I first started walking with Jesus as a young child and my faith has been and still is the most important part of my life. I know this all sounds so “nice”, and it certainly is, but it’s fair and even helpful to share that walking with Jesus hasn’t always been easy for me. In fact, walking with Jesus has been very difficult through the years and I’ve wrestled and doubted, as I would imagine many of you have too. I’ve noticed there seems to be a temptation to wrestle secretly because we feel ashamed––we worry others will think we’re losing our faith or that they’ll say something unhelpful and fuel the fire of our questioning, which leads many of us to struggle in silence. Perhaps someone told us it was wrong to wrestle and doubt and that we should just have more faith, so we stopped being honest about it. But I think wrestling is common and a process that Jesus welcomes us to and meets us in.
I really wrestled with God after our newborn son Ethan died. My husband and I walked through infertility, and we became pregnant with Ethan after several years of prayer asking God for a child. When we finally did learn we were pregnant, we were understandably ecstatic and praised God for graciously giving us this baby. We gave thanks and prayed that God would use His life to minister to others. When I was 20 weeks pregnant, our anatomy scan revealed that our miracle baby had a fatal condition. We pleaded on our knees for a miracle. Ethan was born on August 16, 2015 and spent 93 hours in our arms before Jesus called Him home and healed his broken body eternally instead of physically. Though I can look back now and see so many ways God carried us through that time, in that moment I felt betrayed. I felt as if I had been given a miracle and it was snatched away from me at the last second. I was hurt and angry. I really began to wrestle with God during that season, and continued to wrestle as we miscarried again and again and again. And in the process of wrestling, I learned a lot about what it means to wrestle well (from digging into God’s word AND from experience because there were times when I did this well, and times when I didn’t wrestle so well). I found wrestling to be incredibly intimate––not something to avoid or fear, but a tool that would draw me closer to Jesus even if it felt scary to do.
So what does it mean to wrestle? I looked up the word “wrestle” in a basic dictionary and there are several definitions, but the definition that best fits what I’m talking about is “to struggle”. To wrestle is to grapple with something, to struggle with it, to engage with it in an uncomfortable way, whether than be through difficult questions, hurt or disappointment. When I consider this definition, there’s no question that this adequately sums up what many of us do with our relationship with God after we walk through something difficult. Maybe you’ve felt hurt or disappointed, or have started to doubt and question parts of scripture you’ve never thought about before.
If you’re wrestling, you’re among good company. The Bible is filled with examples of God’s people wrestling with Him and His good plan. We see the Israelites question and falter. We see the disciples miss the mark and grapple with Jesus’ words. David, called a man after God’s own heart, filled the book of Psalms with lament, agony, and questions. Psalm 22 opens with the anguished cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We even hear those own words echoed by Jesus as He hung on the cross, and we know with confidence that Jesus is perfect, sinless, and humbly submitted to God’s will. In Genesis 32:22-31, we see what is perhaps the most well-known biblical example of wrestling with God:
And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
As we see in this passage, Jacob physically wrestled with God all night long. And this wrestling match resulted in a limp and a new name, Israel, which means “he struggles with God”. God gave Jacob this new name to signify he had wrestled with God and with others and had overcome. Jacob, or Israel, went on to father God’s chosen people, which included the lineage of Jesus. God still chose Jacob, despite his wrestling, and He didn’t shame him for it, though Jacob was forever changed. I think many of us are walking with limps right now, but we can limp free from shame.
With this in mind, how can we practically “wrestle well” in our own lives? How can we wrestle with God, in a way that honors Him?
I think it’s first important to make the distinction that wrestling is different than completely walking away. Like me, you’ve probably seen people completely walk away from Jesus––people who were once leaders in the Christian community, maybe even people who’ve mentored you or had a positive impact on your own relationship with God. It almost seems to be “trendy” to go through a process of walking away and a lot of people have spoken out on this lately. I understand the hurt, the confusion, and the disappointment many of us have grappled with when we’ve felt hurt by God or his followers. And while I think it’s healthy for us to wrestle with Him, good wrestling comes from a posture of leaning in, not pulling back.
Imagine a wrestling match. I’m not much of a wrestling fan and I don’t know a whole lot about the sport, but I do know it usually involves two competitors struggling with one another. Now imagine a match in which one of the competitors steps onto the mat, looks their opponent in the eye, tosses some angry words at them, turns to the crowd and shouts their frustrations, spins on their heels, and walks away. No one in the audience would call that a true wrestling match. The wrestling never happened. The real action wouldn’t begin until that person reached forward and grabbed a hold of the person in front of them. In this same way, wrestling with God is different than being hurt and running away. When we wrestle with God, we bring our frustrations, our doubts, our angers, but rather than run, we continue to seek Him. We engage with Him. We grip onto Him and His Word, even as we plead for truth and cry out in pain.
So back to how? How do we wrestle well?
The first point is pray. Draw near to God with your hurt, your doubts, and your questions. Tell him how you feel--He already knows, but He wants us to come to Him. He can handle our questions and our emotions. He is a good father, who loves and holds their screaming child, as they beat upon their daddy’s chest with clenched fists. Pray continually, and rest knowing that the Holy Spirit intercedes for you in prayer when words fail.
The second way to wrestle well is to dig into scripture. In my wrestling, I dove headfirst into scripture and to be honest a lot of it was out of spite at first. I wanted to find a flaw. I wanted to understand why God would allow such pain. As I read through my Bible, my own misconceptions were revealed. I really began to see just how much the Bible actually addresses loss and suffering, and the contrast of the incomparable treasure we have in Christ. I began to truly see that Jesus, called “man of many sorrows” in Isaiah 53:3, knows how awful death is. That death is His enemy. I understood God created a perfect world and death and pain entered the world because of man’s disobedience. I understood because God is perfect, He could no longer look upon man in his wretchedness. I understood payment was necessary to make things right. I understood the need for a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. I understood God sent His son Jesus—fully God yet fully man—to come to earth and to die a horrible death in our place. I understood Jesus took all of our sin on the cross and covered us so we could have a relationship with God. I understood Jesus rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, and is coming back to earth one day to make all things right. I could quote the scriptures and I believed them to be true, but it wasn’t until I was left to sort through the aftermath of Ethan’s death that the weight of the gospel began to flood through my heart. Jesus came to be the death of death, and to destroy it forever.
The third way we can wrestle well is to be honest. It is okay and even healthy to admit if you are struggling with doubt and disappointment. It is good for us to be honest about our questions and to bring those to God. God knows every thought and emotion you hold inside of you. Tell Him. Draw near to Him with your pain, your doubt, your anger, your fear. Talk to Him.
The fourth way to wrestle well is to do it in community. Find a trusted friend, family member, or pastor who can encourage you and walk alongside you as you wrestle with faith. Don’t isolate yourself or feel like you need to do this alone. Don’t let shame keep you from reaching out for encouragement. Find people to link arms with and stand with you as you wrestle. People who will truly listen to what you have to say, and speak the truth and even gentle correction to you when you need to hear it.
Repeat over and over as needed. Pray. Read the Bible. Be honest. Seek counsel. Repeat. As you engage, hold fast to Jesus. Remember that a spiritual battle wages all around us. The enemy doesn’t play fair and will try to strike us at our weakest points and take advantage of our doubt. This is why clinging to God’s word is so important as we wrestle. The enemy wants us to take our eyes off God, the only true source of comfort and healing. Just as the serpent tempted Eve in Genesis, the enemy often twists the word of God in a way that sounds nice, but leads us away from the truth and harms us in the end. He whispers, “Did God really say … ?” Does God really love you? Is God really good?
The process of wrestling can be scary to engage in, but I have found it to be incredibly intimate. I have felt my desperation for Jesus the most in my wrestling seasons. It takes faith to seek God when we’re experiencing doubt. The process of wrestling requires faith that He hears us and faith that He is who He says He is, even when our emotions don’t line up with what we know to be true. I believe God welcomes us to ask Him hard questions, and He is glorified when we turn to Him and seek His face.
I want to leave you with a question to consider and a practical next step as you wrestle. The question is kind of a heart-check if you will and it’s this: Am I leaning in or pulling away? Is this drawing me closer to God? Am I seeking Him? And do I even truly want to know what He has to say back to me?
Next, write down a prayer to God. Be honest with Him about how you feel. Ask Him to reveal things to you from His word. Then open your Bible, even if you only read one verse today.
Be encouraged that grief is not the absence of faith. Tears do not negate our trust in God. Pain does not mean we are not saved. Wrestling is intimate––it requires clinging, grasping, watching, communicating. It means digging our heels in and standing on the truth of God's word, which also refers to Jesus as a "man of many sorrows". Grieving with hope still hurts. As we cling to the unshakeable hope we have in Christ and fix our teary eyes on eternity, may we all feel the freedom to wrestle and lament.