Following up on something I shared recently in our church about Hebrews 12, I have continued to meditate on how we need to renew our minds to see God's discipline as His love. This requires a radical shift in our thinking, because to our natural man, difficulty is not pleasant, but painful. Even Hebrews 12 admits that! And yet the Bible is clear: the Lord disciplines us out of love, to produce the life of Christ in us. He wants to grow us up from being babes in our faith to being trustworthy sons and daughters in the Kingdom of God.
Meditating on this reminded me of a sermon I read* several months ago on the story of Jacob working for Laban in Genesis 29-31, and I was blessed to consider this passage afresh in the light of the conviction to renew my mind to see God's discipline as His love. God allows difficult circumstances -- personified in this story in the character and behavior of Laban -- into our lives to produce Christlike character, and it's important to learn from Jacob how we can cooperate with God under such discipline to see His purpose, of growing us up in our faith, accomplished.
If there's one moment that perfectly encapsulates Laban's relationship with Jacob, it is when he says to Jacob, “Complete the week of this one (Leah), and we will give you the other (Rachel) also for the service which you shall serve with me for another seven years.” (Genesis 29:27)
After Jacob holds up his end of the bargain (working seven years for Laban to secure Rachel's hand in marriage), Laban deceives him and uses his love for Rachel as unjust leverage to get him to serve twice as long as agreed! This isn't an outlier. It's representative of the pattern of Laban's interactions with Jacob. In Genesis 31:7, Jacob says that during his time under Laban, Laban cheated him and changed his wages 10 times! So he's definitely not an "easy" guy to work for.
And yet, it was Laban -- this hard, cruel, tough man -- who was appointed by God to be over Jacob. God appointed him for His purposes of discipline, to produce godly character in Jacob.
It's tempting to only want "nice" coworkers and to only be around "nice" people. But God knows that sheltering us wont help us grow in Christlikeness. So God will gladly use people with faults, and even their outright sin, to mature us in Christ. Remember Joseph's testimony to his brothers who did him wrong? "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good..." (Genesis 50:20)
I heard of a military man telling how God taught him self control. "Day after day he had to visit a superior officer who provoked him to the last degree; and every step of the way as he went to meet this man, he had to cry, "God help me! God help me!" And God did help him; and under that sore and constant provocation, he acquired Christian self control."*
God doesn't always deliver us FROM difficulties; often, He wants to deliver us IN the difficulties. To deliver us from the sinful attitudes that difficult moments are prone to reveal. This is God's way, if we will cooperate with His chosen discipline.
We learn a lot about how to cooperate with God's discipline from Jacob's testimony in Genesis 31. From what his story, we can learn a few reasons why he grew under Laban, the discipline God had appointed in his life:
He knew that God was with him in the midst of the trial (v5: "The God of my father has been with me")
Jacob believed that God is IN the discipline He appoints -- He was with Jacob during all his years with Laban -- and so Jacob could rest in His presence with him, even despite Laban's treachery. "It is better to be with the worst Laban on God's earth, and have God there too, than to live with an angel without His presence."*
He didn't compromise under heavy burden (v6: "I have served your father with all my strength")
Jacob never allowed Laban's poor treatment to affect the quality of his work, or to turn him from his uprightness. It's a good question to consider: when I'm in a difficult circumstance, am I concerned with getting out, or being upright, and conducting myself as a child of God, in a manner worthy of my calling? Am I more concerned with Laban and his unfairness, or the quality of my work despite the unfairness? Jacob was able to say that he served with all his strength, and that is one reason he grew!
He knew God was protecting him under His discipline (v7: "God did not allow him to hurt me.")
Jacob trusted God, and knew that Laban was permitted to do him no harm. Even when it looked like Laban might harm Jacob, God appeared to Laban in a dream to warn him! "The one person in the world who won't harm you is your Laban. God is with us in the presence of our appointed Laban, stepping in in the moment he threatens to do us any real hurt."*
Just like Jesus was able to say to Pilate, "you would have no authority over me UNLESS it was given..." Jacob knew God was ultimately above this difficult master, and he was able to grow because of that trust
He did not run from the difficulty, but waited for God to lead him out (v3: "Then the Lord said to Jacob, 'Return to the land of your fathers...'")
The Lord is the one Who initiated Jacob's departure from Laban. Jacob never ran away from Laban. In chapter 30, he asked for leave once his "contract" was up, but Laban said no, and Jacob continued to submit. What I see is that Jacob waited until he had the clear go-ahead from the Lord to leave this season of discipline.
One way to grow is to not run from the difficulty, but instead allow the Lord to open the door and lead us out. If God is with us in the difficulty, we should be very careful to not leave of our own direction. Otherwise we risk leaving God behind us!
"Don't interfere with God's discipline; don't be running away from your Laban, don't be turned from the uprightness of your heart. It is only through enduring what taxes you to the very utmost, God being with you, that God can make a Christian man of you. These people who are always running away from their Labans, always wanting to be with the nice and pleasant people, what do they ever accomplish for God, or for the world?"*
As I reflect on the story, and on the difficult circumstances in my own life, which I trust that God has appointed for my discipline, I am left with a couple of overarching thoughts:
First: I hope even the difficult people in my life, my "Laban's," so to speak, might be aware of how much they have been blessed by the presence of God with me, because of how I conduct myself in the fear of God. I see this was definitely the case with Laban and Jacob:
“But Laban said to him, "If now it pleases you, stay with me; I have divined that the LORD has blessed me on your account."” (Genesis 30:27)
Would my "Laban" testify that I have increased his wealth? Not materially, but spiritually speaking? Would the difficult folks in my life cling to me as Laban did to Jacob if I wanted to leave, because they can't help but acknowledge how much they have been blessed on my account? I hope they would, and know I have a long way to go.
Second: Prior to this recent study, I've always thought Laban was the lucky one. To have such a faithful, uncomplaining, talented man such as Jacob working for next to nothing! What a great deal for Laban! But meditating this passage in light of God's loving discipline has shown me how Jacob was the truly blessed one because he got something even better than material riches: God's appointed discipline formed godly character in him!
And I want to view all of my difficulties like that. The difficult circumstances of my life (my "Laban's") are appointed by God to produce the life of Christ in me. I want to have the expectation that, like Jacob, I too will be blessed through the season I spend in the difficulty -- in terms of partaking of the divine nature -- even more than the blessing I hope to bring while I'm there.
*all quotes from the sermon, "The God of Jacob" by C.G. Moore, 1908