Should We Ever Wrestle with God?

In the movie The Princess Bride, the evil genius Vizzini repeatedly (and inappropriately) exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally responds, “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. I often want to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.

I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” arm_wrestlingChristians use it to describe an intentional long night of pleading with God for his help. The phrase refers to God wrestling with Jacob (Gen. 32:22-31), but we use it the wrong way; let’s “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 members failed to follow his messages, he’d insist on an upper room experience of 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 across God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast.

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.

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

What do we even mean?

The word “wrestle” is a fighting term, a coercive attempt to force one’s will on another. We witness wrestling when little kids fight over a toy, adults quarrel over finances, and imperialistic countries invade other countries for rule of their natural resources.

The phrase, “wrestling with God” creates an image of a battle of wills: our will or God’s? We “wrestle with God” when we know exactly what we need, and we are pretty sure God will get it wrong. So we need to strong-arm him, maybe pressure or bully him.

Do we really think Jacob challenged God with, “You killed my father; prepare to die”?

We corrupt 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 (wantonly withholding his grace). So let’s impose our will on his will.

Do we really think we know best? Have we forgotten the other times we got our way instead of God’s? Let’s 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 scriptural heroes embody such little laudable character.

Jacob’s entire life is a forceful expression 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.

The best thing Jacob ever did was cling to God, not wrestle with him.

Besides

Jacob’s night of wrestling symbolizes Jacob’s entire life of wrestling against God. Jacob consciously pitted his will against everyone else’s. In reality, he subconsciously 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.

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 against 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—difficult marriages or financial troubles—grants God the authority to coach us. (We may think our problem is a need for money; God may be teaching us enduring strength.) 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.

Jacob finally learns grace when he wrestles before God. He says, “I’m unworthy,” and then he asks for God’s help anyway. Our deepest problems do not come from bad circumstances. They 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?

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

I mean it.

Sam

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4 thoughts on “Should We Ever Wrestle with God?

  1. Great insights, Sam. I have always loved the story of Jacob wrestling with God, but I’ve come to view it through the lens of God testing and transforming Jacob. Clearly, going to the mat with Jesus is never a fair fight – but He came down to Jacob’s level (as He later did for us in the incarnation). I see in this story a question: ‘Just how badly do you want my blessing, Jacob? Is your heart really in it? What are you willing to endure to get where I want you to be?’ I think it’s significant that, at this point, God has already promised to bless Jacob, i.e. He wants to bless him. Could it be that God was gauging Jacob’s heart, showing him that a life of blessedness is not easy, but is worth pursuing? I think your metaphor of God as a coach fits perfectly here. Also, while God wanted to bless Jacob, the latter’s lifestyle as a conman, swindler, and thief was antithetical to that. Perhaps in this wrestling match, God was teaching Jacob the value of honest pursuit – sweating, working, bleeding rather than conniving, lying, and cheating. All in all, what speaks to me here is that Jacob is given a new name. He is changed (albeit imperfectly) and set on a new path. I see in this story a portrait of a God who is willing to step into our mess and meet us where we are, precisely because He loves us too much to let us stay there. Thanks for the daily dose of inspiration, Sam!

    • Hi Quentin,

      GREAT comments, thanks.

      I agree, when done right, the wrestling is done for our benefit; not to change God’s mind but to change our hearts (God already knows what we want before we ask; but he wants a relationship with us, he wants us engaged with him).

      Thanks again,

      Sam

  2. I use the term “wrestle with God” in much a different way than your example above (which was essentially an example of manipulating and controlling God).

    There are times I know intellectually that God’s person, will and direction is what I need in a particular issue, but something in my heart isn’t yet yielding. The wrestling is for my benefit – it is the process of God revealing whatever lie or unbelief is in my heart, and of him removing and dealing with that falsehood. It often involves a lot of “but God”, and a lot of “I don’t want to” (sounds like a 3-year-old). I have to stay in that place of wresting with God until he inevitably wins, and breaks thru the barriers that are in my heart. God’s overcoming almost always results in deeper insights, freedom, and awe at His awesomeness.

    It is wrestling with God, because I must make the continued choice to stay engaged – to wrestle with what God is saying and who he is and to allow the deep beliefs of my heart to be challenged. I enter (and continue to enter) the wrestling knowing who is going to win, and I choose to engage because I know that it is part of his process of maturing me and conforming me to his will.

    • Hi Nathan,

      Yeah, I agree. There are two ways to wrestle with God: to see him as someone we need to manipulate, or to see him as someone wrestling with us and engaging every part of us.

      (Remember, it was God who wrestled with Jacob, not Jacob who went looking to wrestle with God–we use it to wrong way.)

      And I love your comment about God wrestling with us to change the deepest beliefs of our hearts. Exactly. He is always pursuing us. Sometimes in ways that seem uncomfortable in the moment.

      Terrific thoughts from you, thanks.

      Sam

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