Bible | Opinion | Theology & Spirituality

Wrestling with God

I tried wrestling once in high school, and that was enough to know it was not for me. I don’t like wrestling, but I do it quite a bit. I wrestle with God. I wrestled on election day in the U.S. I wrestle with understanding my place in the world. We all wrestle.

Personal wrestling
There is the mysterious story in Genesis 32. Jacob has been fighting the ways of God his whole life. It started in the womb, continued in bargaining with his brother and then in tricking his father and father-in-law. Jacob was a jerk. Yet God choose him for service and watched over him. Now Jacob is preparing for a rematch with his brother. That night a mysterious stranger encounters him. They wrestle.

Strangely, it is a draw until Jacob is hit in the “inner thigh” and crippled. Jacob deserved greater punishment, but this got his attention. Jacob the Jerk transforms to “Israel,” one who wrestles with God and for God. God may jerk us to attention to become servants, not self-serving jerks.

Prophetic wrestling
Many are now involved in prophetic wrestling, wrestling to understand the ways of God in the world. We join Habakkuk, Jeremiah and the Psalmist.

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted (Hab. 1:2-4, cf. Jer. 12, Ps. 73:1-14).

No, Lord, not this answer.

How do we live faithfully in this broken world? We wrestle with waiting.

We wrestle when it doesn’t go our way. We wrestle to say,

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour (Hab. 3:17-18).

Wisdom wrestling
Prophetic wrestling is one expression of theological wrestling. Human wisdom wrestles to understand the world’s ways. Ecclesiastes tries to wrest meaning out of it all. Exploring wisdom, pleasures, work, time, fame, fortune, politics, he opens and concludes, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Eccl. 1:2, 12:8).

Our human theology does not solve our wrestling. Sometimes wrongly expressed theology makes it worse. Ask Job. His “friends” thought they needed to answer for God and explain evil. Their theories of cosmic justice were not the answer and led to a prolonged struggle. Job’s demand for an answer went unheeded, but not unheard. God entered into the struggle and conversation, not to solve it, but to save it.

Christ wrestling
Christ entered into our wrestling. He joined us in the wilderness fighting selfishness, testing God to do it our way and compromising with the ways of the world for our success. He resisted the political options of his day in the Essenes (selfish withdrawal), the Pharisees (manipulating God through legalistic righteousness) and the Sadducees (compromising with Herod and Rome). Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In obedience he entered into our suffering and death after wrestling with his Father, and weak disciples, in Gethsemane.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb. 4:15-16).

Christian wrestling
We follow Christ in wrestling with and for the world and our neighbours. We do not withdraw. We do not give easy, simplistic answers. We do not compromise to win. We wrestle.
Like it or not, we must keep wrestling. Lent is a season for wrestling with God, with ourselves, with the world. It is preparation for God’s victory.

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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