E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.
There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.
Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.
Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.
There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be nearer, my God, to Thee.
If you know your Bible, you will recognize that this song was written about Jacob's trip to Haran as he fled his angry brother Esau (Gen 28:10-22). "My rest a stone," and "in my dreams…steps unto Heaven," are anything but vague. We too often think of the Jacob who stole his brother's birthright and connived the blessing of the genealogy of the Messiah from his father, while steadfastly ignoring that the Hebrew writer calls Esau a profane man who for one bowl of soup sold what he later claimed to be so important. He may have been hungry from a long day hunting, but he was not about to starve any more than we are when we say, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." And as far as the blessing, Isaac may have been blind, but God was not. He knew who was receiving this most important blessing and He was perfectly happy with the choice, and that was someone other than a man whose god was his belly. Even Isaac later recognized that. And why?
Read the verses above in your Bible and this is what you will see. Jacob may have been less than we with our judgmental attitudes want our Bible heroes to be, i.e., perfect, but he learned from this dream to be mindful of God in his life, no matter where he was, not just in the Promised Land. (How do we do outside the church building on a weekday?) He was confident enough of this relationship that he took the initiative in making a vow. Not even Abraham did that. And God was confident enough in him to pass the Abrahamic covenant on through him (Gen 28:13-15).
Jacob not only learned that God was always with him, he longed to be even closer. How about us? Can we truly sing this hymn and mean it? Can we understand the "good" that comes from trials, or do we declare God to be "good" only when we get what we want? Look at verse 4, one we never sing because I have never even seen it in any of our hymnals.
"Out of my stony griefs Bethel I'll raise." Bethel, the "house of God"—Jacob was fleeing for his life, yet he realized that in that flight, he had become closer to God and raised an altar to him. In other words, he recognized God's presence even in that time of trial. And us? "So by my woes to be nearer my God to thee." Are we? Do the struggles and trials—the "woes"--of this life bring us nearer to God, or do they chase us away, putting a dagger through our faith with statements like, "Why me?" Do we think God owes us a life of ease and plenty because we have been faithful? The Health and Wealth Gospel has struck again!
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas 1:2-4) I may not jump up and down with glee when I suffer, but can I see beyond this all too present world to the strength I will gain through successfully enduring trials? The enduring is the key, along with its growth in wisdom. If we do not endure and become stronger, even the trials are a waste. You can sit around in a gym full of barbells and never gain anything from it until you pick them up and actually exercise your spiritual muscles.
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (Acts 5:41-42) These people were not the sometimes neurotic sounding masochists that certain ancient Christians were, who thought physical pain was cleansing. They knew that pain itself was not the goal, but that being worthy enough to even suffer for Christ was far superior to being honored by the world. And they were willing to bring on even more suffering by continuing in their faithful obedience.
And so their woes brought them "nearer to God." How are you faring with your woes? Are your trials working steadfastness (commitment) or do you give up at the first difficult thing that comes your way? Are we even as good as this fellow Jacob whom we all want to malign as being less than godly? Are we recognizing God in our lives and trying our best to grow closer to him day after day?
Would you be willing to ask your song leader to add verse 4 to the song and sing it this coming Sunday?
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom 5:2-5)