Wrestling with God

As are many of you, I am currently using a fresh Bible reading plan for 2021. Being January, one of the passages I am now exploring is the book of Genesis. One of the central characters in Genesis is a man named Jacob. Looking back at his story from our point of view, we understand that Jacob and his descendants will be the family line that God uses to establish the Israelites as a people through whom God blesses the world in fulfillment of the prophetic promises given to his grandfather Abraham. Of course, Jesus is THE ultimate blessing that came into the world through this family line. Jesus is our Redeemer who makes it possible for all of us to be adopted into the family line of God.

I can’t get away from Jacob. My daughter is constantly singing songs from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” including “Jacob and Sons.” The Bible Project videos I am using to supplement my reading keep telling his story. And of course, in my Bible reading, Jacob is always there, being a major character from his birth in Genesis 25 until his death in chapter 49.

One of the things that Jacob is known for is wrestling all night with “a man.” He refuses to stop, wrestling until “the breaking of day.” Jacob told the “man,” “I will not let you go until you bless me.” We understand that this was no ordinary man Jacob chose to wrestle with, but was God Himself. The “man” wins the battle by touching Jacob’s hip and permanently disabling him. Jacob was awarded a new name for his efforts, “Israel,” “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Israel literally means, “wrestles with God.”)

Devotional writers for years have used this as an illustration for how we must “wrestle” with God in our times of intercession to obtain God’s blessing. Yet, I am haunted by the words I heard David Wilkerson say many years ago, “The only person who wrestled with God ended up crippled.” By the way, do we really believe that God is so weak that He can’t overcome us until He wrestles with us all night? He can disable us any time He wants to.

Jacob was wrestling from the moment of his birth. His twin brother, Esau, was the first to be delivered, but Jacob followed close behind gripping his brother’s heel. Jacob means, “heel,” but also in Hebrew can mean, “deceiver.” Jacob spent his entire life thinking he had to fight to get what he thought he needed, and his main weapon was to deceive. He schemed to gain Esau’s firstborn birthright, which Esau was only too willing to give him for a bowl of stew. Jacob deceived his blind father to get Esau’s firstborn blessing. He deceived his uncle while trying to earn the wife he loved and his share of his uncle’s fortune. (As it turned out, his uncle was as good a deceiver as Jacob, resulting in Jacob marrying two of his daughters and giving him decades of his life as a servant.) He schemed to keep what was his when he went back to his homeland and faced his estranged brother. Jacob spent his entire life fighting for and scheming to get what he thought he deserved in life. And as a result, he lived a life of contention, broken relationships, and even physical disability.

As readers who know “the rest of the story,” we understand that in God’s sovereign plan, God was going to give Jacob the birthright, the blessing, the family, the resources… all the things Jacob wanted. Jacob didn’t need to wrestle and scheme, he just needed to trust and receive. Because he tried to get it all himself, he ended up with a permanent limp.

As I see the western church in our day, I see the same thing happening. We feel we need to fight to get what is ours. We use the tools of political schemes, psychological strategy, scientific insights, and sociological theory to claw our way into power. We think we must wrestle with God and man. Politics, psychology, science, and sociology are all useful and all have their proper place, but when they become more important to us than God and His authoritative Word, they become idols that lead to our own broken lives and relationships. How do I know if these things are idols in my life? I need to ask a best friend, who can honestly tell me what I talk about most, what I post most often on social media, and what I get most angry about when I lose it. Those things are what I really value. Those are the things that I herald as my “gospel,” my good news to the world.

Don’t we see our Jacobian error? We don’t need to fight and scheme to gain what we think we want or to prevent ourselves from losing what we think we have. We need to simply trust and believe. Every spiritual blessing is found in Christ. He knows what we truly need. He has already given us all the blessings we need when He gave us Himself. Believe. Trust. Receive. Don’t wrestle with man. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. And certainly don’t wrestle with God. Remember, the only one who wrestled with God ended up crippled.

Thank you!

Pastor friends,

I appreciate you!  Thank you for serving our Savior in the power of His Spirit for His glory.  At times, you receive the acclaim and applause of men.  Other times, antagonism is your companion because you minister in Jesus’ Name.  Worse yet, your service and efforts are often met with apathy, even among those who claim the Name of Christ.  Most often, your day is filled with a combination of those things.  May you continue to serve your King with one motive in mind – to hear those precious words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” directly from His lips as He greets you as eternity begins.

Being Thankful

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.  I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:1-2 ESV)

Facebook is increasingly becoming my prayer list.  I enjoy praying for dear friends and family that I have known for years and also for more recent colleagues and acquaintances.  This time of year, amid holiday get-togethers, vacations, family celebrations, and various ministry events, I praise God for how He has blessed so many of you!  While I rejoice with those of you who now are rejoicing, my heart and my prayers do go out to those of you who now are searching for God’s blessing.  May you see His face clearly very soon!

I love seeing the pics of your beautiful family members.  Some of them are transitioning into new and exciting chapters of their lives.  What a joy to be surrounded by those you love.  Thank you for sharing the news and views concerning your travels both at home and abroad.  What beautiful and fun places you have the wonderful opportunity to enjoy.  Some of you are traveling because you have been given the incredible opportunity and responsibility to share the Word of God among every tribe, tongue, and nation so that Jesus is glorified.  What a gift to be able to do so!  Enjoy!  Celebrate!  Be blessed!

At the same time, why not pray for the many in our own nation and the vast majority of people around the world who will never experience such blessing.  And above all, remember the One who is the giver of all good gifts and the One who blesses us with every spiritual blessing through His Son, Jesus Christ!  Everything you are, everything you get to do, and every experience you live is but a gift from Him.  Why not thank Him today?

If there is a loving God, then why…?

Theodicy is a fancy word that helps us ask the question, “If there is a good and all-powerful God, then why is there evil and suffering in our world?”

Some make the following assumption:  Tragedy occurred.  An all-powerful God could have prevented this.  An all-loving God would want to prevent this.  Yet, this tragedy occurred.  Therefore, such a God does not exist.

Here is another assumption we may make:  An all-powerful, all-loving God exists.  Tragedy happens.  Therefore, our all-powerful, all-loving God has a loving purpose for permitting this tragedy to occur.

Why do we so often choose the first?  I think it is because we, in our pain, want to blame something or someone.  When we do, what is our answer for suffering?  There is none.  When we choose the second, we find that there is some purpose for our suffering (even if we don’t readily see it) and we find the source of grace, strength, and comfort to deal with tragedy.

Remember, the Bible teaches that the universe we live in is not the universe God created.  When man introduced sin into God’s creation, God’s universe was corrupted.  This is the source of evil and tragedy, which didn’t exist before man’s sin.  The good news is, God has a perfect, new heaven and new earth in our future if we belong to Him.

God is not the author of evil and His holy, unchanging character reminds us He can never be.  Yet, God permits evil, always punishes evil, can bring good out of evil, and one day will deliver us from the presence and power of evil.  Praise His Holy Name!

I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.  Isaiah 45:7 ESV

What’s This Thing Called Lent?

I must confess that I grew up in an evangelical culture that did not place great emphasis on the liturgical calendar.  Words like “advent” and “lent” belonged to “those churches.”  Over the years, advent wreaths and calendars began to be used by some, but lent, and the idea of ashes and abstinence never really caught on.  As I studied the history of the concept, I found some baggage attached to lent that made me feel uncomfortable embracing the practice as a whole.  Yet, the idea of taking an extended period of time to focus on the holiness of God and my own proper response to Him, of remembering the atoning sacrifice of Christ for sinful mankind, of being awed by His glorious and powerful resurrection, and of using focused prayer and fasting to seek and find Him appeals to me greatly.  The Jews recognized their New Year, Rosh Hashanah, their most high and holy day, Yom Kippur, and the time period of ten days including those holidays as “days of awe” or “days of repentance” – a special season to focus on repentance and getting right with God.  Why not have the same emphasis leading up to a remembrance and celebration of what Jesus did to free us from sin and death?

One must be careful not to think that observing such days is necessary to have a relationship with God.  Following certain practices or holidays does not make one righteous.  Paul said, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17 ESV).  Things like “days of awe” or even our Christian holidays are not given to us to make us holy, but to remind us of the One who does – Jesus Christ (read the rest of Colossians 2).  What I would like to do over these next 40 days (leading up to Good Friday and Easter) is write about some things that remind you about Him.  Reading my thoughts, giving up certain things, or following certain practices won’t clean up your heart or change your life.  But meeting Jesus Christ will.  “Lent” comes from the Old English “lengten,” or spring.  These “lengthened” days remind us that new life is coming.  May I take some time to remind you that new life is only found in Christ?  I will use daily Scriptures from Redeemer Presbyterian’s reading plan, “A Journey Through Lent” as the starting point for my meditation, but will add my personal thoughts.  Please read along if you need the reminder, as I do.

A Season of Fear

Halloween is almost upon us.  Christians have many varied reactions to this event.  Some are appalled that a pagan ritual has been made mainstream and is now the second biggest money-making holiday in America.  Others want to “Christianize” the season by focusing on the Christian roots of “All Saints’ Day” on November 1st.  Many don’t want to celebrate the scary parts of the holiday, but instead reinvent it as a harvest celebration.  Most do agree that to the majority of Americans, the day is not seen as a celebration of evil, but a harmless excuse to get candy from the neighbors.  And to get scared.  Americans love to get scared.  Just check your TV listings and see how many horror movies are being shown this time of year.

The purpose of this article is not to argue in favor of any of the above positions, but rather to get us to think about fear.  But the fear I want us to meditate on is not the fear of ghosts and goblins, but “the fear of the Lord.”  This fear, the Scriptures teach, is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10), and the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).  Most of us like the idea of growing in wisdom and knowledge – we pay thousands of dollars to colleges and universities to help us in that quest.

In English, “fear” is the opposite of trust, and its synonyms are “fright” and “dread.”  The Old Testament Hebrew word for fear is “yirah,” and is sometimes seen as being negative (like fright and dread), or positive (respect, reverence and worship).  It has a very broad range of meaning.

For example, in Leviticus 19:3 God commands us to “fear” our father and mother.  Other translations translate it as “respect,” which seems to get at the true meaning.  In Genesis 32, Jacob genuinely is terrified at meeting Esau, knowing that earlier that Esau wanted to kill him as Jacob cheated him out of his birthright.  How do we know which way to take this word?

In terms of how we view God, yirah can be positive, as in Psalm 66:3, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth!  … Say to God, ‘How awesome (yirah) are your deeds!”  It can also describe a terror at one day standing before a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and the One who will judge us all.  What makes the difference in how we view God? What makes us cower in terror or bow in reverence before our Almighty God?

The simple answer is relationship.  What is your relationship to a God who is so holy His very presence shakes mountains?  An example might help.  Remember back to when you were a child.  Picture yourself leaving school and beginning your walk home.  As you turn onto a lonely street, you see a muscular boy, twice your size, approaching you.  What is your response?  If he is the school wrestling champion and you just stole his lunch money, you might feel some dread and terror.  If he is your brother, and has come to walk you home through a scary part of town, you feel peace and security and an awe of his strength.  The key is relationship, which is also true concerning God.  Meeting the God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and the One who will judge us all will bring terror to the person who is still in their sins and has not been adopted into the family of God.  But being with this same God brings great joy to the heart of the person who can call God, “Father.”  What is your relationship to Him?

Slow to Speak

Like many of you, this past week has been filled with many tears and unceasing prayer as almost daily I hear of the loss of lives of those made in God’s image and as I think of their dear families now filled with questions, pain, and overwhelming grief.  The most recent news reports try to figure out why the lives of brave police officers who were protecting the rights of those protesting against the police could be snuffed out so violently.  I sometimes write things down to figure out what is in my heart and mind, so please allow me to do just that and add words to the multitude of things that have already been written and said.

I grieve over those who are gone.  Some no longer have the chance to hear about the everlasting love of our Savior.  How do family members now face the days ahead without those who were so special to them?

I am amazed at the continually increasing divisions our country is experiencing.  Politically we have been aware of this divide for some time.  We are now becoming more and more aware of the gap between people of different races, economic classes, and _________ – you fill in the blank.  We had hoped that many of those gaps were shrinking, but are now wondering if the distance is instead increasing.  People with loud voices and various causes use their volume to take advantage of this divide for their own benefit and amusement.  The result is that these gaps get bigger, fear grips our hearts because of what we are told of those on the other side of the gaps and anger becomes what motivates us to action.  Everyone seems to have a voice and much to say, but few seem to have any desire to listen.

The Holy Spirit through the pen of James told us, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  Notice the progression – we need to be very quick to listen.  We must do that first, before we speak.  We must hear the other person and really listen.  This includes mulling over what they just said.  We must think about what they said and why they said it.  Even if we disagree with what we just heard, if we listen perhaps we will understand why they said it, at least a little bit.  We should be quick to listen – but then slow to speak.  Too often we aren’t really listening because we are thinking about what we are about to say.  Our priority is not about the other person, it is all about us – what we feel, what we think and what we know should be done.  Isn’t this what arguments consist of – no listening, fast talking and the next step, anger?  No wonder we are so angry.  We all have too much to say and too many opinions to share.  And now with social media, we can share our words instantly with the world.  (Yes, it is a bit ironic that I am sharing my words with the world right now.)

Now to the grief of today.  Can’t we take some time to grieve?  Can’t we allow families to start to say good-bye to their loved ones before we use their loved ones to further our favorite cause?  Can’t we be silent as they share their doubts, their fears, their questions and their anger?  Can’t we give them our presence and our hugs, but hold off on our words?  There will be a time to talk about these causes.  Some of them are really important.  But do we need to talk about them today?

Followers of Jesus Christ, we have much to say to an angry, divided world.  We have words of comfort to share with the grieving from the God of all comfort, Himself.  We have words of hope about a Redeeming Savior that this world needs to hear.  He is our only Hope!  He is the One who can reconcile sinners like us to a Holy God such as He is, and then help us reconcile to each other.  We are messengers of reconciliation!  But let’s share this wonderful message after we have really listened to this hurting world.


What Are We Calling Them To?

I have been reading the book of Acts lately and have been impressed by the sermons preached after the Holy Spirit came and filled God’s people with power to be witnesses of Christ.  Peter’s masterful sermon on the day of Pentecost was a Christ-centered history lesson that showed how the God of history brought the King of Kings into the world to save men from their sins.  3,000 people were saved after hearing and responding to these words.  In Acts 3, after a man lame from birth was healed in the Name of Jesus, Peter again preaches, explaining how this man was healed, but again putting the focus on Jesus as God and King.  (It is interesting that in both messages, Peter blames his listeners for killing Jesus – not exactly the best way to endear yourself to the crowd.)  In Acts 4, Peter and John are called before the religious leaders and Peter again preaches about Jesus.  In Acts 7, after Stephen is arrested by the religious leaders, he preaches another historical review that culminates in another clear proclamation of who Jesus is.  The result?  He is martyred.

Here are a few observations I have as I compare these messages to what is being preached today:

  1. These messages would be considered too “boring” for our western churches today. Too much history, too little humor and engaging stories.  Too much teaching, too little catchy principles for living.  Try to read these sermons word for word at our gatherings this weekend – see how many people remain interested.  Yet, look at what the Holy Spirit did through those words.
  2. These messages clearly lay out the track of redemptive history and the theology of who Jesus is before calling anyone to a response. Today, after hearing messages about how we can live better lives, preachers then give a quick invitation to “come to Jesus.”  My question is, if Peter and Stephen felt led by the Spirit to clearly lay out the historical context for who Jesus is before they called people to respond, and their audience was vastly religious, how much more do we need to lay this groundwork as we communicate to a largely biblically illiterate and post-Christian culture today?  When we don’t tell our audience who Jesus is, and then we tell them to “come to Jesus” – what are we calling them to?  Maybe a better question is, “WHOM are we calling them to?”  Is it to the biblical Christ, or the popular, tolerant, nice moral teacher Jesus of modern culture?  I think that one of the reasons many people “fall away” from following Christ today is because the Christ they accepted was a caricature, not the real Christ.  No wonder they fall away – a cartoon Christ cannot radically transform anybody.

To Leaders of Large Churches

Dear brothers and sisters in large churches,
As a pastor of a small church, I dare not try to speak for all small church pastors and leaders, but I do think a few of my small church brethren might share some of my sentiments. So, please allow me to write down a few thoughts that have been heavy on my heart.

First of all, can I say a big “thank you” for all you do in our community for the sake of our King and His Kingdom? I agree with Paul when he wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-6, NIV)

When I think of you and what God is doing in and through you, I rejoice! You see multitudes of people pass from darkness into light as they are transformed by Christ and His amazing grace. I join the angels in heaven, as they rejoice over these souls that are saved. I am filled with joy when I think of addicts being set free by the Holy Spirit, wounded partners in marriage finding forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ, and the poor in our community receiving not only a cup of cold water in Jesus’ Name, but also hope and healing in that same Name. Your army of workers for the sake of the gospel make that possible. Thank you for all you do!

Thank you for having a God-honoring voice in the community we all love. Sometimes someone needs to speak up for the sake of righteousness, and you have a voice that is heard. Thank you for the times you courageously stand up for truth, as you at the same time extend Jesus’ love. Thank you for your servant-leadership given to all in our city, as you serve and lead both great and small. I appreciate you!

Thank you for bringing exciting, Christ-exalting events to our community. Because of you and your generosity, our entire city can enjoy wonderful music and gifted preaching, as you bring talented evangelists and musicians to town. Thanks for hosting these events, and thank you for inviting us all. This same generosity enables the wonderful, grace-giving, mercy ministries in our area to have the people and resources they need to make the big difference they make.
Thank you – a thousand times thank you – for all you are and all you do in Christ. I am thankful for you, and I do pray for you, because I see us truly as partners in the gospel.

I love the word behind that English word, “partnership.” “Koinonia” is translated in various translations as “partnership, communion or fellowship.” But this deep camaraderie is not just an enjoyment of each other’s company; it is “partnership for a purpose, communion for a cause, fellowship to further the Kingdom.” I enjoy our friendship. I am encouraged by you and your love. But I see our relationship as more than that – we are together to extend the good news of the gospel of Jesus to those in our community who do not yet understand who He is and what He came to do. Thanks for letting me work with you.

Can I also add a word of confession? While I am truly thankful for you, sometimes the green-eyed monster of envy rises up in the hearts of those of us in the small church. I admit that at times I have been jealous of your numbers, your budgets and your fame. Please forgive me.

Forgive me that sometimes those of us in small churches sometimes try to justify our bad attitudes. “They must not really preach the gospel in that church!” we might say. “They are a mile wide and an inch deep!” I know that over-generalizing tends to get us in trouble. As is true in our small churches, not all of your fellowships are deep or faithful. But many of you are. Thank you to those who are.

Can I make another confession? Small churches are small for a reason. Sometimes (and I use that word very purposefully)… sometimes our church families are small because God has called us to be small and to serve Him as such. Many times churches are small because they are not healthy, and sick bodies will not grow, but will over time shrivel up and die. As we pray for you, will you pray for us to experience fullness and health in Christ?

I wasn’t thinking of these things recently, but something happened that brought them to my attention. My daughter, who is in college being trained for Christian ministry, for some God-ordained reason, chose to serve her college internship in our small church. Some thought it was the easy route – that she wasn’t challenging herself enough by going home. I knew it would be the hardest thing she ever did.

She is an extremely gifted young lady who loves Jesus with all of her heart. She has been a “PK” all of her life, did not go through decades of rebellion, but has worked through a myriad of hurts and pains that go along with living in a pastor’s home. She has seen much and has a deep understanding of ministry, in spite of my efforts to shelter her. She has a heart to help the “least of these” by extending God’s mercy in very practical ways as she boldly proclaims God’s truth. I am very proud of her.

And I was extremely proud of her as she began to serve in our church. She worked tirelessly and put together a full week of camp for the children of prisoners. It was the best camp I had ever seen on paper! She worked just as hard developing our church’s first Vacation Bible School in years, with the help of her team, our church’s youth group – all three of them. Did I mention that of the three, two were her younger sisters? She did such a good job, and truly did it for Jesus!

And then the camp was cancelled. Just a few kids signed up, in spite of cards, phone calls, visits, and parents’ meetings. I tried to explain to her that she is learning a valuable lesson – that all of her service was not wasted if it was truly service to the Lord! Then we had the VBS – and our little team faithfully and lovingly served six kids over four days, in spite of hundreds of invitations being extended.

As all of this was going on, we would drive by other churches holding their own VBS’s with parking lots full and kids everywhere. Today, we went to a wonderful event where an incredible church in our town came into our neighborhood and at our local elementary school hosted an exciting festival for the children (and their families) that we had been loving and serving. Hundreds were there when we visited. We rejoiced. And we prayed for good fruit. And I saw something in my daughter’s eye that reveled something deep in her heart.

While she was happy with all that was happening, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Why?” Why did she work for months for one cancelled camp and a tiny VBS? And why did others seem to have “success” we could only dream of? After years of service in small churches, I have grown used to the hours of prayer, study and service for events that never happen or that have just the same few regulars attend. I have shielded my heart from such constant disappointment. I almost expect us on Sunday to have to sing acapella because no musicians show up. Even though I thought she had seen these realities over the years, she was shocked and told my wife, “I don’t know how you and dad do this year after year – I am struggling doing it for a few months.” I do not have answers for her. But it made me want to write to you. Can I share a few thoughts with you, brothers and sisters in the large church?

First, be thankful for what you have. You have been blessed in many ways. I realize that you have problems and disappointments that I could never dream about. But you also are experiencing blessings that some of us may never experience. God has indeed blessed you!

Second, people from our small churches will leave our churches to go be part of your church. I hate to say it this way, but here is the reality (at least in some people’s minds) – we cannot compete with the size, variety, excitement, and excellence that you offer. For better or for worse, many people desire what you have – few desire what we have. They will leave us for you much more than they will leave you for us. When they do, please check with them (or me) to see if they left my church on good terms. I will give them my blessing if they leave seeking health and life! But will you at least ask where they were and why they left? By the way, it would be to your advantage to know if these new people will be a help or a hindrance. I know you desire to grow through conversion growth, but the truth is, most who entered your doors exited mine. Check with me. I will do the same for you.

Lastly, continue to remember those of us in small churches. You are my heroes! I am so thankful for your incredible, fruitful ministry! But can I be honest? I hold those who serve selflessly and faithfully in small churches in even higher esteem. You are my heroes. Those serving in anonymity with constant disappointment are my super-heroes! Why not call up one these servants and invite them to lunch and thank them, too. Continue to invite them to your events, as full-partners and co-laborers in Christ. Return their phone calls and emails. Treat them like they are valuable members of the team, not as distractions from your “real” ministry. And please remember them in prayer, thanking God with joy for the partnership in the gospel that you have with these heroes.
Faithfully yours,
Brian Heinen

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