When we first moved into our house, it took a while to discover the source of the incessant tapping we heard each morning. We finally found a beautiful red cardinal who was warring with himself, repeatedly flying beak-first into the window of a downstairs bedroom. He then moved on to attack his reflection in the rear view mirrors of our vehicles. Occasionally I would ask my husband, “Do you think he’s winning today?”
Years later, it’s less funny to ask that question as we continue to watch the pitiable bird wrestle. And the answer to my question has become increasingly obvious: he is embroiled in a losing fight with himself, one he will never win. As I’ve observed him, I’ve realized how much his struggle harkens to the way in which humans wrestle. We see this in our children, and if we’re honest we recognize this same battle in ourselves.
As parents, how often are we frustrated with our children, spouse, or situations with other people – only to realize later (and hopefully repent) that the frustration was truly about something going on inside our own heart? Because our hearts were created by God – to be satisfied only in being known and loved by God – all of our wrestling, whether internalized and private or externalized in conflict with others, should ultimately be taken to God and worked out with our creator. His promise to us is beautiful, but it is not without struggle: “I will give you a new heart…I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 32:26). Our wrestling is holy as we recall God’s promises and trust that our stony hearts are softened as we struggle not alone, but in Christ. Only there do we find our true rest and true identity.
In my moments of deepest discontent I’ve sometimes found myself gazing into a mirror and engaged in what feels like a battle with my own image, much like our cardinal combatant. I may be trying to quell my anger toward another, soothe my sadness with a situation, or resist lies about myself. Occasionally I speak words like those of the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1)
This anguish verifies what our English teachers taught about the four types of conflict in literature: conflict with self, others, the environment, and the supernatural. Such statements from the Psalms – echoed in the cries of the saints over the years – reveal that our battles are not ever only with self, others, or our environment, but always connected somehow to the supernatural God of the universe.
I think about this as my toddlers once again push away my hands and yell when I wipe them down after meal time. They think they know what is best for them, and at this point that certainly does not include me cleaning up the food they worked so hard to encrust on their hands and faces. They want to eat and they want to play, but nothing in between. And when my little guy is playing and cannot have the one toy his sister decided to hold (even though there are dozens of other toys), it’s striking to watch him dissolve into tears on the floor, so clearly a picture of becoming his own worst enemy. He refuses all of my efforts to share with him the abundance of options as he isolates himself from any joy.
It pains us even more to watch this happen with our teenagers as they seek to make their own way in the world, yearning for both independence and security while trying to make sense of what the culture tells them. When a teen exclaims that he hates you or hates his life, it’s most likely tied to a misunderstanding of the God who disciplines through perfect love, or perhaps his struggle to believe in a God who would permit hard things to happen to people. An adolescent who dismisses anything you have to say about her over-emphasis on physical appearance and responses of her followers on social media is ultimately wrestling with believing what God has to say about her true beauty and image-bearing.
Tantrums aren’t reserved for toddlers, as teens and adults throw their fair share. Though our tantrums look different, they still lead to isolation and lack of joy. Our anger may look like quiet disengagement with others, sarcastic comments, storming around the house, or intentionally hurtful words that we later regret. These behaviors usually occur when we’re upset that life isn’t going how we want, or when we are confused by God’s response (or seeming lack of response) to our circumstances.
“Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes” (Psalm 13:3). I imagine that Jacob might have been saying something along these lines as he traveled to meet his brother. He was “greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:6) about meeting up with Esau after so many years, most likely struggling with guilt about stealing his birthright so many years before. Surely he’d been warring internally for quite some time before he physically wrestled all night with an unknown being who, in the light of morning, revealed that he was God.
It’s one thing to watch a toddler begin to say “NO!” to his parents and quite another to observe a rebellious teenager who might be walling up behind angst-filled silence or ranting in anger. All parents would do well to constantly remind themselves that their child’s fight isn’t ultimately with them. All of our children have something to work out with God, and only there will they find true rest. We can rest in knowing that our God can handle each child’s wrestling, whatever form it takes. We know that God has already won, and our children will be blessed by God’s victory.
As with Jacob, their wrestling with God may result in a limp, but this holy wrestling will also lead to blessing. For Jacob, wrestling with God led to an understanding of who God truly called him to be – Israel. He entered with trepidation, yet emerged from the fight with the truest possible sense of identity. He knew he was living under God’s blessing and was able to say to his brother, “Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough” (Gen. 33:11). Isn’t this what we want for our children? Let us trust God enough to entrust our wrestling children to Him.
Israel became the name of the entire nation of God’s people, and it translates to mean “wrestles with God.” So instead of becoming engaged in what feels like a personal fight with your teenager (or toddler), invite your child to wrestle it out with God. If you see your children warring with themselves, encourage them to take it to God. If you’re tempted to beat yourself up, or feel that you are losing patience with your child or spouse, pray for grace to go to the mat with God. If any of you – parent or child – are struggling with the sorrow and injustices of this world, bring it to the Lord and ask him to help you work it out.
Wrestling with God can take many different forms. Breathe, pray, and open the Bible to see what God has to say. Allow space to cry, yell, and question. Rest. Write, sketch, then read and pray some more. Join your child by sharing stories of how you have wrestled God in your life – in this, you will also have opportunity to share of God’s goodness. We can trust that this holy wrestling will eventually lead to where David was when he concluded Psalm 13: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (5-6).
Just like the beautiful brawling bird in our yard, we weren’t made to gaze upon images of ourselves as we hover near the ground. We were created to fly, looking toward the heavens to find our only true source of help and hope. May we and our children know that our victorious God is waiting to wrestle us into a more perfect understanding of His love.