Wrestling with God

What do we mean by “wrestling with God”?  This is the situation when a person becomes contentious with God, desperate for help, yet unsure of actually getting it. The story of Jacob demonstrates this struggling. This is precisely how he got his new name, Israel, which means, “He who contends with God.”

What was the story? Jacob was running for his life (Gen. 32). He had conspired with his mother to steal the treasured birthright and blessing from his brother Esau. In return, Esau hated Jacob and was out for blood. Jacob fled and spent many years far from home. There he was free from any threat of attack, but eventually his desire to return home overcame any sense of risk. So here is Jacob, homeward bound, hoping for peace with Esau. What will he find, near the journey’s end?

Esau, somehow aware that Jacob is returning, has come down the road to meet his younger brother. Esau is accompanied by a large contingent of people. They are capable of doing serious harm to Jacob, who now has a growing family, including little children. The night before the two groups will meet on the road, Jacob tosses and turns, trying to sleep. God comes to him, somehow in tangible form, as an angel. Jacob grabs hold of God. It sounds pretty strange, but maybe you know the feeling. We often struggle with each other for dominance or advantage. But what exactly was going on, that a man should struggle with God?

This wasn’t about proving who was stronger. Jacob knew God held all the cards. He trusted God, generally speaking. But this is no generic situation. The feeling of danger is palpable. The longing for peace is real. He wrestles with God saying, “I won’t let you go, until you bless me.” Jacob is shaken to the core, uncertain of any good outcome.

Can you identify with him? Sometimes storms rip through our lives. We feel defenseless. We mutter to ourselves, “Does God understand my problem? Does he even care?” We are like Jacob, grappling with the Almighty, desperate for a promise of protection and care.

You don’t have to be exactly like Jacob to wrestle with God. Sadly, some people conclude, as storms tear through their lives, that there is no God. Others, holding to a thread of hope, blurt out short prayers: “God, you’ve got to help me. I don’t know what to do. Are you even there?” They wrestle with God, angling for leverage.

What is the Big Issue?
What’s the central issue here? As Christians, our center of gravity is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have nothing without him. But when things are radically shaken up and out of our control, what do we tend to do? One of these two things: We either start talking to God or we start listening more carefully to him.

It seems that Jacob defaulted to the first. At least his wrestling indicates a lot of talking and inner struggle. I don’t blame him. Don’t we all mutter and plead with God when besieged with problems? He knew about the second choice, which is listening to God. Had he forgotten what God had spoken? He could have “listened” by recalling God’s promises: land, descendants, and blessing. God had on several occasions spoken to Jacob this great promise, as he had to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.

I can’t stand in judgment over Jacob here, but I know that when I pray, the only power I have is to remember God’s promise. When I insert his promise into my prayer, that is precisely when I find comfort and assurance. Scripture says, “All the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20, ESV). This isn’t a magical practice, nor is it a formula for manipulating God to favor me. Rather, it simply lays my needs and worries into his arms. Babbling on and on with my worries or my self-pity doesn’t help. My point is this: prayer without reference to God’s wonderful promises in Christ is ultimately fruitless.

Bring the Gospel into Your Prayers!
This is what the Canaanite woman did. We read (Matt. 15) that she was desperate for Jesus to heal her daughter. She had heard excited reports of a Jewish rabbi with healing powers, and to her, these reports were good news. And now, this man was actually in her neighborhood! She was intent on getting his help, and she wasn’t about to let go until she got it. But it sure didn’t happen automatically.

She bumped up hard against an icy reception. But this woman was a bulldog. She wouldn’t let go. She grappled with the Rabbi. He needled her: “I just came for the Jews. You’re not one of us.” She punched back, landing like a pesky fly on the forehead. She was ready with any argument that would do the trick.

What then? Jesus was not just impressed with her persistence. He was amazed by it. “O woman, your faith is great! Let it be done for you!” Aha! He spoke the words she needed.

For you, a storm may be swirling. But God’s gentle voice is at the same time his all-powerful voice. He speaks, “I love you. I will never let you go. I’ve got your back.” And so, we persist, and such wrestling is not in vain. There is much at stake.

Yet through it all, God keeps his Word. Jesus is that Word—in the flesh. My prayers, if not in response to this Word, bounce off the ceiling. But when they are a response to Christ, the living Word, they have eternal consequence. This kind of prayer, and the life of faith and obedience linked with it, pleases God. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).

Listen. Then pray.
Rev. John Lee is a member of Grace Lutheran Brethren Church in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he serves on the worship team.

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