The Importance of Wrestling in Prayer
Vaneetha Rendall Risner
I struggle with knowing how to pray. Should I trust that everything is in God’s hands and rest knowing he will do the best thing for me? Or should I cry out to God earnestly to change the situation, giving him reasons to answer my prayer?
Wrestling with God or resting in him. Which is better?
Resting seems godlier, trusting that God will give me what I need without even asking. It seems more holy, more faith-filled, more biblical. Resting seems to indicate a more mature faith. But when I look at the Bible, I see a fuller picture of prayer. Jesus tells us to ask, and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7) and that if we abide in him, we can ask for whatever we wish, and it will be done for us (John 15:7).
Not only that, Jesus exhorts us “always to pray and not lose heart.” He tells the parable of the unjust judge, who gave the widow justice because she kept coming to him and likened that to the way we need to cry out to God (Luke 18:1–7). He commended the Canaanite woman for her faith and did what she asked because she was persistent, giving Jesus reasons to answer her (Matthew 15:21–28). When Jesus spoke about prayer, he told us to bring our requests to God.
Wrestling with God is asking him for what we want, persisting in prayer, crying out to him for ourselves and others. There can be no detachment or apathy in wrestling; it involves direct and constant contact. When we wrestle, we believe that our cries and prayers matter. We have hope that our situation will change. We are fully engaged.
Throughout the Bible, we see people wrestling with God. Moses wrestled with God, interceding on behalf of the people to change God’s mind. He pleaded with God. He gave God reasons to answer his prayer. He reminded God of his promises. And as a result, God often relented of his judgment (Deuteronomy 9:18–19). Moses was willing to ask God anything, and when the answer was “no,” Moses rested. Moses deeply trusted God and dared to believe that what he said mattered.
David also believed that his prayers mattered. He poured out his lament through tears, expecting God to answer. Most of David’s psalms of lament melt into praise because through his wrestling, David came to rest and trust in God. When David’s child with Bathsheba was ill, David sought God on behalf of the child. He fasted and prayed and lay all night on the ground. But when the child died, David got up, anointed himself, and went to the house of God and worshiped (2 Samuel 12:16, 20).
Habakkuk begins his book asking, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘violence!’ and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2) But after his wrestling, Habakkuk is content to rest in God declaring “though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord” (Habakkuk 3:17–18).
We see the apostle Paul’s pleading with the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh, but then be content in his weakness so that the power of Christ would rest upon him (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
Ultimately, we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, asking God to remove the cup from him, sweating drops of blood in his agony. And yet ultimately, Jesus declares, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Throughout Scripture, we see that wrestling leads to resting, which leads to worship. That’s been true in my life as well. Despairing for a loved one years ago, I prayed day after day, face down on the carpet, begging God for deliverance. And then it happened — the situation miraculously changed. I remember reading that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17), grateful and wide-eyed that God answered my prayer. I fell on my face in worship and gratitude.
Yet another time when I wrestled with God, asking just as persistently and earnestly, God said no. I was heartbroken but kept wrestling with his answer, voicing my frustration and disappointment to God. Like the psalmist I cried, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). In clinging to God, honestly lamenting my pain, I grew closer to God; I felt his presence. This was worship also.
My wrestling has brought me closer to God. It did that for Jacob too, when he wrestled with an unknown man until daybreak. This man was clearly stronger than Jacob (he simply touched his hip to put it out of joint), but this stranger knew that wrestling was important for Jacob. Jacob clung to him, refusing to let the man go until he blessed him. After he was blessed for his persistence, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:22–32).
This wrestling with God in prayer doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t rest in him. As we give our burdens to Jesus, he gives us rest. We can cease striving and find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28–29). We can find peace and contentment when we are fully satisfied in him, trusting in his care (Isaiah 26:3).
Yet sometimes resting can be a cover for resignation because we’ve given up hope. Sometimes saying we are trusting is a way of protecting ourselves from disappointment. Sometimes not asking is a sign of drifting from God, unwilling to actively engage him. We need to understand where our rest is coming from.
Resting begins with wrestling. So pray bold, daring prayers. Expect God to move. Talk to the Lord constantly. Ask, seek, and knock. And when your wrestling is over, you’ll find an intimacy sweeter than you have ever known. And that wrestling will lead you to true rest in the one who is worthy of all our worship and praise.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Desiring God. She blogs at danceintherain.com, although she doesn’t like rain and has no sense of rhythm. Vaneetha is married to Joel and has two daughters, Katie and Kristi. She and Joel live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Vaneetha is the author of the book The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering. This article first appeared on desiringgod.org.
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