The story in our text presents a real problem for Christians. It is a story in which answered prayer results in family conflict and personal pain.
The story starts out all right. Isaac and Rebecca have been married for twenty years without producing an heir. Nothing could be more painful for a Jewish woman than barrenness, and nothing more tragic for Isaac than not to have a son through whom God could fulfill His promise. So Isaac prays for his wife and she conceives.
Everything seems fine. To this point we have a story of God’s graciousness in answering prayer. This is my kind of story. I could take a story like this and wax eloquent on the “Power of Prayer.”
Yet suddenly and without warning the story goes astray. There’s not one baby, there are two — and they’re struggling against one another in the womb. The violence, pain, and difficulty of the pregnancy is so intense that Rebecca cries out, “Why is this happening to me?”
What is this? Is this a case of that common experience we’ve all had? I want it; I get what I want; but this is not what I want. My uncle always wanted a big luxury automobile but he had several children, multiple obligations and never felt he could afford one. But every year when the new models came out he was down at the dealer’s showroom. He would always take a test drive, smell the newness, rub the finish, kick the tires, then go out to the street, get in his old Fairlane and drive home — year after year after year.
Finally his day came. All the kids were gone, the mortgage was paid, he was making a fair salary, so he took the plunge. On the first of October, he drove home a brand new 1968 Cadillac. It got between seven and eight miles to a gallon on the open road, on cold mornings it wouldn’t start, on hot days it overheated. The first six months he owned it, he spent more time at the repair shop than at home.
Before the year was up he had sold it and bought a slightly used Fairlane Ford. My uncle told me that two of the happiest days of his life were the day he bought that car and the day he sold it.
Those experiences are not uncommon. We want the dress; we get the dress home; then we ask, “Why did I ever buy this dress?” Some make that mistake with things far more important than clothes, cars, houses, and lands. Some do it with vocations, careers, personal relationships, even with marriages and children.
Is Rebecca one who wanted a child, became pregnant and suddenly decides “I don’t want a child.” No! The problem is not that Rebecca is dissatisfied that God has answered her prayers. The text is clear: she was barren; she wants a baby, prays fervently and is overjoyed when she realizes that she is pregnant. But something is wrong, there is a war raging within her body.
When we pray, peace is supposed to be the result, not war. When we pray, things are supposed to get better, not worse. Here we have not the power of prayer but the paradox of prayer; not the joy of answered prayer but the pain of answered prayer.
Of course it’s possible to explain this paradox away. We could blame the problem on Rebecca. Perhaps she is just a chronic complainer for whom the most benign pregnancy would be unbearable. Or we could perform a little theological slight-of-hand and reverse the obvious meaning of the story, proclaiming twins to be a double fulfillment of God’s promise. This paradox can be explained away — unfortunately, that will not solve our dilemma, for this is only one place where asked prayer results in pain.
Have you forgotten Moses pleading with God, asking for someone to help him carry the heavy burdens of being the nation’s deliverer? God told Moses to anoint Aaron as High Priest, and Aaron became Moses’ heaviest burden, giving him problems at every turn.
Or what about that remarkable story from 1 Samuel? Israel asked God for a king. God told Samuel to anoint Saul as king. Then Saul descended into madness, becoming a paranoid schizophrenic.
Or the tragic story of Hosea, praying to God for a wife and being told to marry Gomer. So he married Gomer, who in a few years abandons him and their children to become a prostitute at the temple of Baal.
And what about Paul, with his overwhelming desire to go to Rome to preach the gospel? He writes a marvelous letter to the church there — that letter containing the most profound theology in all of the Scripture, filled with the prayerful expectation of a future visit. Then God answered Paul’s prayer and he gets to Rome. But do you remember how? He is led to Rome in chains. It is in Rome that Paul is murdered by the fiend Nero.
It is not simply biblical characters who struggle with this paradox. I remember Jim and Laura. They were the best-looking couple I had ever seen. He looked like an all-American football player. She looked like a movie star. They had been married right after college, but had postponed having children while Jim got established in business.
It was five years into the marriage before they tried to have a child. Then it seemed they couldn’t have children. A series of tests failed to reveal any physical reasons, but still no pregnancy. Finally, they resigned themselves to a childless future.
Laura was thirty-eight and Jim was forty when they announced to their startled friends that Laura was pregnant. Their friends were concerned for Laura, since thirty-eight is late for the first child. Their friends had good reasons to worry, for the pregnancy was a difficult one, but nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of Jim and Laura. Laura said, “We have been praying for a child for ten years. This child is a gift from God. He is not going to let anything go wrong.”
In reality, everything went wrong. The pregnancy permanently damaged Laura’s health. The baby, a little girl, was born with a congenital heart problem. Medical care over the next six years drove Jim and his business to the edge of bankruptcy. Two weeks shy of her sixth birthday, the child died. She had spent almost half of those six years in the hospital.
Laura had said this child was an answer to prayer, a gift from God. Was this an answer to prayer? Can answered prayer result in pain?
Where do we turn to get a satisfactory answer to this perplexing question? Rebecca turns to God. Look at
“Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.
This was not Rebecca’s only option. She could have turned away from God and looked for answers elsewhere. She could have reverted into her past.
She could have walled herself in from this new revelation of God, denied the promise had ever been made, denied the prayer was ever answered. She could have turned back to embrace the polytheistic idol worship of her ancestors. She could have sung, “Give me that Old Time Religion, Give me that Old Time Religion. It was good enough for Terah, it’s good enough for me.”
She could have embraced the religious fads of her day. She could have followed the star-gazing astrologers, or turned to the fertility cult of Baal. That is the option many choose. Multitudes of people are turning to other gods today, following Shirley McLaine into the new age with all its self-help books and religious smorgasbord.
She could have opted out completely, letting her disappointment and heartache turn to self-pity. She could have rejected God and the things of God, descending into a kind of apathetic cynicism.
But Rebecca chose none of these options; rather she turned to God and the Lord answered her. Look at
The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb and two people from within you will be separate. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
This answer is not simple, but neither is life. Here Rebecca comes face to face with the harsh reality of faith. To be chosen of God involves both a blessing and a burden.
Rebecca will be the mother not of one child but of two. Yet these brothers will war against one another. Rebecca will be the mother not of one nation but of two. Yet these two nations will war against one another. This is the price of obedience to God. It involves both a blessing and a burden.
If you are looking for “sun without rain, joy without sorrow, peace without pain,” you need to look somewhere other than the Bible. The Bible is not a fairy tale or a B-western movie. Read these stories and hear the agony of the chosen of God as they struggled under the burdens of their chosenness. Hear the weeping of Jeremiah, the suffering of Job, the heartbreak of Hosea, the anguish of David, the anger of Amos, the pathos of Peter, and the pain of Paul.
To be chosen involves both blessing and burden. The blessing comes in some mysterious way as we carry the burden. It is in the bondage of Egyptian slavery that the nation of Israel is born. It is in the heartache of a marriage gone bad that Hosea experiences the grace of God. It is in a Roman dungeon that Paul proclaims the Gospel in its purest form. Do I need to remind you of those strange words from the Hebrew epistle concerning our Lord? Remember what the writer said, “For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross.” It is in carrying the burden that we receive the blessing.
Will you permit me to return to say another word about Jim and Laura? A couple of years had passed since the death of their daughter. There were a few couples sitting around talking. Someone in the group said, “You know, Jim, life is hard to understand. We thought that Laura’s pregnancy was an answer to prayer, but it turned out to have been a terrible tragedy.”
Laura reached over and took Jim’s hand. They looked at each other and smiled. And Jim said to his friends, “That was no tragedy. Our Susan was a blessing sent from God. We would not trade one single day of those six years for anything this world has to offer.”
To be chosen involves both a blessing and a burden, and it is in the carrying of the burden that the blessing comes.