Written by Sam Williamson
In The Princess Bride, the criminal genius Vizzini repeatedly and inappropriately exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally reflects, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Like that criminal genius, Christians use religious jargon repeatedly and inappropriately. Sometimes I want to respond, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” Christians use it to describe an intentional long night of interceding with God. The phrase refers to Jacob wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22-31). We use it the wrong way; I want to reply, “Stop saying that!”
I used to work in a ministry with a man who loved the phrase. If the finances were low, he’d demand an evening bout of wrestling with God. When the congregation failed to follow the message, he’d insist on an upper room experience battling with God.
My friend used the phrase as though we needed to get God’s attention, as though we needed to place a shot over God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast or lie prostrate.
It reminded me of the priests of Baal as they cut themselves on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). I wish I’d said to my friend, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It may sound noble or heroic, but an African American preacher understood it better when he preached, “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”
It distorts our relationship with God
The word “wrestle” is a fighting term, a coercive attempt to force one’s will on another. It happens with little kids fighting over a toy, with adults quarreling over finances, and with countries battling for rule of natural resources.
The term, “wrestling with God” creates the image of a battle of wills: our will or God’s. We wrestle with God because we know what needs to happen, and we are pretty sure God will get it wrong. We need to persuade him, maybe pressure or bully him.
Do we really think Jacob challenged God with, “You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
It corrupts our image of God
The idea of wrestling with God twists our image of God, turning him into some kind of evil enemy. We are the good guys—knowing exactly what needs to happen, and God is the bad guy—withholding his grace and power. All we need to do is impose our will on his will.
Then everything will be all right (just like all the other times we got our way?). We need to remember: If you rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.
Besides … Jacob? Really?
If we ever wished to imitate a hero of the faith, would any of us pick Jacob? Few other characters in scripture embody so little character.
Jacob’s entire life is a public display of coercion, conniving, and deceiving. He cheats his brother; he deceives his father; he neglects his wife; he swindles his father-in-law; and he criminally abuses his children through favoritism.
His entire life is a struggle for dominance, imposing his will with ill regard for justice or the rights of others. He is the ultimate, coercive, self-centered War Lord; but we try to be like him as we “wrestle with God.” We’ve got to stop saying that.
Jacob’s night of wrestling is symbolic for Jacob’s entire life spent wrestling with God. Jacob consciously pitted his will against everyone else’s will; subconsciously he pitted his will against God’s.
Dissatisfied with God’s plan for his life, Jacob bullied, battled, and boxed his way through life. All the while he was ultimately battling God. Oswald Chambers says,
If you ever wrestle with God, you will be crippled for the rest of your life. If you grab hold of God … simply because He is working in a way that doesn’t meet with your approval, you force Him to put you out of joint (My Utmost for His Highest).
Battling with God puts a damper on our relationship.
So what are we to do?
Instead of wrestling against God, let’s wrestle before him. Wrestling against God makes him our adversary; wrestling before God makes him our coach.
God is the only one who knows what we need when we need it, and he knows how to deliver. Wrestling with God is our way of saying we knew what we need when we need it. If we want to live that way, we should probably get used to disappointment.
Coming before God and wrestling with the issues—marriage difficulties or financial trouble—grants God the authority to coach us. (We may think our problem is a need for money; God may be teaching us to trust him.) Wrestling before God means we acknowledge our primary need is his will, especially when it differs from our own.
Jacob begins to understand this when he prays,
I’m unworthy of all your gracious love, your faithfulness, and everything that you’ve done for your servant … Deliver me from my brother Esau’s control, because I’m terrified of him, and I fear that he’s coming to attack me.
Wrestling before God teaches Jacob Grace. He says, “I’m unworthy,” and then he asks for God’s help anyway. All our troubles come from false beliefs about God: Is he an adversary or a coach? Is he out to get us, or is he out to get good for us?
If we imitate Jacob in any way at all, let’s do it this way: let’s admit we need grace and let’s believe God is full of grace.
It’s time to say, “As you wish.” Wrestling with God so that our will prevails is … “Inconceivable.”
I mean it.
© 2013 Beliefs of the Heart
Interesting timing, as I read this today:
Which also addressed this idea of wrestling. Good stuff…both these pieces!
Wow! This is where I am right now! Wrestling, manipulating, pouting or negotiating with God. Or maybe I’m doing all of it at the same time. I’ve made many bad decisions and I’m mad. I’ve asked God for his help. He doesn’t help me – the way I want him to help. I know God has never made a mistake, but I get so frustrated when things don’t happen the way I want them to happen. It’s so complex. Do I step out in faith and do something, or do I “wait on The Lord”. Do I use “my talents” like Jesus taught about the 3 servants, or do I ” let go and let God” happen. I will read your post again and again and humbly ask God to show me what I need to do. I hope I finally get it. Thank you again, Scott
Thanks for writing this. I think about this every January when I read the story about Jacob. It isn’t obvious to me that Jacob changes , at all, except for a limp. I wonder how different the rest of his life would’ve been it he’d surrendered instead of wrestling, if he’d asked God to change his heart.
This is good Sam. Thanks for writing it.
Great stuff…very insightful!
Excellent Sam, I only learned this after I received a revelation of His Love. Bless you.
I just wonder why, if wrestling with God (the way God intended, not some of the crazy examples you rightly disagree with) is a bad thing, why did God give Jacob a new name, that became the name of the entirety of His people? “Israel”-one who wrestles with God. The Rabbinical tradition has such wrestling as it’s centerpoint, the crux of truly “getting” this God life. It’s a struggle, because He is Mystery, and we demand everything be explained, sorted, defined. When the Jewish man heard a word from God, he ‘wrestled’ with the text, wrestled with what God really meant, asked God to explain, offered his thoughts on what he was hearing or reading. When a Talmidim (disciple) of the Rabbi would wrestle, that student would be praised far higher than the one who simply regurgitated what the Rabbi said. Because when you’re wrestling, you are doing what Jacob did. You are holding on to God for dear life, refusing to let go until He blesses you. That’s a good thing! For my part, I love when my kiddos cling to me after I’ve been gone on a trip of some kind. They KNOW I have something for them, some gift. And they will not relent until their father gives them what they know I have for them. That is what Jacob did, from the way I see it…and what pleases God, just like it pleases me. My kids KNOW my heart toward them, and will not relent to anything less than that. And it warms my soul to know it. Kinda think it’s the same with my Father. Just the way I look at it. Love you, Gary!