God Speaks through Environment
Practical Issues of This Life, CFP, Watchman Nee
And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, who appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother. Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments: and let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. And they gave unto Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their hand, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem. And they journeyed: and a terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan (the same is Bethel), he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place El-bethel; because there God was revealed unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother. And Deborah Rebekah’s nurse died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak; and the name of it was called Allonbacuth. (Gen. 35.1-8)
And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, Ye have troubled me, to make me odious to the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites: and, I being few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and smite me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. (Gen. 34.30)
No matter what the degree of spiritual stature one may attain, he still needs environment at times to speak to him. There are instances of this nature found both in the Old and the New Testaments. As we read church history and study the experiences of those who followed the Lord, we cannot unearth one person who is never in need of circumstances to speak a word to him. On the contrary, we may confidently assert that there is no one who does not need to be reminded sometimes by environment. Many incidents convince us that the more spiritual a person is before the Lord, the more that one will permit environment to speak to him. Only those who have controversy with the Lord will be easily affected by circumstances as well as fail to hear God’s voice in them. Yet here is a most precious thing, that if the communion between a man and God is normal he may not be influenced by environment while at the same time he may allow that environment to speak to him. But if that man has offended the Lord and is thus out of fellowship, he may be affected by even the smallest incident and on the other hand not be able to hear any word from the biggest occurrence.
Hence here is a principle which is now placed before us, and we may test ourselves by it. If we are affected by environment and fail to hear its voice, we are proven to have lost contact with the Lord and to have fallen away. No circumstances should influence us, though they ought to speak to us.
We do not believe that there can be any environment into which we are placed without there being some word in it for us. We are fully convinced that in every circumstance God has something to say to us. There is hidden in the environment God’s word to us. Naturally the “us” here points to each one of us individually. We sincerely believe that every daily occurrence speaks to each Christian.
If we live in the light of God we will come to see that for the sake of His way on earth as well as for the sake of His desire to possess us, God will arrange all things which should come to us. We ought not see only the appearance of things; we should know the Lord’s ordering within the veil. What sweet feeling there will be in us if we can recognize what the Lord has arranged in the environment. Though we cannot say that all the circumstances are initiated by the throne, nevertheless we do affirm that all of them are governed by it. We believe there is a throne in heaven, and that our Lord, after His resurrection and ascension, does now sit on that throne—with all things having been put under His feet. So that God does indeed use the environment He has ordered to speak to His children. We therefore ought to receive words through our circumstances.
Let us review the story of Jacob. Everybody agrees that the deepest experience of Jacob’s life happened at the time he wrestled with God at Peniel. As a result of his wrestling, his name was changed. Even after he had such a deep experience at Peniel, God still raised up circumstances by which to speak to him. As recorded in Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter was humbled and his sons did much mischief. Jacob was under such environment that God spoke to him as shown in Genesis 35.
Some people may object by saying that at the time of Genesis 35 God spoke directly to Jacob, not speaking indirectly through environment. Not so, for if you read Genesis 34, you will see that God first put Jacob in the environment of Genesis 34 before He spoke to Jacob the words to be found in Genesis 35. What did God say to Jacob at this time? “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, who appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother” (v.1). What story did God remind Jacob of? It was an old story, something which happened many years before. Because his brother Esau wanted to kill him, Jacob fled to his uncle on his mother’s side. On his way he came to Bethel, where, because the sun had gone down, he passed the night. Jacob laid his head on a stone and fell asleep; whereupon God appeared to him in a dream. When he woke up, he vowed a vow, saying: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, and Jehovah will be my God, then this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee” (Gen. 28.20-22). He made a vow before God.
Now is it not true that you vowed a vow when you were just saved? Although you may have bargained with God while making the vow, just as Jacob did, your heart was nonetheless right. As you commenced your walk along His path, your desire towards God was good. So that Jacob’s condition is really a picture of our own condition. That morning after Jacob made his vow, he cast it behind his back. As he traveled eastward, he maneuvered this way and that so as to protect himself. Though he had asked God to keep him on his way and to clothe and feed him, yet he depended wholly on his own self. How perfectly he represents us! He looked to God, but he used his own cleverness. Nevertheless, after he had passed through all things, Jacob could only bow his head low and confess that all was God’s mercy. Had it depended on him, he would have been no match for Laban. Jacob was tricky, but God prepared for him a Laban who was even more tricky. After he had been dealt with for twenty years, he was taken out of Laban’s hand by the Lord. Jacob acknowledged that it was God’s care for him.
Yet he forgot the vow which he earlier had made to God. For after he came back from Paddan-aram, he settled down at Shechem. Now we would no doubt think that after Jacob had received so much dealing, had passed through so much experience, suffered so very much, and accumulated such a large amount of possessions, that thereafter he could dwell at Shechem peacefully. But no, the God whom he served did not let him live on peacefully. Jacob’s heart was satisfied, but not God’s heart. What Jacob had wanted, God had given him; but what God had desired, Jacob had not yet given to Him. God must therefore continue to speak to him, and God did so again by environment. God knew that unless He gave Jacob a blow through environment, He would not be able to make him listen to His word.
Brothers and sisters, never consider yourselves so deeply spiritual that you need only to listen to the inner voice. No, many times God still has to speak to you through environment. No matter how great or small, heavy or light are your happenings, God has raised up these circumstances for Him to speak to you. We do not believe that a person can become so spiritual as to have no further need for environment to speak to him. In the life of every believer God must create a certain environment for him in order that He may say something to him.
You may have noticed that after Peniel Jacob had become quite spiritual, since he now was no longer Jacob but was Israel. After having gone through so much trial and dealing, he was irretrievably touched by God on that occasion. Jacob had become quite spiritual, and yet the Lord deemed it necessary to raise up another environment in order to speak to him. Jacob was thinking of settling down peacefully in Shechem, but God did not approve. The Bible leaves no record as to whether or not Jacob knew it inwardly. He might have sensed it somewhat, though such feeling may have passed quickly away. He paid no attention to his inward feeling if indeed he had had any. Yet we definitely know this, that God raised up an environment so that He might speak once again to Jacob. And what were the circumstances of this new environment? His daughter was humiliated, and his sons committed a gross crime—and these took away Jacob’s peace.
At the time Jacob encountered such an environment, he had no thought that God was trying to speak to him through it; instead, he blamed his sons and became frightened. At this juncture God spoke to Jacob, saying: “Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, who appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” Let us understand from this, that the environment which Jacob met up with here actually prepared him to hear God’s word. Without such circumstances he might have surmised that he now had everything and could thus pass his
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remaining days in peace. But the Lord raised up an environment which gave him no peace. So that what God meant by it was this: “All that you had asked of Me at the beginning, Jacob, I have given to you; but now you should fulfill the vow which you yourself had made to Me before.” And hence God raised up this environment, and through it God spoke to Jacob. And when Jacob heard His voice, he once again brought himself and his household to the Lord and asked the Lord for cleansing.
When the Lord touched Jacob this time, what came out of him? Ah, we witness the fact that all the foreign gods in his household came out. How incredible! That the man who knew God so well and had become so spiritual had not only forgotten his previous vows but still had many gods in his household as well. How often the idols which we hide will not come out at the beckoning of the inner voice but will only come out when pressed by outward environment. Beloved, in order to return to Bethel, these things must be handed over! Oh, if we are careless about our original heart wish and permit unlawful things to remain in our lives—and regardless of our protestations that we will be led inwardly and will listen to the inner voice—God will raise up an environment to hit us so as to strike down the foreign gods in our lives. God will not only ferret out the golden rings but also many other illegitimate matters.
Oftentimes in our fellowship with the Lord we sense no condemnation and do not feel much wrong; yet when God raises up a certain environment to touch us, we will discover some hidden idols which we were unwilling to give up. We dare not be so confident of ourselves as to conclude that we are all right if we feel peace within. Yes indeed, we should turn within to hear the inner voice. Nevertheless, we ought also to realize how deep is our fall—how difficult it is for us to stand and yet how easy to fall. Consequently, many times our inner feeling is not keen enough and our inward reproof is not sharp enough. We still need to let God speak to us through environment.
We may have been a Christian for many years. According to our experience we may have advanced very far from “our” first time in Bethel. But according to our heart desire we may have lost the desire of consecration which we initially made at Bethel. God longs to see us having more experiences; but how He also delights to see that we keep the first heart desire afresh. Brethren, no matter how experienced we are, we need to return to Bethel. Look again at Jacob. How much of God truly had been incorporated and increased in him through his many experiences, yet he lost the desire of consecration which he had first made at Bethel. Accordingly, God raised up an environment by which He could speak to him. A spiritual person such as Jacob still had need of an environment for God to be able to speak to him.
Please realize that the inner voice alone is not enough; sometimes there is a need for some outside environment to speak forth God’s word. You would like to live peacefully at Shechem, but God will raise up some circumstance to make it uncomfortable for you to remain that way. He wants you to perform your original heart desire of consecration; He wants you to go back to Bethel. You have forgotten your heart desire, but God has not forgotten. You no longer maintain your consecration, but God still desires you to do so. And hence the environment.
Consecration is great in revealing personal fault. Each time you return to your first heart desire you will see in your life things that have become irrelevant or places where you have fallen. Yes, every time you come back to Bethel you will discover in yourself so many things you should no longer harbor and so many areas wherein you have truly fallen. Consequently, never consider yourself so spiritual as to have no further problem. Instead, go and pray. Pray like this: “O Lord, seven years ago when I was spiritually revived, I prayed one night that I wanted to consecrate and lay everything on the altar for You. And today I still give all things to You.” As you return to your first heart desire you will know how many things in your life are no longer relevant and how far you have fallen away from your first heart desire.
It is true that you are much more experienced than before, and you may even boast in this fact, saying, “I know more of God than before, and I am more experienced too.” But when you return to your first desire, you will discover that, though you are now more experienced, you nonetheless have fallen, in that you still have idols and golden earrings. There are many things which should be buried. You must first bury these idols and golden earrings under the oak at Shechem before you can return to Bethel to serve God. From this incident we can see how experienced Jacob was, and yet how he did not go back to Bethel until God had spoken to him through environment.
Let us therefore inquire as to whether there is indeed the voice of God in our environment which calls us to return to Bethel. You may have reached a place wherein you have everything you need and simply wish to settle down in peace. Will God allow you to stay on peacefully this way? You have found rest, but does God find rest? Have you satisfied Him with the heart desire of Bethel? A great number of brothers and sisters need the Lord to use environment to call them back to Bethel, that is, to cause them to return to their first heart desire. In case you have lost that first heart desire, God will surely arrange some circumstances by which to stir you, discomfort you, and make you hear His word in you. We do not believe that the environment He has arranged will only outwardly affect us without giving us any word. Even with such a spiritual man as Jacob, God still needed to raise up some environment through which to put into Jacob His word.
Hence do not assume that as long as you are peaceful in heart you are all right. Sometimes your feelings may deceive you. You say you are peaceful in heart, but have you received more corrections from the Lord during these days? Are you being increasingly awakened? How much do you allow the Lord to possess you? How much have you been stripped by Him? Just remember that there ought to be the Lord’s word to you in environment. We should hear the voice of God through circumstance, go back to Bethel, and return to the first heart desire of consecration so that God may be satisfied.