Grappling with God

Prayer with us has largely ceased to be wrestling.
— P.T. Forsyth

If Genesis eighteen ushered us into prayer’s courtroom galley, where we heard the Judge and counsel present arguments for sentencing, then Genesis thirty-two is prayer’s gritty counterpart, a midnight Main Event staged between the outclassed Jacob and the undefeated Angel in a battle for blessing.  Courtroom praying had its decorum and rules, and Abraham proved an adept counsel, and God was approached as the honorable Judge (of all the earth).  But here on the wrestling mat, the conversation is less missional and more personal, less theologically argumentative and more spiritually combative.  It’s not about will you spare them, but will you bless me.

Blessing is a huge part of praying.  We bless our food.  We bless our children.  We bless the Lord.  We seek the Lord’s blessing.  

I have been blessed to have my mother and father’s blessing and approval; they approve of me, love me and celebrate me.   Their blessing is a treasure.   Their treasure is something I strive to pass on to my children.

But spiritual approval was a different story.  Early on I discerned (rightly) that God’s blessing was what really mattered in life, but I wrongly discerned how that came about.  I thought that God mediated or withheld his blessings at the behest of celebrity preachers.   That is, if they ‘blessed’ me, God was blessing me, and if they refused to bless me, God would not bless me.  For the most part I enjoyed my pastor’s favor, he wanted me around, never wanted me to leave.  I approached him with desires to minister in other places and churches when I was twenty, then again when I was twenty-two, then again when I was thirty.  Each time he said no.   I always had mixed emotions; happy that he valued me, but anxious with worry over the thoughts that his blessing was conditioned on me staying put.  I dutifully made my way up through the ranks—youth pastor, prayer and evangelism pastor, and college pastor.  Then he moved on.  The new pastor was eager to see me go, but refused to ‘bless me.’   To be fair, we had some theological differences.  

Eduard Schwoiser painting 1852 King Henry IV to Canossa. 

Eduard Schwoiser painting 1852 King Henry IV to Canossa. 

In what turned out to be my Walk to Canossa I waited a hearing outside his office, letter in hand, for several hours.  I slipped the letter to his secretary ‘asking for his blessing’ to move on where I sensed God was calling me and waited for a return phone call for a week.  Nothing.  I then called.  Nothing.  I just wanted someone to “spiritually bless me.”  Candidly, I don't even know what that meant.   We all want someone, outside of ourselves, to approvingly look upon us, and say, "Godspeed."  

Jacob's desperado prayer, “I wont let go until you bless me,” makes little sense apart from his scrappy attempts at affirmation.  He is second.  Born one-second too late.  His elder twin brother, Esau, gets all the stuff—dad’s birthright and inheritance.  Isaac preferred the elder brother.  Favored him.  Loved him.  Preferred the meals he cooked and the jokes he told.   And that wounded Jacob deeply.  It always does.

Jacob becomes an opportunist, scheming for the inheritance, compensating in any way imaginable to gain a ‘blessed’ life.  And finally, on his dad’s deathbed Isaac requests a final meal and blessing with Esau.  Jacob deceives and steals his way into his dad’s embrace and blessing, posing as Esau.  But those fifteen minutes of favor and blessing are short-lived when his brother comes home and vows to kill Jacob for stealing the blessing.  Jacob is forced to flee and live as a fugitive.

Why does Jacob risk his life for 15 minutes?  “Even if under false-pretense.   Even if under falsehood and lies, Jacob wanted more than anything in the world to hear his father say, ‘I love and delight in you more than anything in the world.’” (Tim Keller)

What is the goal of all prayer? 

Jacob is not that different from all of us.  We all long to hear someone outside of ourselves say, “I love and delight in you more than anything in the world.”  

The ache for these words often leads to all kinds of manipulations and strivings, masks and conniving.  And yet, God often redeems that ache by using it to help us discover that He is what we really long for.   Prayer is the place and the moment that we voice how numb our life is without God.  Prayer is the moment that we discover, even the best of marriages and most reliable of parents, leave us wanting acutely “something that cannot be had in this world.”  (C.S. Lewis).   

Jacobs's lifetime of seeking—two marriages, two decades, a handful of kids, two successful businesses—results in manipulating his father-in-law and fleeing for his life back to his home in Canaan.   At the Jabbok Ford, fear and inner doubts overcome him, he sends all his possessions and all his family across the river and stays behind, alone—and an Angel wrestled with him until daybreak.   The prophet Hosea described this moment as prayer. 

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855 illustration by Gustave Doré)

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855 illustration by Gustave Doré)

Alone.  Prayer is the place where we grasp for God after we lose grip of ourself.  Prayer is the place where we quit hiding behind our accomplishments and assets, name-dropping and relationships.  Prayer is where we quit running from the past and stop chasing the future.   Prayer is when we embrace the struggle of the now, unmasked and unpretentious.     

Prayer is being wrestled by God into submission, where we tapout our fears, grapple with our disappointments and doubts and we succumb to the reality that God is the blessing we have always wanted.  Wrestling and grappling is the appropriate metaphor here, because it's a fight and struggle to identify God as the blessing and life and meaning that you really want.   We see a beautiful and slender woman and we think if only I had her beauty then I would be worthy of being noticed.   We watch a Bentley Mulsane pride its way around the corner and the important businessman driving the car wrestles us down on the mat and pins our hopes in seizing our importance and power by society's standards.     Jacob spends a whole life struggling with affirmation and acceptance before he finally surrenders and says, “God's the birthright I sought from my brother. He’s glory I have been working for in the fields of my father-in-law.   He’s 'the approval I have been looking for in the face of my father; the beauty and companionship I have been looking for in the face of my wife, Rachel.'" (Tim Keller)  

The goal of all prayer then is to wrestle until you hear God say, "I love and delight in you more than anything in the world."  And when you reply and say, "And, Father, that is what I really, really want," you find yourself face-to-face with God.