Of hunger and bitter roots (Hebrews 12:12-17)

hebrewsOf what use is pain?  What value can be found in personal discomfort?  If you were living in the first-century world—more specifically, the audience of the letter to the Hebrews—this might be a question that lurked in the corners of your mind.  Earlier we’d pointed out that while some Christians had lost their lives for their faith, most early Christians had not yet experienced this full measure of sacrifice (Hebrews 12:4).  Still, the shame that they bore as followers of Christ surely gave them pause.  Would God’s promises endure?  Was faithfulness still valuable?  Could an end be seen other than pain?

Previously the author had pressed upon his readers the simple truth that yes, there are times in which God allows personal suffering and persecution to fall on his children as a way of pushing them into his grace and his loving provision.   Pain is therefore never positive, though it can be enriching.  Now the author draws a conclusion from this simple truth: that God’s people would endure both as individuals as well as a community:

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:12-17)

The author recognizes that—like Esau—many would face a time of testing, when one’s physical desires have to be weighed against the duties and virtues of life in God’s great kingdom.  You do remember Esau, don’t you?  It’s an important story, so let’s take a crash course.

Something like 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, God chose a man named Abraham.  Abraham was chosen to be blessed by God, and to share this blessing with future generations—effectively becoming the father of the entire nation of Israel.  Much of the text of Genesis focuses on the story of Abraham and his offspring.  In Genesis 25, we witness the birth of Abraham’s grandchildren, Esau and Jacob:

24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:24-28)

Got it so far?  These two were fraternal twins, but were worlds apart.  Esau, the firstborn, was the Grizzly Adams of the family—and so garnered his father’s favoritism.  Jacob, from birth, was grabbing at his brother’s heel—hence his Hebrew name literally meant “heel-grabber” or, more symbolically, “cheater.”

If you know much about ancient culture you may be familiar with the practice of prima geniture, the practice of giving a double portion to the firstborn male.  So if the text of Genesis was concerned with the passing of God’s blessing along generational lines, then the birthright went beyond mere material possessions, but dealt deeply with God’s plan accomplished through Abraham’s biological descendants.  This makes the events of Genesis 25 all the more unnerving:

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)

First of all, Esau had endured a hard day’s work; his life was hardly in danger.  Still, he was willing to trade in his entire inheritance—including the promises of God—for a can of soup.

So when the author of Hebrews appeals to this story, it’s as if he’s saying: Don’t allow your temporary physical discomfort to diminish your view of God’s eternal plan.  Because the truth is we’re tempted to do this all the time.

Notice that the author accuses Esau of sexual impropriety.  When did that happen?  If you read the whole story in Genesis, you know Esau defied his parents’ wishes by marrying Hittite women, so maybe the accusation fits there.  If you lived in the first century, you may be familiar with a long tradition of stories that added sexual immorality to the list of Esau’s crimes.  Or maybe the author is using sexual sin as a metaphor for spiritual “adultery,” the act of sourcing one’s purpose, pleasure, and security in something other than God.  Like soup.

Here’s what I think—and I’ll point out that of all the books I’ve read no one completely agrees with me(!).  I think the author of Hebrews is blending these concepts together, and I think he does so to specifically highlight the way that young people especially have a unique calling to endure and be faithful.  Why do I think that?  Several reasons: first, the earlier reference to Proverbs deals (largely, though not exclusively) with instruction to Solomon’s children.  Second, the passage above deals with instructions for the community—and young people would have a unique role in leading the community through the birth and raising of future generations.  And third, because our choices of sexual expression are typically solidified during our younger years—that is, through marriage.

So what’s the danger?  The danger is that we might sacrifice the eternal things of God on the altar of temporal satisfaction.  Young people, hear me: few things in life have more horsepower than romance.  You will be faced with the temptation to date a guy or a girl that is absolutely amazing in every imaginable way—yet has no interest in Jesus or your spiritual development.  If marriage is meant to be a reflection of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:25ff), then you have set yourself up for a lifetime of failure.  I realize that stings, but consider it this way: if you place Jesus at the center of your life, but you commit yourself to someone who doesn’t share that, what do you expect to happen?  Your partner may care about you, but without this deep, shared connection you will never experience true intimacy, he or she will never be able to invest in you spiritually, nor will he or she ever pour themselves into the spiritual development of your kids.  Yes, the pain of breakups and singleness may hurt, but these tears are nothing—nothing—compared to the lifetime of being strangled by the roots of bitterness that grow from seeds sown out of temporary hunger.

Some of you may already know this—because whether by choice or circumstance you find yourself yoked to a spouse whose spiritual interest is minimal if it exists at all.  You attend church alone, you disciple your children without your partner’s assistance, and you spend night after night pleading for the soul of the one that shares your bed.  Don’t give up.  This, too, can be a source of God’s loving discipline, and the means by which you are ever encouraged to press into the grace of God.

MismatchBecause I recognize that some of you are facing this challenge as a daily reality, I close with the suggestion of a book that you may find helpful.  Lee and Leslie Strobel’s Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage has been valued highly by those who wish to remain faithful to God (and teaching their children to do the same) when their partner simply does not share this faith.


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