There are many facets to prayer and many approaches to it. Daily devotions used to be referred to in some circles as a "quiet time", and it is good to come into fellowship with God in a calm and contemplative frame of mind. There is a sense in which believers relax in the presence of God, assured of their acceptance and his goodness, and refreshed by his presence. In an air of reverence the Lord's children come before him fully aware of the dignified nature of their encounter with their heavenly Father, prepared to wait upon his pleasure, patiently resting in his favor.
Such seasons of prayer are frequent and possibly the norm. Our hearts can be still because God is faithful and strong. But still hearts are not inactive. There is also an intense and energetic reaching out to God in even the calmest composure of the soul. Prayer is never lifeless but filled with longing and fervor for the things desired of him by the Spirit's prompting. True prayer is never tepid or languid and it can never lapse into routine formality. Though exercised in modesty prayer is not a tame activity, nor the thoughts and words accompanying it insipid. The mind and soul are stirred in prayer, though not necessarily disturbed. There is yearning to know God, ardour in his adoration, aspiration towards holiness, the knowledge of his will, and usefulness to him. Prayer may be encouragingly peaceful and richly enjoyable. But there is also the prayer of the critical moment and the desperate mood. It is no less reverent, humble, or believing. Its urgency makes it argumentative, vigorous, and insistent. It is faith strong enough to acknowledge fear without offense to God; faith wielding the weapons of promises and patterns of divine behavior, appealing to him to act in timely mercy consistent with his character and known commitment to his people. This is prayer that cries earnestly to God and waves the banner of his pledges before him, imploring him for necessary aid, reminding him of his gracious undertakings on their behalf. There are circumstances where the people of God must resort to holy violence.
This is the kind of prayer to which Jacob had to resort in his fear and helplessness before his fateful meeting, after so many years, with his a grieved brother Esau. Having robbed Esau of his birthright Jacob had every reason to suspect his elder brother's vengeful wrath. Jacob, "the supplanter", who even in the womb clutched at his brother's ankle in an attempt to gain precedence over him, lived by his wiles and native cunning all through his life, but on his return to Canaan and imminent encounter with Esau his self-sufficiency and craftiness were no longer of any avail. The man of deceit and clever devices was at his wits end, and the night before he must face his wronged brother was to be spent in lonely and intense anxiety. The man who had grasped everything he wanted was now out of options and his heart was gripped by dread and despair. He had striven successfully with others but now he was about to confront a potential foe who could destroy him totally.
The situation was sufficient to stimulate the most ardent appeals to God. How frail in his humanity Jacob appeared under the pressure of fear. He held in his possession promises from God that ensured his safe return to his homeland and yet the nearness of perceived menace caused his confidence to fail. The thought of Esau fuming with revenge displaced his thoughts of God's reliability and protection and he was overwhelmed with panic. Yet it was not his distress that initially triggered his petitions to the Lord but sudden and surprising divine intervention in the form of a man who summoned him to strenuous combat that endured throughout the whole night. Jacob was forced to wrestle with a mysterious aggressor. Dire circumstances and an anonymous assailant compelled Jacob to wrestle with the Lord for a blessing of deliverance that was more comprehensive than he could ever suppose. As the men grappled in the stream it became evident to Jacob that the one he struggled with was far more than merely human (He struggled with the angel and overcame him. Hosea 12 :4). This was God wrestling for the soul of the wayward patriarch, who in the grueling conflict was bringing Jacob to an admission of his sinful self, to the point of personal helplessness, and to supernatural transformation of character. This dark night was the moment of Jacob's humiliation and conversion. By speaking his name in full recognition of its meaning (v27) he owned his life of greed and duplicity and the meanness of his behaviour. This was confession, repentance, and awareness of spent resources and spiritual destitution. In his plight "the man" conceded to Jacob's overwhelming demand for mercy, allowed himself to be overpowered by his extemity, and conferred the gifts of a new nature and a new relationship with God. Jacob (the one who clutches) would now be Israel ( the one who strives with God). Instead of rudely grabbing the benefits and advantages he wanted, Jacob would now wrestle with God in prayer for the blessings he desired. He would remain a striver, but with new aims and a new method.
G.A. F. Knight graphically describes the incident at Jabbok as the occasion when Jacob " stormed" Yahweh, and he goes on to point out that the Lord "is willing to be stormed in this way" by his people.
There are times when we must wrestle with God and argue the promises and forcefully present the very grounds that he has given us for aggressive, "demanding" prayer. We are always the weaker partner in the encounter but God concedes to the pled promises with which he graciously arms us. Emptied of pride and all human prowess, knowing our poverty, powerlessness, and ill-desert, it is grace we beg for, the very thing God delights to give, and it is not our insistence and wrestling manoeuvrs that win the day, but his inclination to be kind to the sincere supplicant who is prepared to struggle and sweat for the inestimable, indispensable prize he seeks, or dies without. The search for salvation is that dramatic, that earnest, that crucial.
God chooses to "lose" the match when we come to grips with him and to yield his favor to those who have no claim. Just as grace is violent in snatching us from the burning (Amos 4:11) and dragging us to the Savior (John 6:44- draw has the sense of drag), so our seeking of God and his kingdom is to be violent i.e. determined, undeterred, singleminded, and all-consuming (From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it - Matthew 11:12).
There are times when prayer is quiet and confident. The heart is still before the Lord and buoyed up by the solid assurances of Holy Scripture. There are also times when prayer is to be combative, strenuous, and depleting of our energies, when a spiritual exercise has been performed and completed vigorously to the point of weariness and acknowledgment of weakness. Jacob walked away from Jabbok with a permanent limp. We all, like Jacob, have a point of obvious and persistent weakness to keep us low and reliant before God – always begging. Paul had his thorn in the flesh to keep him abased, a frailty and vulnerability that God would not remove (2 Corinthians 12: 1-10).
Jacob and Paul were proud men who needed the constant reminder of their weakness and dependence. It is that known weakness that compels us to wrestle with the Almighty. It is the time of crisis that forces us to struggle. It is the sheer compassion of God that causes him to attack and ambush us and force us into the fray of earnest and enduring prayer. If he did not send the messengers of fear and despair we would not hear his summons to return. We would go on, leaning on our own devices, and surviving by our wits until we come to a sorry end. Jacob's condition from the womb is ours – deceitful and depraved (Hosea 12:3). His deliverance, designed by God, is ours also, the hopeful grappling with God in persevering prayer. "As a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favour. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there – the Lord Almighty, the Lord is his name of renown!" Thus Hosea enlarges upon Genesis for our encouragement in going to God (Hosea 12: 3b-5).