Since there’s more reading than usual today, let’s ease you in with a nice movie clip, from the movie October Sky. There’ll be another clip later on, but for now, think about this:
• What relation do you see between the boys’ failures and the adjustments they make?
• How do you usually respond when your plans don’t go… well, as planned? Give up, try harder, slog through it, turn negative, blame others, blame God?
For the last several Wednesdays, we’ve focused on how to develop and share a God-given vision, and how to stay focused on the great things God wants to do through us and those with us. For the next few weeks, though, we’re going to shift the focus and talk about the tough stuff. Because once this all gets real, things don’t follow the plans you had in your head. Things go wrong, or at least look wrong. Even when we’ve done our best, we might begin to wonder if we’ve disobeyed God somehow, or feel like we’ve done everything right but failed God anyway.
“I have discovered that it is so much harder than you think to create something out of nothing. Things happen that you never imagined would happen to you,” says Ruth Haley Barton in her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. “[Y]our own foibles [are] so much more real, more deeply ingrained and more obvious to others than you ever knew.”
In fact, there might well be a point in time—if not a long stretch of it—where you’ll stop and ask yet again, “God, was that really You?” It’s always OK to ask God that question. We need to keep talking with God, especially when we don’t understand. But once God answers “yes,” it’s our job to keep walking, even if we’re not sure where God’s leading us. Even if things aren’t going the way we planned. Even when our feelings fail us and we think we’re not good enough to do what God’s called us to do. God knows better. He called us to this. God’s plan is always better than ours, and we need to trust God so we can discover more about what His plan is.
We’ve already stepped out in faith. That’s what this latest Wednesday series—really, our entire Christian walk—has been about. Now, we start learning how to keep walking, even when we have trouble seeing the details of God’s plan, and why it’s worth it.
Our case study for today comes from the life of Jacob—who God changed into Israel. And that transformation was something only God could bring about. You’re probably familiar with much of his story, but this session will hopefully shed some new light on it. On your own time, read Genesis 25-50 in that new light, and find out what else God might want to show you through Jacob’s life. As a bonus, you’ll also read about his son Joseph, whose own vision from God didn’t exactly go according to what he’d have planned either.
For now, we’re going to look at a few key passages, then look at what changes God might have to make in us and our plans—and maybe already has. So tab up, and let’s start with Genesis 28:10-22.
• What does God promise Jacob here? How would you have reacted to all this?
• Look at verses 16-17 and 20-22 again. How could Jacob’s fear and amazement of the night before have changed so quickly into “If you do this, this, and this, God, then I’ll do this for you?”
• How are we guilty of trying to negotiate God’s blessings with him, especially when we’re in over our heads? Is it always wrong? Why or why not?
Now, let’s jump more than 20 years into Jacob’s future. To give a brief summary of what’s happened in between: Jacob runs away to uncle Laban’s; falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel, and agrees to work seven years for her hand in marriage; gets tricked by Laban on his wedding night into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah; works another seven years for Rachel, and then another seven years after that in which his wages are changed 10 times (presumably not for the better), before he finally escapes with his family and all the blessings he’s tricked Laban out of.
And now, Jacob’s about to meet his brother Esau—the same brother he ran away from in fear for his life just prior to our last passage. So now, look at Genesis 32:1-12, 32:21-32, and 33:1-9, then reflect on these questions:
• What different responses does Jacob have to his circumstances?
• What do those responses reveal about Jacob? God? Us?
Jacob wrestled with “the Man,” who obviously had better things in mind for the man who became Israel. Clearly, though, Jacob still had difficulty believing that. Maybe you’re in the same situation right now. More than anything, what you need to know is that God is still in this vision.
Whether you’ve reached this point yet or not, we always need to remember which parts of this vision are truly God’s, so we can keep trusting him even when we can’t understand why things are going the way they are. Several weeks ago, we gave ourselves a reality check, to determine whether this “vision thing” was really a God thing or not. So let’s step back and give ourselves another reality check. We’re going to look at the same questions, but in terms of what that looks like now. Then, just as you did the first time, come up with one action point—one thing you’re going to do in response to what God’s showing you now. Here we go—again:
• As I’m pursuing this vision, am I sensing God revealing more about the things he truly cares about?
• Will this vision, once it’s realized, reveal more about God to others, or just more about me?
• Which parts of this vision were clearly not my idea (even if I’m excited about the idea now)?
• Have I tried letting go of this idea, only to find God bringing it up again?
• Would I still want this to happen even if someone else did it—or even if I did it and someone else got the credit?
Now, whether you did this exercise back here or not (and if so, review your answers from back then), think about this:
• What’s changed about this vision so far? What’s changed about you?
• As specifically as you can share, what have you been wrestling with as this vision has unfolded?
• What do you need to hear from God right now, to be reminded that this is still God’s idea?
Jacob had an incredible vision of God’s plan for his life. But he also saw a lot of failure and frustration before that plan was fulfilled. Again, read Jacob’s full story on your own time. Take the time to appreciate what God did in Jacob’s life, and the far-reaching results of that.But for now, let’s jump ahead another 40-plus years and look at how God fulfilled his promises to Jacob—and fulfilled the promise He saw and created in Jacob.
Read Genesis 47:7-10, 48:2-4, and 49:28–50:9. Then think about this: One moment Jacob’s years are “few and painful”; the next he’s talking about God’s blessings; and then he’s passing those blessings onto his sons—the nations God promised him. Think also about our first scene here: Jacob walks in, blesses the most powerful man in the world at that time, and then just leaves.
• If the Jacob of our earlier passages had met Pharaoh, what do you think would have happened?
• What point of your strength do you think God may be trying to break, so He can use you to truly be a blessing to others?
OK, back to October Sky we go. Watch this. Then: Think about the first scene you watched (and go back and watch it now if haven’t already). Think about Homer’s brother and everyone else watching. Think about what’s going through the boys’ heads just before the launch.
• How does success tend to erase all of the fears and concerns we have, once we’re on the other side of a challenge?
• What help do you need right now in “keeping your eyes on the prize”?
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this session, and there’s always more to go. We never see the whole picture. We want to. We think it would be easier. We think that if we controlled the circumstances, things would be better. But God shows us what He needs to show us, when He needs to show it to us. We’re blessed when we have visions like Jacob’s ladder, but we’re also blessed when God allows us to go through things that are painful but which enable us to become the blessings He wants us to be to others.
Take a minute to silently reflect on this—especially if you’re already in that place where you’re asking God, “Why is this happening? Why this way? Why me?” Remember: Anyone doing anything useful for God isn’t qualified for the job—if we were, we wouldn’t need, or make room for, God. So give God some room right now to work. Shut your eyes and reflect for a minute, and I’ll close us in prayer.
Lord, thank you for stretching us and challenging us, so we can become the blessings you want us to be. We acknowledge that we’re often our own biggest enemies, even when we’re sincerely following you. Get us out of our own way. Help us become the people you want us to be, so we not only overcome the problems and failures we experience, but so we can experience your joy on the other side of those struggles. In Jesus’ name, amen.