In times of “dark providences” (as a former pastor used to call them), many times our circumstances seem to be in complete contradiction with what we think they ought to be, or even what we have read as promises to us by God in Scripture. No one, I think, experienced this more than Jacob. If there was ever anyone certain to inherit blessing, he was one–child of Isaac, grandchild of Father Abraham, benefactor by faith of God’s promises (even as the younger son…remember the whole Esau episode?). Yet just when he is seemingly about to marry and settle down within the land, Isaac kicks him out, sending him to Paddan-aram under orders not to marry a Canaanite (Gen 28).
At first blush, especially as those reading from the other side of history who know just how wicked those nasty Canaanites were, this request doesn’t sound too horrible…unless we stop to think about all that Jacob had to leave in order to marry a woman (actually women) who were simply different kinds of pagans than the Canaanites! He left his family, his household, his inheritance, his means of support, his God (seemingly)…essentially everything he knew and had…and would not return for nearly 80 years. Surely Jacob must have asked God, “Why me? How can this be? What about your promises? What’s the deal!!!”
Writing on this account in Genesis, Luther has some wonderful words of counsel for any of us who face circumstances where it seems God has forsaken his promises…or even forsaken us. In a nutshell, this lengthy and wonderful passage exhorts us to believe God’s Word, trust in his invisible work, and cling to him by nurturing our faith in Word and Sacrament. It is definitely worth reading in its entirety:
This, then, is one of the wonderful examples of the divine government by which God shows that He requires confidence in His Word and promises, even if the opposite of what is contained in the promise happens. He does so in order that we may accustom ourselves to trust in God in things that are absent and are placed far out of our sight. For Jacob has the promised blessing, but he has it in accordance with faith, which is a matter of things that are hoped for, not of things that are visible (cf. Heb. 11:1). Thus I believe that God, who promises, loves me, has regard for me, cares for me, and will hear me; and this I regard as something present and at hand, although it is not visible. Therefore Jacob lives in faith alone. He is wretchedly cast out, is lonely and destitute, and has nothing in his hand but a staff and a morsel of bread in a little sack.
This is the beginning of the blessing, for what is begun through faith is not yet in one’s possession but is hoped for. Thus God has promised us eternal life and has given absolution and Baptism. This grace I have at hand through Christ; but I await eternal life, which is promised in the Word. Those who live by this Word are saintly and blessed; but the godless live only by bread, not by the Word. Therefore they do not believe and do not wait for eternal life. Jacob waited 77 years for the blessing that was to come. Now, after he has obtained it, he is forced to go into exile and begins his rule and priesthood with a very great cross, with a very great calamity, and with extreme poverty. He is forced to be cut off from his very dear parents, and his parents are cut off from their dearly beloved son for such a long time.
If a person looks at and hears this only in passing, he considers it unimportant and easy. But one learns by experience how difficult and full of trials it is to leave parents, a blessing, and an inheritance, and to flee to a place of wretchedness and poverty. This is the wonderful government of God which the flesh can by no means bear, for it is a government that consists in faith. But this is written as an example for us in order that we may learn to depend on the invisible God and to be satisfied with the fact that at all events we have the comprehensible Word of this invisible and incomprehensible God. And let us order our lives in such a way that we have nothing from our invisible Creator but the Word and the sacraments, likewise parents and magistrates, through whom this life is governed in accordance with the Word. And let us wait for the promise itself in hope and long-suffering, for God will not lie. Nor will He deceive us. To be sure, the flesh believes with difficulty; for it is accustomed to things that are at hand and is moved by the things it feels and sees. But the flesh must be crucified and mortified; it must be withdrawn from the things perceived by the senses and must learn, in order that it may be able to live and act in accordance with the things that are invisible and are not perceived by the senses. (Luther’s Works, 5:183)
Amen! Thanks be to God!