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Christian Living

Spiritual Life

I Am Jacob

My theology teaches me that God loves me -- me and everyone else. I didn't doubt the biblical teaching. Emotionally, however, I didn't feel loved. God "so loved the world" (John 3:16) and sent Jesus to die for sinners, and that included me. Even so, sometimes I felt as if I had been saved as part of a package deal. God had gotten stuck with me because of a sweeping compassion for everyone.

My problem wasn't my theology or my intellectual grasp; my emotions simply didn't agree.

One day in my devotional reading I came across Romans 9:13, where Paul quotes God as saying, "Jacob I loved" (NIV).

The impact of those words stayed with me, and I pondered them frequently over the next few days. What did Jacob ever do to deserve love? He was one of the biggest scoundrels and least deserving, and yet God loved him. He did nothing to earn that love and should have received severe punishment.

As I pondered the life of Jacob, I faced one sad reality: I couldn't earn God's love. The best I could do was to accept that God loves me. I didn't know how to do that, but I kept thinking of the deeply loved but utterly undeserving Jacob. To my amazement, one morning I heard myself crying in deep anguish, "I am Jacob."

The more I thought of those words and focused on what I was saying, I knew that was exactly how I needed to pray.

"I am Jacob, whom you love." I spoke those words aloud.

I prayed exactly those words every day for months. One day instead of saying, "I am Jacob, whom you love," I heard myself say, "I am Jacob. I really am."

I had focused on being Jacob for so long that I had become like Jacob. That is, I knew I was loved. The powerful assurance was there in a way I had never experienced before. In that sense, I was indeed Jacob.

I also thought of two of Paul's admonitions: "in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me" (1 Corinthians 4:15-16, NIV, author's italics).

The apostle also writes, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (11:1 NIV). If we were to say this, it would sound like boasting. Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to know that if they followed his example and his lifestyle they would see godliness that pointed toward the perfect godliness of Jesus Christ.

What would it be like to imitate the example of Paul? Or the examples of other outstanding believers in the Bible? What if I saw qualities in them that I yearned for in my own life? How could I embody those same qualities?

I knew I was moving in the right direction. I began a series of further prayer exercises. For periods at a time -- often just a few days, but usually lasting several weeks -- I chose one individual in the Bible whom I admired. I created a mental image of that person.

I tried not to ignore any of the person's shortcomings, because those made the character more human. I focused on a single, major quality I respected about that individual.

Each day, as I prayed, I imagined myself taking on the quality I had selected.

This may speak of my weakness, but I just couldn't -- then or now -- focus on Jesus as the role model for the qualities I wanted. I needed flesh-and-blood, sinful-but-saved creatures who embodied the attributes I sought to develop.

In a novel, In His Steps, written more than a hundred years ago, a dozen people covenanted to ask, "What would Jesus do?" before they made any decision. That wouldn't work for me because I have no idea what Jesus would do. Jesus is perfect and without sin. I have an amazing ability for self-deception and too often my heart is so filled with my desires that I'm not open enough to hear the voice of the Savior.

I did discover, however, that I could relate to other flawed human beings. The Bible is filled with them -- and many of them stand as our guides to spiritual maturity.

For example, I suspect Paul was a hot-tempered zealot whose words sometimes cut his enemies to shreds. I have some of that quality in me, so I understand his struggles. In spite of that, he also embodied a boldness for God that I yearn for.

Some may have trouble with my approach. They can't easily say, "I am Jacob." I could have said, "I want to be loved like an undeserving Jacob," which is what my words meant. But to explain to God (who needs no explanations) made my prayer cumbersome. The simple concept worked for me. "I am Jacob," sounded direct; it enabled me to focus.

Each day, as I prayed, I envisioned what it would be like to be fully embraced by God's loving arms. The more unworthy I felt, the more I could appreciate that love.

In my case, this went on for months before the realization struck me that I had become like Jacob -- I felt deeply loved despite my shortcomings. Those simple words had changed my life.

Here is how I pray every day now. As I become aware of a need to change, I search for the desired quality in a biblical character, then pray in my shorthand form. Sometimes when I'm reading the Bible, I'm struck by the quality of a person and I think, 'Yes, that's how I want to be.'

I invite you to experiment in prayer with me. As you focus on a quality you want to cultivate -- love, kindness, boldness, or contemplation -- focus on one of the giants of the Bible, and make it a matter of daily prayer to be like that person.

More recently, I have held up Nathaniel, "an Israelite in whom there is no deceit," (John 1:47 TNIV). That's who I want to be: open, vulnerable, and without deception.

 

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