"Wrestling with an Angel" The Book

Wrestling with an Angel is also a book endorsed by Joni Eareckson Tada, Noel Piper, Russell Moore and others. It is available in print, audiobook, and a variety of ebook formats. Learn more about the book here.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"I Will Not Let You Go"

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:24-26)

I got into a fistfight last week.

Well, I suppose you could call it a fistfight. I got hit about 10-12 times without landing a single punch myself. It’s been a while since I have been in a fight. As a police officer, I probably get into more fights than the average middle-aged man. But at 46, my reflexes are not what they used to be—so I got a little beat up.

It all started when I attempted to make a man do something I thought he should do. I grabbed his shirtsleeve and directed him in the direction I wanted him to go. I’m usually pretty good at directing people. Apparently he was not having the best day and this was not the direction he wanted to go, so he responded by taking a swing at me.

I managed to duck the first blow and easily redirect his momentum; moving him through the open door of my pickup truck where he landed square on his back in the front seat. With his back to the seat, he reached for anything he could throw in my direction to keep me away from him, which happened to be a set of car keys, a water bottle and an ESV Bible.

The keys missed my head by a couple of inches and I managed to dodge the water bottle, but the bible hit me right in the chest—resulting in an out of context (yet unforgettable) illustration of Hebrews 4:12.

As he searched the cab of my truck for something else to launch at me, I took advantage of the distraction and rushed forward through the doorway. He caught me with an up-kick to my midsection but I managed to grab both his legs and pin them to the dash.

My tunnel-vision-focus on his legs left his hands unsecure and I was met with five or six quick strikes to the back of my head with his fist, followed by several scratches to my scalp and face from his fingernails.  

Believe it or not, my mind instinctively went back to a basic rule from my initial police training, “Watch the hands! Hands kill. If you control the hands, you control the fight.”

I abandoned his legs and latched on to his wrists, pushing his fists into his chest while simultaneously wrapping my leg around his ankles to control his feet. His explosive strength and speed humbled my aging muscles and slower reflexes, but at least I was now in control of the situation—or so I thought.

About the time I was catching my breath and making a new game plan, I felt a sharp, vice-like lock on my forearm and looked up to see the man clenching his teeth down on my jacket sleeve. My jacket was thick enough to keep the bite from penetrating skin, but the initial shock of the pain made me instinctively react.

Still holding his wrists, I broke away from the bite and lodged my elbow and forearm under his chin forcing his head back, his mouth closed, and averting any possible head butting or biting retaliation. The only offense he had left was to spit in my direction, which he did several times between primal screams of violent anger. I took the spit. It was better than the alternative.

Turning my face to avoid most of the projectile spray, I just happened to glance to the back seat of the truck where I saw my wife, daughter and teenage son.  The look on their faces made me realize how serious this incident had become.  I needed to end this fight.

With one last burst of adrenalin-fueled energy, I lifted the man to his feet and out of the seat. Still holding his wrists I swept his legs with my left foot and took him to the ground in the soft snow beside the door of the truck.  The powder absorbed most of the impact allowing me to move to a superior position.

As I pinned his arms to the ground with my hands, I knew by the look on his face the fight was almost over. He continued to struggle and spit, but he was quickly running out of gas. I held him there in the snow till the ice absorbed his energy and cooled his rage.

“Are you finished?” I muttered, nearly out of breath. “I’m not letting you go.”

He struggled one last time and then nodded his head in surrender. I slowly, but cautiously, helped him to his feet and dusted the snow from his back.  This fight was over. I loaded him into the truck and continued on to our destination.

The man I was fighting is not some deranged criminal; he is my son.  Autistic and non-verbal, he is a two-year-old in a twenty-year-old body. Like most two-year-olds, he throws fits from time to time. Unlike most two-year-olds, he can do a lot of damage.  He can hurt my wife and seriously hurt my daughter, and he can almost whip me. Almost.

It all began as we were headed out the door going to a Super Bowl party. He wanted to take his IPad. I said, “No” and he transformed into the Incredible Hulk.

Sitting in the truck with a protective arm around my son, I began to think how the Lord could possibly be in this. I thought of big words like “sanctification” and “sovereignty”, even “Imago Dei” and “Fearfully and wonderfully made”. These are bold and profound words I admittedly preach louder when the times are less painful.

Then, as the adrenaline dump sapped all of my remaining strength, a glaring image flashed through my head of a man struggling to get away. He cursed his family and His Lord. He fought against love and kicked against the goads. He spit in the face of the One who loved him most. But despite the rebellion and violence, even through the worst of sin and insurrection, his Father would not let him go—holding Him tightly till all the defiant energy was spent.

I am that man.

“I will not let you go.” I remember those words of tough love and bloody redemption very well, spoken by the Father of my salvation and echoed by the wife of my youth. I am eternally grateful for their tenacious gospel grip.

Jake finally settled down and apologized with tears, hugs and kisses. I wonder how he can vacillate so quickly between innocent bliss and animalistic violence. I wonder how much longer my strength will hold out. But no matter how he acts, he will always be my son. I will fight his rebellion with all my strength and all my love, and I will never let go—because I was never let go.

Child bitter with rage, blind and broken under this weight.
Seek Me first and you will find,
righteousness for your heart and peace for your mind.
I came to find you; in Me you will be found.

No matter what, no matter what may come.
No matter what may come, I will not let you go.”

Joel Pakan (Tangled Blue)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Amen, Betsy. May God keep Jake and his family until God brings us to eternity.

  3. thank you. I had a former Penn State wrestler teach me how to take down my son when he was only 6... already when he was so small I had to know how to do it safely.

  4. Wow. When you said the man you were fighting with was your son...gave me a shiver.

  5. Thank you, Greg, for your honest and inspiring account of the difficulty you had with Jake, and the lessons God taught you through it. Your post was well timed. I had a very rough time with Luke this past weekend; it left me gushing in tears, but in the end crying out to God, and I felt His peace and joy even in the midst of the tears.

    What I remember most vividly about the times when I have literally had to hold Luke down with every ounce of strength I have, is that those have been the times that I have oddly most felt the peace and presence of God. It is the strangest thing. I my natural self, I can get upset and fly off the handle over the most stupid little annoyances, but when I am presented with a situation that I know is completely beyond my natural ability to handle, it is then that I am most aware of God's presence.

    God bless, and thanks again for sharing your life and your heart via this blog.

  6. I'm crying reading this. That's me in the story too. Good Lord, I've wrestled God so violently.

    1. God is the Lord. Jesus is Lord.
      Don't take His Name in vain by saying 'Good Lord'.
      Hebrews 5:14

    2. I'm crying, too. God's love and grace given to us who fight against Him, is so beautiful.

  7. Wow... I was going to question the blow-by-blow account of a scuffle whose instigation was not immediately clear, but what father hasn't had to show such love physically? All children require spankings, but may God uphold you as you struggle, spiritually as well, with your son's sin and disability.

  8. Thank you very much for this post. Well written honesty, something that we need more of today.

  9. Makes me wonder what it will be like dealing with my own autistic son in a few years. I learn a lot reading your posts. A lot of trepidation since I will probably face some of these realities too.

    1. Tom, you will be amazed at how God will be there in those future situations that you fear you won't be able to handle (you can't!). I remember praying desperately for my son's healing when he was a toddler, reasoning with God that I would not be able to handle him when he became stronger than me. Well he became stronger than me and he is not yet healed. There have been some dicey moments, but God was there for me each and every time.

  10. Thank you - so nicely timed today. I'm a school board special ed consultant and have become worn down with trying to support all the needs of both students and staff. I have been considering a return to the classroom instead but reading your blog has given me vigour. God doesn't let go, you won't let go of your son, and maybe I shouldn't let go either. Perhaps in my own wrestling I should instead cry out for the strength to keep up with the pace - something I have to admit I have been remiss in doing for a number of months!
    Thank you for sharing your story - praying for your family! Tracy

  11. Amazing, thank you for your honesty and so beautifully and eloquently written.

  12. Added you to the Autism Blogs Directory and blogged about this issue and linked to you here: http://blog.theautismchannel.tv/?p=144

    Thinking of you and yours and hoping you know you are not alone.

  13. I don't even know how to respond to this. My frustrations seem so childish in contrast. I'll pray for you and your son. May God be with you through all the storms and rainbows that you face together.

  14. I can hardly see through the tears. I am a single mom and my ten year old son is almost s big as me. he is in a residential treatment program with the hope o comin home to me again. its not he first time we've been through this. he has Aspergers and severe ADHD and has beaten me up so badly over the last few years that I am afraid I will never be able to manage him at home as he gets bigger and stronger. yet...in my heart I know he belongs with me and o can't give up on him. thank you for reminding me that God is in control. any advice for a woman in this situation? I know the fights will never be completely gone but I don't feel safe and I don't want to hurt him either.

    1. I remember the sorrow and guilt that my wife and I felt when our son was placed in a residential setting outside our home.. His behavior had deteriorated to a point where we were very concerned, first about injury to himself, and then about our being able to care both him and his younger sister who is also autistic.. In time, we saw his approval for residential placement as God's provision and mercy both for our son and for us. We now go to see him often and occasionally take him home for a few hours, but we praise God for the people who otherwise care for him 24/7.

      My advice for someone like you in this situation is to praise God for His provision, and take advantage of opportunities where you can safely visit with him and communicate God's love and yours. God bless you.

  15. Diane,

    Those are some wise words from the Maryland Crustacean. I know this sounds somewhat contradictory to the blog post, but it took us quite a while to realize letting go is not the same as giving up. The best and most loving thing we can do for our special children, our families and ourselves is to let these children get the care they really need. This frees us to be stronger parents when they are with us and ultimately it is better for the child and the parent. Getting all the possible help with your son that is available is part of being a wonderful, loving mother.

    I will pray that God comforts you during this time in a way that will equip you to comfort others in the days to come. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

    1. Thank you for this. I have loved your book. My sister has some of these same issues. She is older than I am(she's 60) and I will be her legal guardian one day or my brother. She lives with my elderly mom now. I have children of my own and I am so struggling wondering what to do. Part of me wants to get her somewhere to get that help but I also feel so guilty that I should take her in my home to care for her. I am scared and don't know the right thing to do. My mom pretty much just gives into her so keeps the peace. My sister has struck out at all of us at one time or another and has jumped me several times. She's on lots of meds to keep her calm. I just cried reading your post. Thanks for your honesty. I'm not even sure where to begin looking for an alternative place for her to live. I am not sure what the right thing to do is. I feel so guilty and responsible.

    2. Anonymous,

      Thank you for reading! Your future challenge is not unusual. One of the most heartbreaking realities of parenting a disabled child is the thought of "who will care for my adult child when I'm gone...or when I'm unable?"

      Oftentimes extended family is presented with this challenge and I think it is very important to carefully evaluate each situation. Reacting to this challenge out of guilt or perceived responsibility is never a good thing. I know this from experience. For years me and my wife clung to Jake because we were sure no one could care for him like we could, or because we felt guilty letting others get involved. Only when we loosened our grip and sought help outside our home did Jake begin to thrive. We then began making decisions that were best for him, not best to alleviate our guilt or sense of responsibility. It changed our life! It changed his life! And it definitely saved our struggling marriage.

      I say all of that to say this, maybe the best thing for your sister is to be cared for by someone else outside your home--someone or someplace that could give her the structure and safety she needs to be all she can be. Be proactive in this. Finding the right place takes time. Start now. In the end we had to come to a place where we trusted God with her care more than we trusted anyone else, including ourselves. I will pray for his strength to be very evident in your future decisions.


    3. Thank you, Greg! Thank you "making decisions that were best for him, not best to alleviate our guilt or senseof responsibility." That was so helpful. Thank you for this. I think part of the problem is my family has always thought that noone else can care for her. Do you have any suggestions in how to search for that right place?

  16. Thank you so much. Our church has just ventured out into a class for special needs adults (we have had a program for children in place for a few years). When the person in charge of our special needs program met with someone from Joni and Friends, we were directed to your book and blog. I am looking forward to reading about your journey. I appreciate your willingness to share your life openly. Thank you!
    God's peace to your home,
    Birmingham, AL

  17. Greg! I'm a little late to the conversation (typical for me), but I also just want say thank you for sharing. Under the Mercy, Joel

  18. Greg, I cannot express to you how much I can relate to your story. Our daughter, at 15, is equally violent and repentant almost immediately. She is severely affected by Autism, and has dislocated my wife's jaw, bruised her ribs, etc.. She weighs 270 lbs., and as a former college football player, I have been the only one capable of managing her when she gets in that violent state of mind.
    Like your son, our daughter is much like an emotional toddler. There are glimpses of more cognitive understanding underneath, but she is still unable to manage her anger, or communicate her needs. The word "no" sets her into a frenzy. And like you, at 46 years of age, my reflexes and muscles are beginning to wane.
    We recently made the gut-wrenching decision to allow her to attend a residential facility geared toward Autism one hour away from our home. I can say without question that it was the hardest decision we have ever made, and it we did not come to that point lightly. But through much toil and prayer, we are confident that she is in good hands. We are still in the initial stages of grief from the separation, and trying to find a balance between contacting her and avoiding causing her to be homesick. It has been a long road, but we are trusting God to watch over her while in an agency's care. If we did not feel that they were a stellar organization, we wouldn't have been able to do it. I thank you for sharing your heart. As a father, I feel every word you've spoken deep in my soul. I plan to purchase your book asap, and look forward to reading it.
    Your brother in Christ,
    Prattville, AL
    www.tucbook.wordpress.com - a website dedicated to my book

  19. thank you very much for the information provided