“A Mighty Fortress is our God; a bulwark, never failing..” These words are known and sung (in various translations and languages) around the world. But Martin Luther wrote this song over four hundred years ago. What relevance can these words have in an age of nuclear bombs and globalized economies and climate change? What do they mean to us today?
I don’t live in a nation of many castles. There are two stone “mansions” in the small town where I live. They seem tiny compared to mansions in other parts of the U.S. and the world. And we have a small armory; home to a National Guard outpost. But a mansion (or even an armory) is not the same as a castle or a fortress. Mansions are built to be impressive; armories are built to be immediately prepared for disasters or attacks; castles are built to be impregnable and permanent. Our God is not just a fortress; one outpost among many mighty gods– He is The Mighty One–uniquely sovereign, eternally victorious, and perfectly protecting all within His power.
And this protection doesn’t depend on my might or fighting ability, or my weapons or strategies. It depends on my being inside the fortress, safe and sound. The war rages all around, but it cannot defeat me, so long as I am in the fortress.
There are mighty castles, forts, towers, citadels, and walls around the world– all built by people and victims of the ravages of war, time, weather, fire, bad management, etc. Over the years, types of fortresses have given way to new weapons designed to bring them down. Wooden forts are susceptible to fire; stone castles can be brought down by catapults, battering rams, and bombs. Underground bunkers can even be ruined by earthquakes or nuclear assault. And yet, we are still amazed at the power and legacy they represent. Many have stood for hundreds or even thousands of years. But God is eternal; His might and protection will never fail. No weapon forged or imagined can triumph over His power and sovereignty.
Prayer brings us into the safe and powerful presence of God Almighty. There is nothing of our worries, our guilt, our doubts, or the accusations of the enemy that can shake the foundations of God’s fortress. And the cornerstone is none other than Jesus Christ– unshakable, victorious, and eternally one with the Father and the Spirit.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever find ourselves in battle, trusting in God’s armor against the arrows of the enemy. But the war is already won– His Kingdom is forever! And ever!
I generally write on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week. I missed Friday of last week and Monday of this week. I got busy with holidays and housework and mundane things. I was not faithful in my writing.
God is never unfaithful. There is never a day when the sun doesn’t rise, when the ocean waves don’t roll, when gravity suddenly stops, or when God stops answering prayer.
There may be days when we don’t “see” God, or feel His presence; days when we don’t understand the way He works or why He chooses to answer, “No,” to our heart’s desire. But there is never a time when He simply stops caring, or takes His hand away from creation or removes Himself from all contact, leaving us alone and without hope.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6 a) and the writer of Hebrews said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, yes, and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) We never have to worry or wonder about God’s Spirit leaving us, or disappearing; we don’t have to consider that God will suddenly change His character or that His love will grow cold.
People will ultimately disappoint us–in small or big ways, or at surprising moments–not always because they are vicious or unfeeling. Most of the time, they will let us down because not one of us is perfect. We get tired, cranky, sick, or forgetful. We get delayed, distracted, or depressed. But God is Love, and “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8a). God is sovereign and eternally unchanging.
So even when I fall short, I can call out to God for forgiveness, and strength to begin again. I can come to Him in confidence, assurance, and hope, knowing that His Grace is boundless, His love is limitless, and His arms are always open wide to receive me. All I have to do is run to Him and accept Him for who He is– My Faithful Redeemer, My Lord, and My Heavenly Father.
And in this pursuit of Prayer, and daily walk with Him, my goal is to become more like Him– including being more faithful.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, His Word my hope secures; He will my Shield and Portion be, As long as life endures. Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who called me here below, Will be forever mine. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we’d first begun.
timelesstruths.org Amazing Grace, lyrics by John Newton
As I write this, a massive hurricane looms in the Atlantic Ocean, devastating the Bahamas, and threatening several major cities along the southeastern coast of the United States. There is much fear, danger, and distress for people living in these areas, for their families, and for compassionate people watching helplessly from a distance. What can anyone DO in the face of such raw power and destruction? What hope or comfort can we offer?
There are many questions we cannot answer in times like this– we can offer no definitive explanation why hurricanes form, how they behave, why they change courses, grow, shrink, or when or where they will make landfall. There are many actions we cannot take– we can’t stop a hurricane, or shift its course, weaken it or make it go away (though scientists and others have been trying for decades). We cannot provide immediate “fixes” for the damage that hurricanes (or other weather emergencies) leave behind.. roads and houses take time to rebuild; fields and forests must be replanted; families must heal and grieve.
What we can offer seems, on the surface, to be insufficient and condescending– we offer prayers, reassurance that God sees and knows and cares, we say, “trust in God and His promises.” And many sneer at such “gifts. God doesn’t promise to steer the hurricanes away from our loved ones, or our own villages or cities or islands. God doesn’t promise that we won’t experience disaster, fear, pain, or grief. God doesn’t promise us days of sunshine with never a cloud, or storm or loss.
What God DOES promise is Grace– not comfort, not ease, not happiness– something mysterious, undeserved, and unexpected. God’s grace is sufficient– it is enough– through ANY and EVERY circumstance when we ask for it. ENOUGH–never lacking, never too much for us to use, but just right for His good purpose and our best interest in learning to know Him.
Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life; it allows us to experience victory in, through, and in spite of the storms. Grace makes us strong enough, brave enough, wise enough, healthy enough, kind enough, rich enough, and “good enough” to get to the next step in our journey. It may fall short of what we expect, or envy, or dream of for ourselves, but it is never too little to be useful. God’s economy is not about bigger and better, grander or “more.” Because “More” is never “enough”– there is never enough money to buy a longer life; there is never enough strength to defeat heartache and loneliness; never enough goodness to eradicate the injustices of a hundred wicked generations. Bad things will happen. Loved ones will be wounded or killed. Homes and roads and villages will be destroyed. But God is faithful to comfort us, strengthen us, sustain us, and give us a new vision, a new hope, and a new life. Only God is big enough, rich enough, strong enough, and wise enough to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=NKJV. The amazing part is that He sends us the Grace we need to be part of the unfolding story–just what we need, just when we need it most– not because of anything we have done, but because of His great compassion.
Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life– this may seem unfair and cruel. God, even a loving God– allows us to weather storms, even to be broken and crushed by them. But God also brings blessing, renewal, healing, comfort, hope, and a renewed sense of purpose, compassion, and vision. These things often come only after the storm. Storms can bring us to a point of fear and despair, or to faith and dependence. Grace is a gift–God won’t force us to acknowledge or accept His Grace. We can choose to tremble at the storm’s approach, or rage, or try to run away. But God’s offer means we never have to face the storm alone.
Grace won’t take away the storms in our lives– and it won’t make us foolishly fearless in the face of hurricanes. But it can relieve our fears and give us the courage and wisdom to face even the fiercest trials in life; even the fiercest storms that rage. And isn’t that an Amazing hope?! Our prayers may seem small; our hope may seem insignificant– because we are not “enough” . But we serve a God and pray to a God who holds the future in His hand. Our prayers are held in the same hands– our faith is in the one who is more than “enough” to face the storm and relieve our fears.
None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).
The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.
Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).
Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.
Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.
We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.
When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.
Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.
But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.
But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.
In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”
Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.
There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!
It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.
No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.
I wanted to take a break from writing about Biblical characters and their prayers to revisit an important aspect of our prayer journey. Prayer can be formal, informal, structured, rote, spiritualized, meditative…it can be done silently, in tongues, standing, kneeling, or prostrated. It can be public or private. But it should continue throughout our days and years– it should be a natural and vital part of every day, permeating every event and activity.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we stop everything we’re doing and spend our lives in constant bowed-head, closed-eye prayer or reciting psalms and hymns instead of working, driving, eating, sleeping, and interacting with other people. But it does mean having a “prayer attitude”– an awareness that God is everywhere with us and closer than our next breath, ready to communicate with us– a readiness to share our every thought, and listen for God’s gentle whispered response.
I was reminded of this in a strange way just today, when my cell phone started ringing while I was working at church. Cell phones are everywhere these days, and that can be a great thing, or a curse. For many of us, the cell phone is within arm’s length 24 hours a day. Anyone with our number can contact us at any time. Likewise, we can whip out the phone to call, text, take photos, or check email any time during the day or night.
Today, when my cell phone rang, I ignored the call. I was busy with something I considered far more important. In fact, I was disappointed in myself for leaving the ringer “on,” instead of putting the phone on “vibrate” or “mute” mode. But I had to make a choice– leave what I was doing to answer the phone, ignore the call altogether, let the caller leave a message for me to deal with later, or answer the phone and try to do two tasks at once. I don’t like being interrupted by my cell phone, but I carry it with me, because I don’t want to be without the ability to call for help or to get an important message.
We don’t think of carrying our cell phones as an impossible burden. Each day we make choices to use this tool (for better or worse) to keep in touch with family, friends, clients, business contacts, and much more. Sometimes, we resent the way it intrudes on our life and other times, we let it get in the way of our life! In fact, we could (and some of us remember when we had to) get along without cell phones (and internet, and other technologies), but most of us choose to carry our phones wherever we plan to go. Why then, do we not choose to “carry” an attitude of prayer the same way?
God wants to be closer than our cell phone– there with us as we go through our days– ready for us to call on him, or “vibrating” to get our attention when He has a word for us. We don’t always have to be staring at our phone to have it handy. Just having it with us can make us feel more secure and confident as we face an uncertain situation. Similarly, having an attitude of “prayerfulness” will make us more aware of His presence as we face uncertain circumstances.
But we have to make sure that we don’t “mute” the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our lives, or let our prayer life get “drained” by busyness or lack of connection to power sources, like the Bible and Christian fellowship. Nor should we take the power of prayer for granted, grabbing it and stuffing it in our pocket or purse out of habit, without understanding that it is an amazing treasure and a lifeline.
Prayer is so much better than any cell phone, of course. God is never too “busy” to answer our call. There is no need for “cell towers” to get good reception. There are no monthly fees, connection fees, telemarketing schemes, “robo” calls or “phishing” scams. Prayer can’t get a cracked case or get “out of range”, or become obsolete after several years! And God wants us to carry on with our other tasks as we carry Him with us! We can lift up another person even as we are speaking with them or getting a text message from them. We can raise a prayer of thanksgiving even as we get the test results we were hoping for (or ask for strength when the results are what we feared). We can ask for forgiveness even as we become aware of our sin. We can ask for extra grace even as we are dealing with that difficult customer, or patient, or student.. God is always on the other end, waiting to listen and be part of the ongoing conversation of our lives!
In the last post, we looked at how Jacob worked for 20 years for his corrupt father-in-law. Jacob has changed from the scheming young man who cheated his brother, lied to his father, and was sent away for his own safety. But that’s not the end of the story…
After 20 years of keeping Laban’s flocks, establishing his family, playing referee to his squabbling wives, and dealing with Laban’s greedy and capricious nature, Jacob is ready to leave. But we have a couple of curious incidents yet to explore in this relationship. In Genesis, chapter 30 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+30%3A25-43&version=NIV we are given a detailed plan by Jacob to develop and increase his flocks. Jacob outlines part of his plan to Laban, and Laban agrees. Jacob’s flocks will be speckled and spotted, while Laban’s will be “pure.” On the surface, it looks like Laban is getting the better end of the bargain, and, as Jacob points out, there will be no way he can “cheat” by claiming Laban’s animals as his. But Jacob’s plan has a couple of twists and turns.
As Jacob follows his plan, he ends up with the strongest and best of the flocks, while Laban’s flocks are weaker. Once again, Jacob uses a clever scheme to advance at the expense of someone close to him. At the beginning of chapter 31, we see the result– Laban and his sons are angry and resentful– they feel they have been cheated, and plan to retaliate. Jacob leaves in the middle of the night with his wives, children, and livestock, planning to return to his father in Canaan. Jacob explains to his wives that his “plan” was inspired by a dream in which God told him what to do to increase his flocks and then told him to return home. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A4-13&version=NIV
But is Jacob telling the truth? Has he really changed, or is this just another case of Jacob using his wits to get what he wants?
The Bible doesn’t give us direct confirmation, but indirectly, the story seems to back up Jacob’s statements. Though the Bible says that Jacob “deceived” his father-in-law by sneaking away in the night, and not telling him that he was going, it never says that he deceived Laban by separating the flock as he did, or by preparing to return to Canaan. Furthermore, when Laban pursues Jacob, God warns him in a dream to say nothing to Jacob (advice he quotes, but doesn’t actually take)! Laban also confessed (back in chapter 30) that, via divination, he has learned that he was blessed on account of Jacob.
Why am I taking time to dissect this relationship between Jacob and Laban a second time? What else can we learn from this story?
I think there is a great lesson about deception, and how it often backfires. But just as powerful, I think there is a lesson about how God looks beyond our actions to see our heart.
Laban was not only Jacob’s father-in-law– he was also Jacob’s uncle. They shared similar character traits– both were ambitious, clever, and driven to take advantage of any “edge” that might be to their advantage. God did not “choose” Jacob because of any of this– but neither did he condemn him for any of it. Instead, God appeared to Jacob, and Jacob responded in awe, worship, and obedience. God didn’t change Jacob’s nature; his drive to succeed, his innovation, his ambition. But he did change Jacob’s heart–Jacob didn’t leave his uncle in ruins, in spite of the treatment he and his family (Laban’s own daughters and grandchildren!) had received. Jacob used his cleverness to build a strong flock, but he also used it to prove to his uncle that he was not the liar or thief he had been labeled back in Canaan. Jacob listened to God in formulating his plans– both his clever plan to build the flock, and the plan to return home.
Laban, on the other hand, had seen the hand of God at work blessing him on account of Jacob. Years before, he had seen the hand of God leading his sister, Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. He had seen how God had blessed his daughters. He even saw that his ill-treatment of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel led to a loss of God’s blessing. But at no time is there any evidence that Laban ever acknowledged God, worshiped Him, thanked Him, or obeyed Him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A14-55&version=NIV
In their final encounter, Laban accuses Jacob of theft and duplicity– Jacob confesses that he fears Laban, but then, he gives him a blistering rebuke. Laban’s response is a feeble argument that all Jacob has belongs (or should belong) to him– Laban! “All you see is MINE” (emphasis added). He also claims (even after God tells him to say nothing to Jacob) that he has the power to hurt Jacob. Laban is a controlling user– a bully and a manipulator. Laban is a powerful man who is ruthless in using that power to get what he wants. But all that power is not enough to challenge God– the same God who blessed Laban because of Jacob; the same God who warned him not to act against Jacob. The real power does not belong to Laban or to Jacob. Jacob has been learning this lesson–Laban never will. The most he learns is that Jacob will no longer be under his control and submit to his corrupt authority.
Perhaps you have been in a relationship with someone who is controlling and manipulative. Perhaps they have convinced you that they have all the power to keep you enslaved to their manipulation. There are two essential truths you need to remember:
God sees you. He sees the injustices done to you– and your response to them. He sees your heart– even when it is breaking under the weight of oppression. He asks that you trust HIS power and HIS timing as you are going through this deep valley. Abusers thrive on clever lies– that you can’t make it without them; that no one else will help you, love you, believe you…; that their actions are in your best interest…even going so far as saying that they are making sacrifices for you and that you “owe” them. Don’t let their lies overwhelm God’s truth–
God desires you to submit to HIM. Even when the road is tough and we don’t understand circumstances, God is making a way for you, just as He did for Jacob. God allowed Jacob to grow his flocks in spite of Laban’s crooked ways– He allowed Jacob to be both the agent of Laban’s success and the instrument of Laban’s downfall. Submission to God does NOT mean abject submission to an abuser or a manipulator. If God has shown you a way of escape (even running away without warning) or shown you a way to flourish under harsh circumstances– listen and obey!
I don’t know about anyone else reading this, but I need a reminder every so often about living in the present (including keeping my prayer life centered in the present). It is very tempting sometimes to wallow in the past or dream of the future. There’s nothing wrong with learning from past mistakes or making future goals, but we are not to waste our time or our energies pursuing what isn’t, while ignoring what is happening around us.
If we look closely at the Lord’s Prayer, we see how centered it is in the present. There are a couple of forward-looking phrases (Thy kingdom come…lead us not into temptation…For ever and ever..) but most of the prayer is for the present and foreseeable future.
I need to be reminded, through Christ’s example and through scripture, that God wants me to trust Him for my daily needs and follow one step at a time. If I find myself spending more time asking God for things far out in my future, or continually bringing up things from my past, it may mean (though not always) that I am not fully trusting in the sufficiency of His Grace for today.
God has already seen my past– and loves me unconditionally. His Grace will not be rescinded each time I face a reminder of my past; He will not change His mind if someone else carries a grudge against me.
God has also seen my future. He knows my needs, my concerns, my desires. He wants me to bring my whole heart to Him in prayer–a heart that is ready to trust His provision and plan, even when I don’t know the details.
Think what would happen if every parent-child conversation involved the following themes:
“Mom, do you remember the time I tipped over your plants when I was five, and you yelled at me. I just want to tell you I’m so sorry I did that. I know you said you’ve forgiven me, but I need to ask you again.” “Dad, I know you were disappointed when I got into a fight with my brother back when I was eight, but I hope you can see how I’ve learned a lot since then. Please don’t hold that against me today.”
“Hey, Dad, I really want to drive when I turn 16. Can I ask you for a purple sports car when I turn 16? I want to be a good driver, and I just know that you want me to be a good driver. I think a purple sports car would make me a great driver in another seven years.” “Mom, will you promise to babysit my kids after I have kids? I just know my kids will want to have a close relationship with you, so will you just promise to be close to my kids when I grow up and have them?”
There’s nothing essentially wrong with the actual requests– but when we focus on the past or the future at the expense of the present, we miss learning what God has for us TODAY. We also risk seeing God only for what He gives and what He has done, and not for Who He Is!
Let’s enjoy time with God today (and every day) as it unfolds.
Everything I thought I wanted
Was more important than
Spending time in prayer that day.
The noise of the radio in the background;
The daydreams and worries in my head-
That still small voice.
As the day passed by
My thoughts and actions
Nowhere to be found.
My worries and fears
UNTIL– I saw Your power in someone else’s life, giving ever increasing
My worries and fears–
(Nowhere to be found).
My thoughts and actions
As the day passed by.
That still small voice
The daydreams and worries in my head;
The noise of the radio in the background.
Spending time in prayer that day
Was more important than
Everything I thought I wanted.