When you wrestle with God
When I was a kid, Saturday mornings at my house consisted of watching episodes of WWF with my big brother (World Wrestling Federation for those of you who missed out). There wasn’t any Netflix, iPads or Fortnite to entertain us, just drama-filled “reality TV” of grown men in spandex slinging one another around and cracking skulls with metal chairs.
We were clearly a sophisticated family.
At some point during the program, my brother and I would take our respective positions in separate corners of the living room and act out a legit Wrestlemania. I would run at him full force, and he would lift me over his head and body slam me into our corduroy sectional. At times, as if to punctuate the clear defeat, he would pin me down and tickle me until I couldn’t breathe. My brother is eight years my senior, so it was more of a massacre than a match, but that didn’t deter me from trying.
In Genesis 32, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, finds himself in an otherworldly wrestling situation. Jacob was on a journey with his family and servants, returning back to his homeland of Canaan at God’s command. Before arriving, though, he needed to make amends with his twin brother, Esau.
Jacob had been a troublesome little brother. He deceived his father, Isaac, and stole firstborn Esau’s birthright and blessing - essentially his entire inheritance - some twenty years before (Genesis 27). Jacob understandably feared retribution.
At some point in the journey, Jacob is left alone. This is when a man wrestles with him until daybreak until finally striking and dislocating Jacob’s hip (Genesis 32:24-25). He commands Jacob to release and desist, but Jacob won’t let the man go until he blesses him.
This seems like a strange part of Scripture. Where did this mystery man come from and why is he wrestling with Jacob? Why does Jacob refuse to let him go and ask for a blessing?
We see after Jacob’s hip has been hit, the unnamed man further exerts his authority over Jacob by renaming him:
“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he said, “It will be Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).
Did you notice that Jacob “prevailing” didn’t mean that he gained control or got his way or exerted power or authority over this man? Jacob won the wrestling match simply because he wouldn’t let go.
Expect to wrestle
So it is with us, as we journey with Jesus to where ever it is that He is calling us, that we will find ourselves at times struggling to trust and surrender. We may wrestle with sin or scars from our past, with situations or knowing God’s will, with other people, even with Scripture, church or a particular theology.
But we will wrestle. And that is good, because it means we haven’t let go. The very nature of wrestling is that you can't do it from a distance. It is a full-contact sport.
The Bible says we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). As we grow deeper in the Lord and abide in Him, we will need to wrestle to understand His Word and His Ways more fully.
The winning technique in wrestling with God is clinging to God.
Only by the supernatural touch of the Lord - a divine dislocation of our hearts - will we be able to grasp an ounce of understanding about the plans God has for us.
Encountering God personally
Some Bible scholars believe Jacob was wrestling with an angel of God, not God himself. Except that Jacob had already encountered God’s angels earlier in Genesis 32:1. Others believe that Jacob wrestled with the pre-incarnate Christ, which seems more probable since he came in the form of a man but wielded the authority of God.
Either way, Jacob acknowledges this event as an encounter with God by naming the place in which he wrestled Peniel – which literally means “the face of God.”
Do you have a Peniel in your life, a place where you have sought God intimately and worked it out with Him?
Have you scoured the Scriptures to understand God’s heart – not the world’s or even your own preferences - on certain decisions and issues? The best way to wrestle with God is through His Word (the Bible), fervent prayer, and active faith in Him. But God can reach you anywhere.
Our wrestling should never be a waste. If you are abiding in Jesus, there will be plenty of places along the journey that you will call Peniel. You can read about one of mine here.
It is important to note that this wrestling match with Jacob wasn’t random. It was necessary. It was, in fact, God's will. God came to Jacob and initiated the wrestling, not the other way around. When we are wrestling, we can feel like God is distant or displeased with us. But the Lord is always pursuing us. In fact, He is training us like a tireless coach to become stronger in Him. He is preparing us for what lies ahead.
We may be grappling, but God is guiding, always in control and always working for our good and for His glory (Romans 8:28).
Jacob was returning to his homeland, at the Lord's command, where God would confirm His covenant – the same promise given to Jacob's relatives, Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 15:5, 26:3-4). Jacob couldn’t walk in this promise, though, until he struggled and clung to the only One who could ultimately keep that promise for him.
And what was the promise?
“A nation, indeed an assembly of nations, will come from you and kings will descend from you. I will give you the land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac. And I will give the land to your future descendants” (Genesis 35:11-12).
It was the promise of the coming of Jesus, from the lineage of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The twelve tribes of Israel would come from Jacob, and from the tribe of Jacob’s son, Judah, would come the long-awaited Messiah and Savior of the world.
Wrestling with God changes us
For Jacob to be able to receive that promise, he needed a new name and a new walk.
We, too, need a new name and a new walk to receive God’s blessings and promises.
The good news is that "all the promises of God are yes in Christ Jesus" (2 Corinthians 1:20). We don't have to earn our way into these promises, we just need to open our hearts to receive Jesus and all the blessings He has already made available to us.
“Judah is a young lion … The scepter will not depart from Judah or the staff from between his feet until he whose right it is comes and the obedience of the peoples belongs to him. He ties his donkey to a vine, and the colt of his donkey to the choice vine. He washes his clothes in wine and his robes in the blood of grapes” (Genesis 49:9-11).
Jesus is the Lion of Judah, our King who holds the eternal scepter, our Good Shepherd who leads and comforts us with His staff, our Peace, our True Vine who was pressed and poured out for us, our Lamb of God who washes us clean by the shedding of His blood, who clothes us in His robe of righteousness (Isaiah 1:18, 61:10).
Jacob encountered Jesus right before he entered into his God-appointed home in the Promised Land.
We too must personally encounter God, first at salvation and then every day as we abide in Jesus, to reach the places He is leading us.
Spiritual limps strengthen us
And why did Jacob leave with a limp after his wrestling match with God?
“For I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared. The sun shone on him as he passed by Peniel – limping because of his hip” (Genesis 32:30-31).
Jacob would never walk the same after that encounter with God, indeed with the pre-incarnate Christ who is the only One who could spare his life. He would no longer be called Jacob, the selfish deceiver. He would walk in the Light and be called Israel, the faithful patriarch to the nations and ancestor to the Messiah.
When we experience the living God, we too will go by a different name – chosen, forgiven, righteous, redeemed, royal – and we will never walk the same (I Peter 2:9).
Call it a holy hobble or a sacred shuffle, but these spiritual limps that we often deem weaknesses are what make us strong in the Lord. They keep us humble and dependent and more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The beginning of the power of Jesus resting in you, abiding in you, is a holy wrestling match with the greatest big Brother who ever lived, who indeed lives today. Abide in Jesus.