We wrestle with God for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, we want to wrestle because of what we see “out there”– a culture moving in the wrong direction, the moral failings of trusted leaders, the disunity and strife amongst God’s people, etc. Sometimes, it’s because of what’s going on “in here”– professional disappointments, relational frustrations, faith confusions, deep hurts, unmet longings, etc.
Does any of that describe you right now? If so, there’s good news below! It takes two forms:
The first and more fully formed is a sermon I gave back in the summer of 2020 at The Falls Church Anglican, covering Psalm 137 and other difficult passages of scripture from the Old Testament. Whether you watch or listen, I hope you find hope and encouragement, even in those challenging prayers:
The second is the reflection below. I originally wrote this back in 2013, but it remains something I come back to often. It’s a reminder I need, especially these days. May it be a blessing to you on this day.
Can you imagine going to a party and meeting someone for the first time, and telling them about the thing you are most ashamed of? Your brokenness, your sin? Would you immediately tell them about the thing that you most desire in the world or for your life? At this party, would you get angry with a new acquaintance?
No, because you don’t know them enough to be truly honest. You’re not intimate with them.
Who do we actually fight with? Family. Who do we share our pain with? Who knows our sin? Our friends. Who do you share your deepest longings with, or tears? Our spouse. We honestly share our deepest feelings, especially the hard ones, with people we are most intimate with.
Intimacy begins with honesty.
If we’re honest, sometimes we’re not happy with God, and in those times honesty with him leads to intimacy with him. I’m not talking about bringing him the lesser things– like wanting a puppy or a new coat or new car– but rather bringing to him the real things of our lives: a longing for freedom from sin, a desire for a relationship, the sickness of a loved one, our sadness at the horror inflicted on a child, a project we’ve pursued out of obedience that’s not going well, our hurts and confusions. Sometimes, we’re not sure where God is in these things.
But if we want intimacy with God, those are the times to be most honest with him, even if our honesty is ugly.
Some of my favorite passages of the Bible are examples of people who were being honest with God, like Moses in Exodus 5.22-23, or the Psalmist in Psalm 88.18, or Jeremiah in Jeremiah 20.7-8. And then our Lord Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, and even more so on the cross, saying to God, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
How often do we pray like this? All these people had a deep intimacy with God– they knew God, were known by God, and were faithful. And they were brutally honest with him with their deepest feelings. And then they kept on obeying. And God blessed them.
What keeps us from this kind of frank honesty with God? We might have a wrong view of God, that somehow he’s “up there” and not really concerned about MY life and problems. We might have been taught that you aren’t supposed to talk to God that way. Maybe our shame is too deep…we’re so embarrassed by our brokenness that it’s hard to pray about it because then we have to face up to it ourselves. Maybe our longing is too deep and too painful to acknowledge. We might not be sure that God will come through.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis. 32.24-26:
“And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 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. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”
Because we know that intimacy requires honesty and sometimes honesty means that we wrestle with God, what do we learn from Jacob about wrestling with God?
First, wrestling with God is a statement of faith: we believe he’s close enough that we can hit him. You don’t wrestle with someone who is a hundred miles away. You wrestle with someone who you believe is actually close by. You don’t take a swing at someone you don’t believe is close enough to hit.
Second, as we wrestle with God, we realize that it is passionate, intense, and tiring, but also tender and intimate. Rabbi Arthur Waskow once said, “Wrestling with God is a lot like making love.”* What he means is that when we are most honest with God we are most tender, intimate, and vulnerable to him. And he holds on to us very tightly.
Third, wrestling with God leads to blessing: “’Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ …And there God blessed him.” (Genesis 32.28)
But it’s not the wrestling that brings blessing, it’s the intimacy on display, the bald faith and unwillingness to let go of God, even when it hurts.
Sometimes the blessing comes in receiving an answer to our deepest feelings or even desires. But whether or not we get the answer we want, the greatest blessing of wrestling with God is knowing that he is near us and that he loves us.
So, how do we become more intimate with God and with Jesus? Show up, be honest, make love, get loved.
*quoted in Don Postema, Space for God: The Study and Practice of Prayer and Spirituality, a marvelous book
Image: “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,” Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865.
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