This is post 6 of 10 in the series “HOW TO …”
- How To Rise Above Resentment!
- How To Quit Worrying About Worry!
- How To Fly Like Eagles When You’re Surrounded By Turkeys!
- How To Look Smart When You Do Dumb Things!
- How To Do Right When Everything Goes Wrong!
- How To Turn Short-Term Losses Into Long-Term Gains!
- How To Get Out Of Death Alive!
- How To Put A Lid On Your Anger
- How To Stay Calm In The Midst Of Storm!
- How To Rekindle The Spark Of The Spirit!
How To Turn Short-Term Losses Into Long-Term Gains!
Whenever I begin to read the Scripture before the sermon, I always say, “This is the Word of God.” And that it is. However, I must admit that it is not always immediately clear as to what message God is delivering to us in a particular passage of Scripture. Today is a case in point. We are looking at the story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel from Genesis 29. I will tell you honestly that this story seems more appropriate as a tale told around a campfire for the entertainment of shepherds than as a message preached in this sanctuary for the upbuilding of the saints. You will remember what happened…
Jacob was working for his uncle, Laban, and he fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. He then asked Laban for permission to marry Rachel. Laban granted approval for the marriage provided Jacob worked for him for seven years. Jacob agreed, and then worked hard for Laban for all those seven years. Now he was ready at last to marry Rachel. There was a big wedding, but it was only after the wedding that Jacob removed the veil from his bride and discovered that he hadn’t married Rachel at all. Laban had tricked him. He had married Rachel’s sister, Leah. Now the Bible says about Rachel that she “was beautiful and lovely.” But the Bible has only two things to say about Leah. It says that she was older than Rachel and it says that she had weak eyes. Hardly what you would call a compliment! Besides, in light of what happened, it seems to me that Jacob was the one with weak eyes! In any case, Jacob got hoodwinked and he was furious. Laban then said to Jacob, “My boy, in our country it is the custom for the older girl to marry first. But I’ll tell you what I will do. Pledge to me seven more years of work and I will let you marry Rachel one week from today.” And that’s what happened. Poor old Jacob! He knew what he wanted, but he didn’t go after it in the right way—and it cost him a lot of hard work.
It reminds me of the story about an old farmer who walked into the hardware store and threw his new chain saw down at the feet of the store owner. He said, “When you sold me this saw you told me that I could cut 40 trees a day with it, but I cannot cut down more than three.” The store owner said, “Well, let me sharpen the teeth and you give it another try.” Three days later, the farmer returned, demanding his money back. “That saw is junk!” he said, “I couldn’t get it to cut down more than four or five trees a day.” The store owner looked at the chain saw and said that he needed to try it himself before he gave the farmer his money back. He then pulled the starter cord on the saw and it roared to life on the first pull. The farmer looked startled and yelled out: “What’s that noise!?”
Well, Jacob had a goal in his life and he worked hard for it. But timing didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. He wound up being married not only to Rachel, but also to Leah, and it took away fourteen years of his life. Now at first glance—or should it be first “blush”?—there is not a lot of good to be drawn from this story. However, as I have wrestled with the story, it seems to me that there is one—and perhaps only one—message God is trying to deliver to us here: by His power, we can turn short-term losses into long-term gains. Let’s play out that theme together….
First, the story sharpens our recognition that cherished goals are not easily obtained.
Surely it was a terrible frustration for Jacob to toil seven years to achieve his heart’s desire. He was already a middle-aged man, past fifty according to the Bible. The work was hard. Through it all, Rachel was so tantalizingly close, yet so far from his grasp. Yet, whatever else may be said of Jacob, apparently he knew how to wait. Undaunted by Laban’s severe demands, he did not rush back to Palestine for some girl already picked out by his parents. Yes, Jacob’s strength lay in his refusal to trade the distant promise for instant gratification.
The key word there is “instant.” Ours is “the age of the instant answer.” We want immediate results. We want action now. And when it doesn’t work out that way we are plunged into despair. Unless we find an instant way to meet some problem, we tend to think that it has no solution. To be sure, many trifles in life may be won at a moment’s notice. Even a few valuable gains may be short-term. A minister may prepare a sermon for next Sunday in only a few days, or win a person to Christ in only a few weeks, or erect a new church building in only a few years. But while these accomplishments may be very good, they must not divert him from the larger tasks which may take seven years, or even fourteen years, to accomplish. As your minister, while I share the almost universal hunger for instant victories, I have to tell you that I am more concerned to tackle the stubborn challenges which may not be conquered for years to come. And while in the course of my work among you, we may sometimes encounter setbacks and difficulties, I refuse to be hindered by those short-term losses because I am busy building this church for what it will be fourteen years from now!
All of us, I suppose, but particularly our youth, need to remember that the greatest realities in life carry a high price tag in time and toil. Clever ideas may be spawned every week but profound insight comes only after years of intensive study. A vocation can become truly fulfilling only after years on the job. A marriage can become what God wants it to be only after years of commitment. A person may be led to Christ in less than a month, but he or she will not reach Christian maturity short of a seven year struggle. Yet, though the achievement of a great goal may take many years, those years will seem but a few days to those who love the quest for life’s highest fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Secondly, this story sharpens our recognition that painful defeat is a universal experience.
Jacob worked hard for seven years to gain the hand of Rachel in marriage. However, all of his diligence and effort were not enough to win the prize. He pursued his goals so single mindedly that he failed to reckon with conflicting interests on the horizon. There were other priorities to be honored and established procedures to be observed. The older daughter could not be ignored. Jacob was not free to make his dream come true. Forces beyond his control snatched away the prize just as it appeared to be within his reach. In his moment of greatest anticipation he awoke to his greatest agony and defeat.
So, too, in our own lives, even the best laid plans can go astray. So, too, in our own lives we learn as Jacob did that no matter how hard we work, no matter how sincerely we pray, no matter how honorable our intentions, sometimes our fondest dreams die in the dust of defeat. But here’s the point: Jacob didn’t quit. He turned his short-term loss into a long-term gain.
Paul did the same thing. You remember how he tells us in II Corinthians that he had a defeating circumstance in his life. He called it his “thorn in the flesh.” We do not know precisely what it was. Some have stated that it was a chronic inner ear disease which would cause him great pain and upset his equilibrium. Some have suggested that he was an epiletic and was stricken by terrible seizures that incapacitated him. Others have suggested that he suffered from malaria, and periodically the disease would rise up to lay him low. Still others have suggested that after seeing the great blinding light on the Damascus road, Paul spent the rest of his life with serious eye trouble and migraine headaches. And, of course, the suggestion has been made that he was plunged occasionally into deep despair and guilt because of the sins of his earlier life, particularly the violent persecution of the Christians. The fact is that we just do not know what his “thorn in the flesh” was. But we do know that it got in his way. It caused him great suffering. It put a brake on his ministry. It frustrated the daylights out of him. He called it “a messenger of Satan.” And we also know that he prayed fervently and faithfully over a long period of time to have this thorn removed. But God didn’t remove the thorn. Paul lost, but Paul wouldn’t let that defeating circumstance stop him. Ultimately, he turned it into a gain. In fact there came a time later on in his life when he thanked God for that “thorn” because he had made the best of the “thorn” and the “thorn” had made the best of him.
History is full of wonderful stories about people who rose above their defeats. Milton went blind. Beethoven lost his hearing. Pasteur became a paralytic. Helen Keller was deaf, blind and unable to speak. But were those people stopped by their losses? No. They turned those losses into long-term gains.
Note it down as true! No one is exempt from the defeating circumstances in life. And whether those defeats are serious or not so serious, they are not easy to bear. The acid test of character comes when we meet our “Labans” in life. When suddenly we realize that life has given us second-best Leah and not the fair Rachel of our dreams.
Thirdly, the story sharpens our recognition that ultimate victory arises out of patience and perseverance.
Jacob must have been sorely tempted to rage and rebel against Laban, but to his credit he refused to let frustration become final. In response to the heavy price extracted by Laban, he literally redoubled his efforts to win Rachel. By accepting Leah, the sign of his frustration, he at last won Rachel, the sign of his fulfillment. That is symbolic of our human experience. If life cannot be all triumph, neither must it be all tragedy. If we will consent to live with some frustration, then ultimately we shall experience fulfillment. In fact, as the years began to lengthen, Jacob came to realize that Leah was not such a bad bargain after all. Ultimately, he honored her by burial in the family cemetery at Machpelah. It was a triumphant gesture of love for her. Therefore, God, working through Jacob, is teaching us that no failure need be final. That patience and perseverance produce ultimate victory.
I think here of Lord Meadors of England. He was born literally on the steps of a coal mine in one of the poorest areas of England. He was abandoned there. His childhood was an unending nightmare. But in the midst of it he managed to do two things. He educated himself and he gave himself in faith to Jesus Christ. When he reached adulthood he committed himself to helping other people. In time he became convinced he could help the most people by running for Parliament. He was defeated not once or twice, but three times. He wouldn’t quit. Eventually he made it. But even in Parliament he always seemed to be on the losing side of the vote. But he never gave up—and he never stopped trying to help others. At last, near the end of his life, he had so covered himself with honor that he was elected by his peers to the House of Lords. On the occasion of his investiture, he delivered himself of a poem which he said was the essence of his life. I doubt that. The essence of his life was his commitment to Christ and his compassion for others. But the poem is worth listening to, not because the poetry is good, it isn’t, but because the man was awfully good.
Did you tackle the trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful;
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
That trouble’s a ton or trouble’s an ounce,
Trouble’s just what you make it.
It isn’t the fact that you are hurt that counts
But only, how did you take it?
You’re beaten to the earth; well, well, what’s that?
Come up with a smiling face.
It’s nothing against you to be knocked down flat,
But to lie there, that’s the disgrace.
Death comes with a crawl, or it comes with a pounce;
But whether it’s slow or spry,
It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts
But only, how did you die?
What a man! He encountered terrible defeats in his life, but by the power of Jesus Christ, he turned short-term losses into long-term gains. And he died covered with honor and surrounded by friends.
Here’s the point: the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires staying power as well as starting power. Jacob has provided us with a fascinating and instructive example of both starting and staying power. But Jacob is hardly worthy to serve as the source of our strength for the struggles of today. However, if we follow Jacob’s lineage far enough, we come to one who is worthy—Jesus of Nazareth. He dared to promise the long sought kingdom of God to those who would watch and wait. With the patience of a farmer growing seed, He labored in obscurity while the hope matured. And then at the climactic moment, He came riding into the holy city, Jerusalem, to claim the fulfillment of His dreams, only to be greeted by adversaries far more sinister than Laban. But Jesus knew that by the power of God, short-term losses can be transformed into long-term gains. And so even if the horrors of the cross must be endured, they could be accepted in the confidence that after that defeating agony, there would come the victory of resurrection.
When we encounter the frustrating defeats of life, Jesus Christ is our ultimate help. One greater than Jacob is here. One who has overcome far more than Laban, and one far more than Rachel. Let us, therefore, “run with patience the race that is set before us. Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”