“Counterfeit Gods” by Tim Keller, “Knowing God” by J.I. Packer, and the Gospel of Mark by…Mark, I guess. These three books were on my reading list for this month thanks to the RUF Intern Study Program. To better equip us for ministry—and deepen our faith, since these are one in the same thing—interns are assigned various works and books of the Bible each month to read and discuss. Being the bookworm that I am, it tickles me to no end that in my job description I’m required to read and write about classic theology books written by legends of the faith.
I was texting back and forth with a friend and fellow intern on how rich “Counterfeit Gods” is. At one point my friend asked me “how does one wrestle with God? And, is that even the right mindset to have?” I started to type my reply. After about fifteen minutes, I realized that my response text would probably be close to 1,000 words and decided that no decent person deserved to receive a text of that length. I transferred my reply to my laptop and finished writing my response there, sending him a facebook message instead.
It’s been a few days, and I’ve come back to my reply to make sure what I sent him was coherent. I’ve made a few edits and additions, and I think the final product worth sharing.
“How do we wrestle with God?”
Well first off, I’m not sure that the moral of the story is to wrestle with God. I don’t think we should pursue that type of stubborn conflict with our Lord. Packer suggests that the blessing was Jacob’s total release of self-reliance and trickery. The limp was a fierce humbling. I think that God would much prefer to bless us without rendering us crippled if it’s possible.
However, there is a sense in which we do want to wrestle with God. Not in a combative sense, but in a raw, personal, no-holds-bar, intimate interaction with our Lord. As Hebrews 4 tells us, we are free to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence. That doesn’t mean we ought to challenge God, much less defy Him. But we’re free to bring our hard questions and struggles and confusions to him. Just remember the relationship dynamic. We are children, He is our Father. He is King, we are slaves (bond-servants, if you prefer that translation). We never want to approach God with arrogance or defiance. If we do, we’re forgiven already because of the cross. Still, that we will be forgiven for sinning does not give us the right to purposely sin (Romans 6:1-2).
So in one sense, the answer to your question, “How do we wrestle with God?” is “Humbly, confidently, and fully in pursuit of deeper love and unity with your Father and King.” God owes you nothing. He doesn’t owe you an explanation for why He allows what He allows. He has every right to let you and your loved ones suffer, even unto death in a manner we’d consider heinously cruel. His allowance of our questioning Him is an incredible grace indeed. Yet He encourages us to inquire of Him as children coming to their Father for answers.
In another sense, “How do we wrestle with God” can mean “What are the actual practical ways we can interact with God in this manner?” The answer to this is fairly straightforward: prayer and reading His word. Sometimes, our wrestling can be with Scripture. Seeking the guidance of wiser Christians is always a good way to wrestle, too. I wrestled hard with Romans 8-9 for a long time before I understood what Paul meant. How could God possibly harden pharaoh’s heart? How could God create humans for destruction? After a lot of prayer and careful reading of the passage, along with input from my pastor and a few helpful chapters in a book by Francis Chan, it clicked. (I still didn’t like what I was reading, but I understood it.)
Prayer is vital to wrestling with God. Perhaps the best picture of one wrestling with God is Jesus wrestling with the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Take this cup from me!” was Jesus’ plea, yet “Not My will, but Yours” was his posture. Perfect confidence, perfect questioning, and perfect humility.
Prayer, of course, is rarely a real two-way conversation with God audibly speaking to you. When God seems silent, spend time in silence yourself. Meditate over your point of wrestling and lift up God’s promises in light of them. He IS protecting you. He IS working in all things for your good. His ways ARE higher than your ways. He IS merciful. Your current confusion or pain or struggle is, in the grand scheme of God’s plan, a light and momentary affliction. That’s not to undermine your feelings, but rather to put your situation into perspective. When God doesn’t respond with clear words, turn to Scripture again. Walk in full confidence that one day, all will be made clear and all will be well.
Turning to fellow believers here is incredibly beneficial as well. Your brothers and sisters in Christ carry the same Holy Spirit in them that Jesus was filled with as He walked the earth. Friends can provide a perspective you might lack, bringing clarity to your difficulty. At the very least, you’ll have an ear to hear you and a shoulder to cry on. Venting feelings isn’t just cathartic. God often uses our vulnerability to lead and heal us. As Ephesians 5 notes, Christians are called to expose what is hidden in darkness. Whether that be sin, struggles, doubts, or pain, let it all be known to God and your trusted brothers and sisters.
Now, there’s of course a chance that whatever you might be wrestling with God over is not resolved, even after all of these practical steps. In that event, I implore you to draw even nearer to God. As Jacob wrestled God, he refused to let go even as the dawn broke on the horizon. Tim Keller comments on this in “Counterfeit Gods.” He writes:
…the figure insisted he must leave as dawn neared. Why? Jacob knew that no one could look upon God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20). Afterward, Jacob realized that this was the reason the wrestler had wanted to leave before the sun came up. It was for Jacob’s own protection, for, as Jacob said, he “saw God’s face and lived.” This may mean that in the first grayness of incipient dawn he was able to make out the lines on the face of the divine wrestler just before he vanished. Had he seen God’s face in the clear light of day, he would have perished.
Jacob recognized who he was wrestling with—God himself! When he realized this, and saw the sun coming up, Jacob did the most astonishing thing he had ever done. He did not do the rational thing, which would have been to cry out, “Let me go! Let me go! I don’t want to die!” Instead he did the very opposite. He held on tight, and said, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” (160)
Whether or not Jacob’s wrestling with God happened exactly the way Keller proposes, he beautifully captures Jacob’s tenacity—and the tenacity all Christians ought to have when pursuing God. Keller speculates what Jacob might have been thinking, and it makes for a brilliant prayer: “ I don’t care if I die in the process, because if I don’t have God’s blessing, I’ve got nothing. Nothing else will do” (161).
This reminds me of a journal entry I wrote about three years ago. I was confronted with a really hard theological question and didn’t know how to answer it. After a few hours of reading Scripture and skimming through other books and talking with pastors and friends, I was still confused and totally exhausted. I decided that instead of anxiously searching for an answer at that time, I’d instead take time to praise God and worship Him for who He is. I might not have been able to understand the content I was wrestling with, but I had let that fuel my worship for a God that was so far beyond me I couldn’t understand His ways, and yet so intimately with me that He called me son. The answer came eventually. Even in the midst of wrestling with God, we can stop and admire Him for all He is and all He’s done. If you’re familiar with the ACTS model of prayer, wrestling with God is more of a supplication. Adoration, confession, and thanksgiving all ought to come first.
Again, these are just some rough thoughts. I’m not an expert trying to write a book. I’m an intern who can’t reply to a text with a simple answer. Let me know your own thoughts! What have you wrestled with God over? Did He leave you with a limp? What are your questions? How are you seeking answers?