Wrestling With God

October 26, 2009


There’s a biblical passage that booms like distant thunder from across the millennia. God throws down a challenge: “Wrestle with me. Ball up your fists and dare me. Tell me: ‘I will walk in your inheritance.’ Confront your fears; run into darkness and mystery; risk getting wounded – and then cling to me still and demand my blessing. You may walk out limping, but you’ll be transformed.”

The passage, Genesis 32:22-32, describes the nocturnal and monumentally historic struggle from which Israel gained its name and identity: Jacob wrestles with God. This kind of blind, insistent wrestling – a wrestling in which we embrace our own weakness but struggle anyway for our promised inheritance – is woven into Israel’s birth. Christian theology holds that we have inherited the ministry and blessings of Israel (see Romans 11:27, Ephesians 2:11-13, and Hebrews 12:22-23), which makes Jacob’s melée our beginning as well. Think of it as our conception, with the cross and resurrection functioning as our birth. In other words, wrestling is in our blood. God challenges us to do it, insists on it, and initiates it. Donald Bloesch writes: “True prayer involves not simply pleading with God but also wrestling with God in the darkness. Wrestling with God is not whining … It means refusing to let go of God without a blessing.”

Which makes this passage highly relevant and practical for those yearning to pry open the secrets of the universe and see the Being who lies at its heart. In fact, this is the hour for it: Barna research figures illuminate the scanty difference between the Church and general society; many feel we’ve naively handed ourselves to rumor-mongering political manipulators who’ve lured us into a deceptive civil religion; some have found more love among secular friends than among church-goers. And then there’s all those in-the-beltway false contradictions – the ones that make non-church goers say, “Huh?”: “You’re into sound teaching; I’m into intimacy with God …”

Stop the deception. Let’s confront our fears, enter the darkness, and risk our own wounding. Let’s grasp our inheritance like Jacob did.

My Own Struggle

The passage in Genesis reminded me of one of my most vivid moments of divine-human wrestling: I encountered that exotic experience called “falling down” under the power of the Holy Spirit.  Tut-tut me all you want. It happened.  Steve Nicholson, a soft-spoken pastor from the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Evanston, Illinois, was the featured speaker at a conference near Boston. The not-so-dynamic teaching closed; the “ministry time” began; and the bizarre arrived with full force: Individuals lined up for prayer; Steve prayed; and each shook and then fell down. Bodies littered the floor.

“Hello? Mom? Yeah, I’m at church — and they’re lying on the floor. Some are twitching; some are crying; some are laughing.  Others are crying and laughing at the same time …”

Most newcomers to uh, this … feel nervous. Not I. I was absolutely petrified. I’m an epileptic. Losing control of my body conjures primal fears – and those fears were stirred even more as Nicholson drew near – because something similar to, although not quite the same as, an epileptic aura was overtaking me. That creepy blend of magnified sounds and indescribable sensations signaling oncoming convulsions … was here! Now! I’m going to have a convulsion in front of all these people! I’m remembering those times when I was loaded into ambulance stretchers before the worried onlookers; and then there were the week-long hospital stays in which nurses and doctors probed me and mumbled and probed and mumbled. I’m remembering that time in Berne, Switzerland, when the geniuses decided not to tell me why I was in the ambulance. I added two and two together: I felt a pain in my face and concluded that I had been shot. They finally dropped in the real news when I reached the hospital, where I spent that long week among probing and mumbling nurses and doctors (Swiss German medical mumbling is hard to decipher) until they concluded that I was an epileptic.

No! No probing and mumbling with Boston accents! I want out! I’m leaving this line! I’m sure you’re a great guy, Steve Nicholson, but we’ll meet later, ‘kay?

But then there came this gritty resolve, this sudden, fly-in-the-face-of-my-fright tenacity: “I will have God’s blessing – even if it means a seizure; even if it means waking up to surrounding, worried onlookers; even if it means frowning EMT’s who assure me everything’s all right while they strap me into the stretcher; even if it means probing nurses and doctors with Boston accents … I will have it!

Nicholson reached me and began praying – and I felt it: A bolt of raw power, a surge of pure energy. There was tingling. There was heat. I was … hot, very hot, so hot I was sweating and yet … I was cleansed, pure, washed. It was scary and fulfilling all at once. The Being behind the Voice Behind the Sky was touching me. I was actually experiencing that “Life” for whom I had argued for many years: God.

And a thought flashed: “Chuck, you don’t need to fall.” I knew in my soul that I was feeling the same thing as those sprawled between the pews. God understood my fear. He was propping me up.

Looking back, I now realize that I was wrestling for God’s blessing like Jacob did – and, in the process, I was confronting my own fears. I was stepping into darkness in that there was mystery, and I was willing to be wounded. What’s more, I was wrestling for something that God wanted to give me – something I had by right of inheritance as His child. I was wrestling for God’s intimacy.

Jacob’s Encounter

All those ingredients are in this passage.

Its background involves seamy little Jacob leading a life of friction and deception (Genesis 25:21 and following shows that the friction began in the womb; the deception begins in verse 29, where Jacob steals the birthright of Esau, his twin brother). More deception played out in chapter 27, where the deceiver disguised himself as Esau and received a blessing meant for his brother. The latter pledged to kill Jacob once their father died, so Jacob fled – and fled and fled and fled. He fled to an area near modern-day Iraq, married two wives, and, fourteen years later, he fled his father-in-law, Laban. It was time to go back home – except there was a thorny issue: His twin brother owned sharp swords and knives. He probably imagined Esau’s pitiless smile and heard words along these lines: “Been looking forward to this little family get-together …”

He sent his brother emissaries, who returned with ominous news: “We went to your brother, Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

Imagine Jacob. He could almost hear the hoof-beats of Esau’s war horses. He divided his family and possessions to avoid an entire massacre, and then stood alone, accompanied only by his deceptive past and the sickening prospect of an angry twin. You were a bad boy, Jacob – a very bad boy. Bad boys face bad consequences …

Except that Jacob had one highly admirable quality, a quality that seems to have out-shined his many flaws: He yearned for God’s blessing. Perhaps he knew of the words in Genesis 25:23 (Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, is told that her older son, Esau, will serve the younger, Jacob). He would hold God to His promise: He would grab hold of those inheritance rights.

Underscore this: The Bible has no admiration for those who would shirk God’s inheritance. Witness the attitude of the author of Hebrews vis-a-vis Esau: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son” (12:16).

Pause. Think. Remember. We are marked as Israel’s descendants. We bear its inheritance rights – not because we are good (Jacob himself would have been a greasy spot if that were true), but because God chose to give them to us. We have the right to walk out this earthly life as heavenly beings (see 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We have the right to be heavenly beings to our spouses, our children, and our neighbors. We have the right to be heavenly beings in this culture, at this intersection, and this time. We have the right to display the fruit of the Holy Spirit and, yes, practice the full panorama of God’s gifts. Shirking those rights in the name of false humility or false dichotomy does not please God. I can almost hear the clarion call: “Let no one rob us of God’s blessing. Wrestle him for it.”

And that’s precisely what Jacob did in Genesis 32:22-32. He contended with God.

Some Highlights of a Divine-Human Encounter

The passage drops three clues on what such a wrestling match looks like. The first comes in verse 24, where it says that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Jacob was wrestling in the darkness. He could barely see a thing. Rifle through such passages as Exodus 20:21, 1 Kings 8:12, and Psalm 18:10-11 and we find a common theme: God is there, in the darkness. Darkness is mysterious and involves danger; things go bump in the night because everything is, well, dark – and you never know what’s out there, in the dark. Jacob was a lone man in ancient Canaan at a time when lions roamed – and lions hunt at night. We can’t avoid it: wrestling walks hand-in-hand with mystery. Rip up the do-this-and-then-do-that agendas and trash plans and procedures involving anticipated moves and counter-moves. God is big; we are small. God sees in the dark; we do not. Uncomfortable without the security of agendas and plans, are we? Fine. Wallow in your discomfort. Follow the advice of the so-called “contemplatives,” who talk of entering a “cloud of unknowing.” Risk and danger involve not knowing.

The second clue comes in verse 25. “The man” (who is obviously God) wrenched Jacob’s hip socket – and yet he still clung on (verse 26). Mark this: Wrestling with God may mean our own wounding – and yet we still resolve to persevere. If God is forcing us to struggle for an inheritance that we have by right, it may very well mean that He wants to destroy thinking patterns that maul our personal holiness – especially if we’ve identified ourselves with those deeply rooted patterns. We’ll feel like our personal identity is being stolen amid the up-rooting. Yet we’ll resolve to persevere because we know God’s inheritance is far greater than what we have now.

Clue number three comes in verse 28: Jacob got a new name – a name that involves struggling with God and with men – and overcoming. The outcome of such wrestling involves our own transformation. We may walk out with a limp, but we will also walk out fresh and new. We walk in our inheritance. We are far more effective even though we’re broken and we limp.

A caveat: Jacob didn’t change all that much after this (which, perhaps, is why he’s still called “Jacob” in future biblical references, despite his new name, Israel), but there are plenty of other wrestling matches that show transformation. Elisha comes to mind, as does Isaiah – and then there’s Peter.

What if?

I think of me, scared stiff before Steve Nicholson. Even then, I realized that God likes it when we contend for our inheritance by confronting our fears, stepping into the darkness and risking our wounding. And God is proud of us when we’re willing to do it alone. But still, there is a preferable path – a path on which we help each other grope in the darkness. I would have loved it if two epileptics stood by me. We would have risked everything together. We would have understood each other’s mounting fear as we saw the dropping bodies; we would have felt the same panic with the oncoming aura-like sensation – and we would have resolved, together, to stand our ground. We would have said to each other: “We will face our fears together; we will walk into the darkness together; we will risk a seizure together; we will do this together even if we walk away with a limp – because we know that we will be changed.”

Here’s the “what if”: What if we Christians agreed to wrestle with God together? The time is now. Many understand that our divorce rates are no better than society’s; we’ve heard the gossip and slander among us. Some might not admit it – even to ourselves – but we actually prefer the company of the admirable unchurched. Some of us find far more love among them than we do the “born again.” And then there’s that strange alliance: somehow, somewhere, at some time, one political party was canonized as more “Christian” – never mind that both parties are founded upon secular principles and that we’ve naively opened ourselves to one form of propaganda over the other. We’ve been propelled into civil religion, not classical evangelical Christianity. Ronald J. Sider writes about these issues in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience and The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, as does Gregory Boyd in The Myth of a Christian Nation and Jim Wallis in God’s Politics.

It’s time for all of us to wrestle. We can either do it as isolated as individuals or as the Body of Christ. If we do it as a Body, we can look into each other’s eyes and make a pledge: This time, we will face our fears together. This time, we will walk into that darkness together. This time, we will risk our own wounding together. We may discover that some of our cherished beliefs have nothing to do with the Bible; we may find that we are the problem, not those “in the world;” we may discover that some people “out there” know more about love than we do “in here.” We may have to confess to them even as we still advocate Christ. We may all be broken and wounded. But that will be fine, because we will emerge changed. In fact, we may become known as that group of people who struggled with God and with men and overcame.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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