I could feel the burn of anger pulsing through my veins. I was stubborn sore, as you might say. My best friend Amos and I rolled across the floor, arms locked around each other while simultaneously shoving and pushing. His skin was flushed a bright red with effort and anger, and I gritted my teeth.
We didn’t wrestle often. Amos was always freakishly strong and capable, whereas I was generally more passive. The wrestling match had started friendly, but somewhere in my inability to gain ground and his inability to force me to give up, we grew angry.
I stubbornly contorted, pushed, and leveraged every ounce against his much stronger force, and he kept pushing and fighting to hold me down. The match eventually ended because we grew tired and didn’t want to actually fight.
Years later, we were taking Tae Kwon Do together and decided to spar in my backyard. We only had one set of gloves and boots. I was considerably taller, so I took the gloves while he used the boots. The sparring match started with “touches,” indicating points. We would then reset and go again.
We were both flushed with anger and heat a few minutes later and sported swollen lips. We had forgotten the “touch equals a point” idea. His foot would land in my side as my fist would connect with his head, and we would push in, often doing more damage with elbows and shoves than punches or kicks.
Realization of our anger broke over us in a sudden wave, and we stepped back and walked away for a while.
Amos was my single most influential and best friend for over a decade. We were brothers and friends. We lived together, pushed each other to grow, played together, and pondered the mysteries of heaven and earth together. I have had precious few friendships like that in my life.
In Genesis 32, we find the account of Jacob wrestling with God. We aren’t given much detail, but here is what we know. A man shows up in the night, and Jacob and this stranger begin to wrestle and continue all night. As the day begins to dawn, this man is revealed to be a theophany (a pre-incarnation physical appearance of Christ); the Lord touches Jacob’s hip and dislocates it, but Jacob refuses to give up and demands a blessing.
It is a strange account, and the author seems more focused on reporting the event than interpreting or explaining its meaning. Yet, God’s reaction to Jacob shows he was not angry. He gives Jacob the name Israel meaning “one who strives with God” and/or “God strives,” and blesses him before he leaves.
There is another story that I believe gives us insight into the meaning of both passages.
Luke 18: 1-8 (Luke 18:1-8 NASB – Bible Gateway)
In this parable, Jesus tells us about an unjust judge who cares nothing for God or people. Day after day, this judge has refused to hear the cry of a widow, yet every day she comes demanding justice. Eventually, the judge relents and gives her justice simply because she has worn him down. The lesson, Jesus tells us, is that if even an unjust man who refuses to respect even God can be worn down, how much more will God respond to the call of his people? His point was that we should continue in prayer and refuse to give up even when things take longer than we want and when everything feels to be falling apart or going from bad to worse.
How do these two stories connect? They are both pictures of how we wrestle with God.
Jacob wrestled with God physically through the night and suffered permanent damage to his hip. We wrestle with God in prayer and often find that we’ve gathered scars along the way. We are not wrestling to get God to do something, to make him pay attention, or finally respond. We are striving to hold on until the blessing.
It goes to the very heart of the purpose of prayer. Prayer is not a transaction. It is not a list of demands we wait for God to fulfill or deny. Prayer is not a formality, formula, or simple check-in. Prayer is wrestling with our own nature and our separation from God. Prayer is holding tight to Him and refusing to let go.
Prayer is the stubborn refusal to lose hope in the character, goodness, and promises of God.
Yes, we might get hurt along the way; we can’t see everything coming at us while we struggle. We might get angry, even, or especially at God. We might lash out and struggle. We might even feel as though we are fighting against God on occasion.
That is why it is so vital that prayer be honest and raw. The psalms are an excellent example of honest prayer. There are times when David accuses God of ignoring and abandoning him, ignoring injustice, and turning a blind eye to pain and suffering. Yet, he strives and struggles and holds firm, ending each psalm with, “yet I will praise Him.”
David’s prayers are raw representations of how he feels and where he is. They are not over-spiritualized or worded to gloss over difficulties. They are honest appraisals of where he is, followed by faithful proclamations of God’s character and promises.
We are not wrestling against God; we are wrestling with him through life’s mess, pain, and struggle and our limited understanding of his master plan. He strives alongside us to bring us through the long nights and into the dawning blessings. Thus the focus of our prayer should be to say, “God, here I am, here is my heart, this is how I feel and what is burdening me, I want your blessing, I believe you can and will give it, and I refuse to let go and give up before it comes.”
The beauty is that God promises that it is coming, and because he is righteous, just, and good, it is coming at the best possible time for us.
I have been in the process of wrestling with God for some time. Like those fights with Amos, at times, I felt angry and like lashing out at God. Yet, I refused to stop coming back until he made it make sense. Last Sunday, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and gave me wisdom. As I considered how many years it took to come to a place where it feels like my life is coming back together, He whispered in my heart, “If I had restored everything to you quickly, it would have wrecked you.”
At that moment, I could see the truth. My life, sense of direction, relationship with Him, and any chance at having grown from my struggles would have been thrown off course if not ruined without the long process of healing and recovery. He wasn’t ignoring me or turning a blind eye; he was wrestling with me to reach the outcome that was best for me.
Spiritual growth includes suffering and pain. It is the only way the deeply rooted areas of our life grow and mature. Thank God that we do not strive alone.
Love this: “…he was wrestling with me to reach the outcome that was best for me.” So true. How many times do WE wrestle against His best?? Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the comment. It is always good to hear someone finds the words meaningful. I think I have wrestled against His best far too often.