Fear, Forgiveness, and the Gospel
When we talk about waiting, we often refer to waiting for something we want or desire, but what about the instances when we are awaiting judgement, or consequences, or impending doom. How do we respond? Jacob had originally gone to Haran to flee from his brother’s wrath, because he had stolen Esau’s blessing by deceiving his father Isaac. Previously, he had taken Esau’s birthright in a soup exchange, so this deception was the icing on the cake. Picking up the story in Genesis 32, it’s now been 20 years since they have seen each other, and Jacob is on his way back home. He’s terrified of his brother and expecting him to retaliate in some way.
Fear can paralyze us; it can consume us. It can cause us to make illogical and impulsive decisions, acting on emotion. When we live in fear of the future, it robs us of the joys of today. Maybe those fears are irrational or maybe they are well-warranted. In other words, perhaps what you fear is completely ridiculous and will most likely never happen, or what you fear is reasonable and will actually come to pass. Whatever the case, allowing it to paralyze you and prevent you from living now is not the answer. Maybe you do get sick and end up on your death bed. Maybe you will lose your job or lose your house because you can’t afford the mortgage. Or maybe your marriage is falling apart and will end in divorce. Maybe people will find out the truth about you and you'll face rejection. Maybe you’ll fail out of school, or lose the big promotion, or make a complete fool of yourself during a presentation. Maybe your child will end up in the hospital or addicted to drugs or cut ties with you. Maybe all of your fears will come true. But even in all of those things, is God still good? Is He still faithful? Does He still love you? Do you still have a hope beyond this world?
The band I Am They recently released a new album. I was listening to their song titled I Lift My Eyes and heard this lyric: “All my fears came true, but they’re no match for you.” It caught my attention because the emphasis wasn’t on the fact that God delivered or spared them from the trials, the sufferings, or the pain, but that even in the midst of all of those things, God was still greater. Bad things happen. Life can be brutal. We can and do experience pain and loss, but God is still greater. Even if all of our deepest fears do come to pass, the Lord is still with us in the midst of those things and He is still good.
In Genesis 32 Jacob sends messengers ahead to Esau in attempts to appease his brother and prevent retaliation. He sent gifts in the hopes of buffering the hatred and hostility he was expecting from Esau. When the messengers returned, they informed Jacob that Esau was already on his way to meet him with an army of 400 men. So naturally Jacob was terrified and convinced that his fear about his brother coming to murder him was coming to pass. So what does he do? He goes before the Lord in prayer:
“Then Jacob prayed, ‘O God of my grandfather Abraham, and God of my father, Isaac—O Lord, You told me, ‘Return to your own land and to your relatives.’ And You promised me, ‘I will treat you kindly.’ I am not worthy of all the unfailing love and faithfulness You have shown to me, your servant. When I left home and crossed the Jordan River, I owned nothing except a walking stick. Now my household fills two large camps! O Lord, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau, I am afraid that he is coming to attack me, along with my wives and children. But You promised me, ‘I will surely treat you kindly, and I will multiply your descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore, too many to count.”” Genesis 32:9-12
Jacob reminded himself about the promises of God. He knew God had promised to treat him kindly and to multiply his descendants. He chose to focus on the Lord rather than upon his fear. He acknowledged that he was afraid, but he took that fear and matched it against the Word of God. He also went humbly before the Lord as His servant, recognizing God’s abundant grace and provision. He didn’t deserve it and yet God gave; quite a change in attitude from the manipulator and deceiver who was willing to do anything to get what he wanted.
Our fears might be very real and reasonable, but when we take them and match them up against the Word of God, we realize that they have no weight, no substance. Why? Because God has promised to work all things together for good, even those things that try to destroy us. He makes beauty from ashes, so even when our life has gone up in flames, He restores and rebuilds. He’s already defeated sin and death, so even the grave has no grip on us. “All my fears came true, but they were no match for You.”
Later, either that night or the next, Jacob wrestles with the Lord and refuses to let go until He blesses Jacob. This shows Jacob’s desperation. No amount of wealth, cunning or crafty behavior, or smooth talking will deliver him, and he knows it. He’s letting go of the old man and allowing the Lord to transform him into a new man (going from Jacob—heel catcher, supplanter, layer of snares—to Israel—God prevails, Prince with God). He has been humbled by the Lord and is learning to recognize that all that he has comes from Him. He can’t do this life apart from the Lord.
Whatever fear you are facing, whatever hardship stands in your midst, may you, like Jacob, recognize that the Lord Himself is your answer. Cling to Him. Look to Him for strength. Rest your hope in the promises of his Word and believe Him when He tells you that He is good and faithful and that nothing in this world is any match for Him. Deliverance may not come the way that you hope for or expect, but never forget that He has already delivered you from your greatest enemy when He laid down His life for you on the cross.
I will close with this quote from R.C. Sproul: Why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and He volunteered.”
I don’t think I’ve ever really taken the time to reflect on Esau, but his response to Jacob’s return in Genesis 33 is quite remarkable and a beautiful example of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Rewind 20 years: Jacob, his brother, had disguised himself, lied, and deceived their father into giving him the blessing. Prior to that, Jacob used Esau’s desperation and hunger against him to steal the birthright. In all estimation, Esau had a right to be angry. His brother was a sly, cunning, deceitful, selfish man who did whatever it took to get what he wanted, even at the expense of those closest to him. Genesis 27:41 gives us a glimpse into the Esau we knew 20 years ago, after Jacob had stolen the blessing. “From that time on, Esau hated Jacob because their father had given him the blessing. And Esau began to scheme: ‘I will soon be mourning my father’s death. Then I will kill my bother, Jacob.’”
Esau was filled with hated, even to the point of plotting his brother’s murder. Jacob had every reason to fear Esau’s reaction to his return 20 years later. He had no idea what to expect from Esau because, the last time they had seen each other, Esau wanted Jacob dead. Now, here they are, meeting again for the first time in two decades. Genesis 33:3-4 “Then Jacob went on ahead. As he approached his brother, he bowed to the ground seven times before him. Then Esau RAN to meet him and EMBRACED him, and THREW HIS ARMS AROUND his neck, and KISSED him. And they both wept.”
WHAT?!?! What an unbelievable transformation! What forgiveness! What love! Such humility on both ends. This is how we are to respond as Christians when we are wronged. Jacob didn’t deserve this response from Esau. He had treated his brother poorly, yet Esau chose to forgive, to let go of his bitterness, to lay down his right to retribution.
Furthermore, Jacob came offering gifts galore. “’And what were all the flocks and herds that I met as I came?’ Esau asked. Jacob replied, ‘They are a gift , my lord, to ensure your friendship.’ ‘My brother, I have plenty,’ Esau answred. ‘Keep what you have for yourself’” (Genesis 33:8-9). Esau does eventually accept the gift because Jacob insists, but wow! Jacob had taken Esau’s birthright and blessing. Esau could have easily adopted the attitude of ‘You better give me those things! I deserve them! After all you’ve taken from me, that’s the least you could do.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he chooses to focus on the abundance he already has. He chose contentment.
Finally, to top it off, he offers up some of his men for protection for Jacob and his family during the last part of their journey. Again, he could’ve gone with indifference: “I don’t care what happens to you. If you’re robbed or mauled by a wild animal or lose all your possessions or your family to some sort of tragedy, you’re probably just getting what you deserve.” Instead, he offered up his own resources to ensure his brother’s well-being. What a change from the man we read about 20 years prior. What a lesson in forgiveness.
It’s easy to hold on to bitterness, to stay angry, to take on the “I deserve better” mentality. It’s easy to demand our rights, to wish ill on another’s behalf, or to treat them with indifference when we’ve been wronged. But Esau didn’t do that. He chose forgiveness, even before Jacob confessed wrong-doing. Esau let love win. He RAN to his brother and EMBRACED him. May we do the same when we’ve been wronged. Maybe they won’t acknowledge their fault in the matter. Maybe they won’t receive our love or forgiveness. Maybe they’ll refuse reconciliation. But we are still called to forgive, to love, and to bless those who curse us, because that’s what Christ did for us. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Don’t hold on to your bitterness; it’s never worth it.
“’He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the king of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him”’ (Matthew 27:42).
Is our goal to convince people so that they acknowledge that we are right, or is our goal to see people saved? If Jesus had used His power and come down from the cross, maybe people would have been convinced of His power. Maybe they would have believed His words and acknowledged that he was the King (but that doesn’t mean that they would have submitted to His authority). But if Jesus had come down from the cross, we would still be dead in our sins with no hope of salvation.
Jesus endured mockery, false accusations, taunting, immense suffering, and a wrongful death. People did not believe He was God, they didn’t acknowledge His sovereignty, and they failed to recognize that He was enduring it all for their sake. Yes, the world will misunderstand us and mistreat us. We will undergo hardship and persecution. But will we endure it willingly for the sake of the gospel? We don’t have to defend ourselves. We don’t have to win every argument and we don’t have to convince people into the kingdom of God. We are called to love; to bless those who persecute us; to love our enemies. That is the example Christ left us. He didn’t have to prove Himself to the world because His purpose was not to conquer it but to save it. Keep the message of the gospel at the center of all that you do. Remember that the goal is to see people saved; it’s not to win an argument.