[Apologies if you got this last week via email – I was trying to be too clever and confused myself!]
In last week’s post, we began looking at the blessings God was pouring out on Isaac, and the frustration of the Philistines either shooting themselves in the foot (feet?) or making the Isaac-ites move on, or both. The point I didn’t have time to look at was the tricky topic of what it means when God is blessing you.
At the beginning of the chapter (Genesis 26) God told Isaac, “live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you” (vv2-3). So, Isaac stayed in Gerar, and the Lord did indeed bless him. At one point he planted crops and reaped 100-fold that same year (v12) – incredible bounty, particularly in a time of famine. He became very wealthy, both financially and in terms of flocks, herds and staff (vv13-14). And then the king asked him to move away.
What do we do when that happens? Have you ever been in a place where your life, work, ministry or whatever is flourishing and God – either through circumstances or clear direction – has told you to move away? What do you do with that? When God is blessing something, it is incredibly tempting (and totally natural) to assume that we should stay and continue doing the same thing. Yet God often calls us away to something else.
Look at CT Studd and Eric Liddell. God gave them incredible success in their respective sporting careers, yet they left the trophies and the laurel wreaths behind and went as missionaries to China. The same attitude is seen in countless people down the ages who have walked away from ‘blessing’ in order to follow God to the next thing on his agenda.
We have a tendency to assume that if we are being ‘blessed’ (in the sense of ‘seeing material or ministry success, feeling happy, thriving etc’), we must be in the right place doing the right thing, whereas if we are experiencing hardship, or even simply dryness and lack of apparent fruitfulness the opposite must be true. Of course, we know that that mindset simply isn’t borne out by the experiences of some of the Bible’s most faithful men and women, but it’s a hard expectation to break.
It’s also incredibly hard to build up any kind of biblical precedent by which to discern whether blessing means ‘stay’ or ‘go’, and whether persecution means ‘stay and resist/overcome’ or ‘move away’. Annoyingly, for those of us who like neat flow charts and action plans, the only way to know is to know God well enough to hear his voice and follow his promptings, then trust that you heard right when things don’t seem to go ‘well’.
My Bible reading notes for Scripture Union began with the episode in Genesis 24 where the servant is sent back to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Isaac. He is very clearly led to Rebekah, and it is obvious that she is God’s choice for Isaac. Yet in chapter 25 we find that Rebekah is barren. In fact, though the Bible seems to take pains to bury the fact, she is barren for twenty years before Isaac’s prayers are answered (Gen 25:20, 21, 26). How much must they have questioned God and themselves in those twenty years? What must the servant have thought? Had he heard wrong? Abraham was supposed to be the father of many nations, but his wife had been barren, and now his son’s wife was barren… How was this the fulfillment of God’s promise?
Thankfully, Isaac seems to have learned this lesson from his father’s mistake (though he wasn’t always so quick off the mark, as we’ll see next week), and doesn’t go sleeping with Rebekah’s maids to try to help God along, but waits and prays and is eventually rewarded. The point is, though, that being ‘right in the centre of God’s will’ and ‘having everything go smoothly’ are simply not the same thing at all.
I also wonder if it’s significant that Abraham took great pains not to let Isaac go back to his home country to find a wife himself (Gen 24). Could it be that although the blessing and God’s provision might be behind you, going back is not the way to move forward (as it were)? How differently might things have turned out for Jacob and Rachel (and Leah) if Isaac had taken the same precautions for his son? Though clearly Rachel’s barrenness somewhat kickstarted the whole ‘nation of Israel’ thing.
I don’t know what the lesson is here, really. Maybe that’s why I never hear sermons on it. Perhaps it’s simply that just because God has led you to water – to blessing and flourishing – that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the right (or at least the final) place. Keep moving forwards.