Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blessings in Disguise

However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you.

                        Deuteronomy 23.5

Prophet for Profit

Balaam is one of the Old Testament’s odder characters in that he’s a mercenary seer, a prophet for profit. He’s given gifts of foresight and divination—he reads omens and hears messages—but he’s not loyal to any god or nation. So if you need a few tips on what’s going to happen or want to call down wrath on your enemies (and can afford him), Balaam’s your man. Of course, what he lacks in conviction he makes up in cunning. His clients tell Balaam what to say. He says it and if his prophecy comes true, it’s to his credit; if not, it’s hardly his fault the god du jour won’t cooperate. Balaam works best when the gods stay out of his way. When one does interfere—as God does in Numbers 23—he winds up stuck between disappointing his customers and offending the deities he counts on for power. Since he’s a smart guy, his customers come second.

Balak of Moab, an enemy of Israel, hires Balaam to curse the Hebrews. On his way, however, God meets Balaam. He instructs the prophet to keep the date but speak only what God tells him to say. Time arrives for the big curse and Balaam balks. He asks Balak, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?” (Numbers 23.8) Instead, he praises Israel as “a people set apart and [who] do not consider themselves one of the nations” (v9), a multitude too great to be numbered. “Let me die the death of the righteous,” he says in verse 10, “and may my end be like theirs!” The pray-for-pay star declares Israel’s righteousness, begging to be like them when he dies. Balak is not pleased. “I brought you curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!” he protests, to which Balaam says, “Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” (v11-12)

Memory Serves Correctly

Flash forward to Deuteronomy 23. Israel’s number has increased with foreign stragglers it picked up along the way. God apparently has no problem with non-Jews living among the Israelites. Yet He draws a hard line on who’s acceptable to participate in communal worship. (Remember, this is before Christ’s sacrifice for all nations, when God’s favor rests on Israel and its allies—and when He issues edict after edict to bring the nation into conformity to His will.) Thus, in His list of those excluded from “the assembly of the LORD,” He includes the descendents of Balak and his people. “If memory serves correctly,” He says, “they didn’t help you on your journey out of Egypt. They went so far as to hire Balaam to curse you. Let them be.”

On this side of Calvary, we set aside the vengeful, exclusionary aspects of God’s directive. Encased inside it, however, we find a beautiful truth that holds to this day. In essence, verse 5 says, “The Lord overruled your enemies’ intentions. He turned the curse into a blessing for you, because He loves you.” That last part leaps out at us—because He loves you. Not because Balak’s hatred for Israel angered Him. Not because Balaam deserved public humiliation for exploiting his talents for profit. Not even because Israel’s goodness and obedience merited God’s favor. God reminds Israel so its memory serves correctly. He foiled Balak’s plan and used Balaam to bless His people for one reason only: He loves them.

Divine Interference

We mustn’t be shaken when we’re criticized by people who don’t understand our faith and try to “put the fear of God in us” with wrathful prophecies. They’re not helping us on our journey, nor are they speaking on God’s authority (despite their talents and reputations). We stand on this truth: God loves us. Our confidence in this must be impervious to any and all attempts to instill doubt in His love, mercy, and acceptance. If our relationship with Him was like Israel’s, based entirely on compliance to God’s laws rather than total trust in His grace, it would be necessary for Him to do with our adversaries as He did with Balaam. He’d have to prove He loves by literally turning their curses to blessings. But our certainty of His love generates divine interference of its own kind. It deflects hatred and anger aimed at us and opens our eyes to see curses as blessings in disguise. They’re fresh reminders He loves us, regardless what anyone says or thinks.

It’s instinctive when hearing or learning about harsh words against us to hope God will respond with anger for those who curse us; that He’ll expose those who profit by their curses; that He’ll reward our goodness and obedience. Instead, He confounds curses by sheer force of His love. Assurance of this turns our thoughts from expecting Him to prove love for us by attacking our enemies. We prove love for Him doing as Jesus taught: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 5.44-45) God’s love makes every curse and every chance to bless those who curse us blessings in disguise.

Ignore the signs. Every curse is a fresh reminder of God’s love—a blessing in disguise.

(Tomorrow: Friendship)


Gary Lewis said...

There's a line in an obscure song by Prince, before he changed his name to a symbol and then back again, that reads "It's more hard to love than it is to hate."

I've always held that one close to the tongue.

Whether it's a tough client, a rotten supervisor, a relative you just can't understand... It always reminds me that they all have a side to the story, and I can then try and reverse engineer it and figure out where the friction comes from.

Tim said...

That's it in a nutshell, Gary. Loving others as we would love ourselves takes stepping into their shoes and walking around a bit in their world. When we do that we notice the fear and insecurity that drives them to behave toward us as they do.

Even these folks in today's picture no doubt have sincere reasons for their hostility--they honestly believe they're doing the right thing. When we humble ourselves to recognize that, it's easier to bless those who curse us. We turn their curse into a blessing by making it an opportunity to love.

Thanks for the comment. It's always a treat hearing from you. (And thanks again for the FB endorsement; I'm still bowled over by your kindness.)