Hard luck stories… Everybody’s got them. Is that all they are, though? Hard luck? That’s just the way life goes, so get used to it? Not if the many promises in God’s Word are true.
Devotional Text: Psalm 66:10-12
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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 9, and this is devotional podcast number 20.
You’re listening to the song “Hard Luck Stories,” written by Richard Thompson and performed by him with his wife Linda on the duo’s 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver.
Here’s why I’m playing this song: We all can tell “hard luck stories” about our lives. Of course, the song warns that the people to whom we tell them may grow weary of hearing them. Nevertheless, we all have them. But what do we make of them? Are they truly the result of “hard luck” and that’s just the way life goes? Not if God’s many promises in scripture are true.
Take this passage from Psalm 66:10-12, for instance. The psalmist says,
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.
This scripture reminds me of the plight of Jacob in Genesis 31 and 32. After 20 years of being away from his family home in the Promised Land—of living and striving alongside Laban, his uncle, father-in-law, and nemesis, God tells Jacob, in chapter 31, verse 3, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”
And Jacob obeys. He packs up his wives, children, servants, and livestock. He leaves his Uncle Laban. And heads home. Even though doing so, as far as he knows, may cost him his life. The last time he saw his brother, Esau, after all, Esau was hell-bent on murdering him—because Jacob had cheated him out of his inheritance and his blessing. He’s desperately afraid. His fear isn’t alleviated when he sends messengers ahead of him, who report back to him: “We saw your brother, Esau. And good news! He’s coming to greet you. And he’s bringing with him about 400 of his closest friends.”
Jacob, ever the conniver, divides his people and property into two camps and sends one camp on ahead: “That way,” Jacob reasons, “if Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” Genesis 32:8. He also arranges a bribe for Esau—offering him a large share of his livestock and servants.
Well, that’s the same old Jacob—not exactly repenting of his sins, but living by his wits, manipulating circumstances so that they work out in his favor. Had he even considered saying to Esau, “I’m sorry”?
But not so fast! We do see a different Jacob in verse 9 and following: Jacob, for the first time (as far as we know), prays his first real prayer. Listen to this:
O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, “Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,” I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”
I like the way Jacob reminds God in two places of the promises he made to him—you know, in case God forgot.
Still, it’s a good prayer. Faith and fear often go hand in hand, and God is O.K. with that. More than O.K. God happily uses fear to drive us to our knees in prayer. In fact, if we’re honest, we do some of our best praying when we’re afraid. And there’s no question that Jacob is afraid. So if fear is what it takes for Jacob to trust in God, then fear is what God will use.
And maybe you know what happens next? Jacob sends his family across a ford in the Jabbok River, and he is left alone. But not for long. Without explanation, a man appears in v. 24 and wrestles him all night. Who is this man? We learn later that it’s God himself—appearing in human form. I agree with Charles Spurgeon and many others that it’s a pre-incarnate Christ, but that’s not important now. Jacob is wrestling God—or, I should say, God graciously allows Jacob to wrestle him—and Jacob won’t let go until he secures from God his blessing. And God gives Jacob his blessing, but not before he “touches” Jacob’s hip socket and dislocates his hip—a permanent injury, it turns out—after which Jacob would limp for the rest of his life.
Many people believe that this wrestling match represents Jacob’s conversion; here is the decisive change in Jacob’s heart, at long last. From this point forward, Yahweh will be his God, and he will faithfully follow him, rather than just use God for his own benefit.
But that doesn’t seem quite fair: to Jacob’s credit, he already obeyed God at the risk of his life and had prayed a very faithful prayer, acknowledging God’s mercy and steadfast love toward him.
I like what pastor Tim Keller has to say about this:
In all the teaching you’ve ever gotten, in all your expectations about how God operates, how do you expect God to respond to a man who has obeyed him at the risk of his life—has put his life on the line to obey his Word and follow his will—and is seeking him in prayer, and who’s filled with fear and at the end of his rope? How does God respond to a man who’s utterly obedient, seeking him in prayer, scared and at the end of his rope? What does God do to a man like that?
He clobbers him. He knocks him down, literally! He assaults him. He puts a hammer lock on him. And maims him for the rest of his life!
This is not, Keller says, a God of liberal religion who merely loves and accepts us for who we are. But this is also not the God of a typical conservative church, either:
You know why? Because what you hear there is, “If you obey—and you obey to your own hurt—and you do everything right according to God’s will, and you pray and have your quiet time and go to church and study your Bible and do everything right, God will… clobber you? Knock you down? Cripple you for the rest of your life?
This is not a God of anybody’s religion. This is not a God of anybody’s imagination. Why is this text here? It must have happened. Who would have thought it up? What kind of idiot would think of a God like this? Who could have imagined a God like this? This must have happened. This must be a real God because nobody else could have invented him.
It takes some getting used to the way God operates in our lives and on our lives—not the god we invent, not the one who conforms to our expectations, but the One who is real. He is the One who “tests us like silver,” according to the psalmist. Then he personifies this process of refining silver when he says that God catches us in his net; places a crushing burden on our backs; lets men ride over our heads; and sends us through fire and water.
This sounds incredibly painful. If we escape, like Jacob, with only a lifelong limp we should count ourselves lucky.
To what end does God test us like this? So that, ultimately, he can bring us to a “place of abundance.” This doesn’t necessarily or even often mean a place of material abundance, mind you. It is that place, however, where God’s love for us will be made manifest, whether on earth or in heaven. Remember: this world is not a place intended for our happiness; it’s a place of training and correction. Training and correction… for eternity.
So God will allow us to suffer and redeem our suffering… not in spite of his love for us… But as a consequence of his love for us. So… getting back to the song I mentioned at the beginning: We Christians need to learn to reinterpret our “hard luck stories.” That’s not what they are—or at least not all they are!
Few Christian thinkers have described God’s purpose for suffering as eloquently as C.S. Lewis, from his masterpiece The Problem of Pain:
When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of the terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.
1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940; 1966), 39-40.