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Lifelong Learning

James Thornton is a friend of mine; we attend a Bible study together, and we work out at the same fitness facility. One day I mused to James, a captive audience on the treadmill, “Isn’t it frustrating, the fact that we learn so many important things late in life, things that would have made life so much better had we only known them sooner?” A seasoned smile spread across his face as he slowly shook his head. “No,” he replied, “it tells me God has more things for me to do here, so He’s still working on me. He’s teaching me new things for a reason.” James was right: God never stops molding us for our good and equipping us for His purposes.

Through a life of strife, Jacob shows us the reality that coming to love and trust God takes time, and being transformed into His image, even longer. It is not natural to set aside our will for God’s ways, rather it is the tireless work of His Spirit that changes us through lifelong care. This is to the glory of God and to our favor, for it illumines the depth of sin from which we have been saved and magnifies the beauty of His patience and grace. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,”1 wrote Peter. The pace of change that frustrates us as being painfully slow, whether in us or in those we love, is to God quite purposeful—He molds each of us at a tempo that turns us safely to Himself.

To Jacob, God had been the God of his fathers, but not his own. So God waited as Jacob, over time, suffered under the consequences of his own decisions and limited power. Having run from Laban and now toward Esau, both of whom he had cheated, Jacob began see what truly mattered—the futility of his ways and the character of a holy God. “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac … I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant … Save me, I pray … for I am afraid.”2 God remained true to His promises, and after Jacob had reconciled and found favor with his two adversaries, he set up an altar3 and named it not after the God of his old name, Jacob [“deceiver”], but the God of his new name, Israel [“he wrestles with God”]. The God of his fathers was now the God of Israel, too.

Father, I confess you transform me not on my timeline, but yours. You know what you’re doing in me, and what you’re doing in me is good. Thank you. Be my God, and help me rest in you as you transform me into the likeness of your Son. In His name, I pray. Amen.

1 2 Peter 3:9
2 Genesis 32:9-11
3 Genesis 33:20

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Committed

When she taught high school, my mother had one particularly unruly student—you know, the one who pushes the limits, seemingly daring others to reject him, while inwardly hoping someone won’t. His antics were unacceptable, of course, so Mom occasionally made him stay after school in detention, where he challenged her even more. “But I saw something in him,” she recalled years later, “and I wasn’t going to take the bait.” Over time, he began to trust her acceptance, and his behavior started to change. Following graduation, he pursued what would be a productive, lifetime career in the armed services, and when he came home on leave, he would visit my mother and thank her for not giving up on him.

Just as He did for Abraham and Isaac, God promised rich blessings to Jacob, but what his father and grandfather humbly received in trust, Jacob selfishly seized by treachery—helping himself to the blessings, while rejecting the God who gave them. It is the kind of brazen behavior that infuriates us and compels us to sever relationships now, completely and forever. But “God cannot be tempted by evil,”1 and He will not compromise His character by any antics we can devise, however plentiful or diabolical they may be. We can wrestle against Him all we want—as did Jacob—but His love for us will not wane; if anything, our combativeness only magnifies His patience and faithfulness. So, Jacob wrestled alone with God2, an unavoidable moment of truth. Their struggle lasted a nighttime, but reflected a lifetime, and when daylight broke, so did Jacob—his hip wrenched and his name changed. He was no longer Jacob (deceiver), but Israel (he struggles with God), because he had “struggled with God and with humans and [had] overcome.”3

Self dies hard. We all wrestle with God, to different degrees, perhaps, and each of us in our own way. So, it is by God’s grace that we eventually come to see the self-centered life for what it is—“hostile to God”4 and “contrary to the Spirit.”5 Yet God remains true to His people and committed to His promises. “The Lord your God is God,” said Moses to the people gathered before him, “he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.”6 God sees something in us—a creation in His image—and though we struggle with Him, He remains unchanging in character and unwavering in love. We overcome because He never gives up on us.

Father, thank you for being true to your word. May we cease from our struggles against you, and rest entirely in you, for you are good to your people and faithful to your promises. Amen.

1 James 1:13
2 Genesis 32:24
3 Genesis 32:28
4 Romans 8:6
5 Galatians 5:17
6 Deuteronomy 7:9

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Mirror, Mirror

At some point along the way, I came to realize the more I dislike certain character flaws in others, the more likely it is I am beholding in them a mirror image of my own unsavory traits. How deflating this was to discover, but over time I’ve come to embrace these “reflection experiences” as steps in the transformation process, humbling revelations of my need for confession, course-correction and growth. In this way, God uses even sins—those of others and our own—and their consequences to expose our shortcomings and to weary us of our will. This is precisely where we find Jacob: having deceived his father into giving him the firstborn blessing, he fled its rightful recipient, Esau, who had sworn to kill his scheming sibling. Jacob escaped his brother, only to encounter a man who, over the next 20 years or so, would emerge as his doppelgänger in deception and every bit his equal—Laban. Let the games begin.

Jacob had offered to work for Laban seven years in exchange for permission to marry his daughter, Rachel. Hidden under the wedding veil, however, was Leah, the older daughter, who Laban thought should marry first! “Why have you deceived me?” demanded Jacob.1 Laban ultimately honored his promise of Rachel’s hand in marriage, but only “in return for another seven years of work.”2 Said Jacob, tiring, to Laban, “Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland … You know how much work I’ve done for you.”3 Laban prevailed once again, however, convincing Jacob to stay and tend his flocks, but this time it was Jacob who got the upper hand, scheming a way to deplete his father-in-law’s wealth while building his own. When Jacob “noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been,”4 he fled again, a humbler man. “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me,” said Jacob to Laban, who had pursued him, “you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”5 Jacob’s guile had failed him, but the God of his fathers had not.

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will,”6 wrote the Bard. Though God created us to thrive under His blessing and as a blessing to others, we are drawn to ways and means that serve us first and most, but never best. Yet even in our rebellion, God commands the consequences of our decisions to show Himself faithful and to bring us to grace, “that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.”7 Jacob has reached this point. Have we?

Father, your love for me never changes. Thank you! Do what you must to draw me to yourself, that I would rely completely on you. Grace me to trust and obey. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

1 Genesis 29:25
2 Genesis 29:27
3 Genesis 30:24
4 Genesis 31:2
5 Genesis 31:42
6 Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Oxford Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, (New York: Oxford University Press), 685.
7 2 Corinthians 1:9