Peeling Back the Layers

How does one adequately describe wrestling with God?

Read Genesis 32:22-31, Luke 18:1-8 here.

Listen here:

Hear Arn Froese’s giving story here:

Hear Amy Brownlee’s beautiful solo here.

Our scripture reading from Genesis 32 this morning is such an odd story.  Jacob wrestling in the dark with a mysterious man.  The Hebrew word that’s used to refer to this dark figure is the word “ish.”  “Ish” means man. And if you put that word “ish” together with the dialog between Jacob and this man, you get . . . Bohemian Rhapsody. The song by Queen.  Ish mil lah no, we will not let you go! …Let me go! ….We will not let you go![1] …or something like that.

There’s been a lot of speculation over the years about what exactly Freddie Mercury’s lyrics mean, and the band has intentionally let the mystery continue so that people can relate to them in whatever way they connect with their own personal experience.[2]  It may be that this scene in Jacob’s life is similarly mysterious for the same reason. How does one adequately describe wrestling with God?

Maybe we will understand the significance of this moment in Jacob’s life better if we remember how Jacob got here. This is not the first time Jacob wrestles with someone, and it’s not the first time he’s wrangled a blessing for himself.

Jacob’s very first wrestling match was in his mother Rebekah’s womb, wresting with his twin brother Esau. When they were born, Esau came out first, and Jacob came out grasping Esau’s heel.  Wrestling right up to the moment of birth. (Genesis 25:19-26)

The struggle continues as those babies become men.  Esau was a headstrong hunter, while Jacob stayed home and helped with the cooking.  One day Esau came home starving and demanding some of the stew that Jacob was cooking.  Jacob saw an opportunity, so he said, “I’ll give you stew if you give me your birthright as firstborn.”  Esau said, “What good is a birthright if I starve to death?”  And so he gave his birthright to Jacob. (Genesis 25:27-34)

But that birthright was no good without their father Isaac’s blessing, so Rebekah helps Jacob deceive Isaac with a disguise, and Isaac unknowingly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau.  Of course, when Esau finds out, he is livid, and so Rebekah sends Jacob off to hide out with her brother Laban who lives far away in the north. (Genesis 27:1-40)

Along the way, while Jacob is all alone sleeping under the stars with only a rock for a pillow, he has a dream of a ladder or stairway going up into heaven and angels going up and down the ladder.  This is one of the most well-known events in Jacob’s life, and to this day it is the classic rock song every guitar student learns to play . . . Led Zepelin’s Stairway to Heaven .

In this dream, God spoke to Jacob and made the same promise that God had made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, that this land from which Jacob is currently running away would someday belong to his descendants, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth.  And God also promised that wherever Jacob went, God would be with him, and God would eventually bring him back to this promised land. (Genesis 28:13-15)  And then Jacob responded with a wrestling prayer.  He said,

“If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if he will provide me with food and clothing, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will certainly be my God. 22 And this memorial pillar I have set up will become a place for worshiping God, and I will present to God a tenth of everything he gives me.” (Genesis 28:20-22)

When Jacob got to his uncle’s place, Jacob the deceiver became Jacob the deceived.  He fell in love with Rachel, and his uncle agreed to give Rachel to Jacob after he worked for seven years.  But then on the wedding night Jacob discovered that his uncle had married him to Rachel’s older sister Leah instead.  So the uncle convinced Jacob to stay and work another seven years to marry Rachel.

Jacob continued working for Laban for another six years after that. (Gen. 31:41)  During this time Jacob was paid in livestock and became quite wealthy.  Also during this time, Jacob’s two wives and their maids had eleven sons and at least one daughter.  And then God speaks to Jacob in a dream again, and tells him that it’s time to head back home. (Gen. 31:12-13)

That’s where Jacob and his wives, children, and livestock are headed when the mysterious wrestling match happens.  Jacob is nervous about coming home after all these years, and especially about seeing his brother Esau, who Jacob expects is still angry and maybe still wants to kill him.  So Jacob sends a messenger to Esau with gifts, hoping to earn Esau’s forgiveness and favor. The messenger comes back with the news that Esau is coming to greet Jacob and bringing with him 400 men. Jacob is terrified, and so he prays.

Jacob’s prayer now is much different from the one he prayed 20 years ago.  That earlier prayer was all about bargaining with God.  Now Jacob is much more humble.  He says,

“I am not worthy of all the unfailing love and faithfulness you have shown me. Please rescue me!” (Gen. 32:10-11)

Then that night, Jacob sent his whole family and all his stuff on ahead, so that Jacob was all alone when the man came and wrestled with Jacob for the rest of the night.  Jacob refuses to let the man go at daybreak, so the man dislocates Jacob’s hip.  Jacob still won’t let go until the man blesses Jacob. But before the blessing, the man gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “Because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” (v28)  Jacob names the place Penuel which means, “I have seen God face-to-face and my life has been spared.” (Gen. 32:30)

image-168What a rough night that must have been!  Maybe you’ve had nights like this?  I know I have.  Sometimes they’re full of questioning, wrestling prayers.  But, God, what about this?  But, God, what about that?  And what about this other thing?  How?  Why?  When?  Often it’s not until daylight comes that the wrestling ends with the blessing of answers or, if not answers, at least some peace.

Why does it take all night?  Why does it take so much wrestling?  Because it takes time to peel back the layers and get to the heart of the matter.  For Jacob, this wrestling match was more than twenty years in the making, years in which Jacob who had deceived his father and his brother became the recipient of his uncle’s deception, and so began to understand the pain he had caused.  It took time for Jacob to mature enough to come back to the land God had promised to his father and grandfather.  It took time for Jacob to be able to face God.

Isn’t it often so much easier not to wrestle?

But the Bible is full of people like Jacob who wrestle with God:

  • Abraham does it when the messenger tells him that Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed. (Genesis 18)
  • Moses does it when God threatens to destroy the people wandering in the desert. (Exodus 32, but it’s not the only time.)
  • We talked last week about Job’s wrestling with God over his situation.
  • In the Psalms we see lots of wrestling prayers.
  • Jesus does it when he’s in the Garden of Gethsemane.
  • The Apostle Paul does it when he begs God to take away the thorn in his side. (2 Corinthians 12:8)

Charles Dickens does it in his writing in which he wrestles with the way people treat each other, often in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the musical Oliver! at the high school this past weekend, I noticed that the dome of St. Paul’s was part of the London skyline, a detail found in many of Dickens’ scenes because he himself wrestled with the church’s seeming distance from the real issues people were facing.

And Jesus tells us that we will also need to wrestle when he tells the parable about a persistent widow in Luke 18.  Luke tells us right up front that it’s a story about praying and not giving up.  The widow goes to this judge who neither fears God nor cares about people and begs for justice.  The judge finally gives in solely because the woman refuses to let go.  Jesus says, “So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7)

Why do we have to wrestle?  Let’s not miss this. It’s because through wrestling over time that we peel back the layers of stubbornness, self-deception, misunderstanding, lust, greed, pride, anger, apathy, and selfishness and get to the heart and soul of what we really need and truly desire – God’s love. And it’s through the wrestling that we grow in our trust in God and move forward in our relationship with him.

PeelingCrawfish_BlogPreview-01It’s kind of like eating crawfish.  They’re not easy to find in Kansas, but in the south, they’re quite common.  They look like a little lobster, and they’re similar, but when you peel the shell of a lobster, you get a big hunk of lovely, yummy lobster meat.  But not with crawfish. From those you only get a piece of meat about the size of the end of your finger.  For me, it’s just not worth the trouble.  I don’t like them enough.  And I’m too grossed out by the process of peeling.  But those who love them will persevere through the work to get to the meat.

102336679-Baby-Artichokes-Photo-by-Meredith-resized (1)

I am, however, willing to do the work to get to the heart of an artichoke.

And we need to be willing to do the work of wrestling with God, of persevering with our questions and seeking God with all our hearts. Author and pastor E.M.Bounds says, “Prayer in its highest form and grandest success assumes the attitude of a wrestler with God.”[3]

Author Phillip Yancey, in his book on prayer, tells the story of a hospice chaplain who gets called to the bedside of a patient who “…was in great emotional distress. He was in the last stages of cancer and was feeling very guilty because he had spent the previous night ranting, raving and swearing at God. The following morning he felt dreadful. He imagined that his chance of eternal life had now been lost forever, and that God would never forgive one who had so cursed and abused him. The chaplain asked the patient, “What do you think is the opposite of love?” The man replied, “Hate.” …the chaplain replied, “No, the opposite of love is indifference. You have not been indifferent to God, or you would never have spent the night talking to him, honestly telling him what was in your heart and mind. . . the . . . word that describes what you have been doing . . . is ‘prayer.’ You have spent the night praying.”[4]

We all wrestle with God, and when we do, like Jacob, we are changed, especially when we take the time to peel back the layers, to take off the masks we wear, and let down the shells we hide under, and get real with God. As we seek God the layers peel away.

Wrestling doesn’t necessarily solve all our issues.  Jacob doesn’t go on to have a perfect life.  In fact, he doesn’t stop being Jacob, even though the man gives him the name Israel, but there was something happening that was bigger than Jacob, the birth of a nation, and the coming of Jesus.  And throughout Israel’s story, the ongoing question is much like the refrain of the song that echoes throughout the musical Oliver!, “Where is love?”[5]  The answer was there at the beginning of the musical on the banner hanging over the workhouse dining room, “God is love.”  God promises to be with us, just like he promised Jacob.  And we, like Jacob, have seen the face of God, because Jesus said, “When you have seen me, you’ve seen the father.” (John 14:9)  And Jesus promised to be with us always.

Whatever we are wrestling with, let’s always Search for the Lord and his strength.  Continually seek him. Psalm 105:4

May God bless us as we seek him with all our hearts.




[3] Yancey, Philip. Prayer (p. 100). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. E.M. Bounds, The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1990), 322.

[4] Yancey, Philip. Prayer (p. 100). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. quoting Roy Lawrence, How to Pray When Life Hurts (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1990), 28.

[5] By Mark Lester in the musical Oliver!

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