The last several of my entries have used the lives of people in the Bible as illustrations of eternal Biblical principles. I want to try that again, using a lesser known Biblical person. This man is so obscure that even some of the better read Bible students out there might not know much about him. His name was Abraham. *Wait for laughter to die down.*
Of course, we all know of Abraham. The father of the faithful. When we first meet Abraham (then called Abram) in Genesis 12, his faith is already at a legendary status. God tells him to leave all he knows to travel to a foreign land, which he as yet knows nothing about. Abraham then leaves! In leaving Ur, Abraham left a surprisingly modern city. There is archaeological evidence of indoor plumbing among other conveniences. When he left, he lived the rest of his life in a tent. A very nice, very plush, very comfortable tent, but a tent is still a tent. A house is much better. In leaving Haran, Abraham left his family and all he knew to be a stranger and live among strangers. Abraham’s faith in God and His promises was so strong that he willingly left all.
As strong as it was in the beginning, Abraham’s faith had room to grow. Many of the stories of his life over the next 25 years deal with his struggle to understand God’s plan and to even help it along. We first really see this in Gen. 15:1-4:
“After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’ And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’”
Notice that this isn’t a lack of faith, but rather a question that Abraham is asking God. God’s promise requires Abraham to have children. As of this point, he has had none. It was customary at that time for the chief steward of a wealthy man to inherit if the wealthy man had no heirs, and so far Abraham’s designated heir is Eliezer, his chief steward. Abraham doesn’t doubt God, but he can’t see how the promises are going to work out, so he asks. God tells him that his very own son, proceeding from his bowels is the literal translation, will be his heir. And so Abraham continues, some of his questions answered. In the next chapter, though, we see Abraham starting to try to help God’s plan along:
Gen. 16:1-4a. “Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, "Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived.”
It’s been 10 years of waiting. Ten years of living in a strange land, surrounded by strange people, because of faith in God’s promises, and yet nothing has happened. Maybe Abraham and Sarah were thinking that God was waiting on them to have the faith to step up and get the ball rolling. Who knows? What we do know is that Sarah was desperate. Desperate enough to try to capitalize on a custom of the time that said that any child born to a wife’s servant was legally the child of the wife. We see this illustrated in the competition between Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob, as each gave Jacob their servants to obtain children from. Not surprisingly, tension builds between Sarah and Hagar, but what I want to focus on is that Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 (16:15-16). Abraham now has a son, his own son, issued from his own body. He thought things were now set up for God’s promises to commence. Thirteen years later, God again appears to Abraham, repeats the promises, institutes the covenant of circumcision and tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son. (17:15-16) Abraham then falls on his face laughing at what God has said! From a logical standpoint, this is understandable: Abraham was 99 years old and according to 18:11, Sarah had already undergone menopause. It made no sense that Abraham would have a child by Sarah. He just couldn’t understand how that could be. He believed in the promises of God, but he thought it made much more sense for those promises to flow through Ishmael. In fact, Abraham pleads to God for that to be the case: Gen 17:18 “And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before you!’” God replies, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” (vs 19). And so, about a year later, Isaac is born to Abraham by Sarah. (21:1-3)
The promised child finally arrived 25 years after the initial promises were made, but it seems that Abraham might still have been hedging his bets. Child mortality rates were high in those days and Abraham might well have been thinking that, if anything happened to Isaac, he still had Ishmael. There is an indication of this when Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. She had seen Ishmael mocking Isaac and demanded that they be sent away so that Ishmael would not inherit with Isaac. Abraham doesn’t like this because if nothing else, Ishmael is his son. He doesn’t want to send him away any more than any father would want to send a son away, but from God’s response, there might have been more than just that: “But God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’” (Gen. 21:12) The fact that God saw fit to reiterate that Abraham’s seed would go through Isaac seems to indicate that, just as Abraham tried to help along God’s plan by having Ishmael, he now was holding a back-up plan for God, just in case. He never doubted God’s promises, he just wanted to understand how the plan would unfold. He wanted to help nudge it along on his time-table, not God’s. He wanted the reassurance of a back-up plan. God has now stripped him of all these things. The next thing recorded is, of course, Abraham’s biggest test.
In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to offer Isaac to Him as a sacrifice. What must have been buzzing around in Abraham’s brain? Not only would he have been suffering as any father under those circumstances, he would have been wondering about the promises. Ishmael is gone, sent away at God’s command. He has no other sons. God promised that the blessings would flow through Isaac. In this test, we see the culmination of Abraham’s faith. When Isaac asked his father where the lamb was for the offering they were on the way to make, Abraham answered, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Gen. 22:8) Essentially, Abraham turned it all over to God and trusted that God knew what He was doing. Yes, we know from Hebrews 11:19 that he thought God would resurrect Isaac after he sacrificed him, but, whatever Abraham’s guess was, he turned the solution of the problem over to God. He no longer needed to understand the plan. He no longer needed a back-up plan to reassure him. He just trusted God to handle things and turned it over to Him. "God will provide”.
That complete trust of God to handle things we can’t understand is the whole point I wanted to make with this. I could have started out by quoting Rom. 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good”) and cited several other passages dealing with trust in God and had everyone reading this saying “Amen”, but it might not have had the punch of seeing Abraham go through the process of reaching that point. I could have gone to Heb. 12:7-11 and written about how God disciplines all His children so that the end result would be their attaining the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” and everyone would be nodding their heads, but then we leave the computer and enter the real world. Romans 8:28 sounds good until you are burying your first grandchild. Discipline for the ultimate fruit of righteousness sounds ok until you are watching your spouse slowly die from a wasting disease. When the career I thought I’d follow my whole life suddenly dries up and I find myself delivering pizza to make ends meet, how does that work for my good? It’s easy to read these passages and say “Amen” in church on Sunday. It is harder to remember them and understand how it works Monday-Saturday. The life story of Abraham shows us that we don’t have to understand it. We just have to believe. When Abraham was trying to understand God’s plan, when he tried to help it along, that’s when he got himself into trouble. It was only when Abraham stopped trying to understand and just trust in God to work His plan that God said to him, “now I know that you fear God”.
So, when the economy changes and I lose my house, how does that help me? How does it work for my good? I don’t know, but I believe that God has a plan and He is working it. When I get passed over for promotion, or even have my hours cut because I’m talking too much about God, how does that work for me? I don’t know, but I trust that God knows and He is working His plan. We are not promised answers in this life. We may never know why the horrible things that happen to us happen. We are told that God is in charge. That God knows what He is doing and He is working for our good. We just have to trust in Him. If we do, and cast our cares on Him, we are promised peace in this life.
Phil. 4:6-7 “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”