Jacob means wily. He was aptly named. He had, from the womb, both a vise grip and light fingers, a tenacity for laying hold and not letting go, and a skill for taking other people’s stuff. He rode into this world, literally, on the heels of his twin sibling Esau, and then spent his early years getting the upper hand on him – tricking and tempting his poor dull brother out of his birthright and then, most grievously, his blessing.
After Jacob, by posing as Esau, steals the blessing, this:
After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”
“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”
Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”
Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?”
Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.
His father Isaac answered him,
“Your dwelling will be
away from the earth’s richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.
You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck” (Genesis 27:30-40).
Bless me – me too, father!
That’s the heart cry of every man and every woman throughout the ages. Bless me – me too, father! We long to hear our own fathers speak words like those Isaac spoke over Jacob:
May God give you dew from heaven and make your fields fertile! May he give you plenty of grain and wine! May nations be your servants, and may peoples bow down before you. May you rule over all your relatives, and may your mother's descendants bow down before you. May those who curse you be cursed, and may those who bless you be blessed (Genesis 27:28-29).
May you be a winner. Spectacular. May every thing you touch flourish, and everyone you meet be wowed. You have what it takes. Go!
This entire story is echoed in a famous New Testament passage, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That story has been misnamed for years. It’s not mostly about the young rascal with his bent for hard drugs and fast women; it’s about the older brother, with his dour piety and rigid sense of duty. And, especially, it’s about his seething resentment over his younger brother stealing the blessing.
After the young hellion returns, only to be given more, to be met by a weeping, laughing, dancing father whose first impulse is to throw a lavish “Welcome Home” party, the older son’s bitterness erupts. His cry isn’t, “Bless me too, father.” It’s a scathing accusation: “You’ve never blessed me.” Thus:
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours…” (Luke 15:28-31).
You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
This is subversive. This changes everything. Before Jesus, blessing was scarce. It was meted out. It was rationed carefully, sparingly, grudgingly. There was generally one blessing per household: miss it, you get the dregs.
But now “out of the fullness of [Christ’s] grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another” (John 1:16; GNT).
You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
The words the Father speaks over his Son Jesus are in one sense for him alone. But in another sense, everything he has is yours. And so it is right and fitting that you, right here, right now, hear the voice of the Father say this to you, directly, personally (adjust the gender as called for):
You are my son, whom I love, whom I have chosen. With you I am well pleased. Everyone, listen to him (Mark 1:11 & Luke 9:35).
Whether or not your earthly father has ever spoken such blessing over you, your heavenly Father says it, again and again.
Out of his fullness, he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another. Everything he has is yours.
It’s folly to stone your prophets.
Yet I see it all the time: people (I include myself here) who deal with unwelcome truth by rejecting the truth-teller. The child who denounces his mother for telling him his behavior is unacceptable. The employee who grouses about her boss for giving her a less than sterling review. The wife who harangues her husband for asking her to cease her gossip, or the husband who berates his wife for asking him to be kinder.
You know the beat.
There is some device in us that resists truth and resents those who bring it. The device is very active in my own brain. I can feel my hackles rising, my breath shortening, my jaw clenching, and my mind racing as soon as I see the slightest criticism coming my way. I start thinking up excuses before I even know what I’m excusing.
One of the best disciplines I’m learning is to turn off the device. Or at least ignore it. I’m teaching myself, not just to not resist honest criticism: I’m teaching myself to actively seek it and wholeheartedly welcome it. A question I’m asking people more and more: “Is there anything about me you wish I’d change?”
And then I take a breath.
And then I get an earful.
It’s rarely as bad as I dreaded. It’s always better than I hoped. It’s usually fair and accurate. In the end, it’s always life-giving – which the Bible says is a sign of true rebuke.
So far, I’ve been talking about criticism from people who love you. From those who want your best.
But let me push this even further. What do you do with harsh criticism? With the snipes of the cranky, self-appointed prophet – the accuser in the guise of a prophet? With the attacks of your enemy? With the barbs of the one who wants the worst for you?
Here’s a hard truth: they may be right. The day King David fled Jerusalem at the advance of his son Absolom’s revolt, an old embittered enemy – Shimei – followed him and taunted him all the way. He hurled rocks and dirt at David. He unleashed a brutal litany of curses and accusations.
David’s response? I think God is telling me something here.
God sometimes uses the mouth of an enemy to tell us what we refused to hear from the mouth of a friend. When we stone our prophets, it’s actually grace when God sends a foe to take his place.
Next week. I’ll to write about responding to criticism. But I wonder if you have a story of when God has used a friend, or maybe an enemy, to tell you a hard truth?
I once got egged in Africa.
It’s not what you’re thinking. Getting egged in Canada is supremely unpleasant – a raw egg, sometimes rotten, hurled at you with contempt. It stings. It humiliates.
That’s never happened to me, and I hope it never does.
Getting egged in Africa was very different. It was not humiliating, but humbling. It did sting, I’ll admit that, but in a deep-down healing way.
Let me explain. I was preaching in a church in rural Kenya. The people were mostly poor. During the collection, every man, woman, and child brought something to the front to offer to God – some were dressed in suits and dresses, some in rags. Some were obviously well-fed, some gaunt with hunger. Some brought bills, some coins, and some – the really poor – brought food: chickens, cabbages, potatoes. And eggs.
All laid on the altar. All offered to God.
At the end of the service, the pastor auctioned the food to the wealthier people in the church. And then an amazing thing happened: many of those people gave the food away. To a little boy who came to church alone. To a single mom with hungry children. To an old man too sick to work.
And that’s when I got egged: someone gave me a basket full of brown eggs, still warm. I’m not sure what need they spied in me, if any. Generosity is like that: it has a logic all its own.
I think of that moment often – whenever I need a fresh lesson in humility, and especially when I need a heart check on generosity. Most my life I’ve practiced a thin version of generosity, where my giving is only a disguised form of purchasing – I give expecting something back, some service, some privilege, some influence, some pat on the back.
And then I got egged, and I got it: real giving is giving away.
I’ve been a Christ-follower for over 30 years. Since then, God has had excavate me deeply and rearrange me extensively. One of the deepest excavations and most extensive rearrangements has been in the area of generosity. He’s had to turn a skinflint into a philanthropist, Scrooge into Santa. I’m not better than half-way there, but I’m moving in the right direction. I’m not yet what I will be, but I’m no longer what I once was.
Here are a few things God’s taught me about generosity along the way:
- Generosity is an adventure. I have more fun giving than spending. I always feel a residue of guilt and regret when I spend too much. I never feel that when I give, no matter how much.
- Generosity is catalytic. Few things have grown me faster and deeper spiritually than giving. Let me spell out what I just said: giving is not just a sign of spiritual growth; it’s a catalyst for it. Generosity isn’t something you do once you’re spiritually mature; it’s something you do in order to become spiritually mature.
- Generosity is generative. That’s the root meaning of the word – it generates, it creates. It brings something new into existence. Ironically, we get richer, not by accumulating, but by giving.
- Generosity mirrors Jesus. At his core, God is a giver. The whole mission of Jesus was to give until, literally, he bled. Let me put this bluntly: unless you’re becoming more and more generous, you are not becoming more and more like Jesus.
- Generosity is living large. Think of anyone you know whose life is infectious – who you love to be around, who you’d love to be more like. My guess is that they’re generous – with stuff, with money, with words, with time, with encouragement. Or ask it this way: Is there one stingy person you know who you actually want to be with and be like? I can’t think of one myself.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on generosity.