Home >> Life-indeed >> De Profundis to The Work Of God >> God Wrestling with Man

God Wrestling with Man


It is no unusual thing to see a man wrestling with himself. There are at least two natures in each of us - the higher and the lower, the flesh and the spirit - and these two often come into sharp collision with each other. A man sometimes dis covers that his worst enemy is not outside of but within him. It is his baser self, which is holding him back from the good thing that his soul longs for, which is keeping him down on a low and un worthy plane of life. And he determines that he will not be thus thwarted and baffled. He locks arms, as it were, with the mean, selfish, evil spirit that has such a hold upon him, and by a tremen dous and often long-protracted struggle he endeavors to subdue it. It is a splendid sight when it is bravely undertaken and triumphantly carried through. It is one of the saddest of sights when the evil nature proves too strong to be overcome, and when the soul's efforts to win its freedom end in a more complete and hopeless bondage.

Every man whose life amounts to much has also to wrestle with the world. But it is not at all sad dening to see one struggling against what we often call adverse circumstances, if his principles are sound and his heart is pure and true. The contest will develop in him a stronger and manlier char acter. The truest strength, the most genuine manliness can be developed in no other way. It requires a tough tussle with the world to harden a man's moral muscles, to teach him that he can be independent of the world and live his own life in freedom and peace, to show him how quickly and completely the world acknowledges the mastery of one who has the courage to face it boldly and re fuse to submit to its dictation. And if one is to live the higher life of the spirit, it can only be in spite, not merely of the fashions and conventions and maxims of the world, but of the motives that gov ern it and the ends that it pursues.

Sometimes the enemy that meets one on his way is more formidable, because more mysterious and impalpable. It seems as if some mighty and malignant spirit were wrestling with him and de termined to subdue him. Like Jacob he does not perhaps know its name. It has many names. But it lurks near every man's path, springs upon him in unguarded moments, and even when successfully resisted and driven off, returns again and again to the attack. There are not many of us who have not at one time or another encountered that invis ible adversary, and our conflict with him has prob ably left us sorely wounded, even though we may have finally succeeded in putting him to flight.

It is no rare thing, I say, to see men wrestling with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But who ever heard of a man wrestling with God? What an unequal strife Who could hope to be success ful in it? And what motive would lead any man to attempt it? Can it be the desire to extort a re luctant blessing from Him? But would not a blessing won by violence be in reality a curse? And is not God always ready to grant His blessing to every one who is prepared to receive it? Out of the mysterious story of Jacob's conflict with one whom he did not know, a very strange - I will say a very horrible - conclusion has been drawn. It has led us to speak of wrestling with God. It has made us think of Him as our enemy, or at least our antagonist. It has been understood as teaching that if we want His blessing, we must in some way wring it from Him. And so we still sometimes hear of agonizing in prayer. And the old idea of a strenuous contest still underlies the word. The fact of God's fatherly love is forgotten. The fact of His infinite grace is ignored. The great truth, of which both the Old and the New Testaments are full, that He is"good, and ready to forgive, and rich in mercy to all who call upon Him, "is for the moment quite lost sight of. And there rises before us the image of One with whom His children must wrestle in the darkness, and whose blessing, in stead of being the free gift of His love, must be won through an agony of soul.

Now I venture to say that whatever may be the meaning of Jacob's vision at Jabbok Ford, it cannot mean this. And I think that if you will study it with me for a few moments, you will see that it does not mean this. It was not he who wrestled there with God. It was God who wrestled with him. And this is a very different thing.

He had reached a crisis in his life. His char acter in his early years had been anything but noble. By treachery and falsehood he had deceived his father and stolen his brother's birthright. This had been followed by an exile of twenty - perhaps forty - years, in which he had been practically a bond-servant in a far country. He was now re turning to the land of his birth - the land which had been promised him as his inheritance. But his fate depended on the hostile or friendly disposi tion of his brother, whom he had so deeply wronged and who had now become a powerful chieftain. The next day would decide his destiny. He sent his family over the mountain stream, and remained behind alone.

"And there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."A man I So he thought at first. But as the night wore on he realized that it was not a man. The touch that threw his thigh bone out of its socket was not that of a human finger. And when he declared, "I will not let Thee go ex cept Thou bless me, "it was no man's blessing that he sought. He knew that it was God who was contending with him. If he seemed to prevail, it was only because his antagonist did not put forth all His power. He could not make Him tell His name. But he himself received a new name from Him, and the blessing that he asked for was given him.

Is not the meaning of the story plain? He stood, as I have said, at a crisis in his life, - years of penitential and reformatory discipline behind him and a great destiny before him. He was to inherit the land of promise. He was to be the an cestor of the chosen people who were ever afterward to bear his name. In the line of his posterity Jesus the Christ was to be born. For such an eminent position he was not yet wholly prepared. He needed to feel, as he had not yet felt it, the power of God. He needed to be made to yield, as he had never yet done, to the will of God. Before God could use him, as He meant to use him, He must conquer him. And He did conquer him in that solitary struggle at the crossing of the mountain brook. The victory was won when the wounded man felt that he was in the grasp of One who was mightier than himself, and cried out, Tell me, I pray Thee, Thy name; I will not let Thee go ex cept Thou bless me."The victory was won when Jacob first realized that he was in the hands of God and then felt and uttered the intense desire to know God and to have God's blessing. And that, if I may say so, was what God wanted. That is why He met His servant in that lonely place and wrestled with him till the morning broke. It was the man - not God - who was conquered. And as he passed over Penuel, at sunrise, he was a new man. He was lame from the sore struggle, but he said"I have seen God face to face, "and he was God's man from that hour onward forever.

Now in this strange and somewhat perplexing story we have a parable of a common experience."In that mysterious messenger who contended with the first Israelite, we see, "as an able writer has said, "the whole method of God in the education of men: - the girding circumstances, the encom passing ideas and influences, the surrounding moral and spiritual forces, the arms of personal affection that hold us fast, the power of the beloved Teacher that gathers about us, the grasp of Christ, the great wrestle of God Himself. The whole universe comes to us through that symbolic presence, with its infinite power locked round us, with the pull and the twist and the uplift of the divine love, ready to impart an eternal good as soon as human nature shall have been sufficiently roused to re ceive it." To appreciate this we must in the first place rec ognize the fact that God has designs upon us. He has a work for us to do, an office for us to fill. The humblest life has as truly its place in the di vine order as the mightiest. The least of us is as plainly present as the greatest to His eye. But if we are to be fitted for His uses, we must yield our selves to His control. We must come into per sonal contact with Him. We must recognize His power. We must have His blessing. We must receive from Him the new name we are to bear, and must feel that we belong to Him.

Now there are many of us for whom such sur render and submission are not easy. He is not very real to us. Our eyes have never seen Him. Our hands have never touched His powerful and gentle hand. We have never felt the strong em brace of His encircling love. And there is only silence when we listen for His voice. It is hard for us therefore to subject our wills to His, to throw away our self-confidence and cast ourselves on His protection, to give up the attempt to find or make our own way in life, and let Him send us where He chooses. We have had our own way so long, have followed the beckoning of our own ambition, have ministered to our own wants, and pursued our own immediate advantage; we have so long been plan ning and laboring for ourselves that it is not easy to give ourselves up to the guidance and the service of Him to whom we rightfully belong.

And that is why God has to wrestle with us in order that we may learn how real and how near He is, may have a just appreciation of His power, may yield our wills to His, and so may be prepared to receive His blessing. He meets us, it may be, as He met His servant of old, in some dark and soli tary place. It is a crisis in our life. A new chap ter in our personal history is about to be begun. We are stepping from boyhood into manhood, are passing from school or college into active life, are making some grave decision which will change all the complexion of the years that are to come. Then it is that God meets us. He throws His strong arms round us. He tries to force us to our knees. He seeks to make us realize that we are His, and submit our stubborn wills to His control. It is a momentous hour. All the memories of years gone by come back to us, - impressions made upon us in our childhood, resolutions formed and broken, convictions of duty that we have put aside, solemn and repeated admonitions of conscience which we have disregarded; they return with overwhelming power, as God's Spirit strives with us once more and seeks to force us at last to give ourselves to Him. To how many a man is such an experience the turning-point from which a new life dates. He feels that he too has seen God face to face, and he rises up a new man and goes forth with the light and peace of heaven in his soul.

Such an experience seems distinctly to repeat that by which the Supplanter was transformed into the Patriarch. But not every one comes thus clearly and consciously in contact with God. We are sometimes aware that there is an invisible power grappling with us, of whose nature and whose name alike we are ignorant. It buffets us when we are tempted to do wrong. It sets before us higher ends than those we are pursuing. It makes us dis contented with ourselves. It puts a certain con

straint upon our evil passions. It arouses our purer and nobler desires. It reveals to us the hol lowness of an aimless or a selfish life. It appeals to our better nature, and seems trying to make us obedient to this. We feel that it is seeking not to hold us down but to lift us up. And yet so gentle is its grasp that we often succeed in shaking it off. Even when we are distinctly conscious that our true wisdom lies in yielding to it, we resent its mild con straint, assert our freedom, and go our way un blessed.

And oftener still we do not recognize any such unseen presence in our lives. The thought that God is wrestling with us, seeking to subdue our wayward wills to His and to induce us to give our selves to Him, does not so much as occur to us while the current of our life flows smoothly on. It is indeed hard to associate the smiling bounty of His providence, the gracious message of His word, the kindly influences of Christian friendships and examples, the hallowed power of the familiar insti tutions of religion - I say it is hardly natural to connect these with a divine desire to conquer our pride and passion and self-will, and make us ready to bear and do what God requires of us. But it is seldom by violence that He seeks to conquer men. That would be easy for Him. The mere touch of His finger is enough to make us cringe and cower.

And He sometimes lets us feel it. If He cannot subdue us by love, He sometimes makes us appre ciate His power. But what He wants of us is not an abject but a loving and trustful submission. It is not His desire that we should yield to Him be cause we are not strong enough to oppose Him, but rather because at last we know Him, and know that He is worthy to be loved and trusted. The pur pose of the touch of power is not to terrify and crush us. It is rather to make us realize that He with whom we have to do is no mere man, but one whom it is both wise and safe for us to confide in and submit to. It is at once a revelation and a re assurance. But there is love behind it. It is out of His great love for us that God enters into this divine wrestle with us. If He can conquer us by gentleness He will. If He can win our faith and love without our knowing that He has twined His mighty arms about us, He will do this. But all the benign influences that are acting upon us, in the sphere of our own thoughts as well as in the world without, are elements of a patient and de termined effort to subdue our selfishness, to break down our pride, to make us realize that we belong to Him, to induce us to trust and to obey Him.

Our common habit of distinguishing secular from sacred things often prevents us from recognizing this. The distinction is an important one. And yet the whole world belongs to God and He is ac tive in it everywhere. And there is nothing in it which He may not use as a means of winning man's confidence and love. For what other purpose is it really that He has built the solid globe and placed us on it, that He has arched above it the starry sky, that He makes the seasons pour their bounty into our hands? And to what other end does He direct the events that befall us and in which we have our part? Health and sickness, prosperity and disap pointment, poverty and wealth, labor and rest, the studies that enlarge our thought, the honorable oc cupations that employ our time, - what are they all but different phases of the great divine purpose which underlies our life? If God is in anything, He is in everything. All times and places are open to Him. He may meet us at any hour and any where. Nay, He never intermits His gracious striving with us, but by night as well as day, with unwearied patience, puts His continual pressure on us, if so be that at last we may recognize His right to us and yield ourselves to His control.

Then only are we prepared to receive His bless ing. As you read the story of this memorable scene in Jacob's life, it seems to me that you can touch its turning-point. As he remained at night alone, his nerves strung with keen expectation of what was to befall upon the morrow, there wrestled a man with him till the breaking of the day. Be lieving at first that it was a man, not only, but an enemy, who had come to oppose his entering on his inheritance, he struggled with all his might to overcome him. But at a certain moment the mys terious stranger put forth his finger and"touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained."And the dawn began to brighten in the east. Then it was that it also dawned upon his mind that it was not an enemy but a friend whose arms encircled him. He no longer sought to overthrow or to escape from Him. He sought rather to hold Him fast till he should obtain His blessing. And he did obtain it."He blessed him there."That was the purpose for which he had come. But if so, why the long, furious struggle? Not because the blessing must be wrung from Him against His will, but because the attitude of the Patriarch must first be changed from antagonism to entreaty, from a desire to con quer to a willingness to obey. The change came at the moment when He felt that he was fight ing against God and that this was vain and worse than vain.

Any man who would have God's blessing must be, prepared for it by a similar recognition of Him and a similar submission to His will. He is more ready to bestow than we are to receive the blessing. But so long as we stand out against Him, He will not, cannot, grant it to us. We must first learn the mystery of life, so far at least as to perceive that it is He who has beset us behind and before, and has laid His hand upon us. Realize that along all the way that you have travelled, in the far countries where you have been living, in weary hours of trial and discouragement, God has been with you, though you may not have discerned Him, and has chosen and marked you for His own. He has been wrestling with you patiently and lovingly for many years. He has sought by the prosperity and happiness that He has sent you to make you conscious of His tender love and care, and to draw you to Him by the cords of gratitude. And when you failed to perceive Him in the daylight, He has met you in the darkness. He has thrown His strong arm around you, and still you have not known Him. He has wounded you - He has had to wound you - because you struggled against Him. Can you not now see that it is He? And is it not idle to resist Him? 0, if men only knew that God is not their enemy but their best friend! If instead of holding Him off or trying to break away from His embrace, they would cling to Him, as Jacob did, exclaiming"I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me!"As soon as that prayer is offered the blessing comes and the morning breaks. There would have been no need of the long struggle if the soul had only yielded sooner to Him whose one supreme desire is to bless and save it.

And yet one prayer of Jacob was denied."Tell me, "he said, "I pray Thee, Thy name."He did not tell him, but answered, "Wherefore dost thou ask after My name?"He did not, because He could not, tell him. Even Jacob was not pre pared for that supreme revelation of God. It was enough that he should know Him under the names by which He had already revealed Himself. The world was not then prepared to know Him as He really was and as, long centuries afterward, He was to manifest Himself to it. Jacob knew that he had looked upon God's face, and it was enough. His nature remained hidden from him.

It is given to us to speak the name which no Pa triarch or Prophet ever heard. God's true nature has been unfolded to us. The Christian experience of a later age is woven into the symbolism of the ancient story in those verses of Charles Wesley, which were based upon this incident in Jacob's life.

Come, 0 Thou Traveler unknown, Whom still I hold, but cannot see, My company before is gone, And I am left alone with Thee; With Thee all night I mean to stay, And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell Thee who I am, My misery or sin declare; Thyself hast called me by my name; Look on Thy hands and read it there But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou? Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal Thy new, unutterable Name? Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell; To know it now resolved I am: Wrestling, I will not let Thee go Till I Thy Name, Thy Nature know.

Yield to me now, for I am weak, But confident in self-despair; Speak to my heart, in blessings speak, Be conquered by my instant prayer! Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move, And tell me if Thy Name is Love! My prayer hash power with God; the grace Unspeakable I now receive; Through faith I see Thee face to face, I see Thee face to face, and live; In vain I have not wept and strove, Thy Nature, and Thy Name, is Love.

I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou art, Jesus, the feeble sinner's Friend Nor wilt Thou with the night depart, But stay, and love me to the end; Thy mercies never shall remove, Thy Nature, and Thy Name, is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh I halt, till life's short journey end, All helplessness, all weakness, I On Thee alone for strength depend; Nor have I power from Thee to move; Thy Nature, and Thy Name, is Love.

Yes, that is the name which could not be dis closed to Jacob, but it is that by which we now know God. It is the Infinite Love which is wres tling with us, trying to win our recognition, our confidence, our responsive love. What a beautiful interpretation it gives to life to think of it in this way; to see, not only in what we are accustomed to call religious influences, but in all the good in fluences by which we are enfolded, expressions of God's loving desire and purpose to draw and hold us to Himself in order that He may bestow His blessing on us! How strange it seems that we should not recognize Him, that we should ever re sist Him! What a blessed thing it is that He con tinues to strive with us, instead of suddenly vanish ing from us and leaving us in utter darkness! And what a joyous thing, when His blessing has been gained, to go forth to meet the new day, the new duties, the new responsibilities, feeling that we are His and He is ours forever! Here is the secret of peace, the secret of power, in the surrender of one's soul and of one's life to God, and in the continu ing, confiding fellowship with God that follows it. Henceforth the way is plain, the burden light. We shall never again mistake the hand that touches ours. Though the darkness may gather over us we shall know that the mightiest and best of friends is with us. And when day breaks at last, we shall go, not halting, but with bounding steps, over the river, into the Promised Land.

life, name, love, blessing and thee