Wrestling with God: Daring to wrestle hopefully

The man said, “From now on, your name will no longer be Jacob. You will be called Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won.”

Genesis 32:28 (Read Genesis 32:22-32)

In many Bible translations, the heading of this particular tale in Genesis reads somewhat mystifyingly: “Jacob Wrestles With God.” The text itself sheds little light on such a stunning proposition. A ‘man’, we are told, wrestles with Jacob overnight. Who this man is, and where he comes from, we are not told.

We read that this man is on the verge of losing his wrestling match with Jacob. But incredibly, on realising his impending loss, he is able to simply reach out, touch Jacob’s hip, and dislocate it! It’s clear right away, then, that this mysterious wrestler is not just any normal man.

So, on realising the immense power wielded by this peculiar being, our friend Jacob — always the opportunist! — demands a blessing from him.

In response, he gives Jacob a new name. No longer Jacob, he is now to be called Israel. His reasoning: “Because you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.”

Jacob’s blessing: a new identity

Names have great significance in ancient Hebrew culture. Do you remember the story of how Jacob initially received his name? Fighting with his twin brother in his mother’s womb, he was born grasping onto Esau’s heel. It seems that even in birth, he was desperately trying to assert himself. And so he was christened Jacob, which in Hebrew literally translates as “he grasps the heel”.

Figuratively, though, the word Jacob can be translated as “the deceiver”. And indeed, Jacob comes to live up to this title. He conspires with his mother, firstly to deceive his elder brother, then his father Isaac, fraudulently obtaining the birthright and the blessing that rightfully should belong to Esau.

So it seems Jacob’s character is almost predetermined, by way of his mother Rebekah’s influence. Named a deceiver, raised to be a deceiver — this is his role in the family. This is how his brother, his mother, and his father all view him. This is his very identity, set in stone via prophecy from the time of his birth. Why should he ever change?

But then! Enter this strange man, and this strange wrestling match. As Jon Bloom notes over at Desiring God, wrestling with God alters more than just Jacob’s name. It alters his very identity. No longer a man who grasps for blessings through trickery and lies — the version of faith he inherited from his mother — Jacob has now wrestled honestly for a faith and a relationship with God that belongs to him and him alone.

When God gives us a season of wrestling

Although it is Jacob who asks for the blessing in this story, there is something else that we should notice here. It is God, not Jacob, who initiates the wrestling match. It is God who establishes this encounter.

We might also encounter times when it seems that God has initiated some kind of wrestling match with us. We might rack our brains for what we’ve done to cause the conflict, when there seems to be no obvious reason.

Perhaps you find yourself in a season right now when faith just doesn’t seem to come easily. When the words of Scripture don’t make sense, and your prayers feel like they’re going no higher than the ceiling, and everything seems to contradict what you thought you knew about God.

This can be a hard thing, and often we respond in one of two ways. We might abandon our faith completely, or we might continue on in denial as if nothing has changed.

Neither of these options involve actually engaging with the wrestling match that God has initiated.

Trust the process: hopeful wrestling

Sometimes, we need to fight to figure out what we believe.

We need to spend some time “working out our faith with fear and trembling,” as Paul puts it.

This might involve facing some uncomfortable or challenging truths. It might mean abandoning beliefs about God that we’ve inherited, and never really questioned before. Often, it means taking part in a thorough examination of who we really are. It means sorting out what’s really important to us, and what influences we’re going to let shape us going forward.

That, in turn, might mean we end up hurting some people along the way — people who assumed we’d always agree with them. Or people who just assumed they would always hold a place of influence in our lives. Making those kinds of changes can be incredibly difficult, and may leave us feeling like we’ve been given a metaphorical hip-dislocation. But the fact is, while other people can tell us what to believe, until we do the hard wrestling with God ourselves, we won’t find a faith that really rings true.

So go ahead: wrestle with God. Don’t be afraid of the encounter. Yes, it’s true, you might come out with a limp. But wrestle in hope nonetheless. Trust that there will be a blessing at the end of it, a blessing that sees you taking on a new purpose, and a new identity. A new understanding of who God is, and a new understanding of who you are.

Go ahead: wrestle with God. You might come out with a limp, but trust in the blessing of a new purpose and a new identity. Click To Tweet

What are you wrestling with in your faith right now? Where do you think the wrestling process might be taking you?

Being right: how important is it to you?

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Mark 2:23-24 (Read Mark 2:23-27)

There’s an oft-shared comic by popular webcomic author xkcd, in which someone ignores his partner’s pleas to come to bed, because “Someone is wrong on the internet!”

The popularity of this comic no doubt stems from its relatability. We all know that frustration of hearing someone misrepresent a topic we feel strongly about. We can relate to that driving impulse to correct and inform, when we’re confronted with something that’s wrong, so wrong!!

Sometimes the frustration arises because it’s us who is being misrepresented. Have you ever felt the fury and indignation that comes with being falsely accused of something? The burning desire to set the record straight and vindicate ourselves overpowers anything else.

But other times, we can get all riled up over something that’s got nothing to do with us personally at all. And yet, defending the “rightness” of our ideas can seem as close to the heart as defending our own reputations.

The idol of being right

It’s easy, I think, for our ideas and beliefs about the world to become intertwined with our identity. So when someone challenges what we believe, we take it personally. We see it as a false accusation, as slander, if someone disagrees with us, and we take it upon ourselves to correct them by any means possible, in order to clear our name and restore truth to the universe. Being right, and being seen to be right, becomes not just academic, but of personal importance.

I get the feeling the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a bit like that. They were so infuriated by Jesus and his disciples doing things differently — ignoring the prescribed traditions by not observing Sabbath correctly. Following tradition in the ‘right’ way had become an entrenched part of their identities. But Jesus has a simple, yet brilliant response for them:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees had become so concerned with the principle of observing the Sabbath, that they’d forgotten the very people it was intended to serve and benefit. They were all hung up on being right.

People over principles

It’s easy for us, too, to forget that people are more important than principles. Let’s try to keep this in mind the next time someone disagrees with us. Is the argument worth your relationship with that person? Is it worth making them feel bad about themselves? Do we really know everything we think we do about the situation, and where the other person is coming from?

Sometimes we’re better off just going to bed and getting a good night’s sleep. What seemed like a life-and-death dispute the night before is often revealed for the petty spat that it really is, with the clarity that morning brings.

People are more important than principles. Click To Tweet

Have you ever participated in an argument that seemed more important than it really was?

Have you ever “lost” an argument, for the sake of keeping the peace? 

What does it mean to love as God loves us?

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35

What is it to love as God loves? So many of our own experiences of love, whether giving or receiving, are flawed in some way. Flawed in their motivations, or flawed in the execution — both, usually.

So given that God’s love is without flaw, that leaves us to wonder: how, exactly, does God love us? Not in the same way that any other person has ever loved us. And not in the same way that we’ve ever managed to love anyone else.

Some people take this notion of perfect, godly love to mean a gritted-teeth kind of love. “You don’t have to enjoy it,” they say, “you just have to do it!” Love isn’t just about warm-fuzzy feelings, these people admonish us. It’s about doing what’s right, doing what’s best for the other person and putting our own needs last.

Well, there’s truth in the saying that love is a verb; that it only becomes meaningful through action. I’ll agree that it’s not just about feeling nice all the time. Sometimes love hurts, just like all the songwriters say.

But you know what? I don’t think God has to grit his teeth in order to love us. I think God rejoices in us, that He delights in the wonder of his own creation.

And this might be a bit controversial, but you know what else? I think God rejoices in who we are even when we stuff up. I don’t mean to say that he rejoices in our sin. But I do believe that God sees and loves the beauty, the potential, in who he’s created us to be. He sees this and rejoices in it, even through our mistakes and our falling short.

Perhaps, then, real love, loving as God loves us, means to see the beauty in someone’s humanity. Maybe this is how we’re called to love others: to recognise their beauty and potential, just as God does for us. To see and be awed by the image of God residing in them, just as it does in us. Instead of responding and reacting to their faults and shortcomings, to try instead to connect with and draw out the person that God has created them to be.

Lord, help me to love as You love. Help me to see the beauty and the uniqueness that you've placed in each person that I encounter today. Click To Tweet

Pray “according to God’s will” — but what about when your heart’s not in it?

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

1 John 5:14

I read a short prayer posted on social media the other day, which made me pause and think. The prayer said something along these lines: “Lord, help me to pray only according to your will. Stop me from praying for anything that isn’t part of your plan and purpose for my life.”

I’ve probably prayed something similar myself in the past. At the time, I probably felt it to be a good, holy prayer: words that were pleasing to God. Perhaps I might have resorted to this prayer when I felt like I didn’t know what else to pray. At least, I certainly didn’t know what to pray that would be “according to God’s will.”

Sometimes, I might have prayed that way out loud in front of a group of people I didn’t know very well. People who I didn’t particularly feel like spilling my innermost fears and secrets in front of.

Other times, I might have prayed that way when I felt like those innermost fears and secrets were too shameful to bring before God.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar?

Too scared to be real with God

I’ll be honest, though. I don’t think God wants us to limit ourselves like this in the way we talk to Him. I have no doubt that He honors the intention behind these kinds of prayers. But I think when we pray like this, it’s often because we’re too scared to be real with God. And let’s face it, that kind of fear isn’t doing much to further our relationship with Him.

Yes, we’re told to pray according to God’s will. But this verse isn’t intended to leave us terrified of saying what’s really on our hearts. It isn’t meant to be a directive to keep everything inside us bottled up, because we don’t think it’s good enough or righteous enough for God’s ears.

When the prayers aren’t perfect

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Here’s a confession: I don’t think God really minds if our prayers aren’t perfect. I don’t think he minds if we share with Him thoughts and desires that aren’t entirely righteous. In fact, I’m pretty sure God prefers us telling Him about those flawed parts of ourselves than not speaking to him at all!

Part of the outcome of honest, heartfelt prayer — imperfect motives and all — involves God shaping our will and our heart to His. That way, praying according to God’s will becomes a natural outpouring of our own desires.

But the catch is, this process can only happen through us being truthful with God first. Even when our truths seem ugly and unpalatable. Trusting God enough to let Him hear our ‘imperfect prayers’ lets Him begin that process of redemption and regeneration inside us.

So let’s not worry so much about striving for perfection in prayer. Instead, let’s allow God to do the work of perfecting us through prayer — no matter what messy form that prayer might take.

Instead of striving for perfection in prayer, let's allow ourselves to be perfected through prayer — no matter what messy form that prayer might take. Click To Tweet

Have you ever found yourself holding back from honest prayer?
What stops you from being real with God?
What does it mean to you to “pray according to God’s will”?

The kingdom is in our midst

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

In some church circles, people talk a lot about revival. They talk a lot about praying for revival, and how we’ll know when it’s here. Often, in these circles, revival means big, showy, awe-inspiring miracles that can’t be mistaken for anything but supernatural. It means gold dust clouds descending mid-worship service, or people tossing their wheelchairs and dancing around the room.

Look, I’m not here to say that such things can’t happen, or that they aren’t from God. I’m not even saying it’s wrong to hope for them in your own community. But I worry when we get caught up with thinking they’re what represents this notion of revival. I don’t think those overly-conspicuous, plays-well-for-TV kind of miracles are really the kind of signs we should be looking for to indicate God’s presence, or his stamp of approval.

Already in our midst: the ‘unremarkable’ miracles

Instead, how about we focus on those pieces of God’s kingdom that are already happening in our midst? Think about those small, unsung miracles that are bound to happen within any group of people who love God. You know the kind of stories:

  • An elderly lady, too afraid to leave her house for years, finally finds the courage to start attending church again. She starts smiling again, growing in confidence, and thriving with the love and support from her church community.
  • A young man from another country is trying to make a fresh start, but with limited English and no support network, he’s struggling to find work. Someone else at church mentors him and offers him a job, helping him to get on his feet.
  • A single mother with no time to spare is given a fresh lease on life by someone simply offering to look after her children every now and then.

I’m sure you can think of stories like this in your own church. Stories from the “least of these” — stories that might not even sound all that earth-shattering on their own. But this — this is revival! This is the Kingdom of God, happening right here in the midst of us.

Let’s not overlook the little things God is rejoicing over, because we’re waiting for big shiny miracles that will make the evening news headlines. Let’s recognise those simple, small miracles that might seem unremarkable on the surface, but that actually change lives. And let’s celebrate those miracles as they happen, and not dismiss them for their simplicity.

Let's not overlook the little things God is rejoicing over because we're waiting for big shiny miracles that will make the evening news headlines. Click To Tweet

What ‘unremarkable’ miracles have you seen in your own church or community?

The God who sees

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

Genesis 16:13 (Read Genesis 16:1-16)

Hagar was a woman who had no real rights to speak of. Abraham’s slave — more than that, his mistress. Doing what she needed to do to survive in that time and place, fulfilling her role as was required of her, but hated and abused by the matriarch of the house as a result. With no one to turn to for protection — there wasn’t exactly a Concubines Union to step in and help! — Hagar did what seemed like the only bearable thing left to do: she ran away.

But God is not yet finished with Hagar’s story. Intercepting her on her path, an angel brings her news that she is pregnant! She has provided Abraham a son and an heir; thus assuring her protection and her worth in this patriarchal society.

As troubling as we may find many aspects of this story, Hagar’s beautiful response to the angel is one that always sticks with me, and it’s a response that I find myself echoing in prayer all the time:

You are the God who sees.

Knowing we are seen

Have you ever felt as though you’re not really being seen? Perhaps as part of your role at work, or perhaps even in a room among family and friends. You’re expected to play a particular part, carry out some task in a particular way, maintain a status quo, relate to the people around you in a certain manner, because “that’s just the way things have always been done!” But maybe you feel unappreciated, unrecognised, unfulfilled. Maybe you feel misjudged or even victimised, and it seems like no one is acknowledging it. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve been reduced to a role that doesn’t quite fit you anymore, that you’re not being acknowledged as a person in all your complexity, with the potential for growth and change.

God sees you.

Let the words of this passage in Genesis speak to you the way they spoke to Hagar. The God of creation sees you, knows you, better even than you know yourself. God sees your potential, the things you long for but don’t dare to voice out loud, and the things that haven’t even entered your mind yet.

Sometimes that’s all we need — to remember that we are seen. That our situations are seen. That whatever injustices we are contending with are seen, and that the very essence of who we are is seen.

God sees you, he knows you, and he loves you. Hold on to that knowledge, and let it carry you through.

God sees you. He sees your situation, the things you long for, the very essence of who you are. Let that carry you through. Click To Tweet

What does it mean to you to be seen?

Respect: words or actions?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 7:21

Some people love titles. Whether it’s “Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Pastor”, “Dr”, or some other honorific, it makes them feel important and respected. It makes them feel like they matter more to the person speaking.

I have to confess, I’ve never really understood this sentiment. That’s probably because I was raised in a household where we spoke fairly casually and informally to one another. My parents weren’t big on pomp and ceremony; they didn’t hold much stock in those kind of traditional outward displays of respect. As a child, I joked around with my mother and father in a way that I imagine more traditional adults might have seen as disrespectful.

But my parents knew better. They knew I respected them, despite my casual language, because they observed my actions. They saw that I did what they asked, and they saw that I modeled my life and my values on how I’d seen them behave.

Respect via action

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

Luke 6:46

I struggle sometimes with the way language is used Western Christian culture. I dislike the way we often emphasise knowing the “right” phrases to use about God. We turn speaking about God correctly into a moral virtue. We stress the importance of calling Him certain titles and addressing Him in a certain manner. But a lot of the time, all this verbal “respect” turns out to be nothing more than a deflection from the fact that our actions aren’t showing any respect at all. If we’re not doing anything like what Jesus asked or modeled, then the words we use to honor God have very little meaning.

What represents respect and honor to you?

If we're not doing anything like what Jesus asked or modeled, the words we use to honor God have little meaning. Click To Tweet

Silence and speaking: a time for both

The wisdom of silence

I like making people laugh. It’s my way of getting to know someone, breaking the ice, or smoothing over an awkward social situation. Sometimes it’s a good thing: it puts people at ease, and lets them know I’m on their side. Sometimes it works really well as a way of starting a friendship, or healing a misunderstanding.

But making people laugh can also be a defense mechanism for me. There are times when I jump too quickly to make a joke — maybe to deflect from my own embarrassment, or to show off to someone who I’m trying a bit too hard to impress. Or sometimes it’s just because I don’t know what else to say. I cringe when I think of all those times I’ve made some clumsy joke, when really I should have just kept my mouth shut and listened.

The writer of Proverbs has much to say on the wisdom of keeping one’s mouth shut. When words are many, he writes in chapter 10, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. And he goes on:

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
   and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
   when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

Proverbs 17:27-28

Sometimes I need to remember that it’s not my job to fill every gap in the conversation. Sometimes I need to have the discipline to be silent, to listen, and to learn.

The wisdom of speaking

But this is not true in every situation. There are other times I can recall when I’ve kept silent in a conversation out of fear, and later regretted it. There are countless moments I can think of in my life where I should have spoken up, but didn’t: to defend a person being treated unfairly; to prevent a wrong decision being made; to speak truth to power, when I was scared of how that power might react.

Proverbs acknowledges, too, that in some situations we are called to use our voices! Silence is not always the answer:

Open your mouth for the mute,
  for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
   defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Prov 31:8-9

So it seems Scripture is telling us both things! We should speak, and we should keep silent. Which is right? Perhaps the writer of Ecclesiastes sums it up best:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak

Ecclesiastes 3:1,7

There’s a time for silence, and there’s a time for speaking. The challenge is knowing which is which.

If I’m honest with myself, I usually do know whether that still, small, Holy Spirit voice inside me is calling me to speak out, or to keep silent. I just need to slow down and be obedient to that voice, instead of letting my fears and insecurities drive me.

Lord, grant me the wisdom to know when to keep silent, and the discipline to do so. And grant me the wisdom to know when to speak out, and the courage to do so. Click To Tweet

A lamp to my feet and a light to my path

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105

When I was a kid, there was a computer game called Goldfields that we played in school sometimes. It consisted of a series of educational puzzles and adventures, one of which involved finding your way through a maze in the dark as quickly as possible. You were equipped with a torch, so you could see inside the maze. But the catch was that the torch had low batteries, so you could only see a very short distance ahead. This meant that reaching the end of the maze was a slow and frustrating process. You’d go down each path with no idea where it was leading, or if you might need to turn back.

There are times when following God’s Word feels a lot like fumbling my way through that maze in Goldfields. Like all I’ve been given is a lousy torch with low batteries, when what I really want is a floodlight. Or a map! A map would be nice.

But God hasn’t promised me a roadmap for life. As much as I think I want it, He’s not going to lay out for me precisely all the twists and turns my life is going to take. God’s Word isn’t a floodlight that I can shine all the way down to the end of my journey, enabling me to see every obstacle that exists on the way. Frankly, if that were the case, I’d probably be so discouraged by all those obstacles that I’d give up before I even started.

A lamp to my feet: showing the next step

Instead, what God does promise me is that His Word will be a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. He promises to give me enough wisdom and clarity to see my surroundings clearly, so I can determine the next thing that I need to do.

When you hold a lamp up in the dark, you can just see where you are now, and what the next step is, and all you have to do is take that step. And then you can take the next one, and then the one after that. You don’t have to leap across large chasms of belief and opportunity; you just need to keep taking one single step at a time. That’s how you end up in the place where God has led you; that’s how you end up doing whatever it is that God has designed you for. You go step by step.

Fulfilling God’s plan for our lives is only ever about just taking that next step. Beyond that, he wants us to trust Him, and to stay in relationship with Him.

Imagine how much the world could be changed if we all stopped making excuses, and took the next step.

Fulfilling God's plan for our lives is only ever about taking the next step. Click To Tweet

When the prayers aren’t pretty

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies—
    make your way straight before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
    their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
    with their tongues they tell lies.
10 Declare them guilty, O God!
    Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
    for they have rebelled against you.

Psalm 5:8-12

I have mixed feelings about this Psalm. On the one hand, sure, I can certainly relate to some of the emotions it describes. There are many times I’ve wanted to rant and rail at God to deal with that awful person, already!  Declare them guilty, Lord! Let them know how wrong they are! Give them enough rope to hang themselves, embarrass them and bring them to justice in front of everyone!

Sure, I’ve wanted to pray like that sometimes.

The problem is, it usually sticks in my throat. It’s a bit hard to pray, Lord, declare my enemies guilty! — when I’m all too aware of my own shortcomings, and of all the ways God has given me grace. Besides, isn’t this what the New Testament tells us: that we should love our enemy, not condemn them? That we should forgive, as we’ve been forgiven?

Yes, of course we should! So where does that leave us with Psalm 5? Do we toss it out as irrelevant, in light of Christ’s message of grace and redemption?

God can handle our angry prayers

Not so fast. I think we can still learn a great deal from Psalms like this one, although they might sit uncomfortably with us at first.

To me, Psalm 5 says that we can confess to God honestly, no matter what is on our minds. And it says that we should continue to do so, even during those times when what’s on our minds feels like the kind of stuff we’re not supposed to say. Psalm 5 says we can trust God to be big enough to handle our angry prayers, even if they’re not pretty. It says that we can trust Him to turn that anger into something good.

Trust Him with the outcome

Who knows what that good might be? Maybe that person you’re furious with really is in unrepentant sin — and perhaps God will remove them from your life, and allow you to move on. Or maybe they’ll come to repentance, and having allowed God to deal with your anger, you’ll be in a better position to offer them forgiveness and grace.

Or maybe, through praying, your own heart will be changed, and you’ll come to see this person with an empathy you didn’t have before, and realise the situation isn’t as straightforward as you thought.

“Loving our enemies” doesn’t just happen by pretending hurt isn’t there. Instead, we need to acknowledge the hurt, and work through it with God first. God doesn’t need us to pretend our feelings are “right” all the time. He just wants us to come as we are, angry prayers and all. Trust Him to take it from there.

God doesn't need us to pretend our feelings are right all the time. He just wants us to come as we are. Click To Tweet