Wrestling with God

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When my husband and I were beginning our family, we wanted to give our offspring names of significance. A son’s name was no problem: he would be named Reed Harrison Odell after my dad and Mike’s grandfather. The difficulty came when we discussed possible girl names. In the end, the only “significance” of our daughters’ names is that each is one of the select few girl names that could meet two criteria: 1) I liked it, and 2) it was not the name of some girl who seemed annoying to my husband back in school.

As lame as our reasoning may have been, I think we at least did a better job naming babies than the patriarch Isaac did. The Bible says Isaac favored the first-born twin Esau over Jacob, but I didn’t realize how just how much he favored Esau until I learned that the name Jacob means “liar.”

Can you imagine growing up in the knowledge that  your father named you “liar”? If you read Genesis, you will see that Jacob rewarded his father by living up to the name he had been given. Jacob manipulated his twin brother out of his birthright and later tricked the blind and dying Isaac into bestowing his blessing on Jacob instead of Esau as he had intended.

Fortunately, Jacob not only had an earthly father, he also had a heavenly Father with bigger plans for him. Many years later, on a dark night in the desert after an intense and painful encounter, the Lord re-named Jacob Israel, which means “he wrestles with God.”

In the past I’ve always placed the significance of this encounter with God on the calling: Jacob’s descendants are the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people. Lately, however, I have been mulling over this re-naming, because something about it plagued me. In the first place, although “one who wrestles with God” is slightly better than “liar’— it didn’t strike me as a whole lot better. It’s almost as if God were changing Jacob’s name from “deceiver” to “resister.”

Secondly, I have always associated a name change with a change in character or a change in purpose. Looking at Jacob’s life history, it seemed to me that he had always been a wrestler of sorts, struggling with man and God for his place, his position, his significance. After all, this is the kid who came out of the womb grasping his brother’s ankle in an effort to be first. Changing his name to “one who wrestles with God,” therefore, seemed more a confirmation of Jacob’s past than a foreshadowing of his future.

Then I got to thinking: maybe the great change wasn’t in the action, but in the preposition. Maybe what changed was that Jacob went from wrestling against God, to wrestling with God. Instead of Jacob fighting against God to achieve his own significance, now Israel would find significance fighting alongside God to achieve God’s purposes.

Now, that’s a big change.

As I’ve pondered Jacob/Israel, I realize I can learn so much from his story. When I live my life primarily for myself, I end up wrestling against everyone and everything— including myself — I am ultimately wrestling against God. Life lived striving for my own gain is profoundly exhausting and devastatingly unsatisfying.

When I wrestle with God, however, then I am partnering with God. We’re on the same side. It might still feel like wrestling, as long as I am living in a fallen world with broken people, and it will likely still be difficult and sometimes even exhausting.

But it’s right here where image of Jacob that night in the desert — clinging so tightly to God and refusing to let go — is such a beautiful illustration to me. Although sometimes following and loving Jesus feels easy and satisfying, over the course of a long life there are certainly times when it feels brutally hard. The temptation so often is to give up and quit.

I think perhaps the key to wrestling with God is refusing to let go in the hard times until I receive the blessing of greater intimacy with Him. Think about it: when you cling to something, your hands are occupied; they are unable to grasp for anything else.

Clinging desperately to Jesus prevents me from grasping for anything less than Jesus. The profound thing about this kind of struggle — wrestling with God and refusing to let go — is that I’m wrestling for the right thing. In contrast to wrestling against God , the result of wrestling with God is blessing and calling and a chance to be part of what He is doing in the world.

It may not be easy, but it is supremely and eternally satisfying.


Written by Grace Oviedo member Mary Odell.