Wrestling with God

Text: Genesis 32:22-32

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives…[The Lord] disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.”[1] These words of King Solomon were shared with the congregation in the letter to the Hebrews. They were meant to encourage the congregation in their life together, even as they faced suffering in their lives. Their suffering was not a sign that God had abandoned them. Rather, though their suffering, God was at work, discipling them as sons and conforming them to the image of His Son. The result would be an increase in the fruits of righteousness among them and a share in God’s holiness.

Though the patriarch Jacob lived some ten generations even before Solomon, he also believed this. On the eve of meeting with his brother Esau, just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse – they did. A man came and wrestled with him until the break of morning. Jacob wrestled and prevailed against the man, whom we now know to have been the Lord. Jacob wrestled with God, and prevailed over his suffering, by trusting in God’s Word and holding Him to it.


When we heard these texts last year, I pointed out that Luther thought this lesson from Genesis was just about as hard as they come. No one, at least by Luther’s reckoning, seemed to know how to make heads or tails of it. It kind of comes out of nowhere and isn’t explicitly mentioned again really anywhere other than the prophet Hosea. You’d think it’d come up at least in Hebrews 11, the great “faith,” chapter. Jacob is mentioned there, but not for this event. Thematically though, it definitely is connected to the account of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15, which was the Gospel reading this week.

We find Jacob, as we said, on the night before he was to meet with his brother. Some time has passed since Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, and he was hopeful that the time would’ve healed some of the wound. When Jacob crossed into Edom – his brother’s land – he sent message seeking his favor. Jacob’s servants came back and told him that Esau was coming to meet him…with 400 men. Fearfully, Jacob divided up his camp so that Esau couldn’t raid all of it. He sent gifts ahead of him to curry his brother’s favor. He sent everyone he could ahead of him and stayed behind by himself. He prayed that night, “[O Lord] Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”[2]

Still, Jacob was filled with fear. And, just when he thought things couldn’t get worse – they did. “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”[3] The Hebrew for wrestling here is related to the word for dust and gives the sense that the dust or dirt was being kicked up as they wrestled. This was a serious battle, and Jacob must have truly felt that, not only would Esau certainly kill him the next day, but this guy might even take him down first. Perhaps, God had given up on him. But, even though his heart was telling him these things, he didn’t give up. He remembered that God had promised his offspring would be like the sand of the sea. Though his hip was put out of its socket, Jacob remembered God’s promise and prevailed.


Jacob wrestled against the Lord and prevailed. He prevailed because, even though doubts assaulted him, he trusted the Lord’s promise. Even though everything appeared the opposite – God cannot lie. Indeed, Jacob’s offspring have become as numerous as the sand of sea; all who share Jacob’s faith are his offspring. The Lord said to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”[4] Jacob was disciplined by the Lord and the result was righteousness and strengthened faith within Jacob, now Israel.

I think it’s fair to say that we also struggle and suffer in this life. Sometimes, our trials seem to be more than we can bear. And, sometimes, it feels as if God had set Himself against us. After all, why else would so many bad things happen to us? St. Paul also sometimes felt that way. He quoted this passage from the Psalms to the Romans, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”[5] Then he said that, no, nothing in all creation – whether suffering or tribulation or distress of any sort – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul, and Jacob and the Canaanite woman before him, knew that God has made a sure and certain promise to us – that He forgives our sins and will forever watch over us. Or else, why would He have sent His Son? God our heavenly Father sent His only-begotten Son, to bear our sin and be our savior. He give His own Son into death for us, so that we might not die eternally, but live in with Him in His eternal kingdom. If God has so loved us, would He then turn and abandon us? I think not. No, God our Lord and Father is our ever-faithful guide and protector. He never will abandon us or allow us to suffer harm unjustly.

Knowing that God will never abandon us gives us hope and confidence, but the fact remains that we do suffer in this life. It would be a vain and false promise for me to tell you that you will not suffer in this life. However, I can tell you that your suffering is not without purpose. Hear again the words to the Hebrews, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives…[The Lord] disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.” In our times of suffering, God is at work within us, training us in righteousness. Through suffering we learn patience and endurance, and we grow mature in the faith.

Still, in times of suffering we feel awful. Often, our suffering persists for some time. It sometimes feels as if God is against us – as Jacob certainly felt. However, God is most certainly not against us. He is for us, even at the cost of His only Son. Jacob wrestled and prevailed by trusting in God’s promises, and so do we. As St. Paul also said, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”[6]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Heb. 12:5–6, 9.

[2] Gen. 32:11-12.

[3] Gen. 32:24.

[4] Gen. 32:28.

[5] Rom. 8:36.

[6] Rom. 8:37.

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