by Lenny Cacchio
Our God is a patient sort, and that goes for our prayer lives too. As Paul once wrote, “The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Rom 8:26-27 NKJV) That’s like saying God sees our hearts even if our tongues don’t say it right.
God is patient even if our hearts aren’t quite where they ought to be. Anciently there was a man who was known as Deceitful. This was not just a nickname, and he wasn’t one of the Seven Dwarfs. “Deceitful” is what “Jacob” means in Hebrew. Jeremiah so uses that word in chapter 17 of his book: “The heart is deceitful above all things.”
Jacob was born with that name, and he also earned it. He was the fellow who cheated his brother out of both his birthright and his blessing, causing his brother to declare, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” (Genesis 27:36 NIV)
At this time in his life Jacob was far from being a follower of the God of his father, and the first time we see him acknowledging God is a case study in how people often react when confronted with the reality of their need for Him. Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau, and given the way he had treated Esau, that was a wise choice. During his flight, Jacob had a dream in which God promised to protect him and bring back to his home country. The vision so disturbed Jacob that he made a vow:
If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth. (Genesis 28:20-22 NIV)
That rings of the typical bargaining in prayer of many a desperate God-seeker. “If you bless me, then I’ll serve you.” “If you get me out of this mess, then I’ll go to church every week.” “If you let me win the lottery, then I’ll give half of it to the church.”
Fortunately, God condemns neither Jacob nor us for such prayers because he understands our weaknesses. He stayed with Jacob throughout his 20 year experience in exile, and it was after that exile that Jacob prayed a different, more mature prayer. Look at this prayer and see the difference:
O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,' I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.' (Genesis 32:9-12 NIV)
Notice there is no bargaining here. This is a prayer of a man who considers himself God’s servant, and he is doing nothing more than claiming the promises of God. Jacob the Deceitful is no longer trying to strike a deal with his Maker. Instead he is claiming a promise that he knows he doesn’t deserve. It is no accident that shortly thereafter God changes his name from Jacob to Israel, which means “One who prevails with God”.
We can all claim such promises that we do not deserve, and like Jacob we can grow in our understanding of who God is. He will stay with us in spite of our halting, adolescent prayers and see us through to a mature relationship with him. He will never let us go.