“Salvation,” “adoption,” “redemption,” being “born again” and many other terms describe what happens when God’s grace enters our lives and makes us his children. Not only are we called new creatures who now relate to God differently, but we begin relating to other people and nature differently too.
What does wrestling with God mean? Is wrestling with God “allowed,” or is that off-limits?
Should we wrestle with God?
Depending on your understanding of who God is, you might initially think that the answer to this question is “No.” God is a lofty, powerful being you shouldn’t trifle with. So, the idea of wrestling with him seems flippant, arrogant, and even disrespectful. It seems too much like playing with or disobeying God.
However, one of the ways God describes himself is “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
Another passage reminds us that “The high and lofty one who lives in eternity, the Holy One, says this: “I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I restore the crushed spirit of the humble and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.”” (Isaiah 57:15).
God dwells with those who are humble and repentant, and if we are his children, that means us. In many other places, we are reminded that God is willing to meet us in our weakness, that he knows us through and through. All this is in the Old Testament! The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God and Father of Jesus in the New Testament.
To help us understand God better, and what wrestling with God is all about, we can look at a few examples of people wrestling with God throughout the Bible, such as Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Jacob, Hannah, Paul, the unnamed Canaanite woman, the unnamed Samaritan woman, and Jesus with his Father in the garden of Gethsemane.
This wrestling took several forms. Sometimes wrestling with God is about going back repeatedly in prayer over something that is confusing us that he has said or that is happening in our lives.
Sometimes, the wrestling looks a bit like negotiating with God, and at other times it looks like reminding God of his promises while asking him to act. At other times wrestling with God is about struggling to come to terms with God’s will for our lives and seeking strength to go with God’s plan.
Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33)
When God was about to destroy the city of Sodom because its people were high-handed sexual sinners, Abraham pleaded with the Lord and entered what can best be described as negotiations.
Abraham approached the Lord and said, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?… Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
God agreed to spare the city if fifty righteous people were found in it. Abraham then went on to lower that number, each time asking God not to be angry with him. The Lord wasn’t angry with him. “What if there are only forty-five?… what if there are only thirty?… what if there are only twenty?… let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
The Lord relented, saying that he would spare the city if only ten righteous people were found in it. As it turned out, Sodom didn’t have even ten righteous people in it, and so it was destroyed. The key thing to note is that Abraham was bold with God, even going as far as to remind God of his righteous character, that surely he would do the right thing!
Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32)
Jacob, who was Abraham’s grandson, also wrestled with God. This one was a little different because Jacob wrestled with God all night and God dislocated Jacob’s hip, which gave him a limp for the rest of his life. This is one of those strange stories from the Bible that are a tad baffling. Jacob wrestled with what he thought was a man but turned out to be God, and he received a blessing.This blessing was a confirmation of the promises and blessings God had given his grandfather before him. Why would God wrestle with a human being? Why would it even be anything like a contest that lasts all night?
Jacob was a man who all his life had struggled with people – though God’s promises for his life were clear, he lied, conned, and manipulated situations and people to get his way. His name Jacob means “deceiver,” and when he wrestled with God that night, he was facing his biggest challenge, and the situation was out of his hands – he had just fled from his uncle and was about to face his estranged brother, who could very well take his life.
He was at his wit’s end, and powerless to control the situation. He wrestled with God and was blessed, his name changed from “deceiver” to “Israel” which means “he struggles with God,” and from this encounter, he was changed – not only because of his limp but in how he was with people.
The Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28)
A woman who wasn’t part of Israel came to Jesus asking him to help her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus didn’t answer. She could have gone away at once, but she persisted, even when Jesus’ disciples urged him to send her away. When Jesus does answer her, he tells her that he was sent for the “lost sheep of Israel,” of whom she isn’t part.
Does she give up? On the contrary, she persists. He then tells her “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” In saying this, Jesus isn’t calling her a dog, he’s pointing out that his ministry was primarily aimed at Israel. But the woman persists. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
She tells Jesus that even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table, meaning that even though she knows Jesus was sent to minister to Israel, she too can still benefit from his ministry. Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” That woman didn’t take Jesus’ responses at face value. She persisted despite the many obstacles, and this is like what Jesus said to his disciples when he told them to persist in prayer (Luke 18:1-8).
Paul (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)Lastly, we look to Paul, who was given a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment” him. We don’t know what this thorn was, but we do know that he was given this thorn to keep him from becoming conceited about the amazing spiritual experiences he had received. He asked God three times to remove that thorn, but the Lord told him “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
This is one of those situations, just as when Jesus wrestled with the Father if there was any other way to accomplish his task without having to go to the cross (Luke 22:39-46), where the wrestling happens, but we gain wisdom to accept that God’s will and His way is best.
Sometimes, people in the Bible wrestle with God and God grants that for which they are praying. Other times, we can wrestle with God and be transformed by the experience so that we gain wisdom to accept the answer that God has already given. The Bible appears to encourage wrestling with God because God is not far off from us, and we are called to be active participants in the life of faith.
People in the Bible wrestled with God over childlessness, their fears, and anxieties, along with many other life issues. We wrestle with God to gain clarity about his purposes for our lives, to make requests of him, and sometimes as part of the process of accepting what God plans for us. Being able to wrestle with God is part of what it means for us to be the children and friends of God.
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