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Gripped by Grace: Over My Partial Obedience (Gen. 33:18-35:1)

Someone asked me recently how early I started to see rebellion in my children. I think you can start to see it early as two. Annabelle is a lot more strong-willed than Abbie and so we have seen her show a very stubborn will for a while now. If you don’t believe in original sin, you must not have kids! A friend of mine with older kids replied with an insightful comment when he said, “My problem is not when they are blatantly rebellious, but when who are outwardly obeying but inwardly rebelling.” It reminded of that story about the kid who would keep getting out of his chair during dinner. Finally the mother threatened him that he would not get dessert to which he glared at her and said, “I maybe sitting on the outside, but I’m still standing up on the inside!”

Children are miniature versions of us. I love when my children completely trust me and obey. It gladdens my heart when they are patient and trusting that we will provide for them as their parents always. At the same time, it is so grieving to our hearts when they are impatient, think they have wisdom that is better than ours and worst of all, disobedience. And it is not always that they are blatantly disobedient, but somehow they have rationalize in their head what obedience means and that obedience becomes delayed or partial.

We have been traveling with one of the craziest characters of Scripture: Jacob. His name meant “heel grabber” and he’s been a man who schemed and manipulated to get whatever he wanted in life. He ended up running away from all his problems and faced even more problems. Finally, God got a hold of his heart and stripped him of his self-sufficiency. The man who used to strut and grab is left limping and giving. Grace is a gripper. Grace gripped Jacob’s heart. Jacob is now able to even reconcile his brother.

Everything is going to be great now right? Is that how it works? You become a believer and zap! You are perfect. No, our salvation is not complete. It has three parts. The moment we are truly saved, we have become justified meaning that we are saved from the penalty of sin that Jesus has paid and God has declared us righteous. We are justified in a moment, but then we are secondly, sanctified, which means “set apart” and that takes a lifetime. In sanctification, we are being saved from the presence of sin. The last part of salvation is when we will be glorified, when we get new bodies and will be saved from the presence of sin.

So until our salvation is complete, we are a walking paradox. Listen to Brennan Manning: “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”[1]

We are yet what we should be and we are not what we used to be. I wanted to say this before we looked at this mess in Genesis 34. Ever so often you have those places in the Bible where when you get to it, you are left wondering, “Why is this here?” One is genealogies which is coming up soon (Gen. 35 & 36) and the other is like the horrific events of Genesis 34. This chapter also shows the Bible’s credibility. Why in the world would Moses want to include this story in the origins of his own people? You will not find this story in any of the children’s books. This shows us again that the Bible characters are not just heroes we are called to imitate, but sinners who need a Savior and a God who saves us by grace. Sinners who can even partially obey. Jacob is no exception. Here we see:

I. The symptoms of partial obedience (Gen. 33:18-34:1).

What were the origins of this tragedy? I believe you can see the key to this whole mess is found in Gen. 33:18. Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem…and he camped before the city. He buys a piece of land, just like Abraham did (Gen. 23:20). He’s in the Promised Land right? Yes, but where was he supposed to go?  Jacob had made a vow to come back to Bethel (Gen. 28:19-22) and God had reminded him that He was the God of Bethel when he told Jacob to leave Laban (Gen. 31:13). Commentator Bruce Waltke says, “Although purchasing the land and erecting the altar were acts of faith, Jacob errs in settling into the land. He made a vow to worship in Bethel when he returned to the Promised Land, but it takes him at least ten years to fulfill this vow. The idle years near the Canaanite city reflect a general spiritual passivity on Jacob’s part that has horrendous consequences.”[2] Shechem was only 20 miles or so from Bethel.[3] Why didn’t Jacob make that last few miles? Did he think he could have raised his family better near the city of Shechem? Almost obedience is never enough.

Obviously Jacob didn’t blatantly want to disobey God, but it seems to be he deceived himself to think that since he was outwardly obeying, that was enough. Why do we partially obey the Lord?

a)    Tired of struggling

The text is not crystal clear on this, but I wonder if the fact that Moses writes he came “safely” or “peacefully” (Gen. 33:18) is an indication that Jacob finally took a deep breath of relief. God was faithful to him, but it wasn’t easy. Jacob finally did not have to look over his shoulder to see if Esau or Laban would come after him. He had become rich. Perhaps he liked how Succoth was spacious and then being close to the city.

No more traveling. Remember Abraham, when he bought land, it was only to be buried in (Gen. 23). Abraham was thinking about his descendants to whom God promised the land one day. Jacob does the same thing, but he bought to live on. He was fed up with struggling and wrestling. He wanted to retire from his life of wrestling, to settle down in peace and enjoy life, his pilgrimage over.

This is exactly what happens to us. Being weary from the fight causes us to put down our armor. We want relief more than obedience and we end up not obeying and not finding relief either. God tells us to rest well so that we can work well. Have a rhythm. We love to obey that command to rest, but then the “I need a break” turns into laziness, oversleeping, over-watching, over-browsing and overeating. Sleeping, eating, browsing or watching are not bad things, but we make them the end goal instead of a means to the end of getting to Jesus.

So many single believers, tired of not finding the right partner, settle and marry the next person that breathes. Tired of waiting, rationalizing and compromising. Or once you are married, you then stop working on your marriage. Just because you don’t fight does not mean your marriage is fine. Or you are tired of fighting, so you withdraw. See, it’s so subtle. Partial obedience. And guess what, looking for relief in mind will always leave you more tired in the end.

But remember as long as you are in this world, you will never enter true rest for your soul. You can only find it by obeying His command to come to Him (Matt. 11:28-30). What is the condition to come to Christ? You are weary and heavy laden. There you find rest for your soul, though it is not the final rest, until we see Jesus.

Is that you today? Is your soul weary and tired from struggling and wrestling? Are you looking for relief or pressing toward wanting to obey the Lord fully? Secondly,

b) Self-deception of our heart

It looks like Jacob is away from Bethel for at least 10 years. It seems like Jacob deceived himself to think he was ok. How? One way is external righteousness. He builds an altar and calls it, “God, the God of Israel.” This was true. God was His God and Jacob identifies his new self with the living God and claims the land in his name and distinguishing Israel from the Canaanites whose language they speak. However, apparently says religious stuff and living it out are two different things.

God continually says, “My people worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Is. 29:13). I will come to church, but I’m not going to give. I’m going to read my Bible, but harbor unforgiveness. I’ll serve the Lord and neglect my relationship with Him. My work for the Lord replaces my worship of Him. At the end of that, we will end up bitter and burnt-out. When I get that promotion, I will give financially. Once I get married, I won’t struggle with pornography, so I’m not going to get help now about.

The second way is playing close to the fire. Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and from his wife, Leah, starts to wander off and goes to do what, “see the women of the land” (Gen. 34:1). She is probably a teenager at this point. Harmless enough right? I’m just going to hangout with the ladies and check out the local scene. But going to see the women of the land can often end up having the women of the land introduce you to the men of the land. It was unusual in that time. Girls did not normally leave and go unchaperoned into a foreign city. It was his job to model appropriate distancing from the Canaanites.[4] It was foolish on Dinah’s part but that’s how sin is. It hides itself, overpromises and under-delivers.  Sin is so deceitful!

Sometimes in these Christian conferences, there will be a Q and A time. 99% of the time the questions go like this: “Is it wrong to have a boyfriend? How far is too far? Can I club? Can I smoke? Can I dance? Can I drink? Can I this?” Basically this is what they’re asking, “How close can I be at the edge without falling off?” For them, following God is obeying the rules. As long as I don’t break the rules, I am fine. Imagine I was driving up a mountain with my family and road is narrow. The sign says, “Danger! Avoid driving too close to the edge.” And I said, “Well, let’s see how close I can get and not kill myself and my family. Then I’m grazing the railing and sparks are flying and my family is hyperventilating.” Crazy right? Hopefully I would be driving as close as I can to the other side of the mountain, hugging so close to it because it’s foolish to do otherwise.

Maturity does not see sin as breaking God’s rules and trying to play close to the fire. Maturity sees sin as breaking God’s heart and running in the opposite direction because pleasing Him is better than life itself. Proverbs tell us if you play with fire, you will be burned. Don’t be self-deceived.

Jacob is self-deceived and Dinah is self-deceived. Dinah ends up in trouble as she is sexually assaulted. Notice the verbs: He saw and took/seized her. This is the same language used throughout Genesis. Eve saw the apple and took it and ate (Gen. 3:6). The sons of God (demons) saw the daughters of men and took them to be wives (Gen 6:2). Lot, saw the land was well-watered and chose for himself to live near Sodom (Gen. 13:10ff). Sarah took Hagar and gave her to her husband (Gen. 16:3). What is the point? We are self-deceived because in unbelief, we decide we know what is good for us apart from what God thinks is good for us. And each of those instances in Genesis when people act on their own wisdom, it ends up destroying them from Eve to the Flood to Lot to Sarah and now here in Jacob’s story.

We partially obey because we are self-deceived. Shechem thinks he knows what is good for him. Jacob decides living near Bethel is good enough and raising an altar there, buying land like Abraham did is enough. Dinah thinks its wise to hang out alone in a foreign city. But beware of how rational sin may appear. Sin can always be rationalized. We can even find Bible verses for our sin. Beware of your heart. Every time we sin, we are telling God, ‘My way of navigating this particular situation is better than yours. My wisdom and skill are more efficient and more effective in this moment than your wisdom and skill.’ It’s not that we stop believing. It’s just that what we believe has shifted.”[5] And there is nothing more rational and deceiving than partial obedience. We are self-deceived!

How are we self-deceived in our partial obedience today? Now we have online churches. It is one thing if you live in a closed country and cannot get to a church, but lots of people have a podcast as their pastor and social networking as their community. I appreciate their desire to hear God’s Word and want community and podcasts are great, social networking can be useful somewhat, but that is no substitute for a local body of believers meeting together around the Word of God and doing life together. It’s not because God needs us to be here, but that we need to be here for you. On our own, we are self-deceived. We think we know what is good for us. We think we got things figured out. Sin hides itself and it is often in community where we can find the Lord exposing it and setting us free.

Are we self-deceived in our partial obedience? Fourthly, part of this is also our “Some day Syndrome.” Lord, once I am done with school, then I’m going to read my Bible and pray. Someday I will get help in my marriage. Someday I want to invite that person to church. Someday I will look for that job. Someday I’ll be more serious about my health. And someday never seems to come. It’s so self-deceptive because, as one author puts it, “after having thought something like this, have you noticed how perilously easy it is to then congratulate yourself on your obedience? After we imagine ourselves being righteous in the future, we then think of ourselves as actually being righteous. We pat ourselves on the back as if that obedience was a reality, when in actual fact, we’ve not done any such thing. And if we’re perfectly frank, we’re actually stinking it up a bit.

This is how it’s possible to actually be selfishly greedy and think of yourself as open-handed; to have a wicked temper and think of yourself as patient…We somehow manage to console ourselves for our past and present failures by imagining up brilliant future successes. Hopefully the problem with this is self-evident. Imaginary future obedience can’t atone for real live, present-tense sin; only the blood of Christ can do that. But sometimes we’re so busy with our pretend obedience that we forget to notice that we should actually be on our knees asking for forgiveness. And of course, while we’re at it, we should also repent of our self-deception.”[6]

What lies are we believing right now that have deceived our hearts and cause us from fully trusting the Lord in obedience? What areas do we think we know better than God does? The Lord says, “Today if you hear my voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:7ff). Later on in that passage it tells sin is deceitful, so obedience needs to be in the present tense.

II. The consequences of partial obedience (Gen. 34:2-31).

The cost of disobedience far outweighs the cost of obedience. All of these small choices, lead to a big catastrophe in Jacob’s life. What were some of the consequences?

a) Destruction of community

We think our sin is private. Our private sin is an open scandal in Heaven. And it affects everyone around us more than we know. We can blame everyone in this story. If Jacob hadn’t settled on the borders, then this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. We actually don’t know if that would be the case. Well, if Dinah hadn’t been too curious, then…or if Jacob didn’t poison his family with favoritism, then he would not be so passive here…but if Isaac hadn’t first shown favoritism with Esau, then….We could go hours trying to point the blame, but this teaches us that we are all simply the sum of our relationships. Our relationships have made us really who we are. Everything we do affects others more than we think it does.

But I want to spin this positively. Tim Challies writes, “Sanctification is a community project. There are many reasons that the Lord puts us in Christian community in the form of the local church. We are in community for mutual encouragement, mutual labor, mutual support, and so much else. But we are also in community because holiness is a community project. This has been the challenge for me: I need to grow in holiness not just for my own sake but out of love and concern for those around me. If I love the people in my church, I will grow in holiness for their sake. I am prone to think that holiness is an individual pursuit, but when I see sanctification as a community project, now it is more of a team pursuit. I am growing in holiness so that I can help others grow in holiness, I am putting sin to death so I can help others put sin to death. My church needs me and I need my church, and this is exactly how God has designed it.”[7]

b) Compromise of convictions

Shechem and his father, more in unison, than Jacob and his children, come to offer a proposal from his son’s violent act of passion. There is no repentance or sorrow, but they do try to offer restitution. It sounds bizarre of a rapist to offer marriage to the woman he has raped, but in that culture, that was how to make amends in addition to paying a bride’s price.

He offers intermarriage as a solution. Jacob’s dad Isaac had warned Jacob not to do this for himself (Gen. 28:1). Hamor and Shechem are promising to give Jaob the land, which is what God had promised. However, God said, “In my time” and Shechem says, “Why wait until later? You can have it now!” If they had accepted this, Israel would have been extinct. God was going to give His land as a gift, not by any other means. Notice Jacob says nothing. He is passive throughout this story sadly.

God had called them to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:3) and here was an opportunity to help these Canaanites understand the God of grace. Although God’s people were not to intermarry with pagans, the door was always open for pagans to leave their idols and be part of God’s people. Jacob could have talked about the good news of grace of their God and the forgiveness he offers to sinners who come to him in repentance and faith.[8]

The Canaanites are not told about God. Instead they are told deceitfully that they need to conform to external religious requirements. Convictions are willing to be compromised. The Canaanites are simply interested in financial gain. Compromise always kills your convictions.

c) Loss of witness

Jacob could have reminded his sons about how Esau, a pagan brother, had forgiven him not too long before this. The sons decide on a deceitful strategy (Gen. 34:13). They learned well from their dad. The acorn does not fall too far from the tree. Once again, we are more like the people who have influenced us than we think.

These are supposed to be God’s people and they answer worse than pagans. Their sister gets raped, they go and rape the Canaanites city. It was right emotion to be angry and upset, but instead of going to God with it, they decide not to get mad, but to get even and worse than even.

What is worse, they use something precious in their faith community as a disguise to bring destruction. Circumcision was something God had instituted to be a mark of their covenant separation form the nations. Here, however, they offered to become one nation with the Canaanites, not on the condition that the Canaanites shared their faith but on the condition that the Canaanites share their religious practices.[9]

Jacob only cares about how he looks at the end (Gen. 34:30), but no one here cares about how God looks. This is the worst part of our disobedience. We drag the name of Jesus in the mud. Paul says, “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rom. 2:24). I pray we would never get that reported about us!

Though Simeon’s and Levi’s brothers were not involved in the massacre, they were happy to plunder the city (Gen. 34:27-29). Selective morality is evident everywhere here. They were outraged at what Shechem did to Dinah but not apparently  at the defilement they inflicted on themselves by stripping the corpses. They took everything from children, women, flocks, herds, donkeys. The initial sin of taking one woman was returned in kind but in multiplied form. What do we see here? The Israelites, God’s own people, are not in any way morally better than the present inhabitants of the Promised Land.[10]

III. The triumph of grace over our partial obedience (Gen. 35:1).

Chapter 34 ends very sadly. Is the sin of one man, for which attempted to atone and make restitution, sufficient reason to exterminate an entire community? Who made you, sons of Jacob, moral agents of divine judgment? What if Esau applied the same principle to Jacob’s efforts to restore their relationship?

Chapter 35 should have started like this: “Then God grabbed each of Jacob’s sons and their father Jacob, smashed their heads on the altar and renamed it ‘God’s rejected people.’” How does God react to this? He tells Jacob to go back to where he was treated with grace. Bethel was where it all began. There, he was reminded that he was all alone and nothing but the shirt on his back. He had failed God miserably, but God responded to him with grace. How do you obey God? Respond to His grace.

But here is the problem. We are left at the end of Chapter 34 with how do we deal with sin? Neither Jacob nor his sons have a good solution. For the sons, it was easy. Destroy the sinner. Let everyone die for the sins of the prince. This is the truth part of sin. This is the justice part of sin. Sin must be paid for. But  how do you pay for sin without destroying the sinner? Because if we just played by their rules, they should die too, for they are sinners as well.

Jacob’s solution is to ignore and excuse the sin. This is soft grace. I wonder how Dinah felt when her own father is passive and silent during a time she needed him the most. Let’s avoid dealing with the sin because it’s messy and I don’t want it ruining my life and how others see me. But can you ignore the cost of sin? Somebody’s always has to suffer with each injury. How can you excuse sin and pretend it didn’t happen?

Conclusion

See the problem? The sons’ way destroys the sinner and Jacob’s way excuses the sin. Is there another way to deal with sin? Is there a way to deal with the awfulness of sin seriously and yet reaches out and redeems the sinner? There is a way. God does it. As Jacob goes to Bethel, he builds an altar, coming back to full obedience. Years before, his father Isaac was about to offered up, but God said no, “Use the lamb as a substitute.” God provided a lamb. Sin must be paid for. Sin is serious business. He doesn’t destroy Israel because He Himself out of Israel will come to the world and pay for their sin. Instead of people dying for the sins of their prince, as happened at Shechem, the King of kings has died for the sins of his people. When Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins, he won through losing; he achieved our forgiveness on the cross by turning the values of the world on their head. He did not ‘fight fire with fire.’ He didn’t come and raise an army in order to put down injustice. He didn’t take power; he gave it up – and yet he triumphed. On the cross, then, grace and love the world’s misuse and glorification of power was exposed for what it is and defeated. The spell of the world’s systems was broken. God deals with sin and the justice required to pay for it and at the same time saves the sinners by grace.

Grace comes to our partial obeying hearts. Grace says, “See what Christ has done for you on the cross. God has loved you with an everlasting love because Jesus took His wrath. God will never condemn you because Jesus took your condemnation.” How do we move from partial to full obedience? Love. Love precedes obedience (John 14:15). And how do we love God? We believe that He has loved us .As Henri Nouwen says, “Our deepest truth must be that we are God’s beloved. What reserve do we have to love, to give out of ourselves, if we first do not know that we are deeply and intimately loved. We can desire to become the beloved when we already know that we are the beloved.”[11] And when our hearts are captured by the wonder of all that He has done for us by grace, we can’t but help to worship and surrender all that we are and have and obey Him with our whole heart.


[1]Manning, B (2005). The Ragamuffin Gospel (25). Sisters, OR: Multnomah.

[2]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A commentary (461). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3]Duguid Iain M.  (2002). Living in the Grip of Relentless Grace (126). Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R Publishing.

[4]Waltke, B. (462).

[5]Tchividjian, Tullian (2010). Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (33). Crossway: Wheaton, IL.

[6]Merkle, Rebekah. “The Nowness of Obedience,” http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/the-nowness-of-obedience accessed 24 August 2012.

[7]Challies, T. “Sanctification is a Community Project,” http://www.challies.com/christian-living/sanctification-is-a-community-project accessed 25 August 2012.

[8]Duguid, I. (138).

[9](Ibid. 140).

[10]Ibid. (141).

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