Have you ever wrestled with God? Jacob did. Literally. He wrestled with God all night long the night before he met Esau again after years away. In the morning, the man (God) touched Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint, showing how powerful He really was. He could easily have disabled Jacob from the beginning, yet He chose to engage the patriarch in a familiar and personal way. We see that God’s ultimate purpose of struggling with Jacob was not to defeat him, but to bless him. Now, I doubt you’ve wrestled with God quite like that, but perhaps you’ve wrestled with Him in a different way—in prayer.
Wouldn’t it be great if God answered every prayer right away, just the way you wanted Him to? To read certain prayer books, one might get the impression that prayer is just that. One such book I read said that one woman who prayed for her husband to be relieved of his depression noticed an immediate difference every time she prayed, as did he. That’s nice. But if you expect an answer like that, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Not that God can’t answer prayer like that, but He rarely chooses to do so. Prayer is more than a quick, “Lord, bless me.” It’s not a magic fix. Prayer should be more like wrestling with God; really struggling with Him against problems and sins that assail you; reminding Him again and again of His promises to hear and answer your pleas.
It’s no coincidence that the one-year lectionary pairs the Old Testament lesson of Jacob wrestling with God and the Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-28, the faith of a Canaanite woman. C.F.W. Walther, a pastor and the first president of the LCMS, has some valuable insight into the account in one of his sermons on this text:
The Canaanite woman demonstrates how God sometimes contends with His dear Christians. He may treat them as if they were people about whom He does not care, even as if He were their enemy instead of their friend. The first way in which God contends with His Christians is common earthly affliction…But, as we see with the Canaanite woman, there is another, more difficult struggle: God often does not answer the prayer of the Christian in distress but is silent to it. The distress goes on, and it will often become greater the more fervently the Christian prays.
I so get that. Sometimes it feels like I’m worse off after praying than I was before. I pray for patience with my kids, and an hour later I completely lose it with them. Not exactly what I’d had in mind. Walther goes on to explain that Christians have inward battles added to the outward struggles. So on top of continuing to be impatient with my kids, now my heart condemns me about what a terrible sinner I am. My feelings of guilt increase, and I wonder why I just can’t grab hold of this elusive fruit of the Spirit, namely patience. The devil whispers to me that I must not be a very good Christian if I can’t control my temper even after praying for help. I conclude that he must be right. This is what I get for praying? But that’s not the end of the story. Continuing with Walther:
In the example of the Canaanite woman, however, we also see how Christians victoriously overcome God Himself when He contends against them. Their manner of battle is quite simple. They need three things: (1) patience and humility, (2) fervent and incessant prayer, and, as their main weapon, (3) a faith that holds fast to God’s Word against the experiences and feelings of the heart…
If God contends with Christians by various sorts of misfortune… they first carry their cross in patience, and they think that they merit much worse than they have received—in fact, hell. Then they pray incessantly. Above all, however, they take refuge in God’s Word and keep themselves in it.
The Canaanite woman didn’t give up even when Jesus told her He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. (Interesting side note here: the Greek word for “only” actually means “first,” rather than “exclusively.”) She kneels before Him and presents her request yet again. (Also, the Greek for “kneels” connotes a deep worship.) And when Jesus seems to call her a dog, she takes it with humility and returns, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She knows the “crumbs” of the Gospel are more than enough for her. She clings to God’s Word even when it seems Jesus will deny her request outright. And miraculously, Jesus grants her request and heals her daughter.
Walther concludes, And behold, with one, the attack lasts a shorter time, and with another, a longer time. The attack is not removed from them, but the light of grace and joy once again rises more brightly. For ever so gladly, God lets Himself be overcome. He does not struggle against Christians to overcome them, but rather to be overcome by them.
In other words, wrestle away.