Longing for the Divine

Going to the Mat: Wrestling the God Who Prevails

When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed. God’s Decree. I’ll turn things around for you…. You can count on it.

Jeremiah 29:13-14, The Message

I used to love wrestling with my kids—the rough-and-tumble play, the embrace of an affectionate bonding experience. I wrestled not to overpower them but because I loved them and wanted to win their hearts. Swooping my children into my arms, throwing them high into the air, giving them horsey rides, and engaging in playful wrestling matches as they squealed with delight are some of the best shared experiences of my life.

One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament is God’s wrestling match with Jacob (see Genesis 32). In it, Jacob finds himself isolated, staring into the dark night, uncertain about his future, fearful he might die, and reluctant to move forward. That’s when God pursues Jacob, wrestling with him until the break of dawn. Jacob’s hip becomes dislocated during the match, and he is given a new name to reflect the kind of person he should be. Jacob concludes that he has met God face-to-face.  

Jacob becomes convinced that he has actually kicked up dust with God. To make it a fair match, God comes not as a tough heavyweight but as a normal man, yet apparently even God can’t throw Jacob off. We may think Jacob’s struggle and refusal to let go are good, but his whole life has been a struggle for dominance. During the wrestling match, his disappointment and other feelings come out aggressively, to the point that God eventually asks Jacob to let Him go. God can win, but evidently, He doesn’t want to overpower Jacob.

What I find fascinating about this story is the way God limits Himself to truly win us and exist in mutual connection with us. God does not come in full power to pin Jacob down but rather as a man to awaken love and communicate close connection. Yet, love is a powerful force, as even a light touch wrenches Jacob’s hip out of socket. God may wrestle with us and push us to our limits, but He will not force us to change. We can still reject His love. 

God chooses to engage with Jacob to transform him from a conniving and grasping man who must win every contest to one who will let love win. Though he initially struggles for dominance, Jacob must stop grappling and let God win. It’s clear that God could crush Jacob with His power, but He chooses not to. Instead, He desires to awaken love and encourage an embrace, but Jacob does not want to yield. God continues to wrestle—His love striving that He may, in the words of John Goldingay, “turn Jacob into the man God wants him to be” (Genesis for Everyone, Part 2, 2010, p. 117).

Jacob’s divine wrestling partner does not dominate the match but gives Jacob opportunity to let go of his fears and prevail in the challenge. Eventually, we see Jacob’s faith emerge on the mat; he begins to exercise the necessary perseverance and trust. His striving to take transforms into clinging; he holds on to God for dear life. Jacob is then rewarded and blessed. God gives him a new name—Israel—because he has prevailed. Jacob submits, and though limping, he accepts the new name, which means “God will prevail.” It is clear that God does not easily give up on us. He is the God who persists, perseveres and prevails! 

Do you find yourself in a wrestling match with God—struggling for acceptance, suffering from disappointments, and resisting God’s attempts to embrace you? In the ring of faith, it’s okay to express your fears and disappointments with God. To wrestle with God is to not merely accept the rigid dogma through which faith is handed down to us or mandated and often cold religious traditions. We may view God as a threat until we personally experience the meaning of faith—wrestling until God becomes real in both doctrine and life. This process teaches us to live by our own faith, not someone else’s, and it makes faith a gift God gives to us as well. Through it, we relinquish control, surrendering the feeling that we have everything figured out and the impulse to always be right. It’s about learning to be on God’s side on the mat, a step-by-step practice that includes clinging to, and strongly embracing God in confiding faith.

When we are on God’s side and feel embraced by His love, we improve. Engrossed in this shared embrace— participating, and responding to God’s vision of us—we become fueled by His strength and courage. We then have the gifts needed to persevere and endure, so we can remain faithful when facing struggles. We are victorious when in earnest, agonizing faith, we lay hold upon God’s strong shoulders. That’s when the God of Abraham and Isaac becomes the God of Jacob. We may struggle for blessings, but God will never abandon us because of our shortcomings or failures. In our struggle, we may desire to access the blessings. Though God will reward us for our perseverance, in the end, it’s not through our strength or efforts that we will overcome; it is God who prevails. God rewards the desire for relationship and trust, not the desire to fight to take what we want.

God pursues us, just as He wrestled with Jacob for a stronger connection. Will we let God win? Will we sense our own struggles, realizing that we can’t win without Him? God may wrestle us until dawn, gently pushing us beyond our comfort zones. He pursues and persists with us because He wants to win us, so we might cling to Him in our brokenness. Jacob learns that God’s grace is sufficient and that clinging to God with all his might is better than fighting. So may we all. 

So, where do we stand in our wrestling matches with God? How has God been wrestling with you? Do you feel powerless and alone, enduring a dark night? Are you struggling to face your doubts, fears, and sins? Do you wonder if God stands against you as you stare into eternity? Life is not easy. It’s a struggle, and we may long wrestle—but not for God’s embrace. God loves us amid our brokenness, and He wants to place His name on those willing to rightly show His power and grace.

Jacob names the place where he wrestled God and was blessed the “face of God.” For Jacob, seeing God face-to-face is a striking form of intimacy. God similarly desires to bless us, transforming us into the people we are meant to be. He will continue to pursue and wrestle us long into the night, hoping that we will accept His arms wrapping around us, which will change us as surely as light follows the dark, leaving us holding on to Him with everything we’ve got.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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