“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day 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.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
– Genesis 32:24-30 (NRSV)
My sons, Elijah and Lucas, are seven and nine. As you can imagine, they have a lot of energy and, under the circumstances, very few ways of expending that energy. Weather permitting, we go outside for family walks and bike rides. We jump on our neighbor’s trampoline. I’ve even been introducing them to circuit training. But of all the ways Courtney and I have devised to tire them out, the one they love most is wrestling with me.
I mentioned in my Easter sermon that I’ve been wrestling with them almost daily. I used to think that they liked to wrestle simply because they’re cut from the same cloth as myself. I remember being a boy and wrestling with my friends. Yes, we wanted to expend energy, but we were also testing the waters. Who’s stronger? Who’s faster and more agile? Like wild lion cubs, we were trying to determine who was more dominant.
However, now that I’m in my adult skin, I’ve come to realize that my sons aren’t just asking me to wrestle because they want to prove they’re stronger than their dad (which they can be – sometimes if they work together, they can overpower me). I’ve come to appreciate that there is a spiritual dimension to wrestling. They want to wrestle because it helps them feel bonded to me. The act of wrestling connects us to one another on a deep level because it is through the struggle that we come to know each other fully.
Interestingly, the same principle applies to God. The more we wrestle with God, the more we feel bonded to God. The story of Jacob wrestling with God is one of the most important stories in the entire Bible because it is where Jacob receives the name Israel, which literally means he who wrestles with God. This story defines the entire identity of the Jewish people. Their grounding principle is that it is through the act of wrestling with God that we come know God fully.
I have a feeling that many of us are wrestling with God right now. We are asking many significant existential questions. Why is this happening? How long will it last? Will the people I love survive? How long can I survive without a paycheck? These are important questions and the more you ask them, the more you wrestle with God, the closer you will find yourself in God’s grip, the deeper your experience of God’s love.
You may assume that the point of wrestling with God is to find definitive answers to your questions, but it is not. The act of wrestling connects you with truths. For instance, through my wrestling with God, I have come to the understanding that God does not want us to suffer. Such truth is like a salve upon my soul, particularly in difficult times like the one we are experiencing right now.
Whenever my wrestling with God yields the fruit of truth, I take a short break and reflect upon that truth, but I know that eventually I must return to the mat for more. Similar to the way my boys approach me day-after-day to wrestle, I have come to accept that there will never be a conclusion.
One day the physical wrestling may cease, but we will continue to wrestle mentally and emotionally because we long to know each fully. As Jacob teaches us, it’s not the answer that matters, but the act of wrestling itself that sustains us.