Seeking God’s Will Does Not Eliminate Our Choices, but rather can through Gratitude Turn them to Glory

Sake's Family in Spring Lake

Sake’s Family in Spring Lake

The Sons of Marcus Sekkel

Marcus Sekkel, a Jew, was born in 1719. He was born in Loppersum in the province of Groningen and married Leentje Heimans. They had four children, two boys and two girls. The girls kept the Marcus name and both married Jewish men named Mozes. They might have been related to their husbands as they also had names that were connected to the family for generations, Hartog and Ezechiel.

The Jews used the patronymic names system where the family names would just trade places. Marcus Sekkel’s son was Hartog Marcus. I don’t have records beyond Marcus so Hartog was probably a name already in the family. The mother was Heimans so Hartog Markus’ son was Heimen Hartogs. Heimen Hartogs would name one of his sons Hartog Heimans, but we’ll meet him in a couple of paragraphs.

The two sons took on dutch names at some point. Izaak Markus van Berg and Hartog Markus van der Klei. Hartog was born in 1756. Why did these Jewish men take on Dutch sounding last names? Was it the Napoleonic influence? We don’t know. Hartog was a butcher by trade. A kosher butcher probably Izaak, the oldest became a Rabbi but took on van Berg not van der Klei.

Hartog married Sara Jacobs van der Woude

Her parents were Machiels and Benjamins who were Jews too. They would have 8 children.

She was not from Groningen but Nijeholtwolde near Wolvega in Friesland.  Their children would be born there. Did they live with her family? Did he move there to be with her? Why did he move?

The children would grow, marry, take jobs. Their jobs were butchers, merchants and a village policeman. The family names would roll around, Michiel, Hartog, Sekkel, Rachel, Heiman.  All of the children would keep the van der Kley name as maiden or permanent.

Heiman Hartogs van der Klay married Sipkjen Jelles Kelder

The sixth child, Heiman Hartogs van der Klay would be a merchant and marry Sipkjen Jelles Kelder, daughter of a Kelder and a Zwier, not obvious Jewish names and no Jewish genealogies. She was also from Nijeholtwolde.  Did he marry outside the Jews? Was she Frisian? How did this impact the rest of the family? Some of his children married Jews. His youngest son Hartog Heimans did not.

Hartog Heimans it seemed also abandoned the family naming system. All of the children had Dutch names, not Jewish. Sake, his fourth son, would pass on the family names to his first two sons. They had 7 children, one of them stillborn whose name would be given to a subsequent daughter.

Sake came to America

Sake, the fourth son at the age of 19 would take the Rotterdam from the Dutch port of Rotterdam to Ellis Island in 1893. They would alter his name to Vander Klay and when the rest of the family would follow him to America they would follow with the new name.

They lived in Spring Lake Michigan west of Grand Rapids where he would marry Trijnje (Katie) Kuiper from Spring Lake. He made his living as a house painter and painted landscapes for pleasure, many of which have been passed down in the family. They had 6 children together. The first two boys were given family names: Hartog Vander Klay and Heiman Vander Klay but their birth records were burned in a courthouse fire. When they enrolled in elementary school they had no birth certificate to produce, because they were destroyed in fire. The school let them vouch for each other. They would be Harvey and Hiram. The old Jewish names of Hartog and Heimen that had traveled with the family since at least the 18th century would be lost.

Mother Katie would die giving birth to little Katie. A family members who assisted with the birth only tied the cord of the baby, neglecting to tie the cord of the mother resulting in her death.

Hiram would attend Calvin prep school, what was the predecessor to Calvin College and then Calvin Seminary. He would marry Grace from Grand Rapids Michigan. Sake would die in their wedding night. Sake’s father Hartog would outlive him by 5 years.

The Jewish history of the family suppressed. Why? Probably because it was easier to be Dutch than to be Jewish. The fact that Hiram’s name at birth was Heiman, and the importance of that name reaching back generations was only recently recovered. There were rumors of our Jewish ancestry because Hiram once commented “you know if we hadn’t left the Netherlands we would have probably been killed in the Holocaust”. It’s only in the last few years that we discovered the names of our distant relatives who died in Auschwitz and Sobibor. You can see the old Jewish family names in the list: Ezechiel, Heiman, Michiel, Hartog, etc.

Choices bring Life or Death

Why go through all this family history (besides just taking a moment to write some of it down)?

How did the choice of Heiman Hartogs to leave Groningen for Friesland change the future of his family. Was that why they started marrying Gentiles? What did uncle Izaac the Rabbi have to say about this?

How did the choice of his son Hartog Heimans to send his 19 year old son Sake to America change their lives? They would leave the rest of their extended family in Friesland and Groningen to come to America. Why? Family conflict? Economics? That choice would mean life for his ancestors while Hitler would bring death to the ancestors of his siblings and cousins. One little choice and the world is different.

Who was Heiman Hartog’s sister Engeltje. She never married but had two sons when she was 37 and 44 years old! She was a “trades woman, working woman”. Why on earth have children so late with no husband? What was her story? Why make those choices? Her sons had no patronymic name, just the dutch surname. They fall out of the Jewish geneology.

Having to Choose

People agonize over choices and for good reason. We want to know the outcomes so we try hard to imagine the consequences of each choice. We get advice, do research, imagine, pray.

For Christians this often gets translated into “seeking the will of God”. There are two assumptions beneath this desire. One is “I love God so I want to please him”. The other is “If I manage to figure out “the will of God” my choices will produce the outcomes I desire.

Following the Cloud

One of the most intriguing aspects of Israel’s desert wanderings is the cloud we find in Numbers. Israel didn’t need to chart her own course because the LORD was charting it for her.

Numbers 9:15–23 (NET)

15 On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle—the tent of the testimony—and from evening until morning there was a fiery appearance over the tabernacle. 16 This is the way it used to be continually: The cloud would cover it by day, and there was a fiery appearance by night. 17 Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the Israelites would begin their journey; and in whatever place the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. 18 At the commandment of the Lord the Israelites would begin their journey, and at the commandment of the Lord they would make camp; as long as the cloud remained settled over the tabernacle they would camp. 19 When the cloud remained over the tabernacle many days, then the Israelites obeyed the instructions of the Lord and did not journey. 20 When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a number of days, they remained camped according to the Lord’s commandment, and according to the Lord’s commandment they would journey. 21 And when the cloud remained only from evening until morning, when the cloud was taken up the following morning, then they traveled on. Whether by day or by night, when the cloud was taken up they traveled. 22 Whether it was for two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud prolonged its stay over the tabernacle, the Israelites remained camped without traveling; but when it was taken up, they traveled on. 23 At the commandment of the Lord they camped, and at the commandment of the Lord they traveled on; they kept the instructions of the Lord according to the commandment of the Lord, by the authority of Moses.

I often get the impression that Christians imagine this would be a dream come true. What if God would communicate his will to them directly. No hesitation or wondering. All they would need to do was follow the cloud and they would be sure they would know the will of God. Would that really give you comfort?

Did God Give Israel Just What They’d Always Wanted? 

Before you get too excited about this, you should remember many of the other stories. Israel’s time in the desert would hardly be a pleasure cruise. It would in fact look more like life in a conflicted, violent, dysfunctional family.

Later of course we’ll see how Israel’s choices again and again cause her to trip up, but in all honesty we should also note that God will lead them through places that will not look like a vacation tour of a scenic desert. While God will feed them manna, they will want meat. They will be afraid of enemies that God will deliver them from, but they’d certainly rather have a course where they don’t have to fear enemies at all.

The Blue Sky God

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking about the “Blue Sky God” (here and here). It is belief in The Blue Sky God that fuels much of the doubt about God we find so fashionable today. We imagine a simple formula, a formula that some churches, preachers, and a good many other “spiritual” people promote regularly.

  • If God is good then he only wants good things for us.
  • If God wants good things for us, maybe bad things come, or even just undesirable things come, when we “fall out of” God’s will (or some similar formula).
  • So, just work really hard at finding out God’s “good and perfect will”, and stay right “in the center of God’s will”, and you’ll get the life you’ve always wanted.

The only problem with this, as many people find out of course, is that the formula doesn’t work. This formula is, in fact, behind a lot of recent, fashionable doubt about God. This formula is behind a lot of people leaving God and looking for a new system that will produce for them the life that they want.

It doesn’t take too much discernment looking into this to figure something out. What lies behind this motivation is the tyranny of their own expectations, desires, and preferred future. The thing that they call “God” is really no God at all, just a spiritual or divine means by which they hope to get what they think they want.

Again, it doesn’t take too much looking around to notice

  • The religious market place is driven by this
  • None of it seems really to work or there would only be one solution (just like self-help books)
  • The “god” in this system is the “self” that demands “my will be done”
  • This human god-self is often not happen even when it gets what it said it wanted.

The False Game of Seeking God’s Will

What this becomes then is a sort of a false game we play. We imagine we’re “seeking God’s will” but really we’re trying to find a way to either get God to agree with what we want, or looking for a formula to secure an outcome that we desire.

One of my favorite illustrations of this comes from Andy Crouch, the editor of Christianity today. He calls it “A testimony in reverse“. He pleaded for God to lead him, and God did, but gave him an answer he didn’t want, so he ignored it. He had to learn something the hard way.

Another favorite illustration somes from Brennan Manning’s book Ruthless trust.

When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.

“What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.”

She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

From Brennan Manning’s “Ruthless Trust”, p. 5

Mother Teresa here simply exposes the game. We play this game out of hopes to secure a divine outcome to what we want.

God’s Will and Ours

Part of the premise of this silly game is that God is teasing us by playing “hide and go seek”. We imagine that God has this lovely plan for our life, but he’s being coy with us. He wants to manipulate us and tease us into being needy and beggy like some insecure romantic partner whose self worth is determined by how much their partner pays attention or petitions them.

Why would God give you the ability to choose and to think if he didn’t expect you to use it?

Tim Keller, pastor of a large church in New York with many young, single people often has them come to him wanting him to help them find “God’s will”. The first thing he tells them is “make your decision.”

This seems counter intuitive. Why? Because they imagine seeking God’s will is a way to avoid having to make a decision. We imagine that what God really wants is to turn us into little slaves who can’t make up our minds until he tells us what to do. If that were the case he would have made us very different and taken far fewer risks with a world of little choosers down here who use their choices often in bad ways.

The point of seeking God’s will is not to abdicate choice ourselves.

Why Do People Seek God’s Will In the Bible Then? 

So why the cloud story at all? Or the Urim and Thummim? What was the point?

Dealing with God’s will is really dealing with our own. Are we seeking God for outcomes or do we wish to know the heart of God because we desire his pleasure?

The difference is the difference between Satan and God. CS Lewis in the Screwtape letters makes the point in this way.

To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself –creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him, but still distinct.

Screwtape letters, pg. 46


Trying to follow God to manipulate God, control outcomes, using spiritual means to try to construct the life you think you want is an offensive folly. If someone tries to use you this way you’re offended. Why shouldn’t God be?

Where then does that leave us? Will we suffer? Yes. To live is to suffer. It is natural to want to avoid this and trying to avoid suffering is not a sin. Trying to avoid suffering is often a path to sin. We have to make our peace with the pain we will face in this world.


This is where good news comes. Through this cloud God expressed his presence with his people. He went before them, leading them, guiding them. Jesus was in a sense a cloud like this to his people but not to exclude himself from suffering, but to suffer ahead of them, and on behalf of them. God does not exclude himself from our sufferings, he can make our suffering like his.

Albert Camus makes exactly this observation.

“Christ, the God-man, suffers too. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important because the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege and lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death.”

Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.


This is where seeking God’s will is located. We seek him because we are grateful. We seek him because we love him and wish to please him. It is in this space that we may safely seek his will and look to his heart. It is in this way that his will does not destroy our will but rather make it complete.


When we choose to follow him, even choosing to suffer we rely on trust and trust is strengthened. Jesus at Gethsemane wanted God’s will but also feared the suffering he would face. The path to suffering in fact resulted in glory.

Trusting in him, as he leads us through the desert. Through places without water. Through places with enemies. Into suffering, pain and loss, must also be seen in the context of a far larger story we are invited into.

Tim Keller in tracking the relationship between “the problem of evil” and seeing it as a reason to doubt the existence or presence of God in this world notes that this is relatively recent phenomenon.

Throughout history, people struggled with suffering and asked God ‘why?’ all the way back to Job.  But virtually no one on record thought suffering and evil made God’s existence impossible until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Why the change? By the mid-18th century the earliest forms of secularism had begun to develop.  In the past it was assumed that if God was infinite and ineffable then his ways would have to be beyond our comprehension.  So evil that was inexplicable to us—made perfect sense.  If there was a God who created all things—of course he would be infinitely wiser than we are and we could never have the insight to call him on the carpet for how things are going in the world.  But the modern belief was that all truth could be discovered by human reason.  As we got larger in our own eyes and more sure that we understood how the universe worked, and how history should go, the problem of evil became so intolerable.

But this was all to a great degree because of our own hubris.  If we can recapture that bigger view of God and the more realistic view of our own limitations, it would be easier to trust God’s wisdom.

Read more:

Gratitude and Glory turn the vision inside out. CS Lewis pursues this the conclusion of his great sermon The Weight of Glory.

A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

Lewis, C. S. (2009-06-03). Weight of Glory (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 45). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This weight of glory rather than making our choices feel more consequential should make the lighter because it is not our choice or God’s but our choices and the LORD’s and his choices are pursuing a glorious and good end even when all the signs we see seem to point in the wrong direction.

It is in this way that choice becomes both holy and freer embraced in humble gratitude. We choose, but God determines the future.

Pray and Choose

So pray and choose. Seek God’s heart to please him, but be confident that even in this painful world he can take even your poor choices and turn them to glory.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Seeking God’s Will Does Not Eliminate Our Choices, but rather can through Gratitude Turn them to Glory

  1. Ida greidanus says:

    Fascinating story, Paul. Why people came to this country is not always what it might appear to be. One of my uncles came here around WW I. In recent years I’ve found out that he came as a belligerent teenager..hated his family, their religion, and basically ran away, never looking back, never wanting to have much to do with his family. He did marry and have his own family. His children and grandchildren, etc. are “americans” and really know very little about their background.

  2. Wouter Bosma says:

    Truly a fascinating story indeed! I’m currently working on my familytree and found out that Markus Sekkel is my direct ancestor (zeven generations) and died in a small town (Obergum, Winsum) very near my current home town (Warffum). There is a little synagogue, they might have a few answers there:

    Best Regards,

    Wouter Bosma

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