In the movie The Princess Bride, the evil genius Vizzini repeatedly (and inappropriately) exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Like that criminal genius, Christians use religious jargon repeatedly and inappropriately. I often want to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” Christians use it to describe an intentional long night of pleading with God for his help. The phrase refers to God wrestling with Jacob (Gen. 32:22-31), but we use it the wrong way; let’s “Stop saying that!”
I used to work in a ministry with a man who loved the phrase. If the finances were low, he’d demand an evening bout of wrestling with God. When members failed to follow his messages, he’d insist on an upper room experience of battling with God.
My friend used the phrase as though we needed to get God’s attention, as though we needed to place a shot across God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast.
It reminded me of the priests of Baal as they cut themselves on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). I wish I’d said to my friend, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Our phrase may seem noble or heroic to us, but an African American preacher understood God better when he preached, “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”
Many years ago, I worked for a struggling company. Our architecture was outdated and sales revenue plummeted. Investments in new architecture meant expenses skyrocketed. We were hemorrhaging money with no doctor in sight.
And then our president had a heart attack.
Our parent company asked me if I would consider becoming president. I was flattered by their great offer (and impressed with their great wisdom), but when I prayed I sensed God say, “No.” His word felt clear and strong, and I declined.
Instead, I suggested a new vice president that I had recently hired and who had become a friend. Our parent company agreed, and my friend became our new president.
The next day, my president-friend began to attack me. In the following weeks, he reduced my pay, took away my office, demoted me, and publicly belittled me. *
My friend’s blitzkrieg movements stunned me. I was paralyzed and bewildered. Each new day brought a new disappointment. Every way I turned saw ambush and embarrassment. All of this came from a friend I had helped promote.
And God seemed absent, at least silent. I felt abandoned by God to a betraying friend who appeared intent on my professional destruction. I had voluntarily obeyed God by declining a promotion. As a result, I was demoted, humiliated, discouraged, and scared.
What kind of God would do this to someone who tried to obey him?
I know a company founded by a man with a passion for a hobby. He coupled it with a love for writing and published a magazine centered on his hobby. The fledgling company flourished. It soon had a suite of great products but lacked market penetration.
When the founding president retired, he replaced himself with a marketing expert.
The new marketing-president ran the company for five years. During his tenure, sales tripled. The rapid growth created organizational challenges. When it came time for his retirement, he promoted his organizationally-minded CFO to replace himself.
The new structural-president brought in much needed organization. Their products were great and their marketing terrific; now internal processes hummed. The company didn’t grow, but expenses were cut, operations streamlined, and profit margins soared.
The structural-president was pleased with his improvements. When it came time to retire, he replaced himself with another organizationally-minded CFO.
Within a few years, revenues were down 30%, product quality suffered, market penetration shrank, and corporate morale tanked. So he cut more jobs.
When the second structural-president retired, he hired a CFO … just like himself.
Three decades ago, I reached the high water mark of my personal physical fitness. I ran thirty miles a week, performed three hundred pushups a day, and regularly boxed. (Ever since I’ve been on a downward slide, reaching new low water marks almost daily.)
Used with permission: www.judophotos.com
While in that peak physical condition (never mind its short duration), I met a man with a black belt in Judo. He was twice my age, plump, and he wheezed when he walked. I was lifting bars with heavy weights; I think he was visiting bars with many beers.
He was the first black belt of any kind I had ever met. I was curious, and a bit skeptical. Could this chubby, middle-aged man really beat me in a friendly fight?
Alas. The glory of my youthful strength was unmatched by any glory of real-world wisdom. That fool inside me challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.
Never since childhood had I spent so much time on the ground. The lawn and I quickly became intimate friends. I huffed, puffed, wheezed, and groaned (and maybe cursed), as he effortlessly tossed me to the grass over and over again.
It didn’t matter what punch I threw. Every jab, hook, and uppercut resulted in me lying on my back, staring at the sky, gasping for air, and wondering what had happened.
Thin-skinned people irritate me. (To be fair, I bet I bug them even more.) You don’t “like” their every Facebook post, their feelings get hurt. In a casual discussion, you cautiously question an idea of theirs, and they are deeply wounded.
Sometimes I just want to say, “Forget it.” However, my sympathy grew last fall during one unpleasant week, when:
- A long-term reader criticized my article as poorly written, irrelevant, and stupid.
- A close friend blatantly refused to help when I asked for the tiniest of favors.
- I completed a two year service commitment, and no one bothered to thank me.
- And those were the high points.
I thought I had the tough skin of a rhino. Turns out I have the thin skin of a peach. And my emotional life was in the pits. (Sorry. I didn’t even try to resist.)
Do you ever feel unwanted, see your ideas rejected, or get taken for granted? It ain’t fun. During that un-fun week, I felt used, abused, and confused. My motives were questioned, my ideas rejected, and my character assassinated. At least shot at.
I thought nasty thoughts about those villains; I considered them to be insensitive dolts. I was hurt. And a tiny bit pissed. I wondered if their parents had ever been married. As I pondered their questionable lineage, it struck me,
It wasn’t my feelings that were hurt—it was my ego.
Three years ago (this month) I repented to God for something dinky. I hadn’t stolen candy from a baby, oppressed a widow, or coveted a neighbor’s cow. I had simply failed to control my eating.
During the previous six months I had lost ten pounds. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I found them again in cookies, pies, and chocolates (and only once in the hand of an infant).
So I prayed, “God, I’m sorry about my poor self-control; I’ll stop eating between meals, and I’ll stop buying those tempting snacks.” I sensed God sigh, “Stop!”
I thought, Okay, I get it. That’s not the only area I lack self-control, so I prayed, “God, so-and-so is irritating the heck out of me, and my thoughts are like untamed beasts. I will begin being patient and start to domesticate my mind.” And God said, “Stop!”
A flood of other uncontrolled areas came to mind, and I willed myself to do better. I felt God shout, “STOP!” This time I stopped, and this time I shut up.
Every December I invest fifteen hours or so to plan my life for the next twelve months. I review my current activities, I add some items, remove others, and I prioritize.
Then I literally budget how many hours each week I’ll invest in each area. Last year I decided to write a book, I budgeted hours for it, and it was published last December.
For the last ten years, I’ve budgeted about five hours a week in a small non-profit group. While planning this year, I began to question that investment. They are a great group, but I’m not sure I’m making a difference. I wondered if my weekly five hours is bearing fruit.
Actually, I did more than wonder. I obsessed. When my wife asked what to do for our weekly date, I talked about my question. While washing dishes, I mused on my concern. I emailed friends, talked with strangers, and tossed and turned all night. Obsessing.
A weekly five hour duty was grabbing fifty-percent of my mind. Probably more. I beseeched God how to budget that time. I just wanted an answer to my question.
Instead of telling me how to budget my time, God told me to learn to budget my brain.