Jacob’s life was not an easy one and his family life, both growing up, and then as an adult would fit the modern definition of “dysfunctional.” He and his mother had conspired together to defraud both his father and his fraternal twin brother. When he had to leave home out of fear that his swindled brother might actually kill him, he went to live with Laban, his mother’s brother.
Laban was a crafty fellow, and noticed that Jacob had quickly taken a shine to his younger daughter. So, Laban consented to a marriage between them, on the condition that Jacob work for him as a virtual slave for seven years first. Only at the end of that time could he then wed Rachel.
So, the blessed day finally arrived. The Bible tells us that the seven years had seemed but a few days because of Jacob’s love for Rachel. Jacob survived the wedding cere-mony, then partied like there was no tomorrow—and when tomorrow came, he found himself in bed with Rachel’s older sister.
Laban had tricked Jacob. During the festivities, old Laban had switched daughters. “Oh,” he explained, “it’s an old custom around here that the older daughter must always marry first. But seeing as how you’re family now, I’ll work a good deal for you. You wanted Rachel? No problem. Here, just sign on for another seven year stint with me and you can have her—and just because I like you so much, you can marry her right after you finish the honeymoon time with my older daughter. Her name’s Leah by the way. Remember?”
As if that wasn’t a big enough problem, once he did marry Rachel, she had trouble getting pregnant. But her sister, Leah, was having no such difficulty. So Rachel was miserable. Following the customs of the day, Jacob agreed to take her maidservant as a third wife, so that she could serve as a surrogate to bear children for Rachel. And then, almost at once, Leah became infertile too, so by the time all is said and done, Jacob wound up with a fourth wife to do the same for Leah as he was doing for Rachel.
In the course of time, however, Rachel did get pregnant. She gave birth to a son, whom she named Joseph. Some while later, she was expecting again. But it was a hard pregnancy and given the lack of modern medical technology, she died in childbirth. The son survived, however, and Jacob named him Benjamin.
Jacob showed obvious favoritism to Joseph, the first-born son of the one woman out of the four that he had actually loved. This did not endear Joseph to his other, by that time, ten brothers. The fraternal resentment grew to such an extreme that the ten brothers determined to murder Joseph. But at the last minute, rather than kill him, they realized they could be rid of him and make some money at the same time. They sold Joseph to a passing group of traders. Then they took the fancy clothes that Jacob had given Joseph, roughed them up a bit and dipped them in goat blood. They told their elderly father, “look what we found, do you suppose this means that poor Joseph has been torn to pieces by a lion or something?”
Jacob was heartbroken, and the brothers were secretly pleased. No more Joseph. Easy money. Life was good.
The story continues: the traders sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, where, through a course of events that would distract our story here, he winds up rising to favor with the Pharaoh—the king—of Egypt and becomes his second in command.
Meanwhile, famine came to the world, both in Egypt and in Palestine, where Jacob was living. Thanks to Joseph, Egypt was continuing to prosper and had food in abundance—but for a price. So Jacob sent his ten oldest sons down to Egypt with money and told them to buy pro-vision so that they wouldn’t starve to death.
When they got there, Joseph recognized them right off, though of course his brothers didn’t. It’s been twenty-five years and they know they sold Joseph as a slave and so chances are he’s dead by now anyhow; perhaps they’ve al-most convinced themselves the story they told their old man was the truth. In any case, Joseph torments them for awhile, then arrests one of the brothers, Simeon, and locks him in jail. He tells the remaining nine brothers that if they ever hope to see Simeon again, then the next time they come to Egypt they’d best bring Benjamin, their youngest brother with them. Or else. And so away the nine remaining brothers go.
When they arrived back home, they told Jacob their tale of woe about Simeon, about how harshly they were treated, and about the demand for Benjamin to meet the Egyptian governor. As if that weren’t bad enough, there seemed to have been a mix-up in the whole transaction, because though they did at least return with the food they’d been sent to get, the Egyptian authorities had apparently been shortchanged: the money they had given to pay for it all was somehow still in their bags. So now the Egyptians would be sending the bill collectors out to get them if they didn’t get that taken care of soon.
To say the least, Jacob was not at all happy. The one true love of his life was dead. Joseph, his favorite, the old-est son of his beloved, had been dead for twenty-five years. And now Simeon had been taken from him, and that monster in Egypt was demanding the last link he had to his be-loved! Beside himself with grief, we can read his reaction in Genesis 42:36 where it all comes down to this:
Their father Jacob said to them, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!”
And certainly it was the case that the circumstances of his life were unbearably bad. From his perspective, from the perspective of his sons standing around him, his complaint was fully reasonable, perfectly understandable, and self-evidently true.
And yet, the fascinating thing about his words is that we know that he couldn’t be more wrong! This, despite the fact that his words seemed so obviously true to Jacob—unassailably true, in fact. But we the readers of this episode know some things that Jacob didn’t know. In fact, we know facts that Jacob couldn’t know. We know that Joseph was not only not dead, but he was second in command in Egypt, the most powerful and most wealthy nation on the planet at that time.
The reality of Jacob’s existence is that everything could hardly be better. His favorite son has done very well for himself, thank you. Good job, and great future, with money to burn. Poor Jacob simply doesn’t know this yet. His perception, his perspective of reality, is incorrect.
We, the readers, can do nothing to alleviate Jacob’s suffering. God didn’t do anything about it either. It’ll be another year before Jacob learns the truth of what his life is really like, in contrast to his perception of it. For twenty-five years he mourned for someone who was not dead. He bemoans his fate as a miserable one, though his family is powerful and prosperous.
God does not try to justify himself. Why should he? If we love him, we will trust him. As we beg for explanations and justifications, how often do we simply sound like insecure spouses demanding to know, “did you really just go to the grocery store?” Certainly, in such circumstances ours is not the voice of the trusting lover.
If I go out to pick up a gallon of milk, my wife trusts me because she knows me and loves me. I do not have to justify myself, give answers for every action I take, every place I go, every word that I say to every person I meet. If I step on my wife’s foot, she does not assume I purposely stomped on it because I wanted to cause her pain. If she finds me snoring some afternoon in my office, she does not conclude that I’m a lazy goof-off that spent too much time with the clerk at the grocery store when I got that milk.
The Story of the Dogs
“It is quite clear that there can be no such thing as the Owner,” said the old dog. He had perched himself on the edge of the chair and surveyed the pups below them. “Con-sider the obvious fact of the existence of the Veterinarian.”
The little pups shivered in fear.
“Is there anything positive that might be said about the Veterinarian?” asked the old dog.
“Perhaps it is to teach us something?” squeaked one little pup.
The old dog laughed. “What possible thing can you learn from being jabbed and prodded and tormented in that little cage? That you don’t like being poked? I could have told you that without the experience.”
“Perhaps free-will has something to do with it?” suggested another little pup.
Again, the old dog laughed. “We assume that the Owner is all-knowing and all-powerful and that on top of that he loves us and cares for us.”
“We do receive food every day,” pointed out another small pup.
“Then why is there the suffering of the Veterinarian?” demanded the old dog. “If the Owner was all-knowing and all-powerful, couldn’t he keep us from having to endure such suffering?”
“Well certainly,” agreed the pups.
“Then why doesn’t he? If he loved us, wouldn’t he keep the Veterinarian away? In fact, why is there even a Veterinarian at all? It is obvious that the existence of the Veterinarian is incompatible with the existence of the Owner. Either that, or the Owner is not powerful, or else the Owner is not good. There is no way of reconciling the existence of the Owner in the traditional sense with the obvious reality of the Veterinarian.”
It is absolutely impossible for the dogs to ever understand why the Veterinarian is necessary, or that the Veterinarian is actually an element in the Owner’s love for them. Certainly this is not a perfect analogy, but just as the Veterinarian is nothing but horrible for a dog, perhaps the why of the existence of evil, the reality of suffering, and all that entails is simply beyond our comprehension. That it seems so “obviously” incompatible with the nature of God or even the existence of God does not mean that it necessarily is.
Living in the Dark
And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1:11-14)
Groucho Marx said that “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Winston Churchill called his periodic bouts with depression his “black dog.” When facing such dark times in life, it is hard to find enough light to read the Bible, let alone any spark of encouragement in it. When the dark times come, it is hard to focus long enough on a passage to even comprehend it. When the dark times come, it can be hard to listen, to concentrate, to do anything at all. When the dark times come, sleep does not, but one is tired constantly. It is hard to get comfortable, to even keep warm.
Having gone through the darkest, most horrible of times, I have discovered what we all know but too often forget: that there is nothing anyone can do or say to make things feel better. Words are meaningless and everything cannot help but sound like a cliché. And yet, in my suffering, I never expected anyone to be able to say anything that would make me feel better. I didn’t expect to be made happy by mere words.
As human beings, not only do we each go through our own dark times, but we experience vicariously what suffering everyone else close to us goes through. How do we manage to keep going, keep our focus, continue to do our task of being a lighthouse to those around us, when our own heart is blackened by suffering? How can we encourage others when we’re discouraged? What can we do?
“Oh really? Is that all? My, my, why didn’t I think of that?”
We must not think of this as a feeling or a warm fuzzy. God may be gracious and provide a corrective to a sour mood. But he might not. Trust is not dependent upon how we feel. I sit on the chair and trust it to hold me, without a second thought, regardless of how I feel. God should be as second nature in the trust department as a chair is. We know he’s there, we know he’s got it covered, and that should be enough.
Sometimes it will have to be.
We do not necessarily have an answer to suffering. It comes without reason. As Job had drummed into his head, our trust of God does not waver because we do not under-stand some obscure law of physics. Our failure to understand how stars shine, where the rain comes from, or how animals reproduce, does not make us question God’s goodness, faithfulness, or care. Yet, when we do not understand suffering, many of us are ready to chuck it all.
Why is that?
Because suffering hurts. Not understanding the reason for our pain seems more significant to us than not understanding quantum physics. And yet, fundamentally, there is no difference in the nature of our questions, except how strongly we want an answer to one as opposed to the other.
Consider it from the other side, too. We ask, “why me?” We look at those with blessings and wonder why God doesn’t bless us like that. But when we see someone else suffer, we never wonder why and ask God if he could please send some suffering our way too. “How unfair God! She gets to suffer and I don’t!”
That’s why Paul could write to the Philippians that he had learned to be content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11-14). He also wrote what seems at first to be ridiculous: that suffering produces perseverance (Romans 5:1-5).
What suffering most often produces is quitting and running away. I’ve seen it especially with college freshmen. They arrive at school so excited, so certain that being in school is God’s will—until they face their first exams. Then they start giving up, dropping classes, transferring. “I guess that wasn’t what I should have been doing after all,” they mutter. And yet Paul insists that suffering produces perseverance. How? As Christians, we are somehow given the opportunity of not responding in the normal, all too human way.
Even in the darkness, even when suffering, we can remember that God is there, that he is with us, and that he has not forsaken us. Like the chair, he will always support us. We don’t have to run away. Consider the interesting words of Jacob’s complaint once again: after his sons return from a trip to Egypt to get food, and they come back without Simeon, he comments that “everything is against me!” From Jacob’s perspective, his words seemed true, and he had no way of knowing any better.
When we face sickness, a death, or any of the other tragedies of life, it is easy for us to feel exactly like Jacob. And yet, the Bible tells us that our Father is God, that we will be with him forever in paradise, and that all that happens is designed for the best. God knows what is happening to us.
And we must keep in mind that paradise is not just “in the sky, by and by” but rather, as Jesus told people, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) It is a current reality. Just because Jacob was not physically present with Joseph in Egypt did not negate the present reality of Jacob’s situation, the very real fact that everything wasn’t against him, despite what he felt.
It is because it is hard to see that ultimate reality (being distracted as we are with the in our face reality of this flat tire and a cold, drenching rain) that the Bible repeatedly tells believers “encourage one another” and “be not dis-couraged”. Such words are there because the here and now reality will repeatedly buffet us and make us discouraged. Discouragement is our nature, since like Jacob, we cannot see very far or very much—not because we’re bad, but just because of our humanness.
So what do we do?
Actually, “doing” isn’t the way at all. The truth is that when we become aware of our relationship with God, of who we are and where we are in Christ, when we relax in God and can believe the word that “Joseph is not dead,” it transforms our outlook just as much as Jacob’s outlook shifted when his sons returned from Egypt the second time with the news that Joseph was not dead but alive and that he was the ruler of Egypt. Jacob didn’t believe until he shifted his focus and noticed that his sons had returned burdened down with the wealth and glory of Egypt, when he finally “heard” what they were saying. Suddenly his perspective shifted and, as the author of Genesis writes, “the spirit of their father Jacob revived.” Then he said, “I’m convinced! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.” We must remember our calling, what God has asked us to do. Live our lives. We can do no other. We must keep our eyes locked on Him, and on his message to us. We have been called to proclaim the word. You can do that whether you feel good, whether you feel bad, whether you feel up to it, whether you think it will do any good at all. The chair is always there and doesn’t change because we feel bad. It’s still a chair, and it will still hold us up. Do not give up!
We can trust God today if we choose. Jacob could have spent the previous twenty-six years of his life confident that God had a purpose and that every breath, every moment, was part of God’s purpose. Today makes all the difference. How we endure suffering has everything to do with trusting God in the moment, when we can’t see anything else but God. We do not need to look to tomorrow for deliverance. Freedom from our burden can only happen in the moment we have today, now. And that freedom belongs to us, if only we can see it—and seize it.