My mother loves to create artsy knick-knacks. Growing up, our house was full of her creations. Tea spoon racks, hand-painted tea pots, hand-crafted fairy gardens, toll-painted bird houses, serving trays and various other curios too numerous to mention.
Among the many items on display, a small 5×7 inch placard sat perched prominently on the windowsill of our kitchen. Etched on the placard was a jumble of seemingly random letters: PBPGINFWMY.
For months I just ignored it until one day my curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask. Her answer has stuck with me ever since – “Please Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet.”
We’re all a work in progress to some degree. In the corporate world they like to have ‘WIP’ meetings. While they do often feel like public floggings, they’re actually meant to be a chance to share the progress of each person’s work ‘in the pipeline’. It’s a way of staying accountable for goals and commitments.
Life is all about striving for improvement, isn’t it? We start at point A and keep working toward point B. Then, once we get to B, point C looms on the horizon, so we keep pushing forward. Occasionally we mess up and have to go back to A and start again.
That’s also the story of the Christian life. The Apostle Peter summed up the Christian journey beautifully in his second epistle:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” (2 Pet. 1:5-10)
The Bible is full of examples of how God patiently guides His children through their ‘learning journeys’. Peter is a classic example of this. He personally felt the pain of being shaped by the loving hands of the Master Potter (cf. Luke 22:54b-62).
Learning From Jacob
I find the story of Jacob to be helpful also.
Jacob is one of the more perplexing characters in the Bible (cf. Gen. 25:19-49:33). One of Israel’s patriarchs, he was the father of the 12 tribes. He didn’t start out life looking like much of a spiritual giant, however. He was the subject or instigator of many controversial escapades and is frequently portrayed as deceitful, treacherous and greedy.
You might be surprised to hear that I quite like Jacob. I find him to be relatable. He’s human. He helps me to realise that I don’t need to be the ‘perfect Chrisitan’ in order to serve and be blessed by God.
You see, the Christian walk has never been, and never will be, about how “good” we can be. It’s all about how good God is!
Our reading today demonstrates how our loving, gracious God reaches out to rescue a flawed human being from himself. Sounds like my daily experience!
The context for this epic battle of the wills is described in Genesis 31-32, where Jacob found himself trapped by his own history of deception. In front of him was a menacing army led by his brother Esau whose birthright he had ‘stolen’ years earlier (cf. Genesis 27:35-36) and behind him was his ‘charming’ father-in-law Laban, who wanted his family and all their possessions returned to their homeland. (It’s worth noting that Laban makes Jacob look like a saint by comparison).
What ensued between Jacob and God is one of the most defining moments in human history. After a night of literally wrestling with God (cf. Gen. 32:24-30), Jacob finally submits to God’s will. It proved to be pivotal for Jacob, the nation of Israel and ultimately God’s redemptive plan for mankind through Jacob’s most important descendent, Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Gen. 28:10-17; Matt. 1).
Jacob was indeed a ‘Work in Progress’. His spiritual transformation took decades. He was what you might call a stubborn slow-learner.
Jacob had his first supernatural encounter with God back in Genesis 28, the famous account referred to as “Jacob’s Ladder”. Immediately following this incredible exchange with God, we can see a softening in Jacob’s spirit, but there was still a reluctance to fully commit his life to God’s plan.
Reading from Genesis 28:20-22, we pick up the story when Jacob is running away from home for fear of his brother Esau. In a spectacular dream, God revealed Himself to Jacob and renewed the Abrahamic Covenant (cf. Gen. 12:1-3) with him:
“Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” (Gen. 28:20-22)
Did you catch the conditions Jacob put before God? “If God will be with me …, then the Lord shall be my God”.
Jacob was hedging his bets. He wanted God on his side, but he also wanted what the world had to offer. In His patience and graciousness, God gave Jacob more time and space to learn the tough lessons of life until he was sufficiently discouraged by the hollow allure of this world to realise that true joy and purpose can only be found in a life fully dedicated to Him.
In Genesis 35 we find Jacob has become a very different man. He’s experienced many hardships and much suffering by this point, but as promised back in Genesis 28, God remained faithful.
“God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” (Gen. 35:1-3)
Finally we see Jacob turning away from his old ways and more fully committing his life to God.
We’re not very different from Jacob. When we first met Jesus, we may well have recognised our sinful state and our need for a Saviour. Perhaps we liked the sound of His promises of forgiveness and eternal life, but we weren’t ready to give up our old lifestyle and serve Him fully.
Doubts, distractions and the worries of life can relegate Jesus to the background of our lives. We simply try to fit Him into our ‘spare’ moments.
However, through years of trials and tribulations, like Jacob, we slowly begin to realise and appreciate how helpless we are and how great Jesus’ sacrifice and love for us truly is (cf. Rom. 5:6-11; Heb. 2:9-10). Because of our natural rebellion, sometimes God allows us to hit rock bottom in order to get our attention back on Him, then we are able and willing to give him all of ourselves, not just the left-overs. In the meantime, we can humbly declare “PBPGINFWMY”.
“I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus....And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, so that you can approve the things that are superior and can be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.” (Phil. 1:6,9-11)