Bet Your Life on this Wrestling Match

October 30, 2023

I was never a big fan of the World Wrestling Federation. Let’s face it, men with no pants fight for a belt. But if we look at Genesis 32, we see an intriguing wrestling match between God and Jacob. What this match lacks in flying chairs and flying bodies it makes up for in drama and life lessons. Jacob is on his way home after twenty years of staying away from his brother, for stealing Esau’s birthright and family blessing. Esau has promised to crush Jacob’s head between two large rocks, and apparently has the stature to accomplish this. God has blessed Jacob over the twenty years with a great family and lots of wealth, but Esau is on the horizon with 400 men.

He is afraid, and rightfully so, as he tries to get some sleep. Instead, he finds himself wrestling with a heavenly being, maybe an angel, but probably it was the wrestling match of his life with God. In the match Jacob seems to wrestle God to a draw, until God pulls out His uniquely divine wrestling move, by touching Jacob’s hip and then dislocates it. Jacob holds on to God for dear life, both figuratively and literally. Then God says something odd, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

We can get some insights into Jacob’s victory over God by looking back to when Jacob is fleeing Esau for his life. In Genesis 28, Jacob dreams about the ladder reaching from earth to heaven and angels ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:12). In reaction to this powerful spiritual experience Jacob makes a vow. But notice, it is more of a bargain than a vow. He says, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God” (Genesis 28:20-22). Jacob’s faith is pretty shallow when he starts his vow with “If.” God, if you will perform for me, I will worship You.

We should be skeptical of Jacob’s vow, except that if we are honest with ourselves, we’ve made all too many such vows with God ourselves. Intellectually, we may know that Christians must struggle in life just like everyone else. Emotionally, we often get mad at God when we do, and wonder, “Why me, God?” We don’t like when we don’t think God has performed to His potential on our behalf, and we question God’s goodness, provision, and protection, and we doubt whether we can trust God. When we come to this place of faith it is like we are wrestling with God, and think we have prevailed against Him, when we know that prevailing against God only happens at our peril. This is what Jacob’s life to this point has revealed.

Note, the story does not tell us that God could not overcome Jacob, only that he did not. So, as Jacob is holding onto God for dear life, God asks him what he wants for his winning prize. For the bargainer, it was a tempting situation, but for God it was a test. Finally, Jacob passed the test, and asked only for a blessing from God, the most important thing any of us need in life. The blessing of God must be obtained from God himself, and this must be done by clinging to Him in helpless dependence, not by trying to manipulate Him. A realization of this fact brought about a dramatic change in the character and conduct of Jacob, and thus his name was changed to reflect this transformation.

After the wresting match Jacob would not try to prevail over God, but would seek to prevail with God. We have the same choice, to search for and live out the Will of God, trust His plan for our lives, and prevail in life with God. In the words of the apostle Paul, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). Prayerfully prevailing with God assures us of prevailing with men. If God is on our side, we cannot be overcome. This is what Genesis 32:28 was intended to convey to Jacob. In learning how to prevail with God, Jacob had also found God’s means of prevailing with men.

How often do you put God to the test and expect God to perform to your standards of His ability? Think of specific examples of when you find yourself doubting God’s goodness, provision, and protection? Do you trust God with everything no matter what? Could you be in a wrestling match with God right now? Don’t take this personally, but I hope you lose!