How to Wrestle God (and Win)

July 25th, 2011

If you’re going to wrestle with God, you may as well put up a good fight.

That’s what Jacob did in Genesis 32. And it’s one of those mysterious passages in the Old Testament that I love. Everybody who preaches or teaches about this story seems to have a different opinion of what’s going on. But two things are pretty clear—this was a huge event in Jacob’s life, and he wasn’t the same afterward.

Jacob was about to meet his estranged brother Esau, and he was scared spitless. He had previously taken Esau’s birthright and cheated him out of his father’s blessing, so Jacob probably expected Esau to be more than a little sore. And when he heard that Esau was heading his way with 400 men, Jacob knew his chickens were most likely coming home to roost.

So he did some quick maneuvering and split his group up into two camps. Then he begged God to save him from his brother, and sent servants ahead to meet Esau with gifts of livestock. (I guess he figured it was better to lose part of his wealth and stay alive than lose his life.)

After what looks like an unsuccessful attempt to get some sleep, Jacob decides it’s time to really get serious. He gets up during the night and moves everyone and everything to the other side of the Jabbock River, then he goes back to be alone. And that’s when God shows up.

“Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.” (Genesis 32:24 CEB)

But this was no ordinary man. Some believe it was an angel, others that it was God taking human form. There’s speculation in some commentaries that this stranger is the preincarnate Christ. It’s not clear what was going on exactly, but at the end of this passage, Jacob seems to believe he had encountered something more than an angel. I believe God himself was wrestling with Jacob, and that there was a real physical conflict happening.

But there was a spiritual conflict going on here too. Jacob was essentially in a battle of wills with God.

Let’s face it, God could have physically annihilated Jacob with half a thought if he’d wanted to. But Jacob’s will would be a bit harder to break. God created us with free will and he allows us to make choices. The wrestling match that went on that night was first and foremost about getting Jacob’s heart where it needed to be, not about defeating him physically.

Finally God both wounded and healed Jacob with a single touch.

“The man said, ‘Let me go because the dawn is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me.’” (Genesis 32:26 CEB)

For the Christian who reads this Old Testament account, it’s a picture of real spiritual prayer. Jacob’s tenacity was pretty remarkable. God obviously wanted to bless Jacob, but he made him really ask for it. I suppose God could have showed up in some vision and given Jacob the same blessing, but he knew Jacob wasn’t prepared to receive it before the wrestling match.

Jacob knew the value of a blessing, so much so that he had cheated to get a big one from his father Isaac. But he wasn’t going to be able to fake his way into getting this blessing. Unlike his earthly dad, God wasn’t nearly blind. On the contrary, God could see into the deepest parts of Jacob’s heart.

This blessing wouldn’t even come with honest sweat. It only came when Jacob was running on empty, but still refused to let go. (The name of the river in this passage actually means “emptying”. Coincidence?)

That blessing became the most important thing to Jacob, and he got it. A lot happened to Jacob that night. His heart changed, his walk changed—he even got a new name, Israel. And a few hours later, he would patch things up with his brother.

Note that Jacob didn’t run from God, he engaged him. There’s nothing wrong with wrestling with God, because sometimes it’s the struggle that gets us to the place where he can change us.

But at some point, we realize that there’s only one way to win in a struggle against God.


Then don’t let go.


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