FBNF elaborates on an interesting question about what it “is” to wrestle with God:
What does it look like to wrestle with God, when we don’t have Him physically in front of us to wrestle with in the literal sense of the word like Jacob did? Is fervent prayer all it takes? Or is there something else we must do? How should we know when God wants us to ask Him just one more time, to hold out in faith just a little bit longer… and when no really does mean no?
Apparently, most of us missed the point, so here is the follow up clarification:
You’re missing my point in writing this post in the first place. Perhaps I didn’t write it clearly enough because it seems everyone missed the point. I didn’t write it as an outlet to complain. Like I said in my first comment, I’m looking for answers to the questions I asked at the end of the post. The fact that the verses about Jacob popped so clearly into my mind that day tells me that I probably need to be doing just that. But I don’t know how to. I’ve already prayed to the point of begging God-knows-how-many times, so I wonder if there’s more to it than prayer, if there’s something else we should also be doing in addition to praying. Which is why I wrote this post – to get a theological discussion going about what that means, not to talk about myself and my own situation (I tried to keep it general rather than personal for that reason).
Also, there’s something I meant to include in the post but just realized I missed when I read back over it to check my clarity… This whole idea of wrestling with God is so very different than that of all those other Bible verses about how we should be content in all things. I say that because nobody would have any reason to wrestle with God if they were content in those circumstances. Only a very high level of contentment in the circumstances would cause someone to do something like that. And yet, Jacob was blessed (and even praised) for doing so. There seems to be a disconnect between the two concepts, but since Scripture can’t contradict itself, that must mean there is something more to figure out here. Any ideas?
This story is indeed applicable in some ways to the questions posed, but in other ways it is not. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at Genesis 32.
Jacob wrestles with God
Genesis 32:1 Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him. 2 Jacob said when he saw them, “This is God’s [a]camp.” So he named that place [b]Mahanaim.3 Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the [c]country of Edom. 4 He also commanded them saying, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: ‘Thus says your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; 5 I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.”’
”6 The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; 8 for he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and [d]attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.”
So if you remember in previous chapters Jacob has this whole conflict with Esau along the lines of Esau despising his birthright and selling it to Jacob, and then Jacob and Rebekah tricking Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Thus, here Jacob is distressed and prepares himself for the coming conflict with Esau. Next,
9 Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will [e]prosper you,’ 10 [f]I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the [g]faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies. 11 Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and [h]attack me and the mothers with the children. 12 For You said, ‘I will surely [i]prosper you and make your [j]descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.’”
Jacob prays to God reminding God of His promises (v9). Then He thanks God for His loving-kindness and faithfulness in humility (v10). Then He presents His request to God and reminds Him again of his promises (v11-12).
13 So he spent the night there. Then he [k]selected from what [l]he had with him a present for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on before me, and put a space between droves.” 17 He commanded the [m]one in front, saying, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, saying, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and to whom do these animals in front of you belong?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a present sent to my lord Esau. And behold, he also is behind us.’” 19 Then he commanded also the second and the third, and all those who followed the droves, saying, “After this manner you shall speak to Esau when you find him; 20 and you shall say, ‘Behold, your servant Jacob also is behind us.’” For he said, “I will appease him with the present that goes before me. Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on before him, while he himself spent that night in the camp.22 Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had.
The next day Jacob follows through on his promise to send Esau a present for reconciliation. This is the background for which Jacob is going to wrestle with God:
24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but [n]Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place [o]Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my [p]life has been preserved.” 31 Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. 32 Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.
The important part of this passage is not that Jacob is wrestling with God. The important part is to understand what Jacob is wrestling about. Jacob is wrestling for the blessing of the Lord as he declares that He won’t let go until God blesses him (v26).
If we go back to the background of the passage we see 3 distinct parts:
- Jacob initiates conflict resolution with Esau, and wants to reconcile and tells Esau he is sending gifts.
- Jacob hears Esau is coming with lots of men. He is afraid and prays to God reminding Him of His promises and thanking Him for His loving-kindness.
- Jacob follows through on sending a reconcilatory gift to Esau.
Thus, Jacob is wrestling not just with God but also men. This is seen in the conclusion of verses 27-29:
27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but [n]Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there.
Jacob ultimately receives the blessing of God.
What does wrestling with God mean?
The story of Jacob wrestling with God illustrates the New Testament reality come alive. There’s a reason why in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews that Paul and the author if Hebrews discusses why Abraham is the father of our faith, and that God is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. In Galatians 4, Paul talks about how how the children born of Hagar is the Old Testament Covenant of Sinai, and how the children born of Sara is the New Testament Covenant by faith. In other words, the children of the promise are the ones that live by faith, and the children of the law are the ones that are slaves to the law.
This perfectly illustrates the model that Jesus lays out for us in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5:23 Therefore if you are presenting your [s]offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your [t]offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your [u]offering.
This verse is often misinterpreted because we read through it so fast that it doesn’t mean what we think it means. Most people think it says if you “remember you have something against your brother go reconcile with him” however when you look closely at the the wording it says if you “remember that your brother has something against you.” Jacob does not necessarily have something against his brother, but he knows that Esau ultimately has something against him because he tricked him for the blessing.
The complexity of this verse shows that it is the will of the Father that the first and second commandment are ultimately tied together:
Matthew 22:37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and [o]foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus says that if you really want to worship me and the Father with a sacrifice, you will start the reconciliation process. If you love me then you will love your neighbor and desire peace and unity with him.
Israel: he prevailed with God and men. The point that most people miss is that Jacob’s wrestle with God ultimately gives him the courage to actually go and face Esau and reconcile. The blessing that God gives to Jacob is ultimately prophetic. Jacob in his heart purposed to do the right thing and in so wrestling with God he prevailed. However, he had not yet prevailed with Esau. When Jacob purposes in his heart to do the right thing, he has prevailed with God. The prophetic is that he will prevail with men or in this case Esau.
Finally, if you finish reading the story in Genesis 33 you will see that indeed Jacob does reconcile with his brother. Their relationship is restored, and that the blessing that he fought for that he received in the name change is fulfilled.
What does wrestling with God mean for us?
The process that Jacob goes through in wrestling with God applies extremely broadly to the Christian walk. It’s clear to me that knowing what we know now of the New Covenant in Jesus that our wrestle with God is made manifest in our walk with the Spirit and desire to see God work in our lives.
Galatians 5:13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. 16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
Our “wrestle with God” is to align our spirit to the Holy Spirit in order to walk out by faith which He has called us to do by the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit rather than the fruits of the flesh. This is how we walk in the New Covenant just as Jacob does in the vein of the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So then we show our love for God by loving others.
I’m going to follow this up with another post on prayer as explaining the overarching goal behind prayer brings this whole issue crystal clear into focus. Although you may be able to guess that from this post.