When Power Isn’t His Purpose
~ Chris Tiegreen
My son Timothy and I like to wrestle with each other. We get down on the floor of his room at least a couple times a week and battle it out. We each try to pin the other’s shoulders to the ground for three seconds and declare victory. Then we lie on the floor exhausted for a while before getting up and saying, “We’ll have to do that again soon.”
These wrestling matches don’t really have anything to do with which one of us is stronger or has better moves. After all, I’m a lot bigger than my son. I could win every contest if I wanted to. I could prove my mastery and enforce my will at any moment in the match. I could show Timothy that I am stronger than he is and rebuke him for even doubting the fact. I could show him who’s boss.
Why don’t I? Because I’m a dad who enjoys the interaction with his son. I look forward to the wrestling—even the strained muscles, popping joints, and the mental exertion of constantly reformulating a strategy. That’s because there’s more a demonstration of strength at stake in our wrestling. There’s closeness and a lot of laughter along the way. We bond.
There’s more a demonstration of strength at stake in our wrestling.
So instead of proving my mastery over my son, I engage on his level. I certainly don’t make it easy for him, but I reward his really good moves or his audacious perseverance with success. I often choose to be put in a vulnerable position. Sometimes I even let him pin me. If I didn’t, he’d eventually lose heart and the wrestling matches would soon end. He has to get something out of them other than the knowledge that dad is stronger than he is. He has to enjoy the challenge. It’s all part of the interaction.
Engaging with God
I think that’s how God interacts with us a lot of times. Yes, He’s our Master and Lord. Sure, He’s sovereign. He could crush us with His presence. By all rights, we should fall at His feet and fear even a glance upward in His direction. But we were created in His image for a reason: to relate to Him. He didn’t make us so He could prove His lordship; He isn’t exactly insecure about that. He created us so we could bond with Him.
That’s why God comes down on our level so often in scripture—through one-to-one interactions with His people like a wrestling match with Jacob, or by incarnating Himself as a Son of man, and more. He gets down on His hands and knees and wrestles with us, practically inviting us to put Him in a vulnerable position.
A lot of people don’t know that. I’ve heard some Christians rebuke other Christians for their close interactions with God and their bold prayers with lots of very religious-sounding statements and questions: “God is your Master, not your friend.” “God doesn’t owe you anything.” “God isn’t obligated to fulfill your desires.” “Who are you to question God?” “God is centered on His glory, not your needs.” And on and on.
God got down on Jacob’s level and even made Himself vulnerable to Jacob’s persistence.
The problem with such statements is that even though they are often theologically correct—at least theoretically—they do not reflect how God has chosen to relate to us. They miss His heart completely, as though God’s greatest desire is for us to know how invincible He is. It’s true that God isn’t by nature obligated to answer our prayers, but He chooses to obligate Himself by giving us certain promises that bind Him to His Word. He doesn’t have to fulfill our desires, of course, but He does choose to put desires within us, and He promises quite often to fulfill the desires of those who seek Him and delight in Him. He could prove His majesty and glory by being a dictator in our lives, but He opts instead to make Himself vulnerable in His relationship with us. He invites us—practically begs us—to relate closely to Him, petition Him, ask our desires, make claims based on His promises, persist until we move Him to act, and so on.
Awe or Intimacy?
This is a common debate. On one hand, many people emphasize that God is so majestic and holy and “other” that we can’t grasp Him. On the other hand, many emphasize that God is so loving and intimate and familiar that He is always approachable and accepting of us. The commentaries on God’s wrestling match with Jacob in Genesis 32 give us a good sampling of this debate. Some say God wrestled with Jacob to break Jacob’s will and prove who the real boss in the relationship was. And though Jacob surely needed to learn to submit to God—don’t we all?—that’s hardly the point of this passage. If God simply wanted to demonstrate His lordship over Jacob or break Jacob’s will, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have taken all night. And I’m also pretty sure it wouldn’t have ended with a blessing, a name change, and a declaration that Jacob had “struggled with God and with men and [had] overcome” (Genesis 32:28). No, God got down on Jacob’s level and even made Himself vulnerable to Jacob’s persistence—not because God is weak or less than God, but because He wanted to.
Both the awesome “otherness” and the intimate personal sides of God are true. But without giving up His strength or His holiness, God chose to get down on the floor with us and wrestle. (After all, that’s what the cross was all about; it allowed a holy God to get up-close and personal with unholy human beings.) Why does He do that? Because there’s more than a demonstration of strength at stake in our wrestling. There’s closeness and some laughter along the way. And, in the process, we bond.