Making Peace With Your Past
Over the years I have learned that many people live their lives carrying a great deal of “baggage”. They have hurts from the past that affect them in the present. They have mistakes that they can’t seem to escape from and wounds that can’t seem to be overcome. Some have been treated shamefully. Some have treated others shamefully. There are people who were one time good friends who haven’t talked to each other in years. There are some who have not talked to members of their family because of something that happened in the past.
Jacob was one of these people. He has been separated from his family for twenty years. There is no record that his family came to see him (they might have). But we know that Jacob has not gone back home in this time. In twenty years he has not so much as talked to his brother. His twin brother, Esau.
This rift in the family took place because Jacob took advantage of his brother when he was hungry and then stole the blessing his father Isaac meant for Esau. He did this by pretending to be Esau. It was an offense that made Esau so furious he thought about killing his own brother!
Jacob may have been a deceiver, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that it was time to put some distance between him and his brother. He went to his uncle Laban’s house where he married (twice) and had twelve children. He had been gone twenty years and now it was time to go home. The Lord told Jacob it was time to go back to the land God had given Abraham and Isaac. But there was one problem . . . Esau. In the verses we look at this morning we see how Jacob sought to be reconciled to his brother.
Jacob Saw the Need for Reconciliation
It may surprise you that Jacob is the one who extends the “olive branch” to Esau. He could have ignored the situation. He could have avoided Esau for the rest of his life. Some people do that. I suspect this would have been Jacob’s preference. But he couldn’t do that. Why?
I think the answer is in the first two verses.
Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.”
This is the second time that angels appeared to Jacob. The last time was in Bethel. At that time, you’ll remember, Jacob saw angels “ascending and descending” a ladder or staircase to the throne of Heaven. Now, once again Jacob sees a host of angels (“camp” of God). Both times the angels were sent to strengthen, encourage and spur Jacob on.
Now, what does this have to do with Easu. Let me explain. The consistent testimony of Scripture is that every time someone has an encounter with God, they are changed. I think this encounter with the Holy made Jacob aware of his need to make things right with his brother. His conscience was awakened and the wrong he did was made clear. It was time to mend the relationship that had been torn through Jacob’s deception.
Jesus told his disciples,
- if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (Mt. 5:23,24)
There are several good reasons to pursue reconciliation.
- God commands it. He has reconciled us to Himself and now calls us to be reconciled to each other. Do you recall the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors . . . for if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” God tells us that we have not appreciated the debt God has forgiven us . . . if we are not willing to extend forgiveness to others.
- Fractured relationships result in miserable lives. It is impossible to enjoy life fully if you are living at odds with someone else. All that time nursing grudges, and tending the fires of resentment and bitterness takes valuable time away from the joy of life. Many people find that their misery lifts as soon as they do what God has called them to do . . . to be reconciled.
- There are few acts as loving as freeing someone from their past. I tried thinking of a great illustration of this principle and then realized that You and I are a great illustration of this truth. Has there been anything more freeing in your life than when Christ forgave you?
Followers of Christ are driven by God’s Spirit to make right, relationships that are wrong. Sometimes it involves an apology. Sometimes an act of restitution. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call. Could it be that this morning there is a name that has popped into your head again and again? Is this someone with whom you have a fractured relationship? If so, I suggest that God is giving you an assignment . . . He is calling you to be reconciled with this person.
JACOB SOUGHT THE HELP OF THE LORD
I admire Jacob. He knows what God wants him to do so he sends servants ahead of him to tell Esau that he is coming. He tells the servant to tell Esau that he was doing just fine and didn’t need to make any claims on the family inheritance. Jacob wanted Esau to know that he was returning . . . not to cause trouble, but to rebuild their relationship.
The messengers returned and told Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him. And they happened to add that he was bringing four hundred men with him! Now, it does not appear that Esau was coming with any hostile intention. He was probably coming with part of his servants or tribe to pay his brother honor. But of course, Jacob didn’t know that. All Jacob could remember were the final words of Esau . . . . “I’m going to kill him.”
I suspect Jacob’s first thought was, “Why, did I tell my brother that I was coming?” He immediately felt that he had done the wrong thing. But you can’t be doing the wrong thing if you are doing what God has told you to do. Jacob was scared. So he divided the people into two groups as a strategic endeavor. He reasoned if one group was attacked the other may survive. Jacob then did the smartest thing he could do . . .he went to the Lord. This is the first recorded prayer in scripture.
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)
There are several elements of this prayer that make it noteworthy.
- Jacob admits his unworthiness. This is a big step for Jacob. He has come to the point of recognizing that he stands by God’s mercy alone. Only as we recognize that we stand by mercy will we be prepared to act mercifully toward others.
- Jacob stands on God’s Word. Jacob prays on the basis of two things: 1) God told him to return to his homeland. 2) God promised to bless him. Jacob stands on the promise of God because he knows that God keeps his word. The same is true for you and me . . . as we pray (especially regarding fractured relationships) it is important that we pray according to the promises of God.
- Jacob asks specifically. He wants God to “save him from the hand of his brother. He doesn’t mince words . . . he’s clear and specific.
God heard and answered Jacob’s prayer. He will hear yours as well. Prayer is the oil that makes the engine of reconcilliation run.
- Prayer will change our sour attitude and dissolve our resistance.
- Prayer will soften the heart of another
- Prayer will effect circumstances so they are most conducive to reconciliation.
- Prayer can even help heal memories after the possibility for reconciliation has past.
Prayer is bringing God’s power into our lives and the lives of those around us.
Jacob Sought to Make Restitution
The next day, Jacob divides his group even further and prepares an elaborate gift for his brother. Jacob wants Esau to know that he wants to be reconciled. The one who once stole his brother’s birthright is now trying to make things up to his brother. This is Jacob’s way of saying, “I’m sorry.”
There is a pretty good principle here: restitution is the predecessor to reconciliation. If you have wronged someone you need to make right that wrong before you can hope to make the relationship right again. The Old Testament Law is filled with regulations about how to make restitution when you have wronged someone. God spoke to Ezekiel and said,
Ezek 33:14-16 if I say to the wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right—if he gives back what he took in pledge for a loan, returns what he has stolen, follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live.
In Luke 19 we read the story of Zacchaeus. One of the evidences of his conversion was when he said, “If I have stolen from anyone I will return it to them double.” (Luke 19:8)
J. Edwin Orr, a former professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminar, described the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Welsh Revivals of the nineteenth century. As people sought the infillling of the Spirit they did all they could to confess wrong doings and to make restitution. This unexpectedly created severe problems for the shipyards along the coast of Wales. Over the years workers had pilfered all kinds of things. Everything from wheelbarrows to hammers had been stolen. However as people sought to be right with God they started to return what they had taken, with the result that soon the shipyards of Wales were overwhelmed with returned property. There were such huge piles of returned tools that several of the yards had to put up signs that read, IF YOU HAVE BEEN LED BY GOD TO RETURN WHAT YOU HAVE STOLEN, PLEASE KNOW THAT MANAGEMENT FORGIVES YOU AND WISHES YOU TO KEEP WHAT YOU HAVE TAKEN. (Camplo p. 93)
So, Jacob is doing the right thing. He is seeking to make restitution as a way to bring about reconciliation with his brother.
he selected a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. (v. 14)
This is a very generous gift! Camels were treasured because of their versatility in a land where other animals would not be able to serve. Jacob was trying to make a statement. . . .a statement that would lead to reconciliation.
Becoming a believer does not get you “off the hook” for making restitution. Like Zacchaeus, restitution is the surest evidence of a truly changed heart. A person who does not want to make the past right, is not a true believer. Do you need to make some kind of restitution?
- apologize to a former spouse
- pay for or return something that was stolen
- correct slanderous statements you made
- admit a wrong you committed
- ask forgiveness from your children that you treated poorly
Restitution shows that we are serious about our apology. It shows we recognize the wrong done to another. Restitution is often the foundation on which the bridge of reconciliation is built.
Before we conclude. There are some final principles that I want to leave with you.
First, Even Though God Calls Us to be one . . .People Get Upset and sin against each other. It happens. We shouldn’t act these ways but we do. Every one of us has offended someone else. We have all said things in anger, acted out of frustration, and spoken when we should have been quiet. Let’s admit this at the beginning. It’s a lot easier to forgive someone if you are not under the illusion that you are perfect.
The follower of Christ is not content to shrug off these mistakes. They want to be made right with God and with each other. They have admitted their foolishness to themselves and are willing to admit it to others.
Second, It is not easy to seek reconciliation. I don’t think I am alone in feeling that at times I would rather just start over with a new friend than have to do the work of being reconciled to someone. But if there is going to be any depth to our relationships and to our character, we must do the hard work. Love comes not just because we have shared good times . . . but because we have also worked through hard times.
Third, sometimes you seek reconciliation and are unsuccessful. Our attempts at reconciliation are usually successful when both parties are seeking to be aligned in Christ. But not everyone we’ve offended is a believer. Sometimes there will be people who will not be satisfied until they have made us “pay”. They don’t want a renewed relationship . . . .they want revenge. In these cases we can only do what God has called us to do. We can seek reconciliation, we can admit our wrongdoing, we can seek to make restitution where it is appropriate . . . and if that is not enough we must go on and entrust that person to God. We will be set free even if the other remains in bondage.
Fourth, all the right words and actions mean nothing if it is all superficial
Jacob knows that he did what was wrong in the past. He makes contact. He prays. He seeks to make things right. But he resists meeting Esau. Instead of riding out ahead of the group to be the first to meet Esau, He sends a procession of people to meet Him. He decides who is most expendable and sends them first!
It is not hard to see that Jacob is still quite cowardly. He sends his servants, his children and his wives before him. He wants them to protect him . . . when it should have been the other way around. You see, Jacob wanted to have a right relationship with his brother, but he still wasn’t willing to be vulnerable. He was still using people and things to gain an advantage. James Boice puts well,
. . . He was the same old Jacob. He had not given up himself. This is what we do. We go to church and we sing:
All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give; I will ever love and trust Him, In His presence daily live. I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all.
But what we really mean is: “I surrender all . . . the goats.” And if this is not enough, “I surrender all the sheep; I surrender all the cows.” We give up money, time, family — our dearest possessions. But we do not give up ourselves. The time must come when God sends his angel to wrestle us to personal submission. [Boice p. 813]
For reconciliation to begin . . . we must first come humbly to God. We must first be reconciled to Him. The Bible tells us that our relationship with God was in terrible shape because of our rebellion and disregard for what God had told us to do and how to live. We were the guilty party. We were the ones who had done wrong. And yet it was God who reached out to us. The one wronged was the one who made the first move. God reached out to us by sending Christ to proclaim His love and then to demonstrate it by giving His life to make restitution for our sin. As a result of what God has done for us . . . we can be friends . . . even children of God. God has reached out His hand. All we have to do is take it. Have you done this? If not, why not be reconciled to God today?
So, is there someone you need to be reconciled to? If so, keeping in mind what you have received in Christ, make the first move. Begin the process of tearing down the barriers. Do what needs to be done. And when you do, you will not only have gotten a friend back . . . you may, very well, get your life back too.