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Our Perplexing Trials--—lessons from Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Paul
The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “Knowing God,” published in 1973 by Hodder & Stoughton.
What does the Bible mean when it calls God wise? In Scripture wisdom is a moral as well as an intellectual quality, more than mere intelligence or knowledge, just as it is more than mere cleverness or cunning. For us to be truly wise, in the Bible sense, our intelligence and cleverness must be harnessed to a right end. Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it.
Wisdom is, in fact, the practical side of moral goodness. As such, it is found in its fullness only in God. He alone is naturally and entirely and invariably wise. ‘His wisdom ever waketh,’ says the hymn, and it is true. God is never other than wise in anything that he does. Wisdom, as the old theologians used to say, is his essence, just as power, and truth, and goodness, are his essence---integral elements, that is, in his character.
WISDOM: OURS AND GOD’S
Human wisdom can be frustrated by circumstantial factors outside the wise person’s control. Ahithophel, David’s turn-coat counsellor, gave sound advice when he urged Absalom to finish David off at once, before he had recovered from the first shock of Absalom’s revolt; but Absalom stupidly took a different line, and Ahithophel, seething with wounded pride, foreseeing, no doubt, that the revolt was now sure to fail, and unable to forgive himself for being such a fool as to join it, went home in despair and committed suicide (2 Samuel 17 NIV).
But God’s wisdom cannot be frustrated in the way that Ahithophel’s ‘good counsel’ (verse 14) was, for it is allied to omnipotence. Power is as much God’s essence as wisdom is. Omniscience governing omnipotence, infinite power ruled by infinite wisdom, is a basic biblical description of the divine character. ‘His wisdom is profound; his power is vast’ (Job 9:4). ‘To God belong wisdom and power’(12:13). ‘He is mighty in strength and wisdom’ (36:5, KJV). ‘He has ‘great power and mighty strength. . . and his understanding no one can fathom’ (Isaiah 40:26, 28). ‘Wisdom and power are his’ (Daniel 2:20). The same conjunction appears in the New Testament: ‘Now to him that is of power to establish you according to my gospel. . . God only wise...’ (Romans 16:25, 27, KJV). Wisdom without power would be pathetic, a broken reed; power without wisdom would be merely frightening; but in God boundless wisdom and endless power are united, and this makes him utterly worthy of our fullest trust.
God’s almighty wisdom is always active, and never fails. All his works of creation and providence and grace display it, and until we can see it in them we just are not seeing them straight. But we cannot recognise God’s wisdom unless we know the end for which he is working. Here many go wrong. Misunderstanding what the Bible means when it says that God is love (see 1 John 4:8—10), they think that God intends a trouble-free life for all, irrespective of their moral and spiritual state, and hence they conclude that anything painful and upsetting (illness, accident, injury, loss of job, the suffering of a loved one) indicates either that God’s wisdom or power, or both, have broken down, or that God, after all, does not exist.
But this idea of God’s intention is a complete mistake. God’s wisdom is not, and never was, pledged to keep a fallen world happy, or to make ungodliness comfortable. Not even to Christians has he promised a trouble-free life; rather the reverse. He has other ends in view for life in this world than simply to make it easy for everyone.
What is he after, then? What is his goal? What does he aim at? When he made us, his purpose was that we should love and honour him, praising him for the wonderfully ordered complexity and variety of his world, using it according to his will, and so enjoying both it and him. And though we have fallen, God has not abandoned his first purpose. Still he plans that a great host of mankind should come to love and honour him. His ultimate objective is to bring them to a state in which they please him entirely and praise him adequately, a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love---people rejoicing in the saving love of God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing in the responsive love of people, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel.
This will be God’s ‘glory’, and our ‘glory’ too, in every sense which that weighty word can bear. But it will only be fully realised in the next world, in the context of a transformation of the whole created order. Meanwhile, however, God works steadily towards it. His immediate objectives are to draw individual men and women into a relationship of faith, hope, and love, towards himself, delivering them from sin and showing forth in their lives the power of his grace; to defend his people against the forces of evil; and to spread throughout the world the gospel by means of which he saves.
In the fulfilment of each part of this purpose the Lord Jesus Christ is central, for God has set him forth both as Saviour from sin, whom we must trust, and as Lord of the church, whom men must obey. We have dwelt on the way in which divine wisdom was manifested in Christ’s incarnation and cross. We would add now that it is in the light of the complex purpose which we have outlined that the wisdom of God in his dealings with individuals is to be seen.
GOD DEALING WITH HIS PEOPLE
Bible biography helps us here. No clearer illustrations of the wisdom of God ordering human lives can be found than in some of the scriptural narratives. Take, for instance, the life of Abraham. Abraham was capable of repeated shabby deceptions, which actually endangered his wife’s chastity (Genesis 12:10ff, 20). Plainly, then, he was by nature a man of little moral courage, altogether too anxious about his own personal security (12:12 f, 20:11). Also, he was vulnerable to pressure; at his wife’s insistence, he fathered a child upon her maid, Hagar, and when Sarai reacted to Hagar’s pride in her pregnancy with hysterical recriminations he let Sarai drive Hagar out of the house (16:5—6).
Plainly, then, Abraham was not by nature a man of strong principle, and his sense of responsibility was somewhat deficient. But God in wisdom dealt with this easy-going unheroic figure to such good effect that not merely did he faithfully fulfils his appointed role on the stage of church history, as pioneer occupant of Canaan, first recipient of God’s covenant (18:17), and father of Isaac, the miracle-child, he also became a new man.
What Abraham needed most of all was to learn the practice of living in God’s presence, seeing all life in relation to him, and looking to him, and him alone, as Commander, Defender and Rewarder. This was the great lesson which God in wisdom concentrated on teaching him. ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward’ (15:1). ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless (single-eyed and sincere)’ (17:1). Again and again God confronted Abraham with himself and so led Abraham to the point where his heart could say, with the psalmist, ‘Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing that I desire besides you, . .God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever’ (Psalms 73:25 f). And as the story proceeds, we see in Abraham’s life the results of his learning this lesson. The old weaknesses still sometimes reappear, but alongside it there emerges a new nobility and independence, the outworking of Abraham’s developed habit of walking with God, resting in his revealed will, relying on him, waiting for him, bowing to his providence, and obeying him even when he commands something odd and unconventional. From being a man of the world, Abraham becomes a man of God.
Thus, as he responds to God’s call, leaves home, and travels through the land which his descendants are to possess (12:7)---though not he himself, note; Abraham never possessed any more of Canaan than a grave (25:9-10)---we observe in him a new meekness, as he declines to claim his due precedence over his nephew Lot (13:8f). We see also a new courage, as he sets off with a mere three hundred men to rescue Lot from the combined forces of four kings (14:14 ff). We see a new dignity, as he deprecates keeping the recaptured booty, lest it should seem to have been the king of Sodom, rather than God Most High, who made him rich (14:22f). We see a new patience, as he waits a quarter of a century, from the age of seventy-five to a hundred, for the birth of his promised heir (12:4, 21:5). We see him becoming a man of prayer, an importunate intercessor burdened with a sense of responsibility before God for others’ welfare (18:23 ff). We see him at the end so utterly devoted to God’s will, and so confident that God knows what he is doing, that he is willing at God’s command to kill his own son, the heir for whose birth he had waited so long (ch. 22). How wisely God had taught him his lesson! And how well Abraham had learned it!
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, needed different treatment: Jacob was a self-willed mother’s boy, blessed (or cursed) with all the opportunist instincts and amoral ruthlessness of the go-getting business man. God in his wisdom had planned that Jacob, though he was the, younger son, have the firstborn’s birthright and blessing, and so become the bearer of the covenant promise (cf. 28:13 ff); also, he had planned that Jacob should marry his cousins Leah and Rachel and become the father of the twelve patriarchs, to whom the promise was to be passed on (cf. chs. 48, 49).
But God in his wisdom had also resolved to instill true religion into Jacob himself. Jacob’s whole attitude to life was ungodly, and needed changing; Jacob must be weaned away from trust in his own cleverness to dependence upon God, and must be made to abhor the unscrupulous double-dealing which came so naturally to him. Jacob, therefore, must be made to feel his own utter weakness and foolishness, and brought to such complete self-distrust that he would no longer try to get on by exploiting others. Jacob’s self-reliance must go, once and for all. With patient wisdom (for God always waits for the right time) God led Jacob to the point at which he could stamp the required sense of impotent helplessness indelibly and decisively on Jacob’s soul. It is instructive to trace the steps by which he did this.
First, over a period of some twenty years, God let Jacob have his head in weaving complex webs of deceit, with their inevitable consequences---mutual mistrust, friendships turned to enmity, and the isolation of the deceiver. The consequences of Jacob’s cleverness were themselves God’s curse upon it. When Jacob had filched Esau’s birthright and blessing (25:29 ff; 27:1—40), Esau turned against him (naturally!) and Jacob had to leave home in a hurry. He went to his uncle Laban, who proved to be as tricky a customer as Jacob himself. Laban exploited Jacob’s position and bamboozled him into marrying, not only his pretty daughter, whom Jacob wanted, but also the plain one with bad eyes, for whom he would otherwise have found it hard to get a good husband (29:15—30).
Jacob’s experience with Laban was a case of the biter bit, God used it to show Jacob what it was like to be at the receiving end of a swindle---something that Jacob needed to learn, if he was ever to fall out of love with his own previous way of life. But Jacob was not cured yet. His immediate reaction was to give tit for tat; he manipulated the breeding of Laban’s sheep so astutely, with such profit to himself and loss to his employer, that Laban grew furious, and Jacob felt it prudent to leave with his family for Canaan, before active reprisals began (30:25 - ch. 31). And God, who had hitherto borne Jacob’s dishonesty without rebuke, encouraged him to go (31:3, 11—13, cf. 31:1 f, 9 f.); for he knew what he would do before the journey ended. As Jacob went Laban chased after him, and made it perfectly clear that he did not want to see Jacob come back (ch. 31).
When Jacob’s caravan reached the border of Esau’s country, Jacob sent his brother a polite message to tell him of their arrival. But the news that came back made him think that Esau was bringing an armed force against him, to avenge the stolen blessing of twenty years before. Jacob was thrown into complete despair.
And now God’s time had come. That night, as Jacob stood alone by the river Jabbok, God met him (32:24 ff). There were hours of desperate, agonised conflict, spiritual and, as it seemed to Jacob, physical also. Jacob had hold of God; he wanted a blessing, an assurance of divine favour and protection in this crisis, but he could not get what he sought. Instead, he grew ever more conscious of his own state---utterly helpless and, without God, utterly hopeless. He felt the full bitterness of his unscrupulous, cynical ways, now coming home to roost. He had hitherto been self-reliant, believing himself to be more than a match for anything that might come, but now he felt his complete inability to handle things, and knew with blinding, blazing certainty that never again dare he trust himself to look after himself and to carve out his destiny. Never again dare he try to live by his wits.
To make this doubly clear to Jacob, as they wrestled God lamed him (verse 25), putting his thigh out of joint to be a perpetual reminder in his flesh of his own spiritual weakness, and his need to lean always upon God, just as for the rest of his life he had to walk leaning on a stick.
Jacob abhorred himself; with all his heart he found himself for the first time hating, really hating, that fancied cleverness of his. It had set Esau against him (justly!), not to mention Laban, and now it had made his God unwilling, as it seemed, to bless him any more. ‘Let me go.. .‘ said the One with whom he wrestled; it seemed as though God meant to abandon him. But Jacob held tight, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ (verse 26).
And now at last God spoke the word of blessing: for Jacob was now weak and despairing, and humble and dependent enough to be blessed. ‘He weakened my strength in the way,’ said the psalmist (Psalms 102:23, KJV); that was what God had done to Jacob.
There was no particle of self-reliance left in Jacob by the time God had finished with him. The nature of Jacob’s ‘prevailing’ with God (verse 28) was simply that he had held on to God while God weakened him, and wrought in him the spirit of submission and self-distrust; that he had desired God’s blessing so much that he clung to God through all this painful humbling, till he came low enough for God to raise him up by speaking peace to him and assuring him that he need not fear about Esau any more.
True, Jacob did not become a plaster saint overnight; he was not completely straight with Esau the next day (33: 14—17); but in principle God had won his battle with Jacob, and, won it for good. Jacob never lapsed back into his old ways. Limping Jacob had learned his lesson. The wisdom of God had done its work.
One more example from Genesis, different again: that of Joseph. Young Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt where, traduced by Potiphar’s venomous wife, he was imprisoned, though afterwards he rose to eminence. For what purpose did God in his wisdom plan that? So far as Joseph personally was concerned, the answer is given in Psalm 105:19 (KJV)---‘the word of the Lord tried him.’
Joseph was being tested, refined, and matured; he was being taught during his spell as a slave, and in prison, to stay himself upon God, to keep cheerful and charitable in frustrating circumstances, and to wait patiently for the Lord. God uses sustained hardship to teach these lessons very frequently. So far as the life of God’s people was concerned, Joseph himself gave the answer to our question when he revealed his identity to his distracted brothers. ‘But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God .. .‘ (45:7 f). Joseph’s theology was as sound as his charity was deep. Once again, we are confronted with the wisdom of God ordering the events of a human life for a double purpose: the individual’s own personal sanctification, and the fulfilling of his appointed ministry and service in the life of the people of God. And in the life of Joseph, as in that of Abraham and of Jacob, we see that double purpose triumphantly fulfilled.
OUR PERPLEXING TRIALS
These things are written for our learning: for the same wisdom which ordered the paths which God’s saints trod in Bible times orders the Christian’s life today. We should not, therefore, be too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now. What do they mean? Why, simply that God in his wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet, and is dealing with us accordingly.
Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience, good humour, compassion, humility, or meekness, by giving us some extra practice in exercising these graces under specially difficult positions. Perhaps he has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Perhaps he wishes to break us of complacency, or unreality, or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps his purpose is simply to draw us closer to himself in conscious communion with him for it is often the case, as all the saints know, that fellowship with the Father and the Son is most vivid and sweet, and Christian joy is greatest, when the cross is heaviest. (Remember Samuel Rutherford!) Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling.
Paul saw part of the reason for his own afflictions in the fact that God ‘comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God’ (2 Corinthians 1:4) Even the Lord Jesus ‘learned . . . obedience by the things which he suffered’, and so was ‘made perfect’ for his high-priestly ministry of sympathy and help to his hard-pressed disciples (Hebrew 5:8f.,KJV): which means that, as on the one hand he is able to uphold us and make us more than conquerors in all our troubles and distresses, so on the other hand we must not be surprised if he calls us to follow in his steps, and to let ourselves be prepared for the service of others by painful experiences which are quite undeserved. ‘He knows the way he taketh,’ even if for the moment we do not.
We may be frankly bewildered at things’ that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs. Always, and in everything, he is wise; we shall see that hereafter, even where we never saw it here. (Job in heaven knows the full reason why he was afflicted, though he never knew it in his life.) Meanwhile, we ought not to hesitate to trust his wisdom, even when he leaves us in the dark.
But how are we to meet these baffling and trying situations if we cannot for the moment see God’s purpose in them? First, by taking them as from God, and asking ourselves what reactions to them, and in them, the gospel of God requires of us; second, by seeking God’s face specifically about them.
If we do these two things, we shall never find ourselves wholly in the dark as to God’s purpose in our troubles. We shall always be able to see at least as much purpose in them as Paul was enabled to see in his thorn in the flesh (whatever it was). It came to him, he tells us, as a ‘messenger of Satan’, tempting him to hard thoughts of God. He resisted this temptation, and sought Christ’s face three times, asking that it might be removed. The only answer he had was this, ‘My grace is sufficient for you: for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ On reflection, he perceived a reason why he should have been thus afflicted: it was to keep him humble, ‘To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surprisingly great revelations’. This thought, and Christ’s word, were enough for him. He looked no further. Here is his final attitude ‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me’ (2 Corinthians 12:7—9).
This attitude of Paul is a model for us. Whatever further purpose a Christian’s troubles may or may not have in equipping him for future service, they will always have at least that purpose which Paul’s thorn in the flesh had: they will have been sent us to make and keep us humble, and to give us a new opportunity of showing forth the power of Christ in our mortal lives. And do we ever need to know any more about them than that? Is not this enough of itself to convince us of the wisdom of God in them? Once Paul saw that his trouble was sent to enable him to glorify Christ, he accepted it as wisely appointed, and rejoiced in it. God give us grace, in all our own troubles, to go and do likewise. (100-110)
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