Gripped By Grace: Over All My Troubles (Gen. 30:25-31:55)
This past week, just before we were about to go to bed, there was a thunderstorm. I found myself praying harder than I have in a long time. I also got online quickly to see how long this storm was going to be and when it was going to pass. Why such anxiety you ask? Well, we have lost power for multiple days the last two years due to severe storms. And I don’t like unexpected inconveniences. I like my comfort. Therefore, when storms come, my prayer life suddenly rises and increases. I just want it to be over and so now I lay on the couch with my eyes closed. I feel so paralyzed. Jenny might tell you it is also because I am afraid of thunder, but that’s another sermon illustration.
The more I think about it, that’s really how we face life’s challenges at times. I told you before that life is a rollercoaster, but at least with a rollercoaster you can see when it is going to roll and when it is going to coast and when it is going to roll and coast at the same time. You can see the dips coming up and prepare adequately. But imagine being on a rollercoaster with a blindfold?
That is life. You can’t see the dips that are coming. They sneak up on you like a sudden thunderstorm. And the next thing you know you are paralyzed. Praying seems fruitless. You are inconvenienced. It is not comfortable. You wish you could get online and wonder when it is going to be over.
Life is hard. If you don’t believe that, just wait. Just get older. Just get married. Just have a couple of kids. Just get a job. Just have a friend. Sometimes the little drizzles end up becoming Category 5 hurricanes. Sometimes it is not a sudden storm, but a long-standing storm that never ends. That’s really hard. It could be a relationship. It could be a disease. It could be a long season of waiting. It could be work. It could be neighbors. Look at the senseless shooting in a movie theater in Colorado. These things paralyze us with fear, anxiety, doubt and despair. We want success. We want things to go right and well. Where is God in all of these things?
This is Jacob’s life. The schemer and heel grabber ripped off his brother, ruined his life and ran away. What was supposed to be a temporary time in Haran, ended up being 14 years, because Jacob found the ultimate match in his uncle, Laban, who duped him into marrying both his daughters. He is working hard for Laban and seeing all of the fruit of his labor go to Laban’s account. He will never see his mother again. His relationship with his father, Isaac, is non-existent because his father has poisoned the family with his favoritism. His brother is out to kill him.
Though that was 14 years ago, we have no clue if Esau is still feeling that way. Jacob’s family life is also not ideal. Four women are involved with 11 children, who are mostly the fruit of Rachel and Leah’s envy. And Rachel, the love of his life, was barren for a long time and finally had a son. But life is hard. The more he has tried to get things going for him, the more trouble comes his way. Perhaps you may have heard of the expression: “Between a rock and a hard place.” That means you are stuck. You can’t go one way or the other. He does not want to stay anymore with Laban, but if he goes home, his brother might kill him and his family, who knows?
Yet through this, God has always reached out him in grace. He has always been faithful and has shown that He has been way more committed to Jacob than Jacob was to Him. But it’s been 14 years. That’s a long time. Jacob has responsibilities. He has many mouths to feed and things aren’t changing. Take note then:
I. God’s blessings come through in the midst of our difficult circumstances (Gen. 30:25-43)
In this first section, Jacob is sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s been 14 years. Once Rachel his one true love, has a son, Joseph (this is going to have problems later), he feels a sense that it is time to move on (Gen. 30:25). In the back of Jacob’s mind is God’s promise to bring him back to the land (Gen. 28:15). But God didn’t say when and how.
Everyone’s always impatient in this story, which ends up with a demanding spirit. Jacob after working seven years says to Laban, “Give me my wife!” (Gen. 29:21). Rachel, when she couldn’t have children goes to Jacob and says, “Give me children!” (Gen. 30:1). And now 14 years later, Jacob says to Laban, “Give me my wives and children!” (Gen. 30:26).
Jacob’s been seeing his life as torture. All he’s been doing is serving Laban. It’s slavery. Notice the term “served” and “service” and even the word translated “given” has the root word of service underneath it. Again in Gen. 30:29: “I have served you.” Later on in Israel, if you had a good servant who has worked hard and helped you prosper, you can after a few years let him go to start his own household (Deut. 15:12-14). You would think a good uncle would treat you like that or even better. But Laban is a cruel taskmaster. Jacob’s partly right. Laban’s been using him. Laban is ruthless and a shrewd businessman who only cares about money.
He’s also a smooth talker. Buttering up his son-in-law, he says in Gen. 30:27 “Let’s sit down and talk about this if that is ok with you.” He’s going to come with a counteroffer. He says he’s learned something and that by “divination.” This means probably some special magic where you perform some rituals to figure out your future or what you should do about something. It’s kind of like psychic reading. It was forbidden in Israel (Lev. 19:26). It is often associated with demonic activity. You don’t want to get involved with that stuff. Another interpretation simply says, “I have grown rich” and leaves out the divination. We are not sure.
We don’t really know what to trust out of this guy’s mouth. He says the demons told him that God has blessed Laban because of Jacob. We don’t know if he is bringing up God’s name to persuade Jacob to stay. You know people who use that quite often right? “God told me I should marry you.” Nevertheless, Laban is right here. Jacob actually agrees: “The LORD has blessed you wherever I turned” in Gen. 30:30. This is an interesting observation. All of this trouble led to the external blessing of an unbeliever. Take note:
a) Blessed to bless others
This goes back to the Abrahamic Covenant in Gen. 12. We are blessed to be a blessing. God always pulls you in and blesses to send you out to bless others. And often the difficult circumstances and difficult people are God’s way to help unsaved loved ones in our lives to see God. How are we to be a blessing? Watchman Nee says, “ God does not set us here first of all to preach or to do work for Him. The first thing for which He sets us here is to create in others a hunger for Himself…No true work will ever begin in a life without first of all a sense of need being created. But how can this be done? We cannot inject spiritual appetite by force into others; we cannot compel people to be hungry. Hunger has to be created, and it can be created in others only by those who carry with them the impressions of God.”
We cannot satisfy anyone’s hunger, but God can use us to create hunger in others for Him. And I know some of us are discouraged because we may have been bad witnesses, but if you know anything about the grace of God and even looking at the life of Jacob, you know that God can use even our bad witnesses for the good and glory of God. God can draw the Labans in our lives to Himself through us. Perhaps the difficult circumstances is not just training season for us, but God using you despite how hard it is to bless others. You might not think you are a blessing, but simply because you have God living in you, people get hungry. To use Jesus’ language, “you are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). Salt creates thirst. Salt is not there to quench thirst, but to create it. Are you a salty person?
b) Blessed to walk by faith, not by sight
But Laban here is anxious. He wants to know what it will take for Jacob to stick around. How can he afford to lose a man who brings him such wealth? This might mean bad business for him! Jacob wants to take care of his family (Gen. 30:30). Jacob has matured hasn’t he? Notice Laban’s response, “Name your wages” (Gen. 30:28). The last time Laban said that, he switched his wife for another (Gen. 29:15ff). I’m sure Jacob knows Laban will not let him go so easily. Gordon Wenham notes, “Laban owed Jacob nothing, because he already had two wives promised in exchange for his fourteen years of labor. This he had only just completed, so he could not demand anything more at this stage. Therefore, if Jacob wants to go with anything more than Leah and Rachel, he will have to work longer. A neat reply.”
Jacob does not back down. So in Gen. 30:29-30, Jacob essentially says, “If God has done so much for you as the result of my work, surely you can now do something for me, or at least let me do something for my family.” Laban replies in Gen. 30:31, “What shall I give you?” Really he means, “What can I get from you?”
Jacob makes a deal with him. He will keep taking care of Laban’s flocks, but Jacob wants a flock of his own. So in Gen. 30:31-33 he says, “Let me have a few of the sheep. You take all of the black, white, brown animals. I’ll take the speckled and spotted. Those are the less valuable and more defective. Most of the time they come out singular colored, very rarely do they come out speckled or spotted. So you give me the defective ones. You take the good ones. I’ll take good care of your flocks and my flocks. I just want a little bit.” Jacob is going to trust God by faith.
It sounds like a great deal to Laban according to Gen. 30:34. Keep working for me and have your little “start-up company” on the side where it is not likely that you will succeed? But a con man knows a con man. He’s going to make sure Jacob starts with actually nothing. He removes all spotted animals immediately so Jacob has nothing to work with. Then to make sure Jacob doesn’t run after them, he gives them to his sons to take care of and makes sure it takes at least three days to catch up (Gen. 30:35-36). In other words, hard just became impossible. Isn’t this what seems to happen? We start to walk by faith and decide to trust God and things get worse. Troubles got harder.
God often tears down before He builds up. Sometimes people will say, “This too will pass” as a word of encouragement when we are in a difficult circumstance. But what if it doesn’t pass? A missionary struggling on the field with suffering says, “Sometimes God doesn’t open doors. Sometimes God makes the walls fall down flat so everyone can see that he is the one who is doing the work. He is, after all, the God who raises the dead…what I need to hear more than anything else was not simply, ‘This, too, shall pass,’ but, ‘God’s faithfulness will never pass.’ Fixating on my circumstances and toying with the ‘if only game’ only eroded my faith.”
God seems to be demolishing all the walls of our security instead of opening doors. Jacob comes up with a strategy to outwit Laban. God is not opposed to planning or strategies, but often we rely in them instead of on God. At the same time, waiting on the Lord does not mean inactivity and twiddling your thumbs and being paralyzed. Grace is not opposed to effort, but opposed to earning right? Do what is in front of you. Develop what you know. Cultivate what you have. Your garden plot is the same as it always was, so plow deeper. Jacob could have sat around in self-pity looking jealously at Laban’s flock. Envying the garden that others have cultivated plows nothing, and brings forth a harvest of nothing.
This is what Jacob does in Gen. 30:37-43. I am not going to go over every detail here, but Jacob is going to be Jacob when Laban out-“Jacobs” Jacob: Schemer. Mastermind. Strategic. Clever. Cunning. We are not sure if this is genetic engineering or superstition or a combination of both. Supposedly if you can take sticks and have them be “visual aids” that help sheep breed a certain type of offspring. There has been no scientific data to prove this works. Perhaps shepherds know more about sheep than we do. All I know about sheep is that they are stupid, furry and live outside. Apparently, this works and Jacob breeds a fortune! Jacob again comes out on top. No mention is given if God approved of this or not. The only thing we know is that in the end, Jacob is not prosperous or blessed because of his clever strategies, but God blessing him. As one commentator notes, “God does not reveal to him new, successful strategies; he merely brings him success despite his strategies.”
As you are waiting on the Lord, instead of focusing on what door is God opening, perhaps look at which walls of security is God demolishing. It’s not all bad. There is blessing right where you are and people to bless around you. God’s faithfulness will never pass even if the difficulty stays. May God give us grace to maintain under the strain. There is blessing even when we feel like all we have is bleeding. Sometimes God does put it on our heart that a new season is coming up. However, most of the time, He wants to increase our capacity to stay under the stress. Secondly:
II. God’s power breaks through in God’s time for God’s glory (Gen. 31:1-55)
God’s power finally breaks through in Jacob’s life. Let me summarize what happens in this chapter and then pull out the principles for us. Jacob is prospering, Laban is not, and Jacob’s sons start to murmur about this. God intervenes and tells Jacob to leave. Jacob tells his wives that it’s time to go. They agree, even admitting that their dad has cheated them as well. They all decide to leave, but Rachel steals the idols off the shelf for protection. They leave. Laban finds out and pursues them, but warned by God in a dream not to hurt Jacob. Laban and Jacob have a confrontation and Laban accuses Jacob of stealing his gods. Anyway, we see Rachel deceiving her father, hiding her gods underneath her saddle. Finally Laban and Jacob decide to call it peace and make a covenant agreeing to leave each other alone. But this victory happens all because God’s power broke through in Jacob’s life. How?
a) Through a breakdown of comfort
Just when Jacob gets comfortable again, God stirs the nest. God does not just comfort the afflicted. He afflicts the comfortable. This time, God allows conflict among sons of Laban and Jacob. Laban’s mood started to change. He became grumpy again. Things are getting difficult again. THEN the Lord said, “Move.”
Pastor Iain Duguid observes, “Don’t miss the significance of the fact that it is at the point of difficulty that God’s call to go home comes to Jacob…invariably, we want life to be easy and smooth. We pray and we plan as far as we can to make life go that way. We beg God to make our lives plain sailing. But sometimes the best way for God to get our attention and move us on to new levels of obedience is through a breakdown of comfort.”
Maybe we like the security of our nest, but God wants us to fly! God has bigger plans for Jacob. It might be nice to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of a huge flock, but we are not on our timetable, but God’s! And God allows Laban to chase Jacob and his people even after they leave. There was not a moment in their entire “deliverance” out of Laban’s captivity that they could not rely on themselves and be comfortable. They did not walk out. God carried them out, every step of the way, through a breakdown of comfort.
b) In God’s timing
Since the breeding incident, six years have passed. We are now talking 20 years before Jacob gets to leave. Have you noticed that pattern in Genesis? God never seems to be wearing a watch. Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90 before Isaac is born. Isaac and Rebekah wait 20 years before they the twins, Jacob and Esau. Now Jacob in slavery for 20 years himself, before he can leave.
Can God have done all of this in a couple of years? Sure. But God has His time. And we don’t like it. A.H. Strong
writes that when God wants to make a squash, He takes six months. But if He wants to make an oak tree, He takes 100 years. Growth is not a uniform in the tree or in the Christian. In some single months there is more growth than in all the year besides. During the rest of the year, however, there is solidification, without which the green timber would be useless.”
To be honest, we don’t feel like we are being made into an oak. We want an appetite for quick, squash-like growth and progress. As one blogger agreed, “I want excellent preparation and execution to always produce visible, lasting results and I want God to do the great things that I have dreamed up. On top of that, I want these things now.” Notice Strong doesn’t say we produce squash, but that we are squash when we cannot wait. But knowing us, we would rather go around and say, “Look at how mighty I am, the squash! Instead of deeply bearing down our roots, growing in depth and strength.”
Isaiah 61:3 tells us that God wants us to be strong oaks, planted by Him for His glory! So we can be a squash or an oak. If we choose the path of the squash, we do it for our own glory, for the quick fruit that we can impress others with now. If we choose the path of the oak, we are choosing to submit ourselves to the Lord’s purposes in everything, trusting that He will make us into something we could never become on my own. So if you want God to break through in your life, have you given God your watch?
c) See God as the source of success
Throughout this chapter, notice Jacob attributing all success to God. Jacob is maturing from his self-sufficient ways. Gen. 31:5: God of my father has been with me. Gen. 31:7 But God did not permit him to harm me. Gen. 31:9 God has given me this livestock. Later when he and Laban make a covenant, Jacob swears by God and Nahor swears by all gods (Gen. 31:53). Jacob acknowledges that God is the source of all blessing, and he is simply a witness. It wasn’t Jacob’s breeding scheme, it wasn’t Jacob’s fearlessness (he is fearful here, cf. Gen. 31:31), it was all God.
Moses writes some comedy in here as well. Rachel is able to steal local deities. Most likely these were small, carved human figures. Most likely she took it for protection. But notice the irony? What kind of “god” can protect you when he can’t protect himself? In the end, the gods have to be protected by Rachel, who says she is having her period. In the Jewish culture, that means the gods are unclean. Later, Rachel will throw them out. The point: idols are not the reason for our deliverance or success, it is God. Idols are helpless deities who need our protection.
Do you know when God breaks through in your life? It is that moment you realize that God has brought about every single blessing in your life. We may say that outwardly, but we are Labans. We secretly think it was our strategy, our decision to do something, our skill, our personality, our patience, our something or other that made the difference. Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers labor in vain (Ps. 127:1). We are not the difference. It is God who makes the difference.
Part of our despair and our trouble and not seeing any breakthroughs from God is because we have fallen prey to the world’s definition of success. I would say most 28 year-olds are despairing right now. Do you know why? One word. Zuckerberg. The Facebook CEO on his 28th birthday opened Facebook to investors and the stock market. It is expected to be worth $100 billion dollars.
So Hugh Whelchel in a blog post writes, “By age 28, many face what’s called a ‘quarter-life crisis,’ thanks to the two great lies our culture promotes among children in school, students in college, and professionals in the business world. The first great lie is, ‘If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.’ It is often sold as the American Dream, expressed in sayings such as, ‘In America, anyone can grow up to be President.’ The second great lie is like the first one, yet possibly even more damaging: ‘You can be the best in the world. If you try hard enough, you could be the next Zuckerberg.’” You can master your own destiny.
If we are honest, that’s what we think success is. And the American Dream is a nightmare because in the end, it is the ultimate glory thief. Keller notes, “More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.”
Pastor Ray Ortlund asks this penetrating question: Every one of us thinks, “If only I could do __________ or be __________, then I would arrive.” So, what does “arrival” look like to you? If it isn’t Jesus, the risen Lord himself, every arrival you achieve is only another set-back. If you make financial security your arrival, you are already trapped in anxiety. If you make a thin body your identity, you will hate yourself more. If you make a porn-free life your okayness, you are doomed to compulsion. God’s remedy for you is not more money or better looks or perfect control. God’s gift to you is Jesus. With Jesus, we are saved.”
So do we seek great things for ourselves? Seek them not (Jer. 45:5). God tells us that faithfulness is success. Don’t try to be successful. Be faithful. How do we be faithful? See God’s faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ. “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21). Actually don’t try to be faithful. Let God’s faithfulness to you despite our faithlessness in the Gospel melt your heart.
Notice how gracious God is to Jacob. He comes to Jacob and says, “I am with you.” Later God says, “I saw all that Laban did to you.” Wait, what about all that Jacob did to Laban? What about all that Jacob did before? What about Jacob’s fear? No mention at all of Jacob’s sins. God sees him in his trouble. God blesses him in his trouble. God does not count his sins against him. God protected him every step of the way and God delivered him in God’s time.
What is this story really about? As Moses’ readers hear this story, they are reminded that how gracious God when they, the children of Israel/Jacob were in Egypt under another cruel master, Pharaoh. God graciously saved them even when their enemies pursued them and blessed them and brought them to the Promised Land. The Bible says they were delivered with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. But in the New Testament, we are reminded that we were all slaves of sin (John 8:34). The wages of our sin is death (Rom. 3:23).
You talk about trouble? That’s real trouble! And no matter how much we wanted to leave our sin, we couldn’t. But then the true son of Israel came. He had it all. Jacob said, “God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me.” But in a greater act of incredible grace, God took away all of the glory of our Savior and gave them to us. Jacob went out into the wilderness with nothing and came back blessed, but Jesus with all blessing, left it all in Heaven and came into the wilderness of our world with nothing. He never accumulated any idols. He never tricked anyone. But He took upon Himself the curse we deserved to give us the blessing He deserved.
Jacob says, “God did not permit him to harm me.” Why? Jesus faced ultimate harm on the cross for him. More than harm. He died so we can one day be delivered and escaped from the ultimate trouble of a life without God. He was the Shepherd who died for His sheep. God didn’t intervene with a dream to save Him. He was killed. Stripped of all blessing, now we can have Him, the greatest blessing of all. It is He who will carry us to the Promised Land.
We can now forsake all fraudulent success. We can make Jesus our goal, our arrival, our identity, our comfort, our okayness, and He’ll gladly give himself to us — and on terms of grace. So our troubles in the end are “light and momentary” (2 Cor. 4:17), because Jesus has taken the “heavy and eternal” weight of paying for our sin. Now in our troubles, we can peace like a river and say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Wenham, G. J. (1998). Vol. 2: Genesis 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary (255). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Driscoll, M. “Jacob Leaves Laban,” http://marshill.com/media/genesis/jacob-leaves-laban#transcript accessed 20 July 2012.
Wilson. D. “7 Thoughts on Time Managament,” http://www.dougwils.com/Grace-and-Peace/seven-thoughts-on-time-management.html accessed 20 July 2012.
Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary (590). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Duguid, Iain M. (2002). Living in the Grip of Relentless Grace (96). Phillipsburg, NJ: R&P Publishing.
Cook, Glenn. “Squash or oak?” http://leadership42day.com/2012/01/31/squash-or-oak/ accessed 20 July 2012.
Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (391). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Whelchel, H. “Mark Zuckerberg and the Biblical Meaning of Success,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/05/18/mark-zuckerberg-and-the-biblical-meaning-of-success/ accessed 20 July 2012.
Keller, T. (2009). Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters (75). New York: Riverhead Books.
Ortlund, R. “Success and Jesus,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/rayortlund/2012/01/25/success-and-jesus/ accessed 20 July 2012.
Ortlund, R. Ibid.