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Wrestling with God

“Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.” (Genesis 32:24)

Late that night, Jacob stood alone by the Jabbok River; troubled, frightened, sleepless. Somewhere in the darkness Esau approached with four hundred armed men. Esau from whom Jacob had stolen the birthright. Esau who had sworn to kill Jacob. And where was God? Why wasn’t He helping?

When God did come to Jacob, the Almighty wrestled with him. The Hebrew word used, avaq , means to pound and make small, and by extension, to wrestle in such a fierce way as to raise dust. Why would God wrestle with Jacob? Yet, haven’t we too wrestled with God in long, lonely nights of prayer?

God’s Involvement

I can’t imagine a competition more personal than wrestling. Hand to hand. Face to face. Nose to nose. Perhaps we don’t think of God wrestling with us as personal involvement. But it is. God came personally to Jacob as the patriarch waited and worried. And God comes personally to us through His holy Word—as we lie sleepless in bed or await the results of a medical test or struggle with guilt. But then, should we expect anything less than personal involvement from the God Who came to share in our humanity and to die for our sins?

Our Limitations

As a boy, I loved to wrestle with my dad. Despite my young age, I almost always “won” the matches. After pinning dad’s shoulders, I would dance around the living room with my arms raised in victory. Yet, occasionally, when I strutted too much, dad would pin me to the floor and hold me there despite my wriggling, giggling, and eventual whining. Why? To show me my limitations—that there were some things I could not do on my own.

Like Jacob, you and I must learn that we have limitations and that God has none. And if He teaches us this important lesson by wrestling with us or putting us into a submission hold, should we not praise Him? There are times when we need to wrestle with God in prayer; times when God must tenderly hurt us to heal us. Yet, He always knows how hard to wrestle, how long to hold us in place, and how far to push us backward before sweeping us forward into His loving embrace.

Victory Through Faith

According to Genesis 32:25, “the Man saw that He did not prevail against Jacob.” Was it truly that God could not overpower Jacob? No. Rather, through that long night of wrestling, God taught Jacob that while he, Jacob, could not hold on to God by his personal strength, he could cling to God by faith.

“I will not let You go unless You bless me,” said Jacob (Genesis 32:26). This is the language of faith. Faith which trusts God’s Word. Faith which knows that God, Who has every reason to be against us, is for us in Christ. Faith which insists “God loves me” when times are good and still insists “God loves me” when times are bad.

Better Wrestlers

Wrestling with God can be a painful experience. Ask Jacob, who, after wrestling with God, walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Yet, each time we wrestle with God, He makes us better wrestlers. Better by realizing His personal involvement in our lives. Better by understanding our limitations and relying on His strength. Better by knowing that, no matter how long the match or how fierce the bout, God will grant us the victory.

And if it takes a limp to learn this lesson, praise His holy name!

Mark Weis is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.