22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
(Genesis 32:22-31 ESV)
Aside from the story’s unusual circumstances, something I’ve found myself asking when reading this passage in the past is, Why would God make Jacob wrestle with him in order to bless him? I’m sinfully stubborn – I rarely see the connection between God’s affliction and affection. These verses challenge my preconceptions about the role of happiness or ease in the journey of sanctification. I don’t want to wrestle when circumstances test my faith. I want to run.
Even so, the concept of wrestling with God is something that has been coming up a lot in my life, especially over these tumultuous past three years. There is so much about my life that has changed drastically in the span of 1,095-something days, but one of the most dramatically transformational seasons of my life has been what I call The Existential Crisis. It began with a singular moment just after I began college when I was struck with a horrible weight of conviction and clarity about the fact that I didn’t actually believe in God. I was sitting at my desk, writing an article entitled “Living As a Christian Atheist,” when suddenly I realized that the entire article was describing me point-for-point.
This realization sent me on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journey that I can’t quite describe in terms that justify how arduous it was. I started from all the basics that I knew (and could learn) about logic, science, history, and philosophy. I rejected the inconsistencies regarding Christianity that I had never before been willing to address. I didn’t care what I would end up labeling myself – I just wanted to know the Truth that existed outside of myself. After a period of agnosticism, I slowly came back ’round to the Christian faith (though I had undergone some major theological shifts) and dedicated my life to Christ. There was a weight to this season that I had never felt before in all my years of church attendance and the pursuit of spiritual highs. It was the knowledge that such a reality demanded radical change in my life.
As any other true believer knows, I’m still dealing with the after-effects of this acceptance. And one of the hardest things to accept in light of this experience is that the wrestling wouldn’t end there. The questions, the fears, and the failures would continue. I would be praying “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” for years to come . . . and I haven’t been able to stop yet.
Man, do I want to.
My aversion to wrestling with the things of God – or God himself, in most instances – is manifested when I flip through my journals and find the same questions, the same prayers, and it drives me to despair. It often seems like God still hasn’t drawn near in the way I had hoped he would when I started honestly seeking him. There have been many times – and they seem to increase as my life progresses onward – when God has defied my expectations for how he might act. Sometimes it even seems like he’s acting contrary to how he says he will in Scripture.
I was explaining these feelings to my husband a few weeks ago in a fit of depression, and after pondering it for a moment he gently said something like, “There’s a lot of pride wrapped up in it. It’s like you’re holding up your works and efforts and demanding that he should just immediately do what you want him to in return.” My immediate reaction was to feel angry – after all, I was demanding a good thing, right? I wanted to know God more deeply. The problem that my husband pinpointed is that I wanted it to happen on my terms.
And the interesting thing about it is that the pride isn’t often in the wrestling, as we often think. It’s in the running away. Whenever I end up truly “wrestling” with God, it looks like I’m holding out hope that he’ll do his thing regardless of whether it makes sense to me. Wrestling is what happens when I find myself desperately praying and seeking despite my fears that it’s all for nothing. Wrestling is what happens when I open the Scriptures, even reluctantly, on days when I want to toss it across the room instead. I hate these moments because I want it all to come naturally and comfortably, but these are the moments when my mustard seed of faith is working more actively than ever.
So my pride is demonstrated not in those moments of wrestling, but rather in the moments when I cross my arms, pout, and give God ultimatums or silent treatments. Pride says, “I’m not doing this anymore – not until you prove yourself worthy of my effort.”
What humbles me in these times is to recall that passage in Genesis where Jacob’s own wrestling is recorded. God gives him a new identity following this experience: he is given a new name, Israel. The meaning of this name is literally “struggles [or wrestles] with God.”
The beautiful significance of this is that God’s chosen people still bear this name (see Romans 2:28, 9:6). They cling to the Lord and often strive against him, and they refuse to let go until they have their redemption, just as Jacob did. If you are a regenerate, redeemed child of God, you bear this identity as a beloved wrestler of God. I am wrecked so often by how incomprehensible God’s ways and wisdom are and how hard it feels sometimes to see him working. This is often what it looks like to live in corrupt bodies in a corrupt world, where it is so apparent to us how much distance has been wrought by sin between our souls and the things of God. Even further and deeper, wrestling with God – and losing ourselves to him, joyfully – is a part of what it is to be included in the true Israel, the Church.
So faith, true faith, will feel like a wrestling match at times. Yet God prevails. Our souls groan together with creation as we await our final redemption, when we will see God face-to-face, and the wrestling will be over (Romans 8:22-23). Don’t despise the groaning. It is a mark of your humanity. And even more than that, it’s a mark of your new identity in the Lord.