Should We Ever Wrestle With God?

In The Princess Bride, the criminal genius Vizzini repeatedly and inappropriately exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally reflects, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Like that criminal genius, Christians use religious jargon repeatedly and inappropriately. Sometimes I want to respond, “I do not think it means what you think it means.

I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” Christians use it to arm_wrestlingdescribe an intentional long night of interceding with God. The phrase refers to Jacob wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22-31). We use it the wrong way; I want to reply, “Stop saying that!”

I used to work in a ministry with a man who loved the phrase. If the finances were low, he’d demand an evening bout of wrestling with God. When the congregation failed to follow the message, he’d insist on an upper room experience battling with God.

My friend used the phrase as though we needed to get God’s attention, as though we needed to place a shot over God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast or lie prostrate.

It reminded me of the priests of Baal as they cut themselves on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). I wish I’d said to my friend, “I do not think it means what you think it means.

It may sound noble or heroic, but an African American preacher understood it better when he preached, “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”

It distorts our relationship with God

The word “wrestle” is a fighting term, a coercive attempt to force one’s will on another. It happens with little kids fighting over a toy, with adults quarreling over finances, and with countries battling for rule of natural resources.

The term, “wrestling with God” creates the image of a battle of wills: our will or God’s. We wrestle with God because we know what needs to happen, and we are pretty sure God will get it wrong. We need to persuade him, maybe pressure or bully him.

Do we really think Jacob challenged God with, “You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

It corrupts our image of God

The idea of wrestling  with God twists our image of God, turning him into some kind of evil enemy.  We are the good guys—knowing exactly what needs to happen, and God is the bad guy—withholding his grace and power. All we need to do is impose our will on his will.

Then everything will be all right (just like all the other times we got our way?). We need to remember: If you rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.

Besides … Jacob? Really?

If we ever wished to imitate a hero of the faith, would any of us pick Jacob? Few other characters in scripture embody so little character.

Jacob’s entire life is a public display of coercion, conniving, and deceiving. He cheats his brother; he deceives his father; he neglects his wife; he swindles his father-in-law; and he criminally abuses his children through favoritism.

His entire life is a struggle for dominance, imposing his will with ill regard for justice or the rights of others. He is the ultimate, coercive, self-centered War Lord; but we try to be like him as we “wrestle with God.” We’ve got to stop saying that.

Besides

Jacob’s night of wrestling is symbolic for Jacob’s entire life spent wrestling with God. Jacob consciously pitted his will against everyone else’s will; subconsciously he pitted his will against God’s.

Dissatisfied with God’s plan for his life, Jacob bullied, battled, and boxed his way through life. All the while he was ultimately battling God. Oswald Chambers says,

If you ever wrestle with God, you will be crippled for the rest of your life. If you grab hold of God … simply because He is working in a way that doesn’t meet with your approval, you force Him to put you out of joint (My Utmost for His Highest).

Battling with God puts a damper on our relationship.

So what are we to do?

Instead of wrestling against God, let’s wrestle before him. Wrestling against God makes him our adversary; wrestling before God makes him our coach.

God is the only one who knows what we need when we need it, and he knows how to deliver. Wrestling with God is our way of saying we knew what we need when we need it. If we want to live that way, we should probably get used to disappointment.

Coming before God and wrestling with the issues—marriage difficulties or financial trouble—grants God the authority to coach us. (We may think our problem is a need for money; God may be teaching us to trust him.) Wrestling before God means we acknowledge our primary need is his will, especially when it differs from our own.

Jacob begins to understand this when he prays,

I’m unworthy of all your gracious love, your faithfulness, and everything that you’ve done for your servant …  Deliver me from my brother Esau’s control, because I’m terrified of him, and I fear that he’s coming to attack me.

Wrestling before God teaches Jacob Grace. He says, “I’m unworthy,” and then he asks for God’s help anyway. All our troubles come from false beliefs about God: Is he an adversary or a coach? Is he out to get us, or is he out to get good for us?

If we imitate Jacob in any way at all, let’s do it this way: let’s admit we need grace and let’s believe God is full of grace.

It’s time to say, “As you wish.” Wrestling with God so that our will prevails is …  “Inconceivable.”

I mean it.

Sam

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23 thoughts on “Should We Ever Wrestle With God?

    • Hey Sgwill

      When we repeat words are phrases ad nauseum, they lose their meaning; they no longer are fresh; and soon the unconsciously come to mean something else entirely.

      We say we need to “believe in God” and we use that phrase until is merely means an intellectual assent; I believe the world is round, that germs are bad, and uh, oh yeah, and I believe in God. Belief in God is something very different.

      We also turn off non-believers with “insider” jargon. Everybody does this about something (geeks talk geek-ese and the eyes of outsiders roll back in their heads). But when we Christians talk about rapture and justification, we are losing people.

      Or worse: we inoculate them against ever wanting to know the real meaning beneath the jargon.

      There is an invitation and challenge to all of us, to come up with creative and fresh words to express timeless and ancient truth. Part of Jesus’ genius was his breathing life old words: evangelism was the word for the old news media giving good coverage; or saying “I am the temple”–it blew their minds; likewise, “I am the bread.”

      When he used the “new” terms, it confronted people, it challenged them, it intrigued them.

      When we use weird, tired words, it bores them.

  1. That’s a very fine read my friend. Way to take on a phrase that is used in a way to diminish our trust in, love from, and family heritage. If we “wrestle with Him”, then we’re back to “your on your own and no one else is looking out for you”. Goes way against “I will never leave you or forsake you”. And if we use the Jesus filter (His life example), we don’t see him wrestling with God. And to those who say ‘what about Gethsemane’, that’s wrestling with a very tough huge decision, not wrestling with God as an opponent. Thanks Sam

    • Hi John,

      You nailed it, thanks. We can carelessly toss around terms that make us look cool (we know the right phrases) but all the time they are a cancer slowly eating away at our image of God.

      Thanks

  2. This is good, Sam. And, I say this with sensitivity, but it reminds me of prayer chains. Sometimes it feels as if people think that if enough emails are forwarded and enough people are out there praying, God will answer prayers.

    I say I want to be sensitive, because sometimes prayer chains are used in times of real crises, so I think having large numbers of people praying brings emotional comfort to those involved and it’s not about trying to put a large rally together to get God’s attention. But, similar to what you’ve said about “wrestling with God,” trying to assemble a army of prayer warriors feels like we have to go to battle with God to get him to do the right thing.

    As far as wrestling with God, I think the phrase is more accurate if it means I am wrestling with what God has spoken to me or what He has shown me as his guidance. Years ago I was in a panic around work, and I remember it being difficult to wait and watch what God would do. At one point Father said, “David, don’t get scared right now. It wouldn’t be helpful. Give me some time.” To live in that counsel felt like wrestle because it was a struggle.

    • Hi David,

      I love your application to the prayer chain. Yes, it can be–and usually is–a very good thing. But, if we begin to use it to “battle” God, yikes!

      Your story of panic about work is a perfect example of wrestling BEFORE God; you bring these scary issues and wrestle with them before God … and guess what: God speaks. I bet his voice was hugely helpful and calming–even though he didn’t provide an instant answer (If we rush the miracle man, we get rotten miracles).

      Thanks

  3. Hi Gerry,

    Good image of wrestling with God as a young child; indeed that creates a different image.

    And that is the point. Our words and phrases create subconscious images of God that are often wrong or misleading, like wrestling with God.

    But your phrase creates that great image of a father rolling on the floor with his kids, in delight, joy, and fun.

    Hey, I like it.

  4. Hi Sam
    This is a great reminder of how we need to study the WORD of God. So many times as I have read scripture I don’t really understand because the words are tainted in today’s world. Once I start digging for the real understanding of the words then God’s message is revealed.
    How many times in our daily lives does a word stop actually meaning what it is supposed to because of all the spin put on it by society. This happens all the time.
    To get to the truth we have to seek to understand.
    Thanks Sam

    • Hi Chris,

      Your answer triggered something in me. My favorite translation of the Bible is ESV (for all kinds of reasons that wouldn’t apply to others). But the past six months I’ve deliberately been reading other translations. And I’ve found it SO refreshing.

      Sometimes the new translation will use slightly different words that trigger a response. I’ll go back to my favorite translation, and there it is too…but I’d been to familiar with it to see.

      So yes, the words can be too tainted, and they can be too familiar.

      Thank

  5. You’ve hit a home run once again Sam. I find that I either don’t take things to God (isolating from Him) or I’m arguing/accusing Him of not caring or getting involved, telling Him what He ought to have done. I want to live more in the way of, “Father, can I talk to you about something that I need you help with.” – like the title of that old show “Father knows best.” Thanks Sam.

  6. Thanks Sam, I love the idea of God as coach. He’s always in our corner, encouraging us and rooting for us. I think of great coaches like John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, and Burgess Meredith as Mickey in the Rocky movies. If we just listen to our coach, we can win with his help.

  7. This injected a huge dose of humility into me once again. How often do I “know” what is needed and ask God to provide it rather than take to him my fears, concerns and worries so he can tell me what he’s doing about them?

    Do I really believe that I’m smarter than God? Sheepishly…yes, I do. And usually the outcome is rather humbling.

  8. What if what you’re wrestling with is the idol you thought was God and the way to tear down that idol is to say that can’t be God? Since it’s a completely metaphorical concept, it’s hard to map wrestling neatly into a distinction between “wrestling with” and “wrestling before.” I’m not confident enough that I know when God is speaking to me to be able to have an “opponent” to wrestle with per se if He says something I don’t like or whatever. The wrestling I do is to figure out whether I’m hearing God or my own ego talking. So I suppose that’s “wrestling before. ”

    My only concern with “wrestling before” as you’ve described it is that it seems like it would easily turn into accepting the absolute authority of your pastor’s interpretation of scripture. As a pastor, I try to create a safe environment in which people can say openly what theological concepts they struggle with. Obviously you can overly indulge “questions” so that it just becomes an infinite loop, but I don’t jump down peoples’ throats even when they question big things like the resurrection. Sometimes their heart needs to lead so the stubborn brain will follow.

    It’s better for people to name these things openly than to just play along and parrot out the pieties that they think they’re supposed to say. It seems like a lot of evangelicals in my generation played along under a heavy-handed authoritarian church culture for a long time until they snapped and became militant atheists. I’m saying that a lot around me and it’s scary.

  9. Anybody want a peanut?

    There are SO many odd little things that Christians say, it kind of drives me crazy. 🙂

    Your point about “Seriously? Jacob?” is dead-on. When Jacob was “wrestling with God”- was that a good thing or not? I think that whole story is just weird (sometimes I read the bible and go “?????”) and yes, Jacob’s life was characterized by deception and, you know, things we shouldn’t do.

    Personally, I think most of the times I’ve heard people say “wrestling with God”, what they meant was God did something or commanded them to do something, and the process of praying and struggling to come to terms with it was “wrestling with God.”

    But I know what you mean about “imposing our will on God’s”- I remember when I was younger, I really wanted to know how to pray in such a way to MAKE God do what I wanted. (Read books on prayer and stuff… I never figured out how…)

    • Hey Perfect Number,

      First, THANK YOU for your “Anybody want a peanut?” comment. I was afraid my closing line would go unnoticed.

      As for the “Seriously, Jacob?” comment. Christians often confuse Descriptions with Prescriptions. Just because God Describes something (Jacob wrestling with God) doesn’t mean that God Prescribes it. God describes David’s adultery; does it mean he also prescribes it? I don’t think so.

      I also agree that some use the term “wrestling with God” to describe praying, struggling, and coming to terms with a command from God. But that is why I still like the term wrestling “before” God better.

      We are already wresting “with” God when we want to resist his commands. We don’t need someone to advocate more of it. Instead, we need to take the issue to God and let him work on our heart (instead of us working on HIS heart).

      I read Anne Voscamp’s book on gratitude (One Thousand Gifts) last fall. It is powerful. I love it. And it taught me much about not asking God for my way.

      Thanks for your great comment.

  10. Sam,

    My wife is going to love reading this one–you are quoting from one of her favorite movies.

    The truth is, I’ve been wrestling with God and fighting against the goad for decades. I don’t intend to do this, but it is likely my heart being rooted in fear and worry that God doesn’t really like me or love me, and so have become content in acting alone to fend for myself, akin to ascending “the Cliff’s of Insanity.”

    I am reminded of our new kitten Milo (our daughter’s Christmas present) who just today got it’s paw wedged in a wire table base and was struggling to free itself, where struggling actually wedged it furtther. The kitten’s reaction as I came to help was to increase his struggle. He didn’t know I was there to rescue him…making matters worse as he “wrestled” now against two threats.

    Fortunately for both the kitten and myself grace has come while we were “not completely dead…just mostly dead.”

    • Oh Timm, I missed those two great quotes. I was concerned about getting a few more quotes in.

      Just remember, “I wasn’t nervous. Maybe I was a little bit ‘concerned’ but that’s not the same thing.”

      And great analogy with your kitten Milo. It’s exactly what we do as we struggle against God.

      Thanks.

  11. Hi Matt,

    Wow, thanks for the kind comment.

    And I like your closing distinction. It … makes me think. 🙂

    Sam

  12. I just have to say that if you gotta wrestle with God, you gotta wrestle with God. Sometimes you just don’t get it and you just don’t like it and you just have to wrestle with him over it. And, frankly, that’s a way better choice than writing him off—like all those young people Morgan mentioned.

    “Why did my friend die?”

    “What about all those people who never heard the gospel?”

    “Why did you let those priests abuse those children?”

    “What do you mean, predestined for damnation??!!”

    Oswald Chambers is absolutely right—if you wrestle with God you may walk with a limp ever after. But the thing about Jacob’s story that means so much to me is that God will wrestle with us. He doesn’t use the lightning method. In fact he’ll wrestle with us all night long if we care that much. And I get the impression he appreciates it when we do care that much. It’s the wrestlers that are sticking with him through the hardest stuff.

    I think maybe a lot of people wrestle with God the way Jacob did—pretty much just once and after a long buildup. Sure, you take hard questions to him all the time afterward, but once you’ve gotten past the big one—the one where you surrender and decide to trust him even when you don’t get it and you don’t like it—you find that you’re tackling all the rest from his side of the mat.

    And once in a while (and I speak from experience), you grow into some amazing answers that were once…inconceivable.

    • Martha,

      From someone who walks with a limp…AMEN!

      I do understand Sam’s point, though. It takes a good dismantling to understand that it is a tad easier if we just embrace Abba. It takes even the greatest of men, e.g., Saul of Tarsus, more that a few kicks against the goad…in fact, it took blindness and dependence for Paul to get there.

    • Hi Martha,

      GREAT comment (as always). I still wrestle with the adversarial image of the term “wrestling with God,” although I agree with you that it’s better than being struck by lightening.

      I have wrestled with coaches and teachers when I didn’t get the concept, but in those wrestlings, the teacher and coach was really on my side. I also have a few adversarial teachers and coaches (or bosses); and frankly, I didn’t take issues to them the same way, I didn’t wrestle “with” I wrestled “against.”

      My concern is the image created, and how it is often misused. But I grant you “wrestling” in the way you use it here.

  13. This POV is for those raised on passivity and or “let go and let God.” Let me clarify: an adolescent definitely needs to push back against Mom and Dad to become an adult in a healthy way. Wrestling with God is pushing back. Not breaking the relationship, not losing faith, but taking an Abrahamic, rabbinic, Godly view that God values our opinions and wants us to push back as a coworker with Him, and a true adopted child. “Permission to speak frankly, Sir,” says the subordinate officer in all those movies.

    The more I look at the anti-comtemporary teachings of scripture, the more it sees that anyone who could teach these (name your favorite ignored verses) must be crazy? But God is not crazy. And the Bible is true. And I’m definitely not going to act like an enslaved minority nomad patriarch just because that would make things easier to plan. No, raising your voice with God is entirely appropriate for getting out of passivity and into a living friendship that honors God by your faith.

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