Is It Okay to Wrestle with God?

September 6th, 2021 by Dr. Larry Selig

A young husband I shall call John, with a wife and two young sons, was just diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. It was inoperable, terminal, and he was given just six months at best to live. In spite of growing up in the church where his parents and wife were still active, he became indifferent about his faith in God. That was until he received this diagnosis and John became very angry with Him!

clenched fist

John came to see me because he did not want to share this anger with his wife or parents. They already had enough burden to carry when learning of his terminal condition. So he asked if he could vent his anger and feelings with me. I agreed to accompany John on a journey of wrestling with all of the deep emotions of anger and grief which he was feeling. 

Have you ever cried out to God in frustration or even anger at what you were facing? Have you ever questioned God when you or someone you loved was dealing with a major crisis and wondered why God’s silence seemed like rejection, that He did not even care?  If so, you can perhaps sense what John was feeling. 

Is it ok to wrestle with God?

The One Who Grabs the Heel

This brings us to the story in Genesis 32, regarding Jacob, the younger son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham. Jacob’s name meant “One who grabs the heel of another.” Jacob deceived his father Isaac when he stole his father’s blessing meant for the oldest son.  Esau was Jacob’s twin brother but was born just minutes before Jacob, thus Esau was the “oldest son”. But Jacob stole the blessing by pretending he was Esau when Isaac did the blessing. That deceit happened 20 years prior to the events in Genesis 32.

Jacob and Esau

But God was not finished with Jacob the deceiver. He called him from exile in Syria to seek reconciliation with his brother Esau, who was living near the Syrian/Jordanian border. Jacob departed, taking his two wives, eleven sons, all his servants, and livestock, and headed south to encounter his long-estranged brother.

The story has three simple points:

  1. It is OK to question and wrestle with God.
  2. But we must allow Him to also wrestle with us.
  3. And those who wrestle with God and prevail will be given a new name and a new future.

    It is OK to Question and Wrestle with God

It is okay to question and wrestle with God

My permission for John to unload his feelings of anger and grief during our first meeting apparently seemed to help. We agreed to meet again in one week, and in the weeks following as long as he needed. We discussed why it was OK to be angry with his cancer, and its results on him and his family, as cancer is an outside invader which destroys life. None of us can be immune from its insidious attack. If there is a holy war, then battling cancer would be on the list!

 I encouraged John to even vent his anger directly with God. His shoulders are big enough to handle our anger and complaints. He can take it. But God desires honesty, not hypocrisy or denial. He welcomes our wrestling, engaging with our whys, doubts, and questions as well.

angry man-1

As we continued our weekly sessions, John continued wrestling with what he was feeling and what was happening to his family. Slowly, something began to change. The anger over his cancer, instead of creating a wedge or barrier between him and God became an outward pressure that drew him closer to the only true source for answers. He needed to know what God had to say about it.

We Must Allow God to Wrestle with Us

We must allow God to wrestle with us

Approaching the borders of Syria with Jordan as Jacob was on the way to seek reconciliation with Esau, at God’s direction,  Jacob learned that Esau was coming to meet him with a band of 400 armed men. To protect his family and livestock, we read in Genesis 32:22-25: 

“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 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.”

You can just imagine Jacob asking, “God, what are You doing? I am obeying what you asked me to do. But now when I face Esau and his armed men, not only am I alone, but I’m limping because of this man who was wrestling with me. What will become of my wives and children?”

God, what are You doing?

Who was this man wrestling with him? Jacob answers the question in v. 30 when he said, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” He was wrestling with God Himself in human appearance. This is called a Theophany, the full incarnation of God in flesh and blood. If it was scary contemplating the meeting with Esau and his 400 armed men, imagine literally facing God Himself. Now that is really frightening!

As our weekly meetings progressed, John continued to raise deeply felt questions about the problem of evil in the form of cancer. If God was the God of love, why was He allowing this to happen to him, his wife, two boys, and his parents? I pointed out that evil is primarily a problem for Christians because we believe in a God Who loves us in spite of anything we might do. Muslims have no problem with evil. Everything which happens is according to Allah’s will, and is accepted with a sense of fatalism, ”Insha Allah”, literally “if Allah wills”!  As John continued wrestling with how a loving God could allow suffering and evil, God began to wrestle with John. Just as Jacob was passionate is seeking God’s help, my friend resolved to become passionate about finding God’s answers to his questions. 

Jacob wanted protection. God wanted transformation in Jacob. John began to understand that his struggles had a new focus.

Jacob wanted protection. God wanted transformation in Jacob. John began to understand that his struggles had a new focus.

Looking back on my own life, my times of doubt, fear, hesitations, questioning God’s will and ways, and at times dealing with the silence of God, I had to be patient with John’s struggles. For as I wrestled with God with my questions and emotions, He never rejected me for doubting His will. Rather, He challenged my faulty thinking and my self-centered focus. And later, as I faced stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer,  He revealed:

  • that His grace was sufficient
  • His strength was unfailing
  • His provisions were always enough

But I also learned that during these times of doubt, I was most susceptible to the lies of the enemy who was trying to sow seeds of distrust, doubt, and feelings of rejection. The enemy wanted me to turn my back on the only One who really loved and cared for me.

His grace is sufficient. His strength is unfailing. His provisions are always enough.

To Those Who Wrestle with God and Prevail, He Will Give a New Name and Future

3. To Those Who Wrestle with God and Prevail, He Will Give a New Name and Future

Previous to this stage in his life, Jacob had always relied on his own strength, determination, and cunning to get what he wanted. On his journey to meet Esau, he wanted to impress his brother that he was rich and successful, showing off his wives, sons, oxen, camels, donkeys, flocks, and his many male and female servants. 

sheep

But after wrestling with God, all alone, his hip dislocated, Jacob could only limp. His weakness was exposed, and he knew if He had failed to get God’s blessing, strength, and protection, he would not survive his encounter with Esau. In Genesis 32:24-28 (NIV) we read:

  24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.  28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

As Jacob wrestled, he held on to God passionately, pleading for the blessing. God asked, “What is your name?” This was a question Jacob had been avoiding for over 20 years. But God pressed him, and Jacob finally comes clean.  “My name is..is...Jacob!”  There, his mask is removed. His true identity is confessed. His name means “heel grabber” or “cheat,” one who stole what belonged to another. That was who he really was.

His name means “heel grabber” or “cheat,” one who stole what belonged to another. That was who he really was.

God replied, “OK, you finally admit who you have been all these years. Now I’m giving you a new name. You are no longer Jacob, but ISRAEL.”  It means. “one who has wrestled with God and prevailed.”  He was no longer a deceiver and a cheat, but a man passionately seeking after God!

He was no longer a deceiver and a cheat, but a man passionately seeking after God!

Throughout the Bible, when God changed a person’s life, He often gave them a new name:

  • Abram becomes Abraham, “Father of Multitudes”’
  • Jewish Rabbi Saul becomes Paul, Apostle to Gentiles
  • Simon, the Jewish fisherman becomes Peter, “The Rock Solid Apostle”
  • Jacob now becomes Israel, a “ Wrestler with God who Prevails”

What is your name?

Who are you? 

What is your name? Who are you?

The Deal I Made

John and I continued to meet regularly for over 2 years during his cycles of chemotherapy, remission, reoccurrence of cancer, and more chemotherapy. But I was impressed as I saw his faith begin to reignite as he continued to wrestle with God and let God wrestle with him. During remission, he was able to have special times with his wife and sons, playing ball with the boys, and watching their sports activities.

Having grown up sailing with his father on the Chesapeake Bay, spending overnights on the boat, John asked me one day to pray with him about two requests:

  1. That he could remain in remission long enough to take his wife and sons on a week-long sailing trip between chemo treatments.

  2. That when he died, his sons would not get angry with God for taking him away to heaven so soon. Rather that they would also come to know the love of Christ John had rediscovered during his battle with cancer.

“It’s a deal, John,” I replied and made these a regular request to the Lord, for I felt He too would want that for John and his family. It was not long afterward that John felt strong enough to take that sailing trip with his wife and boys, spending a week onboard the sailboat, enjoying all the things he had loved to do with his dad!

sailboat-2

Men in White Suits

A few months later while my wife and I were in Ireland on vacation, I received a call. John had just entered the kingdom of heaven. Immediately I called his wife who told an amazing story. John was getting dressed for church and was telling her that in a dream last night, men in white suits came to him with big smiles and invited John to go with them. His wife said, “John, that sounds like angels.” A few minutes later, John just sat down and died peacefully. She knew that the dream was meant to prepare her, the boys, and John’s family for his last and greatest adventure…entering the Kingdom of Heaven. 

I was so grateful that the first of John’s prayer requests had so clearly been answered with their week in the sailboat. But I kept praying for his wife, and especially his two young sons, that they would not get angry with God after John died.

Several years later, at one of our church’s Sunday evening prayer and praise services when people often offer personal testimonies of thanks, John’s oldest son, now in middle school, came forward. He said, “I miss my Daddy. I love my Daddy so much….But I know that Daddy loved Jesus, and I want to love Jesus and serve Him too.” There were tears of gratitude throughout the congregation. 12 years later, his wife wrote that both the boys remained actively following Jesus!

Are You Willing?

It is OK to wrestle with God and with past memories of grief, hurt, abuse, failure, addiction, shame, guilt, or whatever. But are we willing to let God wrestle with us? To heal our past? To give us a new name and a new future?

It is OK to wrestle with God. But are we willing to let God wrestle with us? To heal our past? To give us a new name and a new future?

Jesus said in Revelation 2:17: “To those who overcome, I will give a white stone with a new name written upon it, which no one knows except the one who receives it.” 

“Lord, help us reject the lies of Satan who wants us to believe we are unworthy of Your love, because of what we have done, or was done to us. Helping us reject the temptation to turn against You and Your Father when crises come and things seem hopeless. Help us to passionately wrestle and engage with You, until we know Your forgiveness, Your healing, and receive that new name You have for us all!” Amen. 

Have you ever wrestled with God?  Let us know in the comments below.

Are you wrestling with Him right now?  Let us pray for you.

Check out Dr. Larry Selig's newest book, 5 Prayers God Loves to Answer.

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About this author:

Dr. Larry Selig

Dr. Larry Selig

Dr. Larry Selig is an author, practiced Presbyterian pastor, and teacher. For over forty-two years, Dr. Selig has led numerous groups of youth and adults on biblical study trips to the Holy Land.

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