Wrestling with God

“During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them. After taking them to the other side, he sent over all his possessions. This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking! But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ ‘What is your name?’ the man asked. He replied, ‘Jacob.’ ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob’ the man told him. ‘From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.’”

Genesis 32:22-28 NLT

Jacob wrestled with God.

And won.

This passage of scripture has always been one of the most difficult for me to wrap my mind around. It’s confusing. It doesn’t make sense. I have so many unanswered questions. Mainly: How do you wrestle with God… and win?! How did Jacob have the authority to demand a blessing of God? I’ve never been able to fully comprehend it.

But guess what?

Lately, I’ve found myself relating to Jacob. Living my story has felt a lot like reading Jacob’s story – I can’t wrap my mind around it, it’s confusing, and it doesn’t make sense. But nevertheless, there are seasons in our lives when our past seems to chase us into an unknown future. And in this period of transition, in the darkness of the night, before the dawn breaks – there is an overwelming sense of fear and loneliness. And in the holiness of this moment, so shrouded in mystery, my Spirit wrestles with God.

And guess what?

It’s okay.

In fact, it’s more than okay. I’ve come to learn that God delights in our wrestling, because wrestling with God means being real with Him. It means we stop pretending everything is okay, and start being honest about our worries and fears, our doubts and discouragment. He already knows. He is truth, afterall. We can’t conceal our heart from the One who created it. He has just been patiently waiting for us lay down our facade and welcome Him into our internal struggle. It’s not that we’re wrestling against God, it’s that we’re wrestling with Him. And we are never so close to Him as we are in these moments of wrestling.

I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m uncomfortable with the concept of wrestling with God is because it means I have to lay down my pride. It means I have to lay down this false image of holiness and reverence I’ve constructed in my mind about myself and my relationship with God, and I have to get down in the dirt from which I was created and wrestle with Him. Wrestling with God means I have to get to the root of my fears and motivations. It means I have to be honest about my hopes, dreams, and deepest desires. Wrestling with God means I have to open myself up and risk getting hurt. Jacob won the match, but he didn’t leave without scars. So the question I have to ask myself is this: Is the risk worth the reward? And is that a risk I’m willing to take?

I think it is. And I think it’s one you should take too.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Maybe there is a longing in your heart – a desire that has not yet been fulfilled, a prayer that has not yet been answered. Maybe your life has not turned out the way you hoped, dreamed, or imagined. Maybe you’re confused about your calling and purpose. Maybe you’re experiencing doubts you never thought your faith would come up against. Or maybe you’re still struggling with a particular sin you thought would be far behind you by now. Whatever this wrestling in your heart looks like, whatever it feels like, you can rest assured that you are not alone. Maybe, like Jacob, you’ve found yourself alone in the wilderness. Maybe, like Jacob, you’re running from your past. Maybe, like Jacob, you’re scared about the future. And maybe, like Jacob, you’ll leave this battle with permanent scars. But maybe, like Jacob, you’ll also leave this battle with an eternal blessing.

When you look at the definition for “wrestled” in Genesis 32:24, it means “to grapple” or “get dusty.” It’s important for us to recognize that this was not a boxing match as many of the images of this scene often depict. This was indeed a wrestling match. They were on the ground, rolling around in the dirt, stirring up dust.

Dust.

Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.”

Mankind was formed from the dust of the ground.

We are formed in our wrestling with God.

If we really want to grasp the magnitude of this statement, we have to look back at Jacob’s past.

Jacob’s name literally means “heel holder” or “supplanter” because from the time of his birth, Jacob was always trying to take what was not rightfully his. He was known for his deceptive tendencies. He was born holding on to the heel of his twin brother, trying to usurp the power and authority that came with being the firstborn in that time. Later, Jacob would take advantage of his brother in a weakened condition and essentially rob him of his birthright. Then, in his father’s last days, Jacob would take advantage of his father’s waning eyesight and deceive him in order to gain the blessing that was originally intended for his brother. When Jacob was old enough to marry, he got a taste of his own medicine. After working seven years to marry the woman he loved, he was deceived by her father, and tricked into marrying her older sister.

Lies and Deception – that was the joint and marrow of Jacob’s story. Every blessing in his life was achieved through deceptive means. But here, in Genesis 32:22-32, when Jacob is on the run for his life and finds himself in a battle for his life – He demands a blessing. He demands a blessing that is real and genuine. He demands a blessing that is freely and consciously given to him. He proves he is willing to fight for it. He proves he is willing to suffer for it and sacrifice for it. He leaves the wrestling match with limp that he will walk with for the rest of his life, but he also leaves with a new name that will carry into future generations to this very day. In Genesis 32:28 the man says, “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” The name Israel means “God prevails” because this battle was one Jacob had to fight in order to prove to himself and future generations that deception is not the way to true victory – and even when we win the battle, it’s only because of God’s prevailing power and graciousness.

What I find most fascinating about this name change is something I read in Isaiah 43:1, which says, “But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.'” In this verse, what stands out to me is that Jacob was created, but Israel was formed. This is a small detail that we often skim over, but it carries with it a much deeper message.

Typically, when I have read this verse in the past, I have always imagined that “Jacob” was referencing the individual person and “Israel” was referencing the nation of people. Jacob was the created person, Israel was the formed nation. However, it’s important for us to remember that the nation of Israel was named after the person of Israel. The 12 Tribes of Israel were the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob and Israel were the same person, but with one significant difference. The blessings of Jacob were obtained through deception, but the blessings of Israel were obtained through wrestling. Israel was Jacob’s new name, his new identiy. Israel was formed in the dust stirred up by wrestling with God and with man.

Just as Adam was created by both the dust of this earth and by the breath of God, we are made of both flesh and spirit. Where the flesh meets the spirit, there is bound to be wrestling. It’s a natural part of our spiritual formation.

So wrestle.

Don’t hold anything back.

Ask the hard questions.

Be persistent in those prayers.

Don’t relent. Don’t let go.

Press through the crowd until you feel His garment in your hand.

Cry out. Scream it out loud if you need to.

Pour it out like a broken box of precious and pricely oil at His feet.

He already knows your heart. He withholds no good thing from you.

He’s not intimidated by your requests. He’s not overburdened or annoyed by your questions. He is strong enough to bear the weight of every doubt and fear. His ear is inlined to your every cry, and He collects every tear because He cares for you. He is waiting expectendly for you to draw close to Him. If you pound your fist into His chest in your anger and frustration, you will feel He is strong enough to bear it. And soon after, you will feel His outstretched arms embrace your surrender. When the battle is finished, when the dawn has broken, you’ll receive the blessing He’s been waiting to give you.

We have the victory. We have the victory because He prevails. And just as a potter may have to break apart the clay to mold it, sometimes we’ll experience the displacement of a hip to remind us of that this blessing isn’t one we lied and deceived to receive, but one that was given to us with grace and compassion from the God who prevails over sin and breathes life into dust.

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