In the reading at daily Mass for Friday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time, St. Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith. Abraham did come to strong faith, but it took time!
One of the beautiful things about the Bible is that it does not present epic figures who never fell. Rather, it presents us with authentic human beings who struggled and eventually “got 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 that was true 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.
- Imperfect Initiation – Abram (God called Abraham later on) 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. On one level this is remarkable because God didn’t give him any directions; He just said, go, and Abram went, trusting that God would direct him. Notice a little detail, though, 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). How did his nephew Lot get included? Some may argue that this is no big deal, but for the record, God did not mention Lot in His instructions to Abram. Sure enough, Lot’s presence causes trouble later on. There is always trouble lurking when we do not obey God completely.
- Wayward Wanderer – 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 that means “house of God.” So there he is right where he ought to be: in the House of God, on the Land God showed him (cf Gen 12:5-9). There is only one problem: there is a famine in the land. Will Abram trust God, who called him to this land? No! He goes off to Egypt (Gen 12:10), trusting Pharaoh—not God—to feed him. God never said, “Go to Egypt.” It is quite ironic that Abram leaves a place called Bethel (house of God) to go to the house of Pharaoh.
- Fearful Foolishness – In Egypt, Abram does something awful. His wife Sarai (only called Sarah later in the narrative) is very beautiful; Abram is worried that men will want her and thus kill him, her husband, so that they can have her. Abram lies and claims that Sarai is his sister; he convinces her to say the same (Gen 12:11-13). Abram 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 to gain influence. Let’s just make it plain: he “pimps out” his own wife! Pharaoh eventually discovers the lie and, suffering its consequences (severe plagues), denounces Abram (Gen 12:17-19). In effect, Pharaoh fears God more than he does Abram. It takes Pharaoh to get Abram to go back to where he belongs. Abram returns to the Holy Land, to Bethel, not because of his faith but because of Pharaoh’s threats (Gen 12:19-20).
- Confusing Consequences – At least Abram is 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; they with flocks so large that the land cannot sustain them both together (Gen 13:1-8). Notice that Holy Land could sustain Abram, but not Abram and Lot together. This hearkens 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 choicer part of the land (where the Dead Sea is now) (Gen 13:8-12). Problem solved, right? Not exactly. The text says that Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom (Gen 13:12). 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 shouldn’t have. Lot shows bad judgement; he shouldn’t be associating with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. All of this draws Lot into a big mess in which his family is corrupted. Lot’s wife cannot turn her back on Sodom and is killed; his daughters later trick him into impregnating them (Gen 19:30ff). All of this is a distraction for Abram, who should never have brought Lot along in the first place.
- Faltering Faith – God promises Abram and Sarai many descendants, but both of them 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. Abram says “… what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer? … [Y]ou have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir.” God responds, “No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir” (Gen 15:1-4). Later, Sarah, also despairing that God can ever deliver on His promise, suggests adultery to Abraham, and proposes that he sexually exploit Hagar, her slave girl, and have a child by her. And he does! (Gen 16:1-4) Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, setting off ugliness between Hagar and Sarah (imagine that!) (Gen 16:4-6). God once again has to rebuke Abraham and remind him of His promises. Later, Sarah, paranoid over Hagar’s exalted position as the mother of Abraham’s first born child demands that Abraham commit an act of great injustice and to drive Hagar and Ishmael into the desert (Gen 21:9-14). And he does!
- Derisive Doubt – God renews His promises to Abram and Sarai and changes their names (to Abraham and Sarah) by entering into a covenant with them (Gen 17:1-15). As God renews His promises for many descendants, Abraham prostrates himself and laughs (Gen 17:17). Later, Sarah laughs at the promise as well (Gen 18:12). Finally, Sarah gives birth to Isaac (a name that means “He laughs”), which commemorates the struggle of Abraham and Sarah to believe what God told them.
Do you see? Abraham’s journey was marred by some pretty ugly setbacks, but ultimately Abraham did come to believe God. 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 as a sacrifice. This time, Abraham does not hesitate. He sets out for Moriah, determined to obey God. Isaac asks, Where is the lamb for sacrifice? (Gen 22:7) Abraham has finally made it to faith; he simply responds, God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice (Gen 22:8). Abraham has arrived. He has come to trust God and knows that obeying Him will not be without its reward. And God did provide the lamb, as you well know.
Abraham didn’t simply “have faith.” He had to get there through years of struggle, setbacks, and hard lessons. He had to learn that to obey God brings blessings, but to disobey God brings trouble. Abraham learned that God means exactly what He says and that he should trust Him in all things. If Abraham, the great hero of faith, had to go through all of this to arrive at faith, maybe there is hope for us! 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. Abraham’s example isn’t just a relief for us who struggle; it is also a road map, telling us 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—provided we get back up.