting you to wrestle with him. If so, remember Jacob. There are multiple blessings in the wrestling. So when God calls you to wrestle with Him in prayer, it is an invitation to receive His blessing. Stay with Him and don’t give up.  He loves to bless that kind of tenacious faith and you will come out transformed. My friends, don’t let God go until He blesses you! Keep wrestling!

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