Wrestling for a Blessing
Can I Really Say That to God?
By James Banks
“I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26).
In one of the boldest prayers in the Bible, Jacob cries out during a wrestling match with God. His words hardly sound like something anyone should say to God. But the context indicates he is talking with God here: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared” (Gen. 32:30, NLT).
Throughout the Bible we find “wrestling prayers”—prayers made in those challenging moments when we don’t know what God is doing and may even disagree. These are prayers from the ragged edge, when we’re walking by faith but struggling with the next step:
- David prayed, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).
- Isaiah inquired of the Lord, “Where is the passion and the might you used to show on our behalf? Where are your mercy and compassion now?” (Isa. 63:15, NLT).
- Elijah, afraid that Jezebel would kill him after God had shown His power against the prophets of Baal, fled into the wilderness and prayed, “I have had enough, Lord. . . . Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4).
- When Jonah was angry with God for His mercy on the repenting citizens of Nineveh, the prophet responded with an I told you so! He complained to the Lord: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish!” (Jonah 4:2, NLT).
- Even Jeremiah “grappled with God.” Although he obeyed God and warned His people that Jerusalem would be invaded if they didn’t repent, he then lamented that instead of being blessed for his obedience, his only reward was rejection: “O Lord, you misled me, and I allowed myself to be misled. You are stronger than I am, and you overpowered me. Now I am mocked every day; everyone laughs at me” (Jer. 20:7, NLT).
All of these prayers are raw and rough, giving vent to the deepest emotions of the human heart. They combine belief and unrelenting candor, pushing the limits in a struggle to understand what God is doing. These are prayers that make us uncomfortable, pressing us with the question, “Can I really say that to God?”
God Can Take It
There’s more faith in these prayers than first meets the eye. Underlying these prayers is the firm conviction that God is strong enough to take it. He has allowed these prayers to be included in His Word for a reason. “Wrestling prayers” teach us that we can be absolutely honest with God and hold nothing back.
This is one of the most painful and rewarding lessons we learn as we grapple with what it means to have a personal relationship with a Heavenly Father who is sovereign over even the most intimate details of our lives. Painful because these are prayers wrested from the grip of life’s difficult circumstances, and rewarding because somehow, through it all, God has a way of showing Himself faithful. The result is the strengthening of our faith.
I prayed my first “wrestling prayer” before my final year as a philosophy major in college. I had resisted God’s call into ministry for years. Then, as soon as I became obedient, the circumstances of my life became more difficult. A financial crisis, a personality conflict with a professor, and a broken relationship with a girl I loved—all within a few months—left my emotions ragged and my head reeling.
One afternoon, angry and frustrated with God, I sat in my old Dodge behind my apartment building and wondered where the money was going to come from to finish my senior year. I prayed, “Father, I did what You called me to—and look what happened! Now I hardly know what to believe. If You’re really there and You want me to go into the ministry, do something! Do something so that I know it’s unmistakably the power of the living Lord Jesus Christ.”
I resolved to wait, thinking that if God really wanted me in the pastoral ministry, He would make it clear. And if an answer didn’t come I would be free to go in another direction.
Two days later I received a phone call from the college. The public relations department had just received word about a new scholarship offered locally. “All you have to do,” they told me, “is go to the First Baptist Church and sit down and have a talk with the pastor.” The next afternoon I was sitting in his office.
“This scholarship was given by a family who was nationally successful in the restaurant business,” he explained. “They were saved through the ministry of our church. But you need to know that it is given for one reason only: to show the love of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
One week later, a check arrived at the college in my name, covering all the remaining funds needed for my senior year. God had grappled with me, and He had a new hold on me, pinning me in a way I would never forget. My calling was set, and in the following years God provided for every need until my education was complete.
Not a Neat Package
As I’ve told that story over the years, some have responded: “You shouldn’t have prayed like that. It was almost like you were giving God an ultimatum.”
But wrestling prayers don’t always fit into neat theological packages. Gideon put his fleece out not once but twice (Judges 6:36–40). Hezekiah asked for the shadow on the sundial to go backward ten steps (2 Kings 20:8–11). Few theologians would argue these prayers are models for anyone’s daily practice, but they point to the rough beauty of wrestling prayer. God loves us. And, in His mercy, He meets us where we are—even with our limited vision, self-focus, and struggling hearts. Why? Because “he knows how weak we are” (Ps. 103:14, NLT).
Our Heavenly Father accepts our brutally honest prayers. He uses them to deepen our relationship with Him and give us new confidence in His wisdom, goodness, and strength.
Jesus once encountered a man who cried out to the Lord, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” The Master responded, not by rebuking the man for his lack of faith, but by healing his demon-possessed son (Mark 9:24).
We know God “looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7, ESV) and discerns even our “secret motives” (Jer. 17:10, NLT). He sees when we’re sincerely seeking Him. He understands that we may struggle to understand what He’s doing at any given moment. But the fact that we’re struggling doesn’t mean we are doubting Him or being “double-minded” (see James 1:5–8). We’re just being human.
A Limp and a Blessing
God uses our wrestling prayers to interact with us in ways that touch our hearts and lives more deeply. We are never the same. Jacob’s encounter with God left him with a limp but also a blessing. He wasn’t just Jacob anymore (he who grasps the heel—Gen. 25:26). He was Israel—one who has “struggled with God” and “overcome” (Gen. 32:28).
But what kind of a name is that? How can anyone “overcome” God? The only way Jacob could have won was if God let him. And that’s just like a loving Father, isn’t it? Sometimes (not always), we let our kids win because it’s good for them, helping them gain new strength through the struggle.
We can wrestle in prayer because God allows us to—and because God loves it when we give ourselves passionately to Him with every fiber of our being: “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Heb. 4:16, NLT).
When we let ourselves be real with God, He makes Himself real to us.
JAMES BANKS is a pastor, speaker, and author on the topic of prayer (jamesbanks.org). His books Prayers for Prodigals and The Lost Art of Praying Together are available at prayershop.org.
(c) 2014 Prayer Connect magazine.