Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, we reflected on the unfortunate events in the life of Abram, recorded for us in Genesis 16. Following the suggestion of his wife, Sarai, Abram takes Sarai’s handmaiden, Hagar, as his second wife. She conceives a son by him, Ishmael, as he is later named. Because of this blessing, Hagar become condescending toward her barren mistress. In retaliation, and unrestrained by her husband, Sarai treats Hagar very harshly. Hagar eventually runs away. But God meets her in the desert. He informs her that He will greatly bless her child. Then He commands her to return to Abram’s camp and humble herself before Sarai.
Of course, none of this is exactly what God has in mind for Abram and Sarai. This is not at all how God intends to fulfill His promise to Abram. Isaac, a son who is yet to be born, is the heir through whom Abram will father the great nation God envisions. We recognized the sin of pride at work in this regrettable chain of events. But our most fascinating insight was that, ironically, it is Abram and Sarai’s faith that God must be true to His promises that is at the bottom of this whole, ugly business.
But how can genuine faith in God result in actions and outcomes contrary to God’s desires? Well, that is what can happen when a person trusts in faith alone. Abram and Sarai are operating only on their conviction that God’s promise is true. What they do not have at this point, are any specific directions from God as to what they are supposed to do to see it come to fruit.
Appealing to the dancing analogy we have been using over the last few podcasts, Abram and Sarai are trying to do God’s dance without waiting for God to join them and teach them the steps. This is important to us, because from the beginning of this series, we have been trying to establish parallels between Abraham’s life and the Christian’s life. By looking at the great patriarch’s experience with God, we are attempting to discern the relationship between faith, obedience and the promise of salvation in Christ, and here, we uncover a most significant correlation.
Many Christians insist that receiving God’s promise of salvation in Jesus Christ comes by faith alone. A person just believes that the Lord died for our sins. That is all that is needed to assure him or her of eternal life, to find God’s promise fulfilled. But Abram and Sarai’s experience in Genesis 16 shows us that faith alone cannot attain that which God promises. Faith can tell you where you are going with God, but it cannot tell you how to get there. Faith can take you to the divine dance, but it cannot teach you the steps. For that, you need to encounter the living God in a living experience. You need more than the promise of God—you need the person, God. Without Him, the path to the promise is obscure. You constantly look for it, but you are never quite sure you have found it. Let me say that again. You constantly look for it, but you are never quite sure you have found it.
If you are someone who has lived your Christian life in the denominational world of Western Christianity, I want you to really think about that. You see, having spent most of my adult years in Evangelical Christianity, and most of those in ministry, I can say with confidence, what I have just described is the common experience of those Western Christians who are devoted to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. For them, the path to the really satisfying encounter with Christ that they desire so much is always still to be discovered.
It is out there somewhere, but they have not found it yet. That is why they go from Bible study to Bible study, from seminar to seminar, from preacher to preacher, from this great new book to that great new book, from one Christian fad to the next. In my neck of the woods these days, it is The Purpose-Driven Life, and Dream Interpretation. Life in Christ is a never-ending attempt to discover the magical life that will finally illumine the way to that deep relationship with God that they somehow sense is possible, but just cannot reach.
Here is an example of what I mean. Etched indelibly in my memory is a very painful scene from my years as an Evangelical pastor. I had a middle-aged woman in my office one day, a member of my congregation, who had come in for some counseling. “You know, pastor,” she said, “when I accepted Jesus as my savior years ago, they told me that the next step was to put Jesus first in my life and have a personal relationship with Him. It has been almost 20 years, and I just need you to tell me…”
She halted there, and got quiet, but I could see a gigantic wave of emotion building. Her face reddened. She started breathing hard and fast. The tears erupted. Raising her hands and bringing her fists down hard on my desk, pounding them again, and again, in great sobs she exploded, “How do I do that, pastor?!” She stammered and wept as years of frustration poured out. “I study my Bible. I pray. I go to all the Bible studies. I listen to Christian radio. I have read shelves of books. I teach Sunday school. I have done everything I am supposed to do. I want Jesus to be real to me more than anything else in the world. I know so much about Him, and I have tried so hard to live for Him, but I don’t feel like I’ve every really known Him. That is what I want more than anything. How do I do that?”
Contemporary Western Christianity is great at telling people that they need Jesus. Website after website on the internet will instruct you how to get saved, and every one of them also will tell you that once you are saved, you have to surrender yourself to Christ in everything, and have a personal relationship with Him. But few of them attempt to tell you precisely what that means or how exactly to do it. Oh, sometimes they try to explain, but when they do, they come up with all sorts of directions—directions that are often conflicting.
Some will tell you that having a personal relationship with Christ means giving up cigarettes, drinking beer, dancing and going to the movies. It may even mean giving up caffeine and television. Others, of course, will say, that’s just legalistic hogwash. Having a personal relationship with Christ means being able to do all that stuff without the slightest concern for your salvation. You just have to embrace your freedom in Christ. Some will tell you that having a personal relationship with Jesus means living a simple and austere life in which material things do not matter much. But others will insist that having a personal relationship with Christ means calling on Him to give you houses and boats and vacations and every material thing your heart has ever desired. If you do not do that, you are not living a life of faith. Of course, it doesn’t help that those who propose these differing versions of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus all commonly point to one source as the proof of their teaching—the scriptures.
So for folks who desperately want to know how to really know Jesus Christ, people like the woman I described earlier, there is never a decisive answer. So they just keep looking, and hoping that maybe tomorrow they will find it. Most Christians in the Western tradition are content to spend their whole lives in this endless search for the secret key that will unlock the door to a deep experience with Christ. Sadly, they just assume that is the way God intends it to be. So they anxiously await that magical new program or seminar or book or technique. Hopefully, it will be the one that makes everything come together and opens the door for them to an authentic personal relationship with Christ. Or maybe it will be the pastor at that exciting new megachurch down the road. Surely he knows the secret.
But many—and it is an exponentially increasing number these days—are giving themselves the same hard look in the eye as that dear woman who sat in my office all those years ago. I finally had to do that for myself. You see, that sister wasn’t the only one who confronted me with that burning question in that desperate spirit. And I had no good answer for any of them, until God led me into Eastern Orthodoxy. I learned that the only reason Christians in the West find themselves in that wondering and wandering condition is because they long ago laid aside the instructions for life with God. They do not know how to dance with Him anymore. For when you have those directions, there is absolutely no mystery to living the Christian life fully and completely from this day and forever.
I wish that my old Evangelical Protestant friends could experience, if just for a moment, what it is like not to have to search anymore for that special knowledge, that hidden key that opens the secret passage to a powerful encounter with Christ. Even many of my Roman Catholic friends, though not doctrinally bound to the notion of salvation by faith alone, have been caught up in this general Western mode of endless seeking. But an amazing thing happens when you hold in your hands everything you need in order to be one, really one, with Jesus. Instead of spending all your time trying to discover the secret to living with Him, you spend your time—living with Him.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are great discoveries to be made as one dances with Christ. Awesome truths and mysteries about the Lord wait to be uncovered. What is more, dancing the way God wants us to dance takes continual practice on our part. We stumble and fall a lot in the beginning, but still, there is a monumental difference between a life spent becoming intimate with God as we dance with Him, and a life spent looking for the secret to knowing Him. How I wish my old Western Christian friends could understand that.
Imagine—Orthodox Christians never have to ask, “How do I have a genuine and fulfilling relationship with the person, Jesus Christ?” They do not have to wait for the new book, or the inspired preacher, that will, at last, unlock the door. For the steps in their divine dance with the Lord, their day-to-day interactive participation in the life of God that defines what it means to be a Christian, were precisely laid out for them long ago. Because of their sacramental life, those holy activities, those spiritual dances that have guided and channeled the life of the Church from its beginning, Christians in the East have been waking up each morning for the past 2000 years knowing precisely how to intimately encounter the Christ who is literally there and dance with Him that day. Now, the dance isn’t exactly the same every day, but whatever God expects, they already know it. That is the glory of the ancient Church.
Let me interject something here. As I say, I feel sadness for my Western Christian friends who do not know the dynamic, interactive experience with Christ that Orthodoxy—original Christianity—affords us. But I feel doubly sad for the many Orthodox Christians who, while holding all this truth in their hands, and knowing the sacramental way that makes us one with God, choose not to live in it. It is one thing not to know where the wellspring of life is to be found, it is another more sobering matter to stand at God’s fountain of life, and choose not to drink.
I will have more to say about that in an upcoming podcast, but I want to make sure that my Orthodox listeners take these matters just as seriously as those who are not. All of us need to stand in the glory of the ancient Church, for it is there that we learn to live in obedience. The Church knows, as Abram discovered, that it is impossible to live with God just by faith. We need His unambiguous directions if we are to attain His promises. When He gives them to us, we must obey them.
Genesis 17 plainly teaches us these lessons. Let’s read it:
When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am almighty God. Walk before Me and be blameless, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’ Then Abram fell on his face and God talked with him, saying, ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your descendants after you, and their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you, and your descendants after you. Also, I give to you, and your descendants after you, the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.’ And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you, and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations. He who is born in your house, or bought with money from any foreigner, who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house, and who is bought with your money, must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people. He has broken My covenant.’ Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai, your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name, and I will bless her, and also give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations. Kings of peoples shall be from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? And shall Sarah, who is 90 years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before you.’ Then God said, ‘No, Sarah, your wife, shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget 12 princes, and I will make him a great nation. By My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.’ Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham. So Abraham took Ishmael, his son, all who were born in his house, and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day as God had said to him. Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, and Ishmael his son was 13 years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very same day, Abraham was circumcised, and his son Ishmael, and all the men of his house, born in the house, or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
We will investigate the details of this text next time, but before we end this session, there are a couple of things I want to point out. First of all, do you see what God offers to Abram? He comes to establish a covenant—an agreement, which, if followed, will bring about the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise. As Abram has already discovered, faith alone is not enough. God confirms that by taking Abram beyond the faith stage. He presents the choreography of His dance, the one Abram will have to do with Him if he wants to see the promise made real. What God is going to do for Abram, and what Abram is going to do for Him, is all spelled out.
Secondly, take a look at the time frame between the end of chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17. It is 13 years. Thirteen years passed from the time Abram learns that acting on faith alone can get you into trouble, and the moment when he finally gets the instructions he needs to obediently accomplish his role in the fulfillment of God’s promise. Why so long? What is Abram doing all that time? He is waiting for God.
To his credit, he doesn’t make any more attempts to make the promise come true on his own. But what does that waiting do for him? Simply this. It forces him to focus not on the promise, but on the one who promises. I imagine that during those years, he often thought, “Well, Lord, I acted on Your promise with faith, but obviously my plan wasn’t what You had in mind. So how are You going to do this, my God? I will await Your directions. I will seek Your face each day. l will listen for Your voice, but I will wait for You.”
God uses those passing years to prepare Abram’s heart to fully embrace the ultimate truth about God—a truth which will dawn suddenly upon him one day in the future. The lengthy time of anticipation will prepare Abram to understand, on that great day, that the promise was never really about his children and his lands. It was always about God’s infinite love for a dear servant named Abram, and the desire of the Almighty to be one with His human child.
We will continue with Genesis 17 next time.