The Jacob Wetterling Story: How to Pray

Pray for the Wetterling family

I was nine years old when news of Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping broke.  It was the lead of every news story for a long time, and it was used as a cautionary tale for us kids not to talk to strangers or accept rides from anyone.  Jacob’s example even served as training for us in elementary school as to what we should do if we were ever approached by someone we didn’t know.  We would go through drills as to how we should respond or what we should say if we were ever approached.  Since Jacob was only two years older than me, the story of his kidnapping had a profound effect on my young mind.  Each year since, his story has resurfaced in the news as his family and the media passed year after year of his disappearance. 

All of that changed this past week, however, as Danny Heinrich, the man suspected of his kidnapping, led authorities to his remains.  The remains were confirmed as being Jacob’s, and Heinrich copped to the horrible crimes.  Tuesday, as part of a plea deal, Heinrich gave a detailed account of the kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling.  Not only was it bad enough for the Wetterling family to have to finally come to grips with the murder of their son, but they had to listen to Heinrich describe – in explicit detail – just how he kidnapped and abused young Jacob before ultimately murdering him in a horrible, merciless way.  Heinrich’s description of the events is despicably wicked and utterly unnerving.  If you haven’t read his statement, don’t – it is a description of evil incarnate, and is hard to shake.  My heart goes out to the Wetterling family today, and I pray that God gives them some sense of peace, even as they have looked pure evil in the face and felt its devastating effects.

Pray that Jesus would come quickly

Soon after his statement was released, many in my social media feeds began to express their anger toward Heinrich: “[He]…needs to be tortured every second till he dies,” said one.  “Special delivery for this sicko [picture of a firing gun]” posted another.  “I’m afraid that the words ‘May God have mercy on your soul’ may be too good for this…evil.”  It’s easy to come to a place of deep hatred in the face of such bottomless evil, and I found myself identifying with those calling for vengeance for Jacob.  I found myself wondering what I would do if I were in the Wetterlings’ shoes – if I had to listen to a detailed account of how a man kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered my 9-year old son.  There is a part of me that feels that no amount of punishment toward that person would be enough to satisfy me, as a father, if such a crime were perpetrated against one of my children.

But rather than focus on hate, the Bible would have me put my trust in the Lord and his promise that justice will be served:

“…indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…” (1 Thessalonians 1.6-9). 

An Avenger is coming to take revenge for Jacob Wetterling, and all those who are unjustly treated and killed.  

We currently live in a world where horrible people do horrible things to one another, but there is an Avenger coming one day to seek and destroy his enemies.  Whatever awful things have been done, he will make right as he judges sinners and deals with them accordingly.  In fact, “those who do not know God and…who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus” will beg to have the mountains fall on them rather than face him:

“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6.15-17) 

God is coming to deal with liars, kidnappers, child molesters, murderers, thieves, and anyone who does not know him and his Son.  God has seen the wicked things that were done to Jacob Wetterling – he has tolerated them and allowed them to happen – but he has not forgotten them.  He has recorded those events in his book, and he will come back to judge the wicked.  And when he comes he will establish a kingdom of peace where sin no longer reigns, and its effects are no longer felt.  Where there will be no crying, no weeping, no pain, no kidnappings, no murders, no sexual abuse.  It is in this sense that the events surrounding the Jacob Wetterling case should cause us to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Pray for Danny Heinrich’s salvation

As it stands, Danny Heinrich will face justice in the here and now, albeit minimally.  As part of his plea deal, he will be in prison for the next 20 years and, as I understand it, parole is not an option for sex offenders.  We look at this sentence and say that it’s not enough – the punishment does not fit the crime.  But one day it will.  Left in his sin, Danny Heinrich will one day face the full wrath of God for his sins, and all creation will rejoice that justice has been satisfied. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Justice has also been satisfied on the cross.  Rather than punish sinners in hell, God would rather settle their accounts through the cross.  On the cross, God poured out his wrath against sin onto his Son, so that all those who would repent and trust in him might have their sin-debt canceled and instead receive eternal life – even for Danny Heinrich.  This is the scandal of grace: that the worst of sinners might escape the wrath they deserve and instead receive the life they don’t. 

This doesn’t jibe with our human sensibilities: how can someone so evil receive something so wonderful?  Why should he escape judgment?  But before I can answer those questions for Danny Heinrich, I first have to answer them for myself.  Although God’s common grace has kept me from reaching the level of evil that Heinrich did in 1989 (and continues to reach at the present day), I have likewise committed my own evil acts, and I likewise deserve the wrath and justice of God: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”  (Revelation 21.8) 

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes….for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3.10-18, 23)

Danny Heinrich and I, and you, are in the same boat: regardless of our specific sins, we have all offended a holy God, and he is coming back to judge the quick and the dead.  But he would rather take care of my sin, and Heinrich’s sin, and your sin on the cross.  If we will repent and turn to him in faith he has promised that we will be spared from his judgment and vengeance.  God’s justice will be satisfied for you, for me, and Danny Heinrich either in hell or on the cross.  Knowing what I know about God’s judgment, I don’t want Danny Heinrich to face it, even in light of what he has done.  It is in this sense that we can and should pray for Danny Heinrich: that he would come to know the depth of his sin and the judgment that it incurs, and that he would come to know the great Savior who calls him to repent and trust.  There is enough grace, even for Danny Heinrich and even for me, and even for you.