Pilgrims from Paradise:
Let us begin by reviewing our progress to this point in our discussion of the life of Abraham. Abraham, or Abram, as he is known at this stage of the story, has believed God’s promise to him that he will be the father of many nations. Because of his faith, God has imputed righteousness to Abram. That means, as we discovered early on in this series, that God has reckoned Abram a participant in God’s righteous life. In terms of the analogy we developed in the last podcast, God considers Abram a potential partner in His divine dance. So as one might expect, the next thing God does is actually ask Abram to dance. God invites Abram into a living interaction with Him. This encounter confirms to Abram the truth of God’s promise.
We related Abram’s experience to the Christian experience of baptism. The conclusion we reached was that much of the Christian world doesn’t know how to dance with God. In other words, it doesn’t know how to relate to God as a genuine person, and experience Him as real, and live, and simply, there. To know God that way, we realized, takes more than having faith. It even takes more than God reckoning us to be potential participants in His righteous life. It requires that we be actually participants in it. As St. Paul puts it, we must become the righteousness of God (II Corinthians 5:21), and that actual participation requires obedience.
Today, we are turning to Genesis 16. As I mentioned last time, this passage of Scripture very clearly demonstrates that the fulfillment of God’s promises, whether we are talking about descendants for Abram, or salvation for us, demands more than our faith alone. It teaches us that when it comes to God’s promises to us human beings, we are not just bystanders. We cannot just sit back and exercise our faith. We cannot simply stand on the sidelines believing, waiting for God to give us what He has promised.
Yet, in the minds of many Christians, that is exactly how salvation works. The promise of eternal deliverance comes to us as a result of our faith alone. But those who believe that have failed to understand Christianity’s most basic truth. They have never grasped just exactly what it is that God promises in salvation.
Remember what we said a few podcasts ago about righteousness? We pointed out that it is not a thing that God gives to us. Rather, it is God’s own life. He calls us to join Him in it. The foundational truth of Christianity is, God’s ultimate purpose for us is to make us intimately one with Him, to make us partakers of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4).
So that means, the purpose behind any promise God makes, be it of heirs to Abram, or of salvation to Christians, has this oneness as its objective. Through those promises, we are to enter into an eternal dance of love to God, and faith alone, cannot accomplish that. I cannot dance with God just by believing in the dance. I must join Him in it. I must embrace God—not the God who is just the object of my beliefs and emotions, but the one who is actually here, waiting for me to dance. He must lead, and I must follow. To do that, demands my obedience.
If I am not obedient to God in the dance, if I am not obedient to His dictates, as He seeks to establish me in a saving relationship of love with Him, then His promise of salvation to me becomes empty. My faith becomes impotent. God’s act of imputing righteousness to me is only unfulfilled potential.
As we look at Genesis 16, it becomes apparent that faith alone can actually be a liability. In the story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar, we see that faith—and understand, I am talking about real, genuine faith here—when left by itself, can lead to the corruption, and potentially, even to the nullifying of the very promises it has received from God. Let us turn to the text. The chapter is short, so we will read it all.
Now Sarai, Abram"s wife, had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid servant whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid. Perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Then Sarai, Abram"s wife, took Hagar, her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband, Abram, to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt 10 years in the land of Canaan. So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived, and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘My wrong be upon you. I gave my maid into your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.” So Abram said to Sarai, “Indeed, your maid is in your hand. Do to her as you please.” And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence. Now the angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur, and he said, “Hagar, Sarai"s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress, Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit yourself unto her hand.” Then the angel of the Lord said to her, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild man. His hand shall be against every man, and every man"s hand against him, and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” Then she called the name of the Lord, who spoke to her, “You are the God who sees.” For she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi. Observe, it is between Kadesh and Bered. So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram named his son whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.
Let us reflect on this scenario. What is most obvious about the course of action that Abram, Sarai and Hagar take here, is that it winds up in a big, ugly mess. The sin of pride runs rampant. In her pride, Sarai no longer wants to be seen as the beautiful, but barren, wife, who is this demeaning albatross around the neck of her otherwise great and respected husband. So she convinces Abram to have a child with Hagar to ease her shame. But in conceiving, Hagar gets caught in pride’s clutches. She begins to lord it over her childless mistress. This, in turn, inflames Sarai’s pride to vengeful anger. Abram, at first, may look to be the helpless victim, here. After all, he does exactly what his wife demands, and then he suffers her wrath for it. Oh, the catch 22s we husbands find ourselves in sometimes.
A little aside here: A while back some of my old cronies and I were talking about marriage. All of us have wonderful marriages of 25 years or more. We were contemplating, if we could give just one bit of advice to a young married man who wants to have a long and successful marriage, what would it be? It did not take us long to decide and we were completely unanimous. So here you go, young men, take it from a bunch of old, happily married guys. Life will be much easier for you, the path of your marriage much smoother, if you just accept that no matter what goes wrong in your relationship, it is always your fault. Just embrace that, and understand that the reason you should do that is because, more often than not, it is!
That is true here in Abram’s case. Abram is not the innocent victim who is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. Just like every husband, he is the spiritual head of his household. The buck stops with him. Abram is the one who is supposed to be exercising good judgment here. He doesn’t. I mean, is it any real surprise that Hagar, as simple, lowly servant girl, gets a little haughty when she finds herself bearing the child of the greatest man in the land? Abram should have seen it coming, even if Sarai didn’t.
On top of that, Abram doesn’t take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. He does what Sarai says, then when everything blows up, he sort of washes his hands of it all and tells Sarai to do whatever she wants with this woman who is bearing his child. Not considering the possible outcomes of one’s actions, and not taking responsibility for them, are both symptoms of pride. What am I saying about myself when I do not take the time to consider the consequences of what I do, and then fail to own up to them? I am declaring that I am above accountability. “Those judgments should not be put on me.” That is pride.
So pride is plainly at work in this great mistake. But is it just pride that motivates Sarai and Abram? Or is there something that opens the door for pride to take such a hold, and cause such damage at this particular juncture in their lives? To answer that, let’s remind ourselves what it is we are trying to discern in these passages from Genesis. We want to come to a clear understanding of the relationship between faith and obedience, believing and works. With that in mind, let me ask: Is it disobedience to God that opens the gates for pride’s attack on Abram, Sarai and Hagar here?
I remember hearing sermons about this passage when I was an Evangelical. I even preached some myself. The general assessment I have heard is that Abram, in the way it is popularly expressed, gets ahead of the Lord, here. But what does that mean, really, “gets ahead of the Lord?” Does it mean that Abram and Sarai are being disobedient to God? No, it doesn’t.
To this point in time, God has said nothing to Abram, specifically, as to who it is that is to bear his blood heir. The patriarch may be assuming it is Sarai, but God has not yet commanded that, or even suggested it. So as time passes and she remains childless, Sarai gets the idea that maybe it is not supposed to be her. Perhaps the fruit of Abram’s loins is to come from another woman’s womb. That is not an unreasonable idea for Sarai to have. In that day and age it would not be unusual for Abram to have a second wife. How many of the other great and godly men of the Old Testament had multiple wives?
So even though the sin of pride reveals itself here, it is not disobedience that is paving the way for it? What is it, then? Consider this. Why is it that Sarai’s suggestion of a second wife for her husband occurs at this point in their lives? Surely, as members of an ancient middle Eastern culture in which childlessness was the ultimate disgrace, Sarai’s barrenness must long have been a painful issue for the couple.
Why hadn’t Abram gone the second wife route long before now? What is different about their situation at this point? What do Abram and Sarai have now that they didn’t have earlier in their lives?
They have God’s specific promise that Abram is going to sire children himself. So, what is it that opens the door for pride and this whole messy situation with Hagar? Are we ready for the paradoxical answer? Well, here it is: It is faith that opens the door for Abram and Sarai’s errant attempt to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise. They have genuine faith that what God told them will be, must come to pass, and they simply, and reasonably, act on that belief. But wait, faith is a good and holy thing. Faith is the beginning of our life with God. How can faith lead to a corrupting of His promise? The problem here is not with faith, per se. It is with faith alone. Abram and Sarai teach us here that when faith stands alone, when we act on faith alone, it obviously can get us into trouble. It can derail God’s promises. That is true if you are Abram looking for descendants, or a Christian looking for salvation.
We’ll talk more about this next time, and see how God remedies the problems that can come from faith alone.