"If," "Ands" and "Buts"

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I had a conversation with a person recently who was really angry at God. It seems that He hadn’t delivered what she expected of Him. She felt that she had fulfilled her part of the obligation and that He should have kept up His end by giving her a smooth and trouble-free life.

As I was reading Genesis 28 this morning I was reminded of that conversation.

Jacob was sent away from his home, probably to keep some distance between him and Esau, though Rebekah avoided bringing up the falling out between the brothers by telling her husband that she was concerned that Jacob would marry the wrong kind of girl if he wasn’t sent back to her hometown to find the right one (Genesis 27:46-28:1, 2). Isaac didn’t remember, or chose not to remember, that his own father had looked after that without him having ever to leave home (Genesis 24). It seems like dealing with the lies and deceit, and their consequences, was not something this family did well.

In any case, Jacob left home and began his journey to his uncle’s place. On the way he had an encounter with God. He saw a vision of angels ascending and descending from earth to heaven. Above the angels stood the Lord, who introduced Himself as the God of Jacob’s forefathers. God then made the same promise to Jacob as He had made to Abraham, ending with, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15).

It’s hard to image just how wonderful such an encounter with God would be, and just how significant the message, personally delivered by God, was. Jacob missed it.

Jacob’s response to this dream was what reminded me of the conversation I had had. He said: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my Father’s house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (28:20-22).

Isn’t that what God just said He’d do? There’s no “if” about God’s promise here, though one might expect that God would put conditions on His promise given Jacob’s poor track record thus far at doing what was right.

There wasn’t a lot of faith in Jacob’s statement. But then, Jacob had become used to lies and deceit, so I suppose he could be cut some slack if he believed that God operated that same way as he and his family were accustomed to operate.

As well, Jacob’s belief in God is conditional on God doing what Jacob wants, and that isn’t how it works—something I tried to explain to my angry friend. We can’t manipulate God, or put conditions on Him. The wagon doesn’t pull the horse. He’s the One who determines the conditions as well as the outcomes, not us. So often in Scripture we read the “if” and “then” promises of God. One of the most well-known of these is from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Faith believes that God will do what He says, no matter the circumstances He might choose to use to accomplish His promises, and that He sets the conditions for those promises. It was a lesson Jacob still had to learn, and one we often need to be reminded of as well.

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