One of the fondest childhood memories I have of my father, is my wrestling with him. I loved even those occasions on which the sparring ended in tears, as mum had usually warned it would! It is also a precious aspect of experiencing intimacy with my own kids.
Christians also often describe their relationship with God in terms of "wrestling," though perhaps in somewhat less nostalgic terms. We likely speak of wrestling with God in prayer, or wrestling with the text of scripture.
But does God really wish for us (or require us) to wrestle with him?
Psalm 119 recognises that reading God's word is often not easy, but never speaks of God's word as an opponent whose meaning is wilfully difficult for us to grasp. Oliver O'Donovan warns against thinking of the scriptures as a sparring partner...
If we suppose we have defeated it in battle like some Goliath, we shall, no doubt, triumphantly cut off its head. We shall then be fools twice over: first in conceiving that our cunning overcame the text when the text overcame our naive simplicity, second in not allowing the text to overcome our second simplicity, which is the pride we take in analysis to the neglect of a synthetic understanding of the text as a whole.
(Oliver O'Donovan. Vol.2 page136)
The terminology of "wrestling" does reflect something true of our experience. But If we wrestle in reading scripture, it is not wrestling with the wilful obscurity of God's word, but the wilfulness of our own hearts.
And what about in prayer? What about Jacob's wrestling the angel? Didn't God make Jacob wrestle a blessing out of him? I don't think so. Jacob didn't need to wrestle anything "out of" God. Quite the opposite. Jacob needed to learn that God's blessing comes as a gift to be received. Jacob only grasped that once the mysterious man touched his hip, crippling him as a reminder of the weakness of his own flesh. It WAS a struggle for Jacob to come to terms with God's grace and acceptance, but he had never needed to wrestle that grace from God's hands. (see John H. Walton's work on the text of Genesis)
Once again O'Donovan offers a corrective to how we typically think about "wrestling" with God, with these wonderfully moving words on prayer:
A tradition of Protestant exhortation, taking its cue from the story ofJacob's wrestling by Jabbok in the night (Gen. 32:22-32) and Jesus' parable of the importunate widow (Lk. 18:1-8), has attempted to make a virtue of impatience in the struggle of prayer to wrest fulfilment of the promise out of God's hold...
For [Jesus], prayer may be altogether too drawn out, too histrionic and stormy, to evidence faith in a generous Father. Even the widow of the parable is not meant to encourage dramatics, for God is not like the unjust judge she has to deal with. He needs no bribing or bullying, but gives out justice speedily and readily...
Our prayers may gain intensity from their circumstances, of course. When someone we love is in peril, it is natural that we pray with tears and terror. But when we find ourselves at our last breath, passionless prayer will have to suffice, for the energy of passion will not be at our command. Wrestling in prayer is wrestling with ourselves, not with God.
(Oliver O'Donovan. Vol.2 page176)
For more about Oliver O'Donovan, check out this Oliver O'Donovan Facebook Page.
...like other colonists, she found much of what she saw bewildering, even repulsive. She and her neighbours regarded the country as a monotonous wasteland to be dominated and transformed, and a good deal of her pioneering experience was mean drudgery and brutal disappointment... Her epiphany seems to have had its roots in tragedy. Deranged by the death of a child, her mind and her heart were rent open. During her long recovery she returned to botanising. She grew more confident, more passionate. She saw such flowers of the imagination that she was transformed.
To Georgiana the landscape often appeared oppressive and monotonous. The discipline of botany gave her a means by which to dominate and catalogue her unfamiliar surroundings: perhaps affording some illusion of control. Yet her botanical discipline seems to have presented her with little reason to delight in or celebrate the country that was shaping her. That is, until life circumstance forces upon her an attentiveness to her surroundings that begins to transform her.
It struck me that this is not altogether different from how some of us experience the reading of scripture. In some seasons of faith the scriptures can appear as a monotonous and sprawling horizon of text that lies largely unexplored before us. Perhaps we find some sense of achievement in attempting to catalogue it, but we rarely expect it to move or delight us. The otherness of the text can leave us feeling as if it hardly warrants further patient attention.
And yet, even that which at first appears monotonous and unpromising, can shape and transform us in unexpected ways. Humility and patience can beget an attentiveness to things we’d previously just trampled over.
It seems to me Winton’s closing reflection (below) is equally descriptive of what many patiently attentive readers of scripture have also experienced.
It takes humility and patience to see what truly lies before us. A different kind of seeing comes [...] to those who ‘stay longer and look with open hearts and minds’. We need not search merely in order to capture. Our fresh gaze yearns to understand, to bring knowledge inward - not just to catalogue it, but to celebrate what we encounter...
I'm Steve. Anglican Presbyter, Practical Theology Enthusiast, and Graphic Design Hobbyist in Sydney, Australia
Wills And Affections