22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants 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. 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 men and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Genesis 32:22-30)
This is a strange story: Jacob wrestled with God. It sounds crazy, but somehow there was an actual, physical struggle between Jacob and God that lasted all night long. It’s unlike anything else we hear about in the Bible. There’s a lot about Jacob wrestling with God that I can’t explain. What did God look like? How did the wrestling go? Like WWE Friday Night SmackDown? Or like brothers rolling on the floor? I don’t know! Martin Luther said, “This passage is among the most obscure passages of the whole Old Testament.” Like I said, this is a strange story! Why does the Bible tell us about Jacob wrestling with God?
Because you do it all the time. At least I do. Maybe not a physical wrestling match like Jacob had. But I know you wrestle with God. When was the last time you couldn’t sleep at night, anxious and worried about a million things? Last night? Maybe it was when the cancer news came. Maybe it was when the baby didn’t come. Maybe it was after that person hurt you. Maybe it was after you hurt that person. Late nights? Can’t sleep? Anxiety and fears and worries? Questions for why God allows what he does? I think you know all about wrestling with God.
Wrestling was the story of Jacob’s life. Jacob is one of the people in the Bible whose name means something. Remember what Jacob’s name means? “Heel-grabber.” Even before he was born, Jacob wrestled with his twin brother Esau in Rebekah’s womb. He wanted to be first! Was he? No. He came out grabbing his brother’s heel. That’s why they named him Jacob—“heel-grabber.” From the moment of his birth, Jacob was always wrestling. He was always trying to pull himself ahead.
It didn’t stop when Jacob was born. Soon he was wrestling for his father’s attention. If you have a sibling, you know what that’s like. Twin brothers—who was the favorite? Jacob wanted to be! Except everything that seemed to make a man a man in those days was on Esau’s side. Esau was older (by like a minute). Esau was bigger. Esau was hairier. Esau was the one who liked to hunt. Jacob was a mama’s boy. He wrestled to get his father Isaac’s attention, but who was always Isaac’s favorite? Esau. Ever wrestled for your parents’ approval? Jacob did.
So Jacob took the matter into his own hands. When Isaac planned to give the family blessing to his firstborn son Esau, remember what Jacob did? He schemed. With his mother Rebekah’s help, Jacob disguised himself as hairy Esau and fooled his nearly blind father to get the blessing. Ever lied to get ahead? Jacob did. Did it work? Well, he got the family blessing, but Esau wanted to kill him. So Jacob had to flee far away from the father he loved.
But that didn’t make him stop wrestling. What next? Love. Jacob wrestled for love. Jacob ended up living with his uncle Laban, and he fell in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Jacob worked seven years to marry Rachel. Except, Laban beat Jacob at his own game. Just like Jacob had dressed up like Esau, Laban tricked Jacob by having his other daughter Leah dress up like Rachel and become Jacob’s wife. So Jacob took matters in his own hands again. He worked seven more years and married Rachel too. Of course it wasn’t okay to have two wives. It was sin! But Jacob had to have what he wanted. Ever wrestle for a woman or a man? Jacob did.
But he still wasn’t done wrestling. Next Jacob turned to his work. He wrestled for wealth. He convinced his uncle Laban to pay him by giving him all the spotted and speckled sheep. Finally, you’d expect him to trust in God to make things work out. But that wasn’t Jacob’s way. Instead, he put spotted and speckled branches in front of the sheep at mating time so that their offspring would be spotted and speckled too. I don’t know much about farming, but I don’t think it works that way! If it does, I should have had my wife read Sports Illustrated when she was pregnant with our boys, and then she have given birth to All-Stars! What was Jacob doing? Trusting in his strength to get what he wanted! How did it turn out? God blessed him despite his foolishness, but his uncle grew to resent him and Jacob had to flee again. Ever wrestle for wealth? Jacob did.
See a pattern? Jacob’s whole life was a struggle. At every turn, he relied on himself and his heel-grabbing ways. But that brought him no peace. Only more struggles! Because Jacob failed to see the real struggle in his life. The real problem wasn’t his brother or father or wives or uncle or money. What was it? It was him! It was his sinful self-reliance. In every difficulty, Jacob did the same thing: He looked to himself for some scheme, for some trick to do it on his own. But over and over again he messed it up. Until he finally found himself in a spot he couldn’t get out of. After 20 years away, he had to head back home, and he heard Esau was coming to him with 400 men. Jacob didn’t know how to get out of this one. So there he was awake, alone, in the middle of the night.
Sound familiar? How many of us can trace the story of our lives as one endless struggle from birth to now? We wrestle from one person and problem to another, all the while relying on ourselves. “I can do it myself.” “I don’t need nobody for nothing.” What’s the result? If you’ve got nobody, you’ve got an empty life. If you’ve been trying to dig yourself out of holes, you’ll only end up digging new ones. In fact, relying on ourselves is at the very root of the problem. At some point, like Jacob, we hit a wall. “I’m not good enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m a sinner. I can’t!” My sinful self-reliance leads to constant struggles and pain and wrestling. Agree?
Before Jacob was willing to confess that, he had to wrestle one more time. With whom? God! On that sleepless night, before meeting Esau, Jacob found himself in a mano-a-mano wrestling match with God. God let Jacob wrestle him. He’s not afraid of us! In fact, God let Jacob hold his own. Until it was time. If Jacob thought he could win this wrestling match with God, it all changed with one touch. God touched his hip, and it popped out of joint, and just like that, all of Jacob’s strength was gone. Do you ever think you know better than God? Do you ever think you can argue God into your way? There is more power in God’s pinky than in your whole body.
And suddenly Jacob got it. As he held on for dear life to his opponent, he got it. He realized that his strength wasn’t the answer. He wasn’t going to win anything on his own. So Jacob said a peculiar thing. Instead of yelling, “Let me go!”, he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” As the light started to come up, the truth finally dawned on Jacob. “What a fool I’ve been! All my life I’ve been wrestling with my strength. All my life I’ve been taking matters into my own hands. But this is what I need: God! God, I’ve got nothing but you. I will not let you go unless you bless me. Nothing else matters. I’m going to hold on to you until you bless me!”
That is how you wrestle with God in prayer. You hold onto God and his promises and you say, “God, I will not let you go unless you bless me!” God invites us. God doesn’t want us to be timid. Jesus taught his disciples to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). God welcomes our wrestling. He doesn’t want us to let go of God and his promises until you receive true peace and strength from Jesus. Whatever your struggle is, “I can’t, God, but you can! I will not let you go unless you bless me!”
But why would God listen? Why would he bless us? Well, there was another time in the Bible when God became a man. Can you guess what I’m thinking of? Jesus. 2,000 years after he wrestled with Jacob, God came again in human flesh. But not to wrestle us. To save us! Remember who the real enemy is? Remember what the real struggle is against? Not parents or spouses or bosses or brothers… Sin—the sin living inside of us. Jesus came to fight the battle against sin that we couldn’t fight on our own. Here’s the amazing thing: Jesus didn’t sin once. He won every battle every day for everyone. Jesus came to wrestle and win for you and me.
As he did, there was a night when Jesus also wrestled with God in prayer. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed to God. Remember his prayer? “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). What was God’s will? That Jesus die to save us! Later, as he hung on the cross, instead of taking matters into his own hands, Jesus looked at his enemies and said another prayer. Remember? “Father, forgive them.” Because the greatest enemy isn’t any person. It’s sin. And Jesus defeated it. You’re forgiven! That’s why you can pray. You can pray with confidence. You can wrestle with God. You can hold on to God and his Word, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”
Do you know how it turned out for Jacob? The next morning, Jacob and his family met Esau and his 400 men. If Jacob had come with swords drawn, I don’t think it would have gone well. But Jacob was done wrestling. Jacob was done scheming. He walked up to Esau and did something very un-Jacob: He bowed to the ground before him. And do you know what Esau did—20 years after being hurt so bad? He threw his arms around his brother and kissed him. Can you see how God uses the struggles in our lives? He teaches us to cling to him in our weakness and find in him our strength. When Jacob was strong, he was worried and afraid. But when Jacob could hardly walk, he was filled with peace. Here’s what Jacob learned, “When I am weak, then I am strong!”
Those weren’t actually Jacob’s words. They come from the Apostle Paul. Paul had his wrestling match too. His enemy was what he called his “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan.” Something caused him pain. Three times he prayed with God to take it away. But God didn’t—not even for Paul. Instead, here was God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And here was Paul’s response: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Sometimes God makes us weak, so we can really be strong.
Do you know anyone with a bad hip—or someone who recently had a hip replaced? They all have something in common: They lean! They lean on a cane. On a walker. On a spouse or friend. They lean! Bad hip or not, may God teach each one of us to lean. Stop your scheming and your plotting. Stop your worrying and fearing. And wrestle with God, Jacob’s way. Go ahead. It’s okay! God invites you. Hold onto him each day and say, “God, I will not let you go until you bless me!” And whether God’s answer at the moment is “Yes” or “No,” know that when we are weak, then we are truly strong in Jesus. He will not let you go. So go ahead. Wrestle with God!