Wrestling for Jesus

“And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”
—Genesis 32:24

The role of the theologian, the clergyman, or the devout defender of Christian truth has been compared to that of a wrestler struggling in the arena. But these wrestlers do not always fight for the glory of God. St. Gregory Nazianzus begins his Theological Orations by comparing certain heretical theologians to professional wrestlers (in the pejorative sense): those who wrestle in the theater in front of the naïve in hope of gaining applause in contrast with those who wrestle in the gymnasium, following the rules of the sport, in hope of victory. Theatrical wrestlers labor for show; others for excellence in the sport.

As we wrestle, we need to be sure we are not struggling for self-aggrandizement like the Arian heretics whom Gregory condemned. There is no room for self-promotion in the spiritual struggle. Rather we are called to strive for victory, that is, for holiness and virtue in ourselves and in others for whom we may be called to give account. St. John Chrysostom once told his flock in Constantinople that he would gladly trade accolades for the reward of knowing his people were growing in their faith. “What profit is there to me in praise when I do not see you making advances in virtue?” he wrote. Those of us who are shepherds of a flock, be it a large congregation or our own children, need to wrestle rightly following the rules of the sport in hope of victory.

St. John Chrysostom also wrote of wrestlers:

Do you not see the wrestling-masters in the practicing grounds, who after countless contests having obtained exemption from wrestling on account of their age, sit outside the lines by the side of the dust and shout to those who are wrestling inside, telling one to grasp a hand, or drag a leg, or seize upon the back, and by many other directions of that kind, saying, “if you do so and so you will easily throw your antagonist”—they are of the greatest service to their pupils? Even so do thou look to thy training master, the blessed Paul, who after countless victories is now sitting outside the boundary, I mean this present life, and cries aloud to us who are wrestling, shouting out by means of his Epistles, when he sees us overcome by wrath and resentment of injuries, and choked by passion. (From his homily To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly)

Those of us concerned with upholding Christian Truth do well to see ourselves in the arena. We must resist the temptation in the middle of the fight to consider our own glory. We wrestle not for ourselves but for the honor of our King. The saints who have fought before us, like St. Paul, cheer us on. And the people whose souls God has entrusted to our care watch to see if we are victorious.

“Fight the good fight of the faith,” wrote St. Paul to Timothy. “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”

Will we seize the opportunities presented to us? Will we win the round for our team, its cause being just and honorable? Will we be pinned by the force of sin? Even when we lose a round, the match goes on. It is a public endeavor, witnessed by God, the angels, and all the saints who have gone before us. As Jacob wrestled throughout the night, so must we wrestle throughout our lives. And by the grace of God, if we are faithful, we will be victorious.

“We must resist the temptation in the middle of the fight to consider our own glory.”

Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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