One of the beautiful things about the Bible is that it does not present our heroes as epic figures who never fell. Rather it presents us with real human beings who struggle and eventually “get there.” As an example, I was talking the other day with someone who remarked, “Too bad we can’t all be strong in faith like Abraham.” Ah Abraham, the paragon of faith! Well….eventually but Abraham had some very bad moments in his journey that we ought not to overlook. Surely he became strong in faith but only after some pretty bad falls along the way. Consider some of Abraham’s struggles.
- Abram (He was only called Abraham by God later), was told, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you (Gen 12:1) And he does. At one level this is remarkable since God gave him no road maps etc. He just said, “Set out” and Abram did, trusting God would direct him. But note a little detail that I would argue amounts to a lack of total obedience: So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him (Gen 12:4) Oops, where did his nephew Lot get included? Now some many argue that this is no big deal, but for the record God did not mention Lot in his instructions. And sure enough, Lot’s presence will cause trouble later on. There is always trouble lurking when we do not wholeheartedly obey God.
- Abram gets to the Holy Land and God shows him its beauty.He reconnoiters the land and eventually pitches his tent near Bethel, a name which means house of God. So there he is right where he ought to be, in the House of God, on the Land God had shown him (cf Gen 12: 5-9) Only one problem though, there is a famine in the land. Will Abram Trust God who has called him to this land? He will not! He goes off to Egypt (Gen 12:10), trusting Pharaoh to feed him but not God. God never said, “Go to Egypt.” It is dripping with irony that Abram leaves a place called “Bethel” (house of God) to go to the house of Pharaoh.
- In Egypt Abram does something awful. His wife Sarai (only called Sarah later in the narrative) is very beautiful and Abram is worried that men will want her and thus kill him so they can have her. So Abram tells a lie and has her lie too, asserting that she is his sister. (Gen 12:11-13) He even goes so far as to allow her to be placed in Pharaoh’s harem! (Gen 12:14-16) This is all to protect his own hide and gain influence. Lets just make it plain, he pimps out his own wife. Pharaoh eventually discovers the lie and, suffering its consequences, denounces Abram (Gen 12:17-19). In effect Pharaoh fears God more that Abram. It takes Pharaoh to get Abram to go back to were he belongs. So Abram returns to the Holy Land, to Bethel, not because of his faith but because of Pharaoh’s threats (Gen 12:19-20).
- Ok, so at least he’s back where he needs to be, in Bethel, right? Well now the Lot mistake manifests itself. Abram and Lot actually did quite well in Egypt and return with flocks that are so large that the Land cannot sustain them both together (Gen 13:1-8). Now notice, the Holy Land could sustain Abram but not Abram and Lot together. This inability of the Land to sustain them both goes back to the original disobedience of Abram in bringing Lot in the first place. Lot and Abram agree to part company and Lot picks the choicest of the land, which at that time was where the dead sea is now (Gen 13:8-12) Ok, end of problem right? Not exactly. The text says that Lot “pitched his tent toward Sodom.” (Gen 13:12). Now you know where all that is going to lead. In the end it will be another distraction for Abram who brought Lot along when he should not have. Lot has bad judgement and has no business associating with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. All of this draws Lot into a big mess in which his family is corrupted. His Wife cannot turn her back on Sodom and is killed, his daughters are also corrupted and later attempt incest with him (gen 19:30ff). All this is a distraction for Abram who should never have brought Lot in the first place.
- God promises Abram and Sarai many descendants. But both Abraham and Sarah falter in faith several times with regards this. Abraham’s first struggle comes when, after many years of promises from God, no child has yet been born. So, in effect he says to God, “Look, I know you got a little carried away by all this offspring talk so I guess I’m going to have to settle on giving my inheritance to my steward, Eliezar.” But God says, NO, not that one, but rather your own issue will be your heir. (Gen 15:1-4). Later, Sarah, also despairing that God can deliver suggests adultery and that he sexually exploit Hagar her slave girl and have a child by her. And he does! (Gen 16:1-4) Ishamel is born and the ugliness begins between Hagar and Sarah (imagine that!) (Gen 16:4-6). God once again has to rebuke Abraham and remind Abram of his promises. Sarah, paranoid at Hagar’s newly exulted position as the mother of Abraham’s only Child not in jealous rage tells Abraham to commit an act of great injustice and to drive her into the desert with her child. He does! (Gen 18:23ff)
- God renews his promises to Abram and Sarai and changes their names by entering into a covenant with them (Gen 17:1-15). As God renews his promises for multiplied descendants Abraham falls to his faces and laughs (Gen 17:17). Later, Sarah laughs too (Gen 18:2). Finally Isaac is born (a name which means “He laughs”) which commemorates the struggle of Abraham ad Sarah to believe what God is telling them.
Do you see? Abraham’s journey was marred by some pretty ugly setbacks. But ultimately Abraham doescome to believe God and he receives the fruit of faith in His Son Isaac. God prepares one final test to strengthen Abraham’s faith (Gen 22). He tells him to offer his son in sacrifice. This time Abraham does not draw back. He sets out for Moriah to obey God. Isaac asks, “Where is the Lamb for sacrifice?” Abraham has finally made it to faith and he simply says to his son, “God will provide the Lamb.” (Gen 22:7-8). Abraham has arrived. He has come to trust God and knows that obeying God will not be without its reward. And God DID provide the lamb as you know.
But Abraham didn’t simply “have faith.” He had to get there by years of struggle, setbacks, and hard lessons. He had to learn that to obey God brings blessings. To disobey God spells trouble. He had to learn that God means exactly what he says and to trust him in all things. If Abraham, the great hero of faith had to go through all this to arrive at faith, maybe there is hope for you and me too. But we too are summoned to learn of faith and grow in it. We are called to obey more and more perfectly and to stop trying to improve on God’s plan. So the example of Abraham is not just a relief to those of us who struggle it is also a road map of what we must do. Faith has to grow and we have to let it.
Here’s an old gospel song that says, “A Saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.” Maybe there is hope for us too, if we get back up.