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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Acts of Faith That Aren’t

Some things in my life that might look like faith to the uninitiated are really just me being me.

I’m not alone in this. Like many other Old Testament saints, Jacob’s faith rates a mention in Hebrews 11. But it’s interesting to see the act of faith for which he is commended, and to consider the many acts for which he is not.

It would, of course, be foolish to think the Hebrews list of acts of faith is exhaustive: the writer concludes with the words “time would fail me to tell”, which statement strongly implies numerous acts of faith left unmentioned among which may well be a number of Jacob’s.

Worming His Way Into the Blessings of God

Thus it’s possible, for instance, that the two acts of calculated deception by which Jacob acquired the birthright and blessing rightly belonging to his brother Esau proceeded from a youthful conviction that the blessings of God were so desirable as to be worth acquiring by any means necessary. Perhaps Jacob seized on the Lord’s words to his mother Rebekah concerning the twin boys struggling in her womb, “the older shall serve the younger,” and acted to make sure God’s promise came true.

That may have been faith of a sort, in that it demonstrates the belief that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him, or it may just have been Jacob’s natural competitiveness. But the writer to the Hebrews does not say, “By faith Jacob ran an effective con on his carnal brother and wormed his way into the blessings of God,” or words to that effect. Not at all.

After all, it would be a shabby little deity whose purposes are frustrated in the absence of human duplicity and cunning, wouldn’t it?

Dream a Little Dream

Likewise, it’s certainly possible that when Jacob spent a night near Luz and dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven upon which the angels of God ascended and descended, his response to his dream and to the God who revealed himself in that moment was an act of faith. It would appear so: Jacob renamed Luz “The House of God”, set up the stone on which he had slept as a pillar and anointed it with oil, and made God a vow on the spot.

But the writer to the Hebrews passes these events by without comment. Jacob was, after all, in full negotiation mode here: “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”

You don’t trade horses with God. It doesn’t work that way. Faith accepts God’s word as stated. It is not usually concerned with spelling out the precise terms of our desired quid pro quo.

Slip Out the Back, Jack

Likewise, it’s possible that Jacob’s speedy exit from the home of his Uncle Laban in Haran was an act of faith worthy of being remembered, a response to the appearance of God who assured him, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

Could be, couldn’t it?

But if so, why sneak away? A God who says, “I will be with you” is surely able to protect his servant from attack, intimidation or even a very manipulative and persuasive uncle that one might be disinclined to tick off.

The writer to the Hebrews has nothing to say about this in any case.

The Angel Was Overcome

Likewise, it’s possible that when Jacob wrestled a man until daybreak near the ford of Jabbok, he was engaged in a notable act of faith. After all, he clung to the man begging to be blessed, and he declared afterward, “I have seen God face to face.” Surely Jacob knew something of the God he served by this time.

Probably. But the writer to the Hebrews is silent about this too, and we cannot fail to note that Jacob is still negotiating. He comes to God with conditions: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

Something in that formulation does not quite compute.

Acts of Faith That Aren’t

All these moments in Jacob’s life, it seems to me, show us a faith not quite fully formed, a nascent conviction about God that in some respects is just not quite there yet. There is just too much of the natural Jacob on display throughout his early life, even in his encounters with God. In just the same way, my life — and yours too, possibly — may be chock full of purported acts of faith that aren’t, really. They are just me being me. For instance:
  • My fellow Christians may assume I am devoted to God because I quietly and nobly put up with what they observe to be a very difficult husband, when I am really the primary author of my own misery.
  • My fellow Christians may assume my platform ministry comes from a deep commitment to the service of Christ and my fellow believers, when it actually serves as a poor man’s substitute for my unfulfilled teenage desire for rock stardom. At least people are paying attention now when I take the stage.
  • My fellow Christians may assume my constant traveling comes from a willingness to serve my fellow believers in locations where they would never get good Bible teaching, but really I just like the peace and quiet of being on the road alone. It’s easier than settling down in one place, and I prefer being a lone wolf to the complexities of trying to work effectively with other believers in my local church.
All kinds of things that aren’t faith can look like faith to other people. Only God knows the reality of it.

The Act of Faith

What is the actual act of faith for which the patriarch Jacob is commended by the writer of Hebrews? Well, here it is:
“By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.”
Hello? THAT’s a weird one. He’s referring to Genesis 48, in which Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and includes them with his own sons in right of inheritance. At this point, Jacob is 147 years old and so busted up that, like his own father Isaac, he can’t see straight to bless Joseph’s children, but he makes doing so his priority anyway.

Some may interpret Jacob’s insistence on blessing Ephraim (Joseph’s younger son) over Manasseh (the elder) as evidence Jacob had not changed a whit from the con artist that stole his own brother’s birthright and blessing. They see it as a sly nod to his own old nature.

I hope not. I don’t see it that way.

Everything That Matters

At this point, I think, Jacob is out of gas. He’s not kidding anyone anymore, least of all himself. He knows who he is, and knows he’s been blessed not because of his nature but in spite of it. “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning,” he tells Pharaoh upon their introduction.

No, Jacob has an actual message from God to pass on, and he’s faithfully doing what he was told. He is speaking prophetically:
“I know, my son, I know. [Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.”
At some point it stops being about what I can get out of God and finally becomes about what he wants of me. I think Jacob is at that point here. Ergo, faith. And commendation.

Do Not Bury Me In Egypt

The latter part of the verse comes from the tail-end of Genesis 47, in which Jacob makes Joseph promise to carry his bones out of Egypt and bury them with his fathers in Canaan. The final sentence of the chapter reads, “Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed,” where the word “bed” may legitimately be translated “staff”, and bowing is interpreted by the writer to the Hebrews as worship rather than just exhaustion.

Jacob here recognizes that everything that matters is actually back in Canaan. It is who he is and where he belongs. He completely and fully identifies with the plans and purposes of God for him and for his children, rather than trying to rejig them to suit his own desires and goals.

The man who spent his life manipulating to get where he thought he wanted to be has finally stopped and conceded that God is God.

Maybe we can do as much.

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