The Alchemist

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, we read an interesting verse.

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 | TNIV)

 We serve an all-powerful God who, according to this verse, can turn a curse into a blessing just because He loves you.  This isn’t just a specious claim made one time, in a vacuum. Over and over in the Bible we see God doing just this very thing: Taking a terrible situation and turning it around into a good one. In that sense, God is kind of like the ancient alchemists. These were men who sought to turn base metals into gold using a variety of means, including pseudo-science and even the occult. Of course, it’s ludicrous to think a man can turn any kind of metal into gold; I don’t think anybody would argue that! But just as impossible to some people – even Christians, mind you – is the thought that God can take a terrible situation in your life and turn it around, making it work for you instead of against you. But He can, and He probably already has many times! Plenty of Christians today are so spiritually dull they don’t notice when this happens, to their shame. Fortunately, that doesn’t stop God from doing it. He loves us, after all.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two instances in addition to this one where we see God doing His alchemy in the lives of His people. Let’s take a closer look and hopefully learn something that will cause us to rejoice and to look for it in our lives today.

Joseph and his family

 Talk about a dysfunctional family!

Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.  (Genesis 37:3, 4 | TNIV)

You can call it the result of bad parenting. Joseph’s father, Israel (also known as Jacob) should have learned a lesson from his own upbringing. His own father favored one son over the other so he knew from experience this kind of favoritism never ends well. But, here he goes and does the same thing his father did. Honestly, Joseph was a good boy. He was the best of a sorry lot. As a matter of fact, of all the people in the Old Testament, Joseph is the most Christ-like in terms of character and how he lived his life. It might be understandable that his father preferred him over the rest of his loser sons, but it’s not an excuse. It was a bad situation, made even worse by Joseph’s sterling behavior.

The fact is, we are all in control of our own emotions, and young Joseph’s brothers were all mature adults who despised their younger brother. It’s a terrible thing to hate your family members, but if we look at the first glimpse of Joseph in the Bible, we can see that he really didn’t help the already-bad situation any.

This is the account of Jacob’s family line. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. (Genesis 37:2 | TNIV)

Not only had their father given him a multi-colored coat, but Joseph was a tattle-tale who wasn’t above telling his brothers about his dreams in which they looked like the boobs they were. Their hatred for Joseph was so intense, that they went so far as to arrange his death. But, you can’t keep a good man down, not even a young one, and God had other plans for your Joseph.

Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood. ” His brothers agreed. So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.  (Genesis 37:26 – 28 | TNIV)

And so Joseph went to Egypt, where he spent time in an Egyptian prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Eventually, he was released from prison by the Pharaoh because young Joseph had the uncanny ability to interpret dreams and give sound political advice. God took a bad situation and made it work for Joseph personally.

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.”  Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, “Make way !” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt.  (Genesis 41:41 – 43 | TNIV)

 And thanks to Joseph’s leadership skills, Egypt was spared the world-wide famine that caused his brothers to come into Egypt looking for food. They didn’t recognize him, but he knew them, and eventually the whole family found safety and a home in the land of Egypt. They survived the devastating famine because God took a bad situation, turned it around, and made it work for His people.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  (Genesis 50:18 – 20 | TNIV)

Joseph was right. That historic famine wiped out many surrounding nations, but Egypt survived because of Joseph’s steady hand, and Israel survived because God took a bad situation, used it to put His man in a place of authority, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

Paul and his thorn

 The apostle Paul was an amazing man. He was an “Indiana Jones” type of guy, except instead of digging up the past, he was building the future for God. This one-time persecutor of Christians became their greatest asset, founding more churches in his lifetime than anybody I can think of. Here’s his partial list of things he went through to do the work to which God had called him.

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own people, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.  (2 Corinthians 11:24 – 28 | TNIV)

 In spite of all those negative experiences, Paul kept on going, preaching the Gospel to anybody who would stand still long enough to listen. And this man who went through all he went through, was able in complete honesty and humility write these words:

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. (Ephesians 3:7 – 9 | TNIV)

Paul viewed his ability to travel around, risking life and limb, preaching and teaching the Gospel to the lost and establishing churches wherever he went as a singular privilege, the result of God’s grace working in him.

But then there was this.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  (2 Corinthians 12:7b – 9 | TNIV)

Nobody knows just what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. Some people think he was a very ill man. He traveled with a personal physician, after all. Some people think he was almost blind, which is why he almost always had other people, like Timothy, write his letters for him. It doesn’t really matter what his “thorn in the flesh” was, God took it and used it to give Paul more of what made Paul the “indispensable man”of the early church: Grace upon grace.

Israel and that curse

And, in the case of Israel, God said that He turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing simply because He loved them. But just who was this Balaam?  He was a wicked prophet, but he wasn’t a false prophet. Balaam did hear from God, and God gave him true prophecies to declare to the people, but his heart wasn’t fight, and he eventually betrayed Israel and led them further away from God.

He was hired to curse Israel by one of their enemies. Of course, he never had any power to do this, but the man that hired this Jewish prophet was a pagan and he didn’t know any better. Balaam, for his part, wanted the reward, but every time he went to curse Israel, the Lord actually blessed Israel. This happened multiple times. In all, seven times God blessed Israel instead of cursing them, and the curses fell upon their enemies!

According to what we read in Deuteronomy, God turned the curses into blessings because He loved Israel. It certainly wasn’t because they deserved any of these blessings. As a matter of fact, while Balaam couldn’t curse them, he did give the pagan king a sure-fire plan to bring Israel down.

“They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.” (Numbers 31:16 | TNIV)

So, these people certainly did nothing to deserve God’s blessings. There’s a huge lesson here that I want you to notice. God will change your bad situation into something that will work for you simply because He loves you; because you belong to Him, not necessarily because you deserve it.

You

We all have situations that make life difficult for us. For some of you, the source of trouble is your family. Others it may things going on at work that seem to be so overwhelming you don’t know what to do. Maybe it’s your health or the health of a loved one. We pray and pray and cry out to God to take the “thorn in our flesh,” but it seems like He either doesn’t hear us, or He’s punishing us, or worse, He just wants us to suffer.

When God doesn’t take the curses out of your life, it’s because He going to do something much better: He will transform them into blessings. He’s always doing that whether we notice it or not.

No alchemist can do that. God does it because He loves us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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