Why Do Encounters With God Involve Such Deep Pain?

Philip Long May 27, 2015
“I was alone. In the hazy morning light I saw a figure approaching. Not knowing whether it was friend or foe, my chest grew tight as the adrenaline washed over.

Then he sprinted right at me. Catching me off-guard, he hurled me on my back. As I lay there winded, he pulled himself up. Rising over me, he didn’t look like a natural fighter.  I was.

I tore off my robe. Without weapons, we grappled, digging our heels into the red dirt of the young dawn. He fought with resolve. So did I.

Finally it was over; he was down.

As we lay there, his hand brushed my hip, and my whole body exploded in pain.

Then I knew who this stranger was, and I wasn’t about to let go.”

– Jacob [A fictional recounting of Jacob wrestling God in Genesis 32]

Jacob’s encounter with God, when they wrestled until Jacob’s hip was dislocated, can seem challenging for us to comprehend today. And yet metaphorically, we wrestle more than ever.

Even when we enter into a relationship with God, our wrestling with God doesn’t end. It seems to be how the relationship works. But at some point or at many points in our life, God comes to us to bless us through the pain. He surprises us when we’re at our weakest.

The Weakness

I remember one morning that typifies my weakness. Before I was even out of bed, the sunlight burst through the shades, highlighting the ferns, maples and evergreens stretching into the marsh. 

This sort of light would usually beckon to me, reminding me of God’s love and creativity. Today it pierced. I felt mocked.

Internal whispers were coming fast and furious, “You’re a loser, hopeless, a terrible father, husband, worker, you’ll never get over your own helplessness…”

For me, the voices of anxiety and depression are not unusual. Mornings are particularly difficult.

Where and when do you hear negative scripts or feel the curse of living in a broken world?

The Fight

Like Jacob in the early morning dawn, I lay awake and wrestle with God. 

On the days when I can get out of bed, rather than looking to God, I may mute my voices in a furious rush for praise, competency and respect. Basically I push God away, striving for control and a measure of peace.

Looking at Jacob’s life, he did the same. Even at his birth he grabbed his brother by the heel. His name means “heel grabber” or “cheater.” He was always grasping his way, seeking his own good.

His whole life up to his bout with God was riddled with lies, inconsistencies and self-reliance. But his was also a desperate fight for blessing.

Yet “blessing” is too tame of a word for the original Hebrew. In those times blessing was what gave you hope, what defined you, what gave you peace and purpose. Blessing validated who you were at the core.

Where do you strive for this sort of blessing?

The Curse

But back in my bed I didn’t feel blessed, I felt cursed. My self-reliance wasn’t working. I wanted to tap out. I was pinned on my back.

As I twisted in the sheets, a crumpled wad of angst and worry, I poured out my pain to God with tears.

It’s not the first cry God’s heard.

During God’s bout with Jacob, He touched his hip, ripping his femur from his socket. Jacob would have been writhing in sheer misery. But Jacob wouldn’t let go. Now he knew with whom he’d been wrestling all along.

I wish it happened some other way, but most life-changing encounters with God, usually involve deep emotional, physical or psychological pain. It hurts, but when pain hits, I think we instinctively know where our hope comes from. We’re furious, but we don’t want to let go.

Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

The Blessing

At the end of Jacob’s furious bout with God, God says to him, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”


God allowed Jacob to prevail. The God that at a touch ripped the largest socket in Jacob’s body, had made Himself weak enough to lose.

And not to Sunday school this, but God’s done the same for us. Look at the cross. There Jesus wrestled death and lost, for you and for me. We Christians limp-walk with a God who was crushed, His love proved in the deepest furnace of His own wrath.

Imagine the pain of feeling the full wrath of a God who can separate a hip at a mere touch.  

Jesus was blasted for a purpose. As author and pastor Tim Keller says, “at the cross God is saying ‘Upon me be your curse. Upon you be my blessing.’”

He’s the God who suffered, and the God whose arms are ever around us who suffer, who whispers our new name, over and over and over, blessing our wrestling.

Like Jacob, who in full sunlight, now limped past the spot of his struggle, we too can arise, God’s blessed wrestlers.

Do you think God blesses you through and in your struggles? How and why do you hang on? Is the pain worth it? Why?

For two sermons I’ve found helpful in processing my struggles and writing this article, check out author and pastor Tim Keller’s free sermon The Wounded Spirit or purchase The Fight of Your Life.

I would love to hear your comments, insights and stories below.

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