Sanctifying Our Deepest Distress

August 22, 2017

by Iain Duguid

Should we feel sympathy for Jacob when he is tricked by Laban (Gen. 29)? Perhaps we should not feel too sorry for him. Even though from his perspective events turned out in a way that was unjust and unfair, this too was part of God’s good providence for him. This too is part of the “love that wilt not let me go,” as the hymn writer termed it. Of course, it is sometimes not immediately clear that it is good news that God will not let us go! God in love wanted Jacob to experience what it was like to be deceived by someone he trusted. That lesson would give a depth and meaning to his repentance of his earlier sin that would never have been there without it. God’s grace had laid hold of him and would not give him up. The rough, chiseling work of sanctification was in progress in Jacob’s life.

At times it must have seemed to Jacob as if his life circumstances were an anti-fulfillment of Isaac’s blessing that “you may become a company of peoples” (Gen. 28:3). Really, God? This Jacob is the one who is going to inherit the Promised Land and through whose multitude of harmonious descendants the world will be blessed? By the end of Genesis 29, he had worked his heart out for his uncle for fourteen years, and all he had earned were two wives who couldn’t get along with each other or even with him. But grace is more powerful than we ever dreamed. Though when you’re in the reality gap you may not be able to see how it will ever happen, God’s promises stand secure and will prevail. As the hymn writer put it, he will “sanctify to you your deepest distress.” He will use the most difficult and challenging experiences to polish rough diamonds such as Jacob—and you and me—until, in the end, we shine like stars. In all this, he will never waver from his promise to bless us and sanctify us—to forge in us a knowledge of our sinful hearts and utter dependence upon his grace.

Faith and Enjoying Fellowship with God

God’s purpose to bless him did not depend on the strength of Jacob’s faith.

Did Jacob understand that at this point in his life? Could he have imagined that it would all work out in the end as God had promised? We don’t really know. The text doesn’t give us a great deal of insight into Jacob’s heart at that moment. Yet what is interesting about this question is that in one sense it doesn’t matter at all, while in another sense it matters intensely. In terms of Jacob’s personal peace and happiness, it makes a great deal of difference whether he was living by faith. If his faith in the promise was strong, it would have given him a profound comfort and joy in the midst of his very challenging circumstances. It would have enabled him to rest in God’s promise, to wait expectantly to see how God would nonetheless get his way in the face of the challenges of each day. It seems more likely, however, that Jacob’s faith was still weak at this point, as evidenced by the schemes he continues to pursue in the chapters ahead. That weak faith would have robbed him of much of the peace and joy that he could have had; in that sense, his lack of faith mattered intensely. Yet in another sense, it didn’t matter at all: God’s purpose to bless him did not depend on the strength of Jacob’s faith. God was going to bring him safely to the place of blessing at the end of his journey, whether or not he believed it right then.

It is the same way for us. The strength of our faith makes absolutely no difference to whether we will receive God’s blessing. What counts is the one in whom our faith rests. If our trust is in Christ, and we are looking to him as our Lord and Savior, then God will certainly bless us, no matter how small and weak our faith is. Yet the strength of our faith makes a big difference to our enjoyment of that blessing. In large measure, our present peace and enjoyment of our relationship with God flows from how well we are able to put that faith to work in the face of our challenging circumstances.

This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Living in the Grip of Relentless Grace: The Gospel in the Lives of Isaac & Jacob (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 67–69. Used with permission of the publisher.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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