Moving from one country to another, I’ve often identified with Jacob’s prayer for God’s protection and provision as he runs away from home. But just lately, the earlier part of Jacob’s story in the Bible challenged me.
While Jacob and his twin Esau are in the womb, God tells their mother Rebekah that the older brother will serve the younger. As soon as Esau leaves the womb, it is clear that Jacob is the younger. Jacob is chosen by God before he is born. He does nothing to deserve that blessing.
Yet the rest of his life he keeps acting like he has to earn it. He acquires a firstborn’s inheritance rights by taking advantage of Esau’s hunger. He tricks his father into blessing him, again by feeding a family member at the opportune time. Then he runs away from home because his brother is angry enough to kill him. He works for his uncle Laban, using superstitions methods to increase his herds. When he meets Esau again, he sends ahead a parade of pacifying gifts. He had asked God for provision and protection, but when it comes down to it, he trusts his own conniving.
Yet God keeps turning these mistakes and selfish actions towards his initial plan – to make Jacob into a nation. Maybe if Jacob hadn’t been such a grasper, God’s plan would have happened in a straightforward way – perhaps receiving blessing without a brother’s death threat. But God gave Jacob the freedom to take the inefficient path to blessing if he so chose. Or maybe God knew all along how Jacob would acquire the blessings. But God chose him anyway.
Jacob’s sons weren’t born in happy succession either. Jacob was tricked into marrying both of Laban’s daughters – two rival sisters. Leah and Rachel kept bearing sons as a way to compete for the affection of God and their man. God used the family’s trickery and rivalry to birth founders for the twelve tribes of Jacob, also called Israel. Perhaps another way would have fostered more brotherly love. But then maybe they wouldn’t have sold one brother into slavery in Egypt, who strangely later saved them from famine. Maybe Israel would have starved before it got started.
Why did God use selfish tricksters and jealous siblings to build his people? It’s not a great fireside story about a nation’s founding father.
Or maybe it is. Maybe the point is to remind God’s people that they would keep trying to help themselves, but they didn’t need to. That even if they went wrong, God was committed to his end of the deal. As long as they were his people and he was their God, he would recycle their mess in super creative ways.
I am scared of messing up. What if I don’t choose the path God has for me? We fear the wrong college, career path, or relationship. Why did I do that stupid or selfish thing? Surely God can’t work with me now.
But God can. God wants us to obey him because it’s a lot better for us in the long run. I’m not saying that we can turn our backs on God or that we will avoid all consequences for our mistakes. But our actions do not make such a big difference that God can’t transform them for his own ends. We keep thinking we have to earn everything, but God gave us his love and forgiveness before we did anything to deserve it. If we’re sincere about wanting to follow God, he’ll work everything out for our good in the end. We can trust that things will go according to the plan of this God who controls everything. We are free to try and to fail and to fall into a cosmic net of grace.