Abraham's Struggle To Believe (e)

Genesis 12-22

James R. Davis

When I attended Bible class as a child I developed the idea that Abraham was a man that had it all together. I wondered, "How could a man be so blessed?" My perception of Abraham was different then. I thought that Abraham was such a great man that he stepped from one mountaintop experience to another.. He was so blessed, called by God, specially chosen, spoke to God face to face, and given a very special son. Abraham was the father of the faithful, who to me at that time seemed to have no trouble obeying God, even if it meant killing his own Son. In those classes, we seemed to dwell on Abraham's victories.

The trouble about learning a few basic facts is that we tend to hold on to the basics and overlook the details. There is a tendency to dwell on the mountain peak experiences of the lives of great men and miss many great lessons that need to be learned. Those mountain top experiences must be observed in the context of their entire lives. If we fail to do this, it will have a tendency to produce a feeling of bewilderment. How could I sacrifice my son or daughter? How could I become a great man like Joseph? How could I ever route an army of thousands like Gideon with only three hundred men? How could I ever be a man after God's own heart like David, especially after all I have done?
How could I ever be as wise as Solomon? How could I ever be what God is asking me to be?

Abraham Didn't Live On A Mountaintop

Abraham's life wasn't lived on the mountaintop; it was only a place he visited occasionally. He spent much of his time feeling washed out in the valleys. A woman that is a personal acquaintance said, "Life is hard!" She was serious; she has had a hard life. Another person said, "Life is tough, then you die." It is true, "Time wounds all heals." (Yes, it is backwards, but true.) We often fail to see the struggles of these great men, . . . and it makes our lives seem even harsher.

If you think living for God is easy, you really need to take another look at those Bible heroes. They lived lives where "time wounded all it healed." They died chasing what the rest of the world believed to be illusive dreams.

The Struggle To Believe

God called Abram when he lived in Ur of Chaldees. (Genesis 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7.) Isaiah says that when God called him He called him alone. (Isaiah 51:2.) If one only reads the account of Abram's call in Genesis 12, it is easy to get the impression that Abram had no difficulty at all in obeying the call. But that is not the case.

Gen 12:1-5
"Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came."

Abram left Ur but it was not alone, as Isaiah indicated it should have been. Abram took all his excess baggage with him -- his family -- father, nephew -- and of course his old self. All due respect to our families, but sometimes families can become excess baggage, especially if they are pulling your heart away from God. Don't forget that Abram was 75 years old when God called him. At 75 you have a lot of excess baggage, especially if you are thinking about changing the whole course of your life. It is like a 75 year old person entering college as a freshman, only worse.

Abram left Canaan but he took all the baggage with him. They went to Haran and dwelt there. (Genesis 11:31-32.) Abram acquired more baggage, possessions, servants and no doubt status in the community. He was tied down until his father died. You can only wonder if his life had become somewhat stagnant. When will he go to Canaan . . . the place to which God called him?

When Abram initially obeyed the call of God . . . he just sort of inched toward God . . . just barely moved in the general direction with little sense of direction. Once he stopped he just set up camp there instead of moving on. I used to think that Abram took a giant leap toward God.

It reminds me of someone who made the move to believe and commit to the Lord in baptism but he/she is having difficulty moving on in the Lord. Life becomes stagnant after the initial plunge.

As a preacher I have moved a few pieces of furniture. I've always noticed that the hard part about sliding a piece of furniture across the floor is getting it to start moving. If it stops moving, it seems even harder to get moving again.

Well that's how Abram's first move was. He made the initial move . . . acquired possessions and servants . . . now it'll take three U-haul trucks just to clean out the garage. An so he thinks to himself, "It would be much easier to stay right here. I'll just stay where I am. After all I am doing great . . . the old man is proud of what I have accomplished and acquired. He would be mighty disappointed if I just up and moved. I think I'll settle down here in Haran, after all God has really blessed us here.

The difficulty with faith is that if it's real . . . I can't stay where I am. It doesn't matter how blessed I am, how much I have done or how far I have moved, or how much I know . . . the journey isn't ever over in this life. In a very real sense each day is a new beginning. Life has only just begun.

God Calls Abram The Second Time

It was in the midst of this mind set that God tapped Abram on the shoulder. God said, "This isn't exactly what I had in mind. I want you to leave this country and your people, your father's household and go to the land I will show you." (Genesis 12:1-4.)

It is difficult to move on in life. If you don't believe it's hard to move on ask Abram. It is much easier to stay especially when you have been there for 75 years. It doesn't get any easier to leave things behind.

So God renews his promises to Abram (Genesis 12:1-4), and so Abram musters up the courage to renew his commitment to God and moves on with his life. He moves into a very strange country. Abram moved to Moreh at Shechem. Moving into new areas is always intimidating. Especially in the service of the Lord. New territory is always intimidating. Abram settled in Moreh at Shechem. Strange people, strange language, strange gods who required the sacrifice of their children as an act of worship. Yet, in many ways, it wasn't all that strange to Abram, after all he was called from such an environment.

So God reassures Abram by reminding him of the promises. That he would be blessed with a family, inherit an enormous piece of real estate, leave a great heritage to his children and you will be a blessing to the whole world. But more important than all of this, God promised that He would bless all those that blessed Abram and curse all those who cursed Abram. But these are such distant dreams for an old man? Regardless Abram builds an altar and worships God.

Just moving to a new city is really difficult. A strange place takes 90 days just to learn your way around. And forming new relationships is even harder. Moving on in life is even more difficult. Moving into new areas of service in the work of the Lord isn't any easier.

 Abram Moves To Egypt

Then Abram moves on toward Bethel and pitched his tent and built an altar. Each move seems to be getting easier now. That is . . . till trouble comes. A great famine comes . . . a great depression . . . like the thirties . . . only worse in a hostile land with no family and friends. So Abram moves to Egypt. It is almost like saying, "I am not sure about the promises of God, I'm going to fend for myself . . . in the midst of this great depression . . . there's not much sustenance to these promises of God . . . there's not much to hold on to."

The problem with stepping out on faith is that the tangible is always much easier to hold on to. It is easier to continue where you are . . . I feel comfortable. Have you ever noticed that when you get on your knees and renew your commitment to God problems come . . . every time? And at times it seems the further you go in your commitment the more earth shaking the problems. The problems at 50 are much different than the problems I experienced at 25. They are more complex.

A famine comes; Abram is in a strange land, strange customs, strange language, and strange gods . . . how will he survive? He will move to Egypt! "I'll go to Egypt and fend for myself." Going to Egypt wasn't all it was cracked up to be; God made sure of that! Abram's struggle was a struggle for life and death.

So Abram starts the tough task of networking his way all the way to Pharaoh's throne. After all the entire world was pressing in and in his struggle to survive he had to do something! So he thought that he would network his way out of this danger. So he told the Pharaoh of Egypt that his wife was his sister. What a man of faith. It reminds me when the Pharaoh of Egypt gave his daughter to Solomon, it was a political gesture. But giving your wife . . . but at least they were alive, that's all that really mattered at this point, great networking in such a difficult position?

So God steps in after Abram has really blown it; He turned Abram's plans to dust. God inflicted serious diseases on the Pharaoh. Abram left Egypt in shame. I don't want to judge Abraham to harshly, it wouldn't be fair or right. It was a tough situation -- no food -- no word from God -- strange people -- strange gods -- strange language. What's one supposed to do? Survive at all cost! That is the major instinct in life . . . survival. Abram was just trying to keep his head above water, or even more graphic . . . just keep his head on his shoulders.

Since things were not going according to Abram's plan, he thought that he would ask God a question. After all, since he left Ur it has been one battle after another, famine, Egyptian failure, dispute with Lot, went to battle to save Lot after Lot had lost everything Abram had given him. It is only fair that Abram be allowed to ask God a question. Hold to your seats . . . the question is . . . "Lord, how do I know what you promised is true? How do I know that I can depend on you? After all I'm getting on up in years and I have no heir. How can my seed inherit Canaan." (Gen 15:8.)

I have wondered why lightning didn't strike somewhere close by, just to put Abram back in his place. Just to remind him, "Who was he to question God?" Why didn't God strike him dead! It is weird how religion can leave one afraid to ask the really tough questions in life? It isn't easy to know what to do when you are at rock bottom. When you don't know anyone you can talk to, your personal network is destroyed after working so hard to make things work. It is hard when all you have is God . . . and you don't know him all that well. On second thought, maybe we do know what Abram was feeling.

But God doesn't do any of that stuff. God tells Abram to prepare a sacrifice. It was a sacrifice that was used between two individuals to seal an agreement in Abram's day. Abram went to sleep and God spoke to him in a vision. God said, "I want to reassure you of my promise. This land belongs to your children, you will have an heir." (Genesis 15:3)

That's a much different approach than I would take, I would prefer lightning.

Just about the time Abram settles into a passive acceptance of what God promised, Sarai steps in for the rescue -- two heads are always better than one. Sarai has a solution and there is not going to be any peace at home until it is implemented! Of course in times like these, God is probably using your spouse to give you a message -- or you are hoping He is. This is the solution! You have children by our handmaid Hagar. This child will take care of us when we are old.

There is nothing in the world any worse than when you do what your spouse insists on and it backfires! You know who gets the blame? You have been there . . . haven't you? So Hagar becomes pregnant and begins to flaunt her ability to fill Abram's needs. So Sarai says, "Abram this is all your fault! I put my servant in your arms and now she is flaunting it . . . she despises me. "(Genesis 16:4-5.)

So Abram did the only thing a man in that situation could do. Abram said, "Sarai, honey, she is your servant, you do whatever makes you happy . . . so, Sarai being the faithful woman she is . . . mistreats Hagar. Sarai made her life miserable to the point that Hagar ran away. But God intervenes and persuades Hagar to return in humility. God promises her that her descendant's seed would be too numerous to count. She would have a fine son of whom she could be proud. Ishmael was born when Abram was 86 years old.

The Bible doesn't indicate that God spoke to Abram for thirteen years. We could be missing some details. It seems to be thirteen years of silence at least before God spoke to Abram about his promise. When God spoke, He gave Abram the covenant of circumcision to reassure Abram of his promise. God changed Abram and Sarai's name. Abram was to be called Abraham, which meant father of nations. Sarai was to be Sarah, which meant mother of nations. Now at 90 and 99, that is something to laugh about. And that is exactly what Abraham and Sarai did. "Will a son be born to a man that is a hundred years old?" Abraham literally fell on his face and laughed. (Watch out for the lightning strike.) Biggest joke I've heard today. In fact Abraham said, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarai bear a child at the age of ninety?" And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!" (Genesis 17:17-18.)

God says, "Yes, but Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac." Some people don't think that God has a sense of humor. But the name Isaac means "laughter." But there was a little more to the name than laughing, God was saying, "This son is going to fulfill all your dreams and aspirations and bring you joy."

After Joseph spent years in a foreign country and many years as a prisoner, he had two sons. One was Manasseh, meaning, "God has made me forget." God had made him forget all the hardships as a result of his blessings upon him. He named his second son Ephriam, which means "double fruit", which indicated that God had doubled his reward. Joseph's seed received a double portion of land when they inherited the land in Canaan.

Twenty-five years of waiting when you are 25 isn't near as long as 25 years of waiting when you are 75. Abraham has been struggling to believe in God's promises for 25 years. Going from one difficult situation to another.

Then three men appeared to Abraham, they were actually angels. (Hebrews 13:2.) These angels told Abraham that Sarah would have a son within a year. Sarah overheard this as she stood inside the tent and laughs saying, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?" . . . Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son." Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh." But he said, "Yes you did laugh." (Genesis 18:10-15.)

It is amazing that after all the promises, Abraham goes back to Negev . . . into the heart of hostile country. He decides to network his way up again. You wonder why a man of Abraham's stature would move back to a place where people did not fear God. When the text says that those people did not fear God it simply meant that the people in that country did not respect Abraham's God. That meant Abraham was in danger. Because a big determining factor to those people entering into war was whether their gods were stronger than their enemy's god. If they had no respect for God, then Abraham was in danger.

So he uses his old reliable plan to protect himself. He tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister . . . in all the difficulties Abraham's been . . . after all the experiences . . . he hasn't learned much. After all the promises . . . all the reassurances given by God . . . still the same old Abraham.

So God steps in and bails Abraham out again. Surely God knows by now that a 99-year-old man should have learned something. By the way if you ever think that you are too old to learn, you need to take another look at Abraham. It is a wonder that God didn't let him stew in his own juices.

Abraham says to Abimelech after God foils his plan, "There is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because my of my wife . . . When God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her [Sarai], 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." Have you ever felt that way after struggling with God's way for 25 years? It seems as though it doesn't get any easier.

The revelation in this passage is that Abraham always had a contingent plan to fall back on just in case God failed. When he left his father, they agreed that Sarah would always tell people that she was his sister. It wasn't just at his weak moments that he used this ploy. This was the philosophy he had been living by for almost 25 years . . . and it never really worked for him. Of course God wouldn't let it work. God always stepped in and foiled Abraham and Sarah's strategic survival plan.

Even though God promised Abram protection from the beginning it was hard for Abram to fully trust in God. "After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." (Gen 15:1KJV.)

Finally after twenty-five years of waiting Isaac is born. But God asks him to sacrifice his son as an offering.

Gen 22:1-8
"And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together."

Abraham is beginning to really believe that God will provide. He has some experience under his belt. He knows by this time that God has done what He promised. So he trust God to provide. But he really didn't know what would happen. He was living this real life situation, he wasn't reading it.

So Abraham prepares to offer his son as a sacrifice. He ties Isaac up and places him on the altar and places wood. He has brought fire to kindle the wood that he places under Isaac. He draws back his knife to kill the sacrifice and God speaks from heaven and says, "Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything to him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son." (Genesis 22:12.)

After probably about forty years of following God, Abraham takes a leap of faith. He sees God differently now. He simply says, "God will provide" before the sacrifice. But now that God has intervened in this unique way, Abraham names his God "Jehovah-jireh. Names in the Hebrew are descriptive of the one named. "Jehovah-jireh" means God will provide. Abraham finally sees God as the one who will provide what Abraham most needed. God has changed Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, but now Abraham renames his God Jehovah-jireh . . .a God who provides. For the first time in almost forty years he has really seen God!

Lesson To Be Learned

We must understand that God was always providing for Abraham. He had multiplied his material possessions. When Abraham stood before Abimelech lying about Sarai, God was providing for Abraham. When his lie was discovered by the Pharaoh God was provided. God inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh telling him that he had better not lay a hand on Sarai or Abraham. Years later when Abraham used the exact same ploy on Abimelech, God stepped out and told Abimelech not to harm Sarai or Abraham. Abimelech called all his royal officials and made sure that Abraham had a royal escort for protection as he was leaving.

We sing a song, "He has the whole world in His hand, He's got you and me brother in his hand." Once I saw a little bird that had fallen out of its nest. It was afraid, new territory, no protection, it couldn't fly. I picked up that little bird, but it kept wanting to jump out of my hand, so I cupped it in my hand so it wouldn't jump out of my hand while I was trying to put it back in the nest. Its heart was beating so fast. It was even more afraid after I picked it up. All I wanted to do was put it back in the nest. It was in the safest place in the world at that moment. But it didn't know that. When I put it into the nest initially, it jumped back over the side of the nest. That little bird couldn't understand that I was trying to help. Finally, I got it to sit in the nest.

Well, that's how Abram was when he came out of Egypt. He didn't know God that well, and he wasn't sure of God's protection. So Abram and Sarai devised a way to protect themselves and it always failed.

You can't understand God's grace and receive comfort unless you understand these stories. When we are in God's grace we are cupped in his hand, the greatest place of safety afforded. I wish we could relax and enjoy it at times. While Abraham was struggling and failing, he was in God's hand, a place of safety. God never got tired of carrying Abraham not even in moments of great doubt. Not even when Abraham said, "God you expect me to believe that I am going to have a son at this age." God just named his son Isaac which means laughter. God was with Abram when Abrahman was only inching in the general direction that God was asking him to go.

God's grace is sufficient. It gives us strength, protection and most of all direction in life. Won't you accept it.

If you are trying to use God's grace as an excuse to stay where you are, you will find no encouragement in this story. Abraham had to move out of Ur and later Haran to receive God's blessing. God will help you as long as you are struggling to believe and understand. But we must move on in faith. If we don't , God will not be able to bring our lives to fruition.

Gen 15:1
"After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward."

Gen 18:14
"Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son."

Rom 4:18-21
"Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb. He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform."