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  • Writer's picturePaige Uhl

From Wrestling To Worship

A Prelude to Our Women's Lent Study for Ash Wednesday

Today begins our Lent Study for our women. Today is Ash Wednesday, the dawn of the Lenten season on the church calendar, a day set aside for somber reflection and worship as we prepare our hearts for forty days of reflecting on the Gospel. As we engage in this preparation, let us take time to consider and reflect on Genesis 32.

Genesis 32 centers around one man--Jacob. Jacob’s name means “he takes by the heel” or “he cheats”, so called for the way he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s foot on his way out of the birth canal. From very early on, this man had a reputation of conniving. Jacob was one who knew what he wanted and would do whatever was necessary to attain it. Jacob wanted to get the most out of life, to gain the upper hand, to have every advantage he could. Jacob knew how to work the system of his day and overcome the obstacles keeping him from what he wanted. Esau, being the technical “firstborn” was entitled to a birthright. Jacob seized an opportunity in a moment of weakness for Esau (Scripture suggests he was on the brink of death from hunger; Genesis 25:32), and cunningly persuaded him to trade his birthright for a pot of stew. It may seem like a silly and stupid trade on Esau’s part but that was Jacob for you: he takes. 

Later on in Jacob and Esua’s story, we see their father Isaac, who is very near to death, calling Esau to him. He instructs him to prepare a delicious meal for him to enjoy, at which point he will bestow a patriarchal blessing upon him. Esau went and obeyed what Isaac asked, but in the meantime, Jacob and his mother hatched a plan to trick Isaac into bestowing the blessing on Jacob instead. Their plan worked, and as soon as Isaac finished blessing Jacob, Esau walked in with the meal prepared just as his father had asked. Sure enough, Jacob walked away with the blessing intended for Esau. He cheats. 

Understandably, Esau was furious. He developed a hatred for Jacob that caused him to seek his life. Jacob was able to escape with help from his mother and flee to his uncle. Years passed. At the time where today’s story takes place, Jacob has lived his life successfully avoiding his murderous brother. Until now. 

Jacob has had to live his life on the run. He had to flee from his uncle Laban. Now, he needs to make sure he is safe from Esau. He sends messengers ahead of him to Seir, where Esau lives, and he says something interesting: “I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.” It is clear that Jacob hopes that if he can gain favor with Esau, he can assuage his wrath. He tells him of all of the possessions he has in hopes that Esau will treat him amicably. And then, a terrifying reply comes; Esau is coming with 400 men!

We read that Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed”. Surely he was running through all the possible scenarios in his mind of what Esau would do when he found him. So, ever the quick thinker and mischief-maker, Jacob split his property into two camps. His logic was that if Esau attacked one camp, the other could then escape and be saved. 

After taking measures to protect his property the best he could, Jacob sought another course of action. Jacob sought the Lord. He reminds God of all of His past faithfulness to him and of the covenant He had made with his grandfather Abraham, that his people would be more numerous than the sands of the sea. He is honest with God about the fears in his heart and asks for God’s deliverance. The most critical part of Jacob’s prayer, however, is his humble admission of his own unworthiness. He says in verse 10:“I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant…”

I would say this is probably pretty out-of-character for Jacob. The one who has spent his life taking whatever he wanted, cheating others out of it if necessary, is now admitting his unworthiness. I’m sure Jacob realized that despite his protective measures, there was no way he could defend himself against Esau’s wrath. He simply could not save himself. 

Wrestling For A Blessing

Then, the story shifts a little. We find Jacob wrestling all night long with “a man”. From studying this passage a little deeper within the larger context of Scripture, we understand that this “man” is actually an appearance of God himself. Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match against God and the passage reveals why. Jacob wanted a blessing.

All of Jacob’s life, all he ever wanted was a divine blessing. Despite gaining Esau’s birthright and stealing his blessing from their father, Jacob was after something more. He sustained a hip injury that would cause him to walk with a limp, but he was determined. All of the conniving, all of the mischief, all of the tricks and cheats and fleeing from trouble, had led him to this moment, wrestling with God in the dead of night. 

Perhaps you have found yourself in a similar place, wrestling with God over something you spent so much time trying to gain on your own. I know I have spent many restless nights tossing and turning in conversation with God, pleading to have that “blessing” I am after. I think one of the most comforting aspects of Jacob’s story is that his honest encounter with God did lead to blessing. 

Here we must tread carefully. It might be tempting to assert that Jacob “prevailed” over God, that he wrestled with God enough to wear down his resolve until he reluctantly handed over the blessing Jacob wanted. This is not what we should learn from Jacob’s story. Rather, what we can confidently say is that our wrestling with God leads to blessing because it is in the wrestling that God shows us more of Himself. Notice what Jacob calls the place where the wrestling match occurred in verse 30: “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Jacob realized that the true blessing God wanted to offer was an encounter with himself. That was the true blessing. Jacob had understood his unworthiness, he had been honest about his fears, and he had wrestled with God for what he was seeking. The result--Jacob walked away amazed not by the physical blessings of God, but the physical presence of God. That was the better blessing.  

Jacob wrestled well. His wrestling led to a deepened faith and an increased appreciation for who God is and for His presence. Oftentimes, we do not wrestle well. Read this clearly: wrestling that does not submit to who God is cannot result in blessing. We are blessed when we can honestly wrestle with God and still come out submitting to him and trusting his work in our lives. Wrestling that seeks to manipulate God or control him or openly rebel against him will never lead to blessing in our lives. This is why it is so important to question our motives in the midst of our wrestling. Questions like the ones below are very useful in clarifying our motives within the wrestling:

  • Am I willing to submit to God regardless of the outcome of my wrestling?

  • Is the end goal of my wrestling to trust God or have a reason to distrust him?

  • Is my wrestling focused on getting something from God or becoming closer to him?

Wrestling that does not submit to who God is cannot result in blessing.

When we honestly assess what our wrestling is aimed at, we can seek God in the midst of it. Perhaps we need to refocus our wrestling on God and choose to submit ourselves to him in it. 

Eventually, Esau found Jacob. There Jacob was, his property divided into two camps, and he was ready for Esau and 400 men to come swarming upon him and kill him and destroy his family and his possessions. Instead, he receives the open arms of a warm embrace. He expected a fight and he got a blessing.This man called “he takes by the heel” and “he cheats” had spent his life trying to find a way to come out on top, trying to gain favor, grasping after a blessing.

Maybe you’ve felt a bit like “he takes by the heel” and “he cheats” at times. Maybe you’ve found yourself scrambling just to survive in our wealth-ridden society. Maybe you’ve struggled to provide for your family, feeling the pressure of trying to “keep up” with everyone else and be successful. Maybe you’ve tired yourself out completely trying to gain favor with God or others, or have felt the crushing weight of trying to protect yourself or your family from harm. And I’m sure there’s been a moment you’ve found yourself wrestling into the wee hours after the blessing you’ve always craved. If that’s you, know this: God wants to extend His open arms of embrace to you today. God is not looking down on you ready to send an army of angels to destroy you. God is not mad at you. God loves you, and God desires to bless you with his presence--no gift or bribe required.

God desires to bless you with his presence--no gift or bribe required.

Lavish Love

The word “appease” is a great word for helping us understand Jacob a bit better. To “appease” means “[to] pacify or placate (someone) by acceding to their demands.” Jacob tried to appease himself by going after what he wanted and getting it for himself. He tried to appease Esau by offering him a gift so he wouldn’t destroy him.

Here’s the thing about appeasement: at the end of the day, it’s really just another word for “settling”. It’s the bare minimum, just doing what you must to get by or keep someone off your back. This is why appeasement and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. You spend so much of your time trying to keep yourself and others happy, that you just keep doing what you have to in order to “pacify or placate” them.

I think Ephesians 1:3 bears weight in this conversation. It says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” This verse captures how extravagant God is with his blessings. The verse doesn’t say he gives some blessings or a few blessings; no, it says “every spiritual blessing.” Ephesians 1 continues in verse 7: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight…”

God isn’t stingy with His love. God never tries to appease us. God is extravagant; He exceeds expectations. He goes so far beyond the bare minimum in how He lavishes spiritual blessings on us. Surely that kind of a God is worth our most lavish love. The glory of the cross is that Jesus was the one who bore the wrath you deserved. He was the gift offered to God that meant you could live without fear of punishment. He perfectly pleased God so that you know longer have to simply “appease” Him--you can live joyfully for Him in response to what He did for you! God gave you the gift of an eternal standing before Him that will never change. The result of all this is worship. When we are real with God in the wrestling, when we can lay it all about before Him, the natural response is worship.

Over the next six weeks, we are going to do some real wrestling with our sinful attitudes and tendencies, and we are going to pair our wrestling with worship. This is what we are going to call “fasting and feasting” throughout our time studying together. Fasting throughout this season is going to look like taking a weekly inventory of our hearts to uncover the ways we are struggling with the human tendency to manipulate God, to control God. Feasting is going to look like replacing the things we are fasting from with truths about who God is and what Jesus has done, “filling the void” our sin creates with meditation on the glorious attributes of God. We need to recognize our tendency as humans to use fasting and feasting as a way of working for favor from God. God isn’t worshipped through work done for Him, but work done because of Him.

In a few weeks, we will consider the story of Mary and Martha. Martha spent all her time with Jesus doing things for him to gain favor. Mary, on the other hand, poured all she had on Jesus in recognition of what he would do for her to make her favored. She took expensive ointment and poured it on Jesus’ feet and took a position of humility wiping his dirty feet with her hair, in order to ascribe value to Him. Let us take that same position this Ash Wednesday. Worship is “worth-ship”—it is ascribing worth to Jesus. What is Jesus worth to you? Is He worth the wrestling? Is He more valuable than His blessings? Can You lavish praise on Him as He has lavished His love on you?


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