Sometimes when we cry out to God for help, he may say, “Yes, but rest.” Other times, he may reply, “YES, BUT WRESTLE.”
Jacob found this out. As a young man, he had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. He fled, and in the years that followed he married Leah and Rachel, had children, and grew very wealthy. But now it was time to return to his homeland … and to the potential wrath of his brother Esau.
Jacob heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. He send presents ahead of him to his brother to try to appease him. He took steps to protect his family. Finally, he sent everyone on and spent the night alone. Genesis 32 records what followed:
‘Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 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. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”’
Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” This is the same cry he must have had when he sent his family on: “Lord, protect my family! Bless us! Heal this broken relationship with my brother!” And God does bless him – but only after this long, long night of wrestling.
Think about it – think about fighting someone hour after hour. Being thrown to the ground. Having your muscles straining to achieve mastery. Realizing after a time that your opponent is infinitely stronger than you and could win at any moment he chose – but that he is holding back his strength so that you must fight on – and on – and on.
There are times when this is what God calls us to. In times of doubt, despair, and discouragement. When we feel like our world is collapsing – or that it has collapsed. When God doesn’t answer in the ways we hoped and believed he would. When all our ideas about God have come crashing to the ground. When we really, really don’t understand this God whom we serve and in whom we have put our trust.
And we cry out in agony – “God, where are you? WHO are you? Can I trust you?” And God answers – but still not in the way we want or hope. Instead of answers to our questions, instead of astonishing revelations of himself that take away all our doubts, he calls us to wrestle with him. To forge a new understanding of him that will be an unshakeable foundation for our faith.
Our wrestling may take days, weeks, or months. I have to be honest – it may take years. Time in which we search the Scriptures, read books to help answer our questions, spend time in prayer, share our hearts with friends … and cry in the loneliness of the pain we are experiencing.
We wrestle with God. But in the end, we receive his “Yes” – and his tremendous blessing, as Jacob did. We know him more intimately than ever before – and more than was ever possible before we began to wrestle with him. Our understanding of the Scriptures deepens, and we know how to give hope and strength to others with quiet faith and gentleness. We grow in wisdom, as we recognize that life and faith are more complicated than we ever dreamed – and yet more simple than we ever imagined. We understand ourselves in a new way, and the assurance that we have spreads out in ripples to minister to many.
But remember, there is an alternative. Jacob could have walked away from that divine fight. He could have given up in the first few moments of the wrestling match.
And we do that – all too often. Instead of being willing to wrestle with God, to ask the hard questions and search out the answers we crave, we give up. We stop reading the Bible, convinced that it doesn’t have answers to our questions. We stop praying, since God seems so distant. We let our friendships with our Christian brothers and sisters grow stale, since we’d rather not hear about what God is doing in their lives, and we certainly don’t want to admit to the mess in our own hearts.
We aren’t willing to put forth the time and effort. We demand an instant answer and instant healing, and, because God doesn’t respond with the efficiency of a Google search or heal with the immediacy of an ibuprofen, we shrug him off as a loss.
When that happens, we walk away from the faith. We may do it openly, literally leaving the church, destroying relationships, and saying to any who ask that God let us down and we’ve given up on him. Or, we may continue to go to church, putting on a smiling face and carrying our Bible, knowing all the time that we are hollow inside.
I can tell you that wrestling is hard. I have been in the place where I didn’t know if God was real. Where I felt such agony of heart I thought I would die. But I also can tell you that if you want healing and crave wholeness within and a deeper faith, then wrestling is worth it. It is worth giving it all the time God demands, and all of yourself. Fight through the long, dark night of your soul – the dawn will come and, with it, the blessing of God.