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.
I'm Steve. Anglican Presbyter, Practical Theology Enthusiast, and Graphic Design Hobbyist in Sydney, Australia