Wrestling for a Blessing

What do you want most? What do you desire more than anything else? What is your heart hungriest for? What is the deepest thirst of your soul? Do you wish you could be happy and have peace? Is there a family relationship that you want to flourish? Do you want to find out who you really are or to prove your significance? Do you want to leave a lasting legacy in the world? What do you want most?

Now for a different question: What do you fear most? What are you most eager to avoid? Maybe you’re scared of mice or spiders or heights, but I’m not talking about things like that. I’m talking about challenges that affect you at the core of who you are. What makes you uneasy? Is there a person you’d rather not face, someone you try to avoid? Is there a memory you suppress and try not to think about, something from your past that haunts you? Is there a challenge that seems too hard for you to tackle? Do you have a secret weakness that you don’t like to think about and don’t want anyone else to know about? What makes you doubt yourself and wonder whether you’ve got what it takes to amount to something? What do you fear most?

Sometimes what you fear most is connected to what you want most. The thing that troubles you may stand between you and the thing you want. You want a good relationship with someone, but you are so afraid of rejection that you don’t dare to deal openly with the person. You want to overcome a painful memory, but you don’t dare to face the memory long enough to deal with it. You want to find out who you really are, but you’ve played a certain role for so long that you wonder if you’re stuck being somebody you’d rather not be. You want to succeed, but you’re so afraid of failure that you won’t take a risk. You want a big blessing, but you fear a big obstacle.

Now the question is, how much do you really want that blessing? Do you want it enough to fight for it? To get the blessing, you may first have to face what you fear most. And in the process, you may be shocked to find that what you feared most isn’t as fearsome as something else, and that what you wanted most isn’t as desirable as the ultimate blessing.

Jacob’s Journey

Jacob was a man of powerful longings and terrifying fears. In Genesis the Bible tells how Jacob cheated his brother Esau and enraged him so much that Esau spoke of killing Jacob. Jacob had to leave home and go to a land far away. When Jacob left home, he had no property except the walking stick in his hand. But God appeared to Jacob in a dream of a stairway linking heaven and earth, and God promised to be with Jacob and protect him and bring him back to his original home. As the years passed, Jacob prospered in his new setting. He got wealthy and had a large family, but there was friction between Jacob and his father-in-law, and Jacob was never completely at home there. “Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and your relatives, and I will be with you’” (Genesis 31:3). Going home was something Jacob wanted to do but was afraid to do. Much as he wanted to see his parents and be in his true home, Jacob was scared to death of Esau. But God told him to go.

So Jacob journeyed toward the place he wanted to be—and toward the brother he had avoided all those years. What a mix of emotions he must have felt: excitement, dread, eagerness, fear. As he traveled, “the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’” (Genesis 32:1-2) That was a big encouragement to Jacob on his journey.

But before long he was more afraid than ever. Jacob sent messengers ahead to Esau, telling his brother about his plans to return and humbly asking for a favorable response from Esau. But Esau didn’t say much; instead he rounded up 400 men and went to meet Jacob. The Bible says that Jacob felt “great fear and distress” (Genesis 32:7). If you were about to meet a band of 400 tough guys led by a man who once said he would kill you, wouldn’t you feel “great fear and distress”? And wouldn’t it stir old memories of how you had wronged him and of what a weasel you had been? You might wish God hadn’t put you in such a terrible spot. But that’s the sort of thing God does: he makes you face the situation you’ve been avoiding and deal with the person you least want to see.

Jacob responded with clever planning and humble prayer. In his planning he divided his people and property into separate groups so that at least some could get away if Esau attacked. Then he sent huge gifts ahead to Esau, hoping to make Esau more friendly and receptive.

Jacob didn’t just plan; he also prayed. He recalled God’s promises and how God had blessed him and had given him so much that he didn’t deserve. Jacob admitted to God, “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant” (Genesis 32:10). When we feel unworthy, we may think it’s no use praying, but Jacob didn’t let his sense of unworthiness stop him. He knew he didn’t deserve God’s blessings in the past, but God had given blessings anyway. If God had already given so many undeserved blessings, why not ask for even more—especially since God promised more?

If you think you may ask God for help only if you’ve earned the right, think again. God doesn’t help people who think they deserve it; he helps those who know they don’t deserve it. God is pleased and honored when we throw ourselves on his kindness and ask him for a lot more than we have any right to expect. Real prayer counts on God’s generosity and promises, not our qualifications.

Jacob confessed his unworthiness and begged God to save him and his family from destruction. All the while, Jacob kept reminding God of his promises to protect and bless him. Like a little child saying to his father, “You promised! You promised!” Jacob appealed to God’s promises again and again (32:9-12).

Now, if God makes promises and gives undeserved gifts, does that mean that it’s God’s job to make your life comfortable and effortless? A man called our ministry and complained that God wasn’t answering his prayers. He said that he had been praying that God would give him plenty of money and a big, beautiful house without any mortgage or debts to pay. But even after praying, he still didn’t have money falling into his lap, and he still didn’t have a mortgage-free mansion. God didn’t give him what he wanted, and that angered him. Sometimes he would even curse at God. Meanwhile, the man had no interest in reading the Bible or worshiping God in church. He had the idea that it was God’s job to keep him safe and comfortable and his job to give God orders and ignore God the rest of the time.

Other people think along much the same lines. This man’s case was more extreme than most, but many people like a prosperity gospel. They expect God to make their lives pleasant, painless, and prosperous. God could do that if he wanted, but more often the journey toward blessing is hard and painful.

Jacob didn’t have an easy life. He spent time on the run and for years lived in a place he didn’t want to be. Even when God told him to return to his homeland, the Lord didn’t make it easy. Jacob had to face the brother he had tricked, and he had to face his own guilt, fear, and doubt about his future. He had to wrestle with all these things on his journey, and then he suddenly found himself wrestling with an even fiercer opponent.

Struggle in the Night

The night before he would meet up with Esau, after planning and praying and making arrangements, Jacob was alone in the darkness. Suddenly a man sprang at him out of the night and wrestled with him. Who was this mysterious stranger? Had Jacob’s big, rugged brother Esau sneaked up on him and tackled him, intent on crushing him? No, after wrestling awhile, Jacob knew that whoever the mysterious wrestler was, it wasn’t Esau. The struggle went on hour after hour. If you’ve been a wrestler, you know that just a few minutes of wrestling can wear you out—and this wrestling match lasted all night. As the first hints of sun dawned on the new day, it dawned on Jacob who his opponent must be. Somehow the Lord himself had taken on the form of a man and was wrestling with Jacob. Genesis 32 says,

When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please, tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel [meaning face of God], saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him … and he was limping because of his hip (32:25-31).

Jacob wrestled all night with a mysterious man who was really God in human form. Even when Jacob was exhausted, even after his hip was wrenched by a mere touch, he would not give up until he got God’s blessing. This was a decisive moment for Jacob. He was wrestling with someone who crippled him with a mere touch and could easily crush and kill him. If Jacob thought he had problems and fears before, he found that he’d never faced anything as fearsome as this struggle with the Almighty. At the same time, if Jacob thought he had longings and blessings before, none compared with his longing to have the ultimate blessing of God himself.

God wants to bring each of us to that point where all our ordinary fears are swallowed up by the fear of the Lord and where all our ordinary desires are swallowed up in desire for God and his blessing. If you find yourself in a wrestling match with God, take the same attitude as Jacob. Tell yourself, “I cannot win, but I must not lose. I must not let go of God; I must have his blessing. I don’t know if I can live with him, but I know I can’t live without him. If he won’t bless me, he’s going to have to kill me, because I’m not going to let go of him.” Jacob had no chance to overpower his opponent, but he still hung on for dear life. Like a little boy pinned under his big brother, helpless and hurt but stubborn as ever, Jacob wouldn’t give up or let go. He gasped, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he got the Lord’s blessing!

How could Jacob, a mere man, hold his own in a wrestling match with God Almighty? Even if Jacob had been wrestling just another man, he would have had a hard time winning. All his life, Jacob depended on brains, not brawn. Growing up he was a momma’s boy who liked to stay indoors. His burly brother Esau might have been a strong wrestler, but Jacob? He might be sneaky enough to get the better of someone in a business deal, but what chance did he have in a contest of strength? Jacob was a schemer, not a warrior. And yet he somehow held his own in a wrestling match with God! How could Jacob do it? As John Calvin put it, “Who is able to stand against an Antagonist, at whose breath alone all flesh perishes and vanishes away, at whose look the mountains melt, at whose word or beck the whole world is shaken to pieces?”

Isn’t it futile and insane to wrestle with the Almighty? Not if the Lord is the one who started it, and not if the Lord is the one who secretly gives power to continue the struggle. Calvin says, “For we do not fight against him, except by his own power… so that he both fights against us and for us… While he assails us with one hand, he defends us with the other; yes, and because he supplies us with more strength to resist than he employs in opposing us, we may truly and properly say, that he fights against us with his left hand, and for us with his right hand.” God may bring limited power against us outwardly and yet be helping us inwardly with all-conquering power, enabling us, like Jacob, to wrestle him for a blessing and win.

The New Testament tells of another wrestling match of sorts, a contest between Jesus and a non-Jewish woman who had a demon-possessed daughter. When the woman asked Jesus for help, Jesus at first didn’t say a word to her. When she persisted, he told her that his first priority was to save lost Jews. When the woman still kept after him, Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Did that make the woman give up and go away? No, she simply agreed with Jesus and used his words to make her case stronger. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus was delighted. “Woman, you have great faith!” he said. “Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour (see Matthew 15:21-28).

Why didn’t Jesus just give that woman what she wanted right away? Why not heal her daughter as soon as she asked? Why give her such a hard time and make her struggle for it? The Lord did this for much the same reason he made Jacob wrestle for a blessing. Faith seldom grows strong by instant gratification. Faith grows stronger through struggle and striving.

If God wrestles with you—and even if he cripples you, as he did Jacob—it doesn’t mean he wants the worst for you. He wants the best. Very often the more fierce the struggle he engages you in, the greater the blessing he plans to give you.

But you must not give up. Never, never, never give up! You say you want God’s blessing. Well, how much do you want it? Do you give up at the first problem, at the first sign of struggle? Jacob wouldn’t give up until he got the blessing. The woman who argued with Jesus wouldn’t give up till she got what she asked for. You and I shouldn’t give up either. Even if God seems against you, even if he hurts and cripples you, don’t give up. If you persist, you will eventually win—because God wants you to win. Whether God is smiling at you in the sunshine or wrestling against you in the night, he is the same God. If he engages you in a struggle, he also supplies you the strength to overcome. The Lord doesn’t wrestle with you because he wants you to lose but because he wants to tell you at the end of the struggle what he told the woman: “Great is your faith.” He wants to do for you what he did for Jacob: bless you and give you a new name.

A New Name

Among the ancient Hebrews, names mattered. Your name was your identity. It expressed the real you. The name Jacob means “grabber,” and the name often fit. Jacob could be a sneaky, grubby grabber. But when Jacob wrestled with God and wouldn’t give up, the Lord gave him a new name, a new identity. God said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel [meaning struggler with God], because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” He might still be called Jacob the grabber from time to time, but his true identity from then on would be Israel the winner, the overcomer. In the future he would still do some foolish and bad things and show traces of his old self, but the new name would stick. He would always be Israel, the man who won a wrestling match with God, the man touched and blessed by God. At times this man Israel might wonder, “Who am I? Am I just Jacob, the timid mama’s boy, the sly deceiver, the guy with lots of problems?” But then he would remember, “No! God declares me to be Israel, the wrestler, the winner, the blessed. There may still be times when I don’t live up to that, but that’s who I am—because God himself says so!”

What an honor to have a name from God himself, to know exactly who you are in God’s eyes! The New Testament tells of Simon, a fisherman who could be eager and energetic and talk big but who could also be unsteady and unable to come through under pressure. Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter, meaning “Rock.” Even after being renamed “Rock,” Peter didn’t always live up to his new identity; he wasn’t always rock-solid. One night he denied knowing Jesus (Mark 14:66-72). Another time he violated his own belief in God’s grace and led other’s astray by his example (Galatians 2:11-14). But despite Peter’s failings, his new name stuck, because it came from the Lord Jesus. The old Simon might still appear at times, but his real self, his true name, was Peter, and that’s what he became more and more: the Rock.

Jacob became Israel. Simon became Peter. Who are you? What’s your name? Is your name “Loser?” Is your name “Sinner?” Not if you live by faith in God and wrestle by his strength. In Revelation 2:17 Jesus tells those who trust him, “To him who overcomes, I will [give] a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). When God gives you a new name, you might still sin at times, but your name is not “Sinner.” That’s not the real you anymore. You might still falter and fail in some things, but your name is not “Failure” or “Loser.” No matter how other people may look at you, your God-given name gives you a secret edge, a sense that there’s far more to you than meets the eye, an identity of strength and significance. The new name known to you and God is the real you. In Isaiah 62 the Bible says to members of his kingdom, “The Lord will give you a new name… Your new name will be the City of God’s Delight and the Bride of God,” for the Lord delights in you and will claim you as his own.” If you want this new name and this blessing from God, “give yourselves no rest and give him no rest” until it happens. Seek this not just for yourself but for God’s eternal city and for all people in his kingdom (see Isaiah 62:1-7).

Limping Toward Glory

God wants to give us his ultimate blessing—but he also wants us to wrestle him for it. The Bible is a book of wrestlers, warriors, pioneers, adventurers, fighters, not pampered people in padded pews preaching platitudes. A gospel of painless prosperity and ease is a lie. It’s not the gospel revealed in Scripture. The God of the Bible makes his people into strong overcomers, not spoiled wimps.

36 times the Bible gives the simple command, “Be strong!” When God says something even once, we must listen, so when God says the same thing again and again and again, 36 times over, it’s absolutely vital. Be strong! “Stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13 NASB). “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1).

The gospel of instant success appeals to us when we want shortcuts, easy solutions, problem-free pleasure. But most of us need a struggle, a fight, before we can become the people we’re meant to be and have God’s blessing. And remember: even if we get the blessing, it can leave us with a painful limp, not in perfect health and comfort.

Jacob got a precious blessing from God, but it was not the blessing of an easy, trouble-free life. Jacob left the encounter with a limp. Jacob got a wonderful answer to his prayer for rescue from Esau’s anger the next day when the dreaded encounter with Esau turned out to be a time for hugs and reconciliation, but that didn’t mean Jacob was on easy street from then on. As Jacob’s life continued, his dear wife Rachel died in childbirth, his daughter Dinah was raped and disgraced, his sons bickered and fought, his best loved son vanished for years before turning up again, and his entire line was threatened by famine. So whatever God’s blessing meant, it didn’t mean Jacob’s life would be easy and pleasant from then on.

Now let’s go back to the questions we started with: What do you want most? What do you fear most? If what you want most is simply to stay away from what you fear most, your life will never have real purpose or power. But if you come to fear God more than any other terror and if you set your strongest desire on God’s blessing, then you can wrestle with God and with humans and emerge a winner. You can have the new name Jesus gives to overcomers. As Jesus suffered pain and death and overcame it all, so you can be a conqueror through Christ when you take up your own cross daily and follow him.

It’s possible that you don’t really know your worst fear or your deepest desire. Only when God pounces on you and grapples with you do you realize that the God you’ve so often avoided is the very one whose blessing you desperately want. Throughout your life God will give you opportunities to wrestle and to lay claim to his blessing. How much do you want it? God’s blessing is a free gift, but it is often given only after much struggle. As the Lord wrestles against you to test your strength, he also secretly strives within you to increase your strength and bring you greater blessing. So make the prayer of Jacob your prayer: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.