In his first epistle, John described the struggle believers may have with their own hearts when they take seriously the commands of God and view those things in their lives that condemn them (1 John 3:19). Ezekiel reported God challenged the hearts of Israel that lay in the grasp of idols of one kind or another. Jacob wrestled with God, and the match sort-of ended in a draw. But God got His way in the end and did what He had come to do—give Jacob the blessing of becoming Israel (Genesis 32:22-32). Yet, wrestling alone puts us always at a disadvantage and every wrestling face-off needs a referee. Pastors are called to be such referees for their people.
The hearts of the people of God often wrestle with Satan. No holds are barred in these matches, and the Devil has the slyest, slipperiest moves in the ring. His lies are often convincing. Sometimes they appeal to the best in us and cultivate dependence on our own goodness. Sometimes they appeal to the worst in us, our fears, our angers, are jealousies. Both appeals separate us from our God. One little word can indeed fell him, but often such words do not come as we listen to the magic of his seemingly very sensible nonsense and duplicity. Luther recognized how deeply in our mechanisms of feeling, deciding, and thinking the perversions of the good can be because the Devil keeps whispering in our ears and directing our gaze. If he is not leading us into breaking with God and transgressing His boundaries for the good human life, he is convincing us we are beyond forgiveness and hope. In all these situations, believers need a referee to say the word, to repeat it, the word which defies Satan’s spirits and places the Word Jesus, the way, truth, and life, into our ears and minds.
Wrestling with the world in which we live, move, and have our being settled in quite comfortably also brings its problems. We are embedded in the world, and the world is embedded in us. We are residents in the world that belongs to our Father. The homeplace has been taken over by squatters. They are the resident aliens, but they temporarily too often seem to rule the roost, and believers buy into their falsified versions of what makes life and what makes life good. So, the world’s embedded evils enter the ring with their own rules. Their rules leave God out of the picture. They sell short-term pleasures and successes or accomplishments as ultimate goals of ultimate value. They float theories about how to solve the problems which vex us by relying on ourselves or other people or things God has created. Just one example: Social sciences take the products of their sound research and can provide insight and help. Instead, some use them to try and tame the attacks of evil in any of its forms with a determinism governed by either nature and nurture or with the voluntaristic enhancement of the power of the will to direct our fate and the world’s. This drives us to assume responsibility for our own unrealistic way of establishing our worth. For those caught in the struggle with the world’s rules, the preacher comes as referee to distinguish God’s blessings in His world and the perversions of those who are trying to preserve a system that gets along without acknowledging Him and His ownership.
For those caught in the struggle with the world’s rules, the preacher comes as referee to distinguish God’s blessings in His world and the perversions of those who are trying to preserve a system that gets along without acknowledging Him and His ownership.
Even more formidable is the wrestling contest with the embeddedness of evil in ourselves. We possess—or are possessed by—an ingrained tendency for our will to be turned into itself rather than turned open to our Creator. Our wills also do not wrestle fairly. That means our wills exercise their decision-making in a far, far less free manner than we want to recognize. They are caught in the snares of Satan’s net and the world’s false logic. The rebellious heart that has turned again to stone wrestles with the Creator’s condemnation to throw it off. It wants to get on with cavorting with alternatives for Him which deceive us into thinking they are more attractive or useful than our Creator. Hearts clutch idols or clench around the nothingness of hopelessness. The referee unwraps the fingers of the heart from the idol and loosens the clenched fist that is digging into itself.
The broken heart wrestles with its doubt, guilt, shame, and fear. The conflicted heart wrestles with having too much or having too little. The referee comes to call the match by speaking words from the cross and empty tomb that effect liberation from being turned in on ourselves. The heart often resists the re-creative word of forgiveness God is pronouncing upon it. The preacher rules in every case in favor of God. Indeed, he condemns the idolizing heart with the law He made to structure and define human life while liberating and nourishing the broken heart with the promise that is sure today because it is God’s promise.
God’s people also find themselves sometimes wrestling with God, as Job did. The preacher serves as something of a referee amid that face-off, too. God seems to be unremittingly angry or forever abandoning us. In a world in which too often things seem to go wrong and too seldom go right, someone needs to be at fault and take the blame. So, we simplify the evils and sins besetting us in search of solutions we can construct or at least to which we can contribute. Was the blind man in John 9 at fault, or could he blame his blindness on his parents. Perhaps God is at fault and just has a mean streak in Him.
Jesus changed the focus of the discussion, and the preacher as referee does the same. The truth and the comfort come not from the complex complexities of individual and group action of human creatures. The God whom we try to blame is the God who has triumphed over every kind of blindness and every other form of evil. This becomes clearest precisely in those moments when He seems absent. The referee intervenes with the reminder that our life is determined by Christ’s stepping between us and Father’s wrath as our older brother. He has taken the anger of our disappointed Father upon Himself. He has laid Himself down as the bridge which clears our path over the waters we have troubled between us and our Maker. This bridge building then covers not just guilt but also doubt, shame, and fear. It gives birth to joy and peace.
The referees whom God has appointed to stand between His people and those who wrestle with them must have a firm command of the manual for referees. Preachers diagnose the composition of stony hearts to apply the hammer of the Law with just the right flick of the verbal wrist. Stony hearts in their rebellion and despair cannot believe the promise. Hearts of indifference take the Gospel for granted. Hearts of distraction lure us into forgetfulness, of fear, hurt, loss, and vulnerability. The preacher intervenes in these struggles, the combat taking place daily on God’s and Satan’s battlefields, the lives and thinking of human beings. The referee in the pulpit makes the call. As he does so, the Devil loses. God claims His victory once again, and His faithful people win, too.