Monday, November 2, 2009

For All My Efforts

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.
Deuteronomy 8:11-14a, 17-18

Do you recall the story of how Jacob, who later became Israel, father of the nation, became wealthy? Remember after cheating his brother out of the birthright and then lying to his father to get the blessing of the first born, he took off to his uncle Laban’s house. A lot of good the birthright and blessing did him. Because of the way he went about getting them, he had to get out of Dodge and quick, for fear of the wrath of his brother. So he arrives at Uncle Laban’s with nothing and that dear fellow gave him a place to live and a dose of his own medicine.

Laban agreed to give Jacob his daughter Rachel in marriage in exchange for seven years of labor. The morning after the wedding night, Jacob realizes Uncle Laban is a cad and has given him the wrong girl, the ugly older sister, Leah. Well, too late to give her back now! So he agrees to work yet another seven years for Rachel, the one he really wanted.

During this time, Jacob realizes he’s got to get smart with Uncle Laban if he ever wants to get ahead. So he makes a deal with him: “I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them. Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages,” (Gen. 30:32). From then on, Jacob was to get all the spotted and speckled among the flocks and herds.
Now Jacob had a strategy: he took “fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted,” (Gen. 30:37-38) because as anyone in animal husbandry can tell you, if you want spotted, speckled or streaked livestock, you have to expose them to this kind of environment when they’re drinking and mating, right? He further bettered his livestock by selecting only the stronger females to expose to these gene-influencing branches. “In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservents, and camels and donkeys,” (Gen. 30:43).

So that was the secret of his success – striped braches in the watering trough. I wonder how many Israelite shepherds throughout history tried to replicate this strategy and ended up wondering why it wasn’t working for them. I suppose that it is possible that being in a certain type of environment could encourage genetic selection in favor of that environment in one generation, but any way you look at it from the perspective of our current understanding of genetics, it’s clear that what Jacob was doing had little to no bearing on the result he was getting.

And yet God certainly knew that when you and I would read this story thousands of years later, we would understand that poor Jacob was clueless and really just grasping at straws. On the other hand, he was doing something, anything, the only thing he could think of to try to become more prosperous. He was making an effort. But it was God who gave the increase because of the plan that he had for Jacob.

We might think Jacob was pretty na├»ve, but not so. He knew the score. He told his wives: “God has not allowed [Laban] to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.”

If he had made this connection, that his success was God’s doing, why would he bother peeling almond branches? I’m gonna say he did it because it was all he knew to do. Whereas he attributed God with the increase, Jacob contributed all he could as well, even it if was sheer nonsense by today’s standards.

What about your success thus far? Have your flocks and herds increased by your own efforts, or did God come along and miraculously cause the increase? Careful how you answer.

Who can explain why certain things succeed so and others do not. It’s not all about marketing – some companies spend millions of dollars on a campaign that produces no results. It’s not about talent, if that were the ticket wouldn’t ever Denzel Washington movie have been a box office hit? Perseverance? Don’t you know a starving artist who has been starving for decades? There’s something very mysterious about success, and whereas I don’t think all of it is God’s will, he’s certainly allowing every success. God is enabling our health, intelligence, relative peace so we can work, and an environment in which we can be successful – capitalist United States of America. These things are much more tenuous than we believe. From one day to the next any of it could change at God’s command. But God allows these favorable conditions so that we can produce wealth.

If anyone has their doubts about whether God disapproves of fine houses, having some silver and gold on hand, and a big successful family business, let this scripture put that question to rest. God says in his word that enabling this ability to produce wealth is how he confirms his covenant with Israel. I’m no theologian, but I think this somehow applies to us gentiles to as. Like Paul said in Galatians 3:29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

So good! But wait, there’s a flipside to this. “If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God,” Deut. 8:19-20.

With great privilege comes great responsibility. And the privilege of wealth carries with it the responsibility of gratitude and recognition of the one Force that made it possible, at a minimum.

Contemplate this: In what ways have I seen the hand of God enabling my success in the past and present?

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