For more Christians (and Christian ministers) than we might imagine, one the biggest struggles in their life of faith is that of prayer. Every Christian knows that prayer matters, but many of us know how hard it can be for multiple reasons.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Bible has more to say about prayer than we often realise. But it may well surprise us that its wide range within this strand of teaching helps us to understand prayer better and also to face our struggles in prayer with greater honesty. This matters because the very nature of prayer – both in private and in public – means we can be less than honest with ourselves and others. Neglect and failure in our personal prayer life can easily be ignored because ‘Who is going to know?’ And when it comes to praying in public, knowing we are being heard by others can lead us to ‘pray to the gallery’ rather than to God.
One of the less obvious passages in the Bible that may help us in this area is the account of Jacob wrestling with God at Peniel recorded in Genesis (32.22-31). Although it is often used as a paradigm for praying that is misused by treating the text more as an allegory; it does, nevertheless, offer helpful insight when we look more closely at the record itself. We then see it is indeed a prayerful encounter between a failing and struggling child of God and his Heavenly Father. A closer look at the content of this narrative reveals a number of helpful glimpses into a realistic understanding of prayer.
The first has to do with the circumstances surrounding this encounter. Jacob has had to flee along with his wives and family from Laban, his father-in-law, only to then hear that his estranged brother, Esau, who had pledged to kill him, was heading towards him with unknown intent. Jacob fears for his own safety as well as for his family and puts measures in place for protection. But then we are told, ‘So Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him till daybreak’ (32.24). Here was a man in obvious turmoil. In part because his past actions all seemed to be catching up with him at once; but also because, despite his best efforts, he was anything but confident they would resolve this crisis. More than that, his sense of guilt over the greed and deceit that had fuelled his past actions, only intensified his fear because he knew full well he did not deserve deliverance. Often God allows his people to face the loneliness of their circumstances to make them realise they really do need help from an altogether different source.
The second curious detail in this episode is not just the fact that Jacob wrestles all night with this unidentified stranger, but that it was the stranger who initiated the conflict. Jacob was looking no further than himself for answers; but then finds himself struggling with someone he had not reckoned on. It isn’t altogether clear what we are to make of this detail, other than to say that, up until this point in his life, Jacob had acted as though he was the master of his own destiny. But the intervention of this stranger challenged him on this. The fact he could not overcome this night visitor only served to make Jacob realise there were serious limits to who and what he could manipulate. Here too there are major lessons for Christians (and Christian ministers) to learn. Even though we subliminally think and act as though we are masters of our destiny, God has his own ways of showing us this can never be the case.
Perhaps the most striking detail in all this is Jacob’s insistence, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ (32.26). Assuming for a moment that Jacob, even at this stage, did not know who his adversary was, it is telling that his one concern that the stranger would bless him. To us this may seem strange; but in Jacob’s world, not so. He wanted benediction – a ‘good word’ – not curse: the stranger’s favour, not displeasure. These, in a sobering way, are the bottom line alternatives in all we face in life: good or ill, benefit or bane – and both are outside our ultimate control. They are another’s gift or sentence.
This encounter in the darkness certainly was not what we would typically regard as engaging with God in prayer. However, it is worth noting that the New Testament links the idea of ‘wrestling’ [agonising] with praying. Such language is used in relation to Jesus in Gethsemane and Epaphras in Colossians. But how does this engagement end? – With Jacob limping away into the pale light of a new day (32.31). Significantly, despite Jacob’s plea for his opponent to identify himself, he doesn’t; nor was his situation immediately transformed. But his life was spared that night and he did receive God’s blessing, albeit in a way that would leave him often bewildered by God’s dealings with him from that point onwards through to the end of his life. But this is instructive. God’s answer to his people’s prayers is almost never to ‘make everything alright’; but, rather, it is to enable them by his grace to ‘limp’ along in prayer and ‘limp’ along through the ups and downs of life itself – with him to lean on.
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