Wrestling With God

In one of the more unique and fascinating stories of the Old Testament – and there are plenty of those to choose from – there is a wrestling match that takes place between a man named Jacob and God Himself roughly 4,000 years ago.

On the face of it, such a wrestling match seems impossible. Wrestling has to do with two fairly matched opponents trying to get the superior position over the other. There would be no contest if one had an unfair advantage in weight, size or strength. And yet, in this case, an all-powerful Creator and a mere man are locked into an intense struggle that goes on all night. This struggle, if we dig a little deeper into it, can tell us a lot about God and also ourselves.

When Jesus Christ was on the earth, He said to His followers: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:38) The people he was talking to became extremely offended by his words, and challenged him by saying that they were already free and had never been slaves to anyone.

They, like us, don’t always have accurate information about ourselves. We don’t know whether we are slaves or not — to bad habits, to wrong attitudes, to getting our own way, to being in control. And if we don’t know we are enslaved, we won’t ever get free, because it is first knowing the truth about ourselves that is the beginning of freedom.

In the story of the ancient biblical wrestling match, we find a man who has never really been completely honest with himself. But he comes to a place in his life that he is so desperate that he faces his own weaknesses and failings, as much as he doesn’t want to. And when he gets honest with himself, he finds out who he really is and what God is really like. It turns out, it is much different than he supposed.

The Back Story
To talk about Jacob, we need to talk about his father and his grandfather first, because they are really important to who he is, just as our parents and grandparents are really important to who we are as people.

Abraham was Jacob’s grandfather, and he was the beginning of the race of Hebrews or Jews. God made an agreement or covenant with him and his family that followed after him, that He would bless Abraham and his descendants. It was through obedience that Abraham would be able to enjoy God’s provision, and then the whole world would see what a good God that Abraham served. (Abraham’s story begins in Genesis 12).

Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had an extremely difficult time getting pregnant, but they finally did have a son in their old age whom they named Isaac. When Isaac was grown, he married Rebekah and they had a difficult time getting pregnant as well. But Isaac prayed for his wife, and God blessed them with not one but two babies — twins!

The first one to come out was named was Esau and the second one’s name was Jacob, our hero. When Jacob was coming out of the womb, he grabbed his brother’s foot like he was trying to take the first place, and so he got the name “Jacob,” which means supplanter, or somebody who tries to cheat someone else by taking their place. Not exactly the best start in life.

Esau liked to hunt, but Jacob liked to stay around the house and we glean he was rather a “momma’s boy.” But Dad was partial to Esau. Since Esau was born first, he was going to get the blessing of the firstborn son. But Rebekah wanted Jacob to have that blessing, so she and Jacob concocted a plan to trick Isaac, whose eyesight was failing in his old age.

The plan worked and Jacob tricked his dad into giving him the firstborn blessing, cheating Esau out of his firstborn right. Esau was so furious, he was ready to kill his brother. So Jacob had to run for his life and live with relatives far away. He never saw his mom and dad alive again.

A mess going somewhere to happen
Jacob starts life over again, far from his home with some of his mother’s relatives. He marries — twice — and has a football team of boys. He works for his father-in-law, who doesn’t treat him very well at all.

Added to that, his two wives were actually sisters and they fought all the time, so there was a lot of strife at home. Work is tough and home is tough. Despite all that, Jacob is prospering financially, because earlier, when he was on the run, he had made a promise to God that he would give God back a tithe, or a tenth, of his income if God would bless him. And it worked!

But that’s the only part of his life that is working, and now his father-in-law and brothers-in-law are getting envious of Jacob’s wealth, and it looks like that his wealth is ultimately going to cause further family division and heartache.

Then he gets a word from God, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3)

What did you say, God? Return to whom? His mother and father are both dead, and the only person who is left is Esau, his twin brother, who was trying to murder him 20 years ago.

This had to be a difficult decision for Jacob to make. Not only is his own life going to be on the line, but the many people he is now responsible for.

Maybe most of us would have written Jacob off as a mess going somewhere to happen. Maybe that’s what you think about your life. But God loves redeeming messes, just like ours.

Jacob obeys the word of the Lord and heads home on a 300-mile journey , but like most of us, when he gets some bad news, he panics and forgets God’s promise to him. He hears that his brother is coming with 400 men to meet him.

You might panic too! A party of 400 men sounds to Jacob like a small army,  and he  is defenseless. Most of his entourage are women, children and servants. Not surprisingly, he forgets God’s word that he will be with him and concocts his own plan of self-preservation.

He divides up his possessions and family members into two locations, so that in case Esau attacked one, the other could escape. He also sent servants with large gifts of livestock to meet Esau spaced apart in intervals to appease his brother.

Now we come to the famous wrestling match. Let’s pick up the biblical narrative in Genesis 32.

22 And he (Jacob) arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. 23 He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. 24 Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. 25 Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. 26 And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.”

But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”

27 So He said to him, “What is your name?”

He said, “Jacob.”

28 And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

29 Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.”

And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Each part of the account is significant:

24 Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.

What happens when everything is stripped away, and it is just you and God? Jacob is desperate. Sometimes we have to get desperate to get real with God. There are so many distractions. How desperate are you to change? Nothing is going to happen until you get to that place of acknowledging your need, and you will never get to that place if you continue to be distracted with everything that appeals to your senses.

If you are unhappy, find out why you are unhappy. You might be tempted to say that it is someone else’s fault that you are unhappy, or it’s your job or another situation in life. But it’s the truth about ourselves that sets us free from unhappiness. If I am unhappy, ultimately it’s about what I am thinking and how I am reacting. But I can change. I have to get to the point where I point the finger right back at myself and say, this is where change starts.

Who is this Man that Jacob is wrestling with?
Jacob acknowledges that he believes this is God. Most Bible scholars recognize this Man as the pre-incarnate Christ, the One who has always existed, and who appeared at times in the Old Testament in the form of a man.

While none of us have probably experienced a physical wrestling with God, each of us can likely relate to an intense struggle to maintain control over a situation that we are supposed to relinquish. We wrestle with things that want to capture our hearts, our emotions, our wills.

Have you ever spent a sleepless night wrestling over something? Has God ever asked you to give up something to Him and you had to pry your fingers open to let go? When we don’t know the future and God asks us to trust Him, we are in for a tussle.

Maybe you wrestling with God right now. It’s OK to wrestle with God, but in the end, you want to let Him win because that’s the only way to victory. In other words, like Jacob, we find out that when we “lose,” that’s when we really win.

In this wrestling match, they went all night. This is a person who is very strong in their own self-will, their own strength. God can’t do much through our lives when we are strong in ourselves.

Jacob is like many of us in that he has given some of his life to God, but not all of it. There are some parts he wants to hold back, such as taking care of himself and his family with his own smarts, manipulating people and circumstances to his advantage. When we go through things in life where we feel out of control, it’s easy to develop ways to manipulate to protect yourself. We are not trying to be control freaks, we are just trying to survive!

Those are the things God wants to get at so we can experience true life and peace.

25 Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him (Jacob), He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him.

How can it be that God did not prevail against Jacob? God is so powerful that he can do anything, anytime, anywhere that He wants to. This is really no contest.

But is it?

God will never overpower our wills. He will not make us surrender to him. He will show us our own weakness, if we allow him to. He will show us the truth about ourselves if we let him. He will show us that we really need Him, but he won’t make us submit.

He will allow us to wrestle with him and come to the end of our own strength. He does it in love and mercy and kindness. He honors us with a free will, although he knows that his will is the best thing for our lives.

There’s so much here that teaches us about God’s character. He is not a dictator. He will not coerce us to do anything. But he is always out for our best interest. It was time for Jacob to change. It was time for him to stop leaning on his own strength and trusting in his own cunning and trickery to get him somewhere.

Are you a manipulator? Are you trying to micro-manage your life and others’ to keep yourself from being hurt, or to make sure you are taken care of? Are you always managing your reputation so that you can be sure people will like and accept you because no one wants to be rejected? You will never find true life that way.

No more stalemate
Jesus said if you try to keep your life, you’re going to lose it, and that is the greatest tragedy that can happen.

If Jacob was going to make progress, he needed to change, and it is very difficult for us to change. We need an encounter with the living God !

What is the point of the wrestling match? God wants us to give up in our own strength and rely on HIs strength. He wants to show us where we are struggling and striving and not getting anywhere. This match was a stalemate for long while. That is what our lives are like when we keep resisting Christ’s lordship in our lives.

Jacob wrestles all night and still won’t give up. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire his tenacity. Finally, God touches his hip and puts it out of socket. That isn’t God cheating, that’s Him showing Jacob his weakness compared to God’s strength. All it takes is one little touch on the hip and Jacob is paralyzed. God wants him to see that it is futile to trust in his own strength.

It’s horribly painful to have a hip out of joint, so you think that would be the end of the match. But Jacob isn’t through yet.

 26 And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” But he (Jacob) said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”

How interesting that Jacob would ask for a blessing, when he had connived to get the blessing from his father many years earlier, and all he had gotten was one problem after another in his life. What he had struggled on his own to try to get had eluded him, and now it looks like he is going to lose everything he worked so hard for. That’s what happens when we try to take care of ourselves instead of putting our lives in God’s hands.

When we want answers, God very often asks us questions.

27 So He said to him, “What is your name?” 

What an interesting response to Jacob’s request for a blessing, but we find out it is a vital question for Jacob to answer. God says to him, “What do you call yourself? How do you see yourself?”

In the Old Testament, a person’s name was their identity, so essentially God is asking Jacob, “What is your identity?” If God were to ask that of you, what would you say?

Failure? … Shame? … Not good enough? … Hiding? … Fearful? … Don’t measure up? … Sick? … Poor? … Anxious? … Unfulfilled? … Abused?  What is your name?

If we tell God the truth, we will hear Truth.

So Jacob confessed: “I am Jacob … a swindler, a supplanter”.

God is not trying to embarrass Jacob, and He isn’t trying to expose us so He can cut us down to size. He wants to help us. But we’ve got to open our lives to Him and come clean. When He asks us this question, it’s not time to put on our game face. It’s time to get real.  It’s time to bare our soul. It’s time to admit our failure at running our own life. It’s time to say, “This is where I hurt God. This is where I’m really angry. This is what I’m struggling with. This is where I feel like I just can’t keep going.”

We prevail when we surrender. It’s exactly opposite of the way we think things should be. God’s kingdom is upside down from this world. When we open up to God, admit our own weaknesses and imperfections, and allow Him to accept us and bless us, that’s when we come out on top.

When we say we can’t do it is when we begin to change.

One of the writers of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the people of Corinth: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in weaknesses, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Paul got that revelation after struggling with God about things in his life that wouldn’t change, even after he had prayed about them. He surrendered them when he heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

We don’t like weakness, do we? We recoil from it in our flesh. We want to hide our weaknesses from ourselves, from others and from God. But we have to get comfortable with admitting our own weakness in ourselves, so that the power of Christ will rest on us.

When I admit I’m a mess, when my life is a wreck and I can’t overcome my problems,  when I let go of my ego, my reputation, my pride, and give it all to God, that’s when change begins. That’s the truth that sets me free.

28 And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

How has Jacob prevailed?

He gets a new identity! God tells him he is a prince, not a swindler. In being face to face with God, Jacob finds out who he really is, and it’s different than what he thought. At Jacob’s weakest point, when it looks like everything that he has amassed is going to be destroyed and his physical weakness is apparent to everyone, that’s when God says He is a winner and an overcomer. His grace fills up all of our weak places and gives us a strength we never knew we could have.

We don’t have to hide our weaknesses and failings from God. We take them to God and he overcomes them with his strength, and even uses them for his glory. We can actually relish problems, difficulties and issues because they pull us into a deeper dependence on Him

I have always thought my goal in life was to be “right,” to be “fixed,” to be “healed,” to have “the answers.” But I’m learning something different. The goal is to be one with God in my experience and let His strength fill up all my weak places.

What happens after Jacob gets this revelation? The blessing sticks this time. When he meets Esau, his brother embraces him and cries on his neck with affection, and none of Jacob’s worst fears are realized. What an amazing picture of God’s undeserved grace to Jacob!

More importantly, Jacob has a new personal relationship with God that is his alone. Before this time, whenever Jacob talked about God, it was the God of his grandfather and father, the God of Abraham and Isaac. Now, he begins referring to this Being that he has wrestled with and prevailed as the God of Israel, his very own God.

The blessing Jacob received — and that we can receive — was intimacy with God. When we go through struggles, if we will not run away, if we will face the truth about  ourselves and how messed up we are and how much God loves us no matter how broken we are, if we will stick with it, we will get the blessing.

If you let God see who you really are, you will get to see God like you have never seen Him before. You will know that He is for you and with you and will never leave you. You never have to fear making it on your own again.

He will be your God.

One thought on “Wrestling With God”

  1. I had never thought much about this story until you taught on it. I love the part where you talked about how Jacob says, “I will not let go until you bless me.” That has really stuck with me!

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