What Does Wrestling with God Actually Mean??

I hope I’m not the only one who’s asked this question. I hear people throw around “wrestle with God” in about every imaginable context: doubt, unbelief, sin, suffering, pain. We say, “I’m wrestling with…” “You need to wrestle with God on…” “I’m just wrestling with God through…”And when I hear it (perhaps because ambiguity discomforts me) I often wonder whether “wrestling” is a Christian cover-up for disbelief. Wrongly, I write it off all together.

Thus, as a recovering skeptic, I ask: what does wrestling with God actually mean? Surely Moses gave us the story with purpose (Genesis 32:22-32). Perhaps because “wrestling” plays an integral role in our spiritual formation. In my own life, I’ve seen how an inability to wrestle creates phoniness in my relationship with God; I easily fall into a perfunctory pattern of artificial prayer, which hides my true heart (mess and all) from God. We may spend our quiet times spent praying a lot of right things, but not many true things. Moses wants to make sure we don’t miss out spiritual authenticity with God. So, to pull apart this mess, let’s read the passage, and then ask questions:

[22] The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. [23] He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. [24] And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. [25] When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. [26] Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” [27] And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” [28] Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” [29] Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. [30] So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” [31] The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. [32] Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:22-32)

In context, Jacob’s just escaped war at the hands of his uncle (who spent the last 20 years extorting him). He’s estranged from his father. He’s hunted by his twin brother. He’s distant from God. All of this occurs not because he’s an innocent, but because he’s a ruthless deceiver. Just before the wrestling match, Jacob learns that his brother, Esau, quickly approaches with a small army. In desperation, Jacob breaks apart his possessions and family to disperse them in different directions. Jacob makes a terrified plea to God (32:9-12).

He is left alone to await Esau. Alone in the most poignant sense. 

So, when do we wrestle with God? First, we wrestle in our messiness. Jacob is no saint. But God willingly grapples with him nonetheless. We don’t need to clean ourselves up. We ought to come as we are. Jesus came for the sick! And Jacob knows he is sick and messy. Wrestling with God is not an invitation to sin or argue about sin, but an invitation to come to God as a needy, sick sinner.

Second, we wrestle when God strips us of our worldly treasures. Perhaps you’ve lost a family member, a relationship with a child, a job, a pension, or your health. God doesn’t ask you to hide your pain or void your questions. He invites you as you are! But don’t mistake a wrestling match for a court room. God is not putting himself on trial; we are not the judge in our suffering. God is wrestling with us, he is maneuvering, touching, engaging, effecting, and even wining.

Why do we wrestle with God? Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” This is a loaded sentence, because a blessing isn’t a nice wish, it’s an efficacious promise for fulness of life. Jacob wrestles with God, not for the sake of wrestling, but to become one of God’s blessed children. His motivation is relational: he wrestles for a deeper, more profound experience of God’s presence! We don’t wrestle, because we’re trying to beat God, or make him follow our plan. We wrestle because we want more of Him. 

What does God do when he wrestles? God grapples. He holds. He pins. Wrestling is a dirty sport and God isn’t afraid to twist our arms. Jacob leaves with more than he asked for: a dislocated hip and a new name. God not only blesses him, but transforms him. He calls him “Israel” because he has “striven with God and men and prevailed.” Prevailing for Jacob isn’t pinning God. Prevailing is being pinned by God. Only by losing to him, does Jacob really win, for it’s in the losing, in the limp, that he becomes subject to God’s plan and power. It’s by losing that he loses his old identity as a deceiver, and receives a new identity, “Israel,” which means “Let God Rule.” God rules us when he wrestles us; but when he rules us we win, because we’re blessed. He may wound, but it’s the surgeon’s wound. He cuts to heal. So be careful, those who wrestle with God never leave the same.

So what does it mean to wrestle with God? It means to come to him as we are, in our mess, in our pain, in our suffering. Come with a desire to be pinned, to be blessed in the loss, and transformed by it. Wrestle with purpose, to know glorious wrestler more deeply.


*This was originally posted on Aug. 8, 2014


  1. Sabrina said:

    I believe this are truely insights from the Holy Spirit. Thank you so much

  2. Lillian said:

    I used to wonder why God didn’t strike Jacob dead?! It was because God had pity on Jacob’s messy faulty thinking & feeling. AND God engaged Jacob in the messy faulty RELATIONSHIP Jacob presented God (not even knowing it was God!)

  3. Lillian said:

    I love the hip wound! “I, the LORD have met with you & had mercy on you! You remember this!” Me,too!

  4. pronam27 said:

    I am amazed by the revelations shared. This is the work of the Holy spirit. Jacob was alone so that the experience is personal.

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