SYNOPSIS: Abraham goes down to Egypt during a famine and demonstrates a lack of trust toward God to preserve his family by lying about his wife. God afflicts Pharaoh’s household and demonstrates His faithfulness toward His servant that He might bring His Promise to pass.
The Spiritual Progression of Faith
Last week we began looking at the life and call of Abraham. Abraham (first known as Abram) was a moon worshiper from Chaldea when God called him to leave his father’s home and his people and his country and to go to a land that God would show him. But God, as was brought out by the passage last week, never calls us to blind or empty faith but faith in Him and in His promises. God’s promise to Abram was full of blessing in chapter 12. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse. And all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Then we read the amazingly simple and straightforward statement, “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him.” Thus began Abram’s journey of faith. Hebrews 11 speaks of the journey of faith of many Old Testament individuals including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and others, but by far spends the most time and ink on the journey of faith that was Abram’s. And faith in Jesus Christ is just that a journey. Faith–trusting in God to keep His promises–is a process not an event. Consider the many ways the Scripture describes your faith. You can break faith according to Exodus. In Isaiah you are called to be firm in your faith. We can be faithful and unfaithful and even faithless. Jeremiah 3 is a long and rather explicit description of what our faithlessness looks like to God and yet ends with a call, “Return, faithless sons, and I will heal your faithlessness.” According to Jesus’ own most oft repeated pet name for his followers, we can be little-faithed or small-faithed. And yet our faith can be the instrument that brings healing. And our faith can even be called by Christ himself great faith. The apostles asked the Lord to increase their faith, and Jesus replied that even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough. Our faith may fail us during times of trial as Jesus prayed against for Peter in Luke 22. According to Acts 14 we can continue in the faith, and according to Acts 15 our hearts are cleansed by faith, and according to Acts 16 our faith can be strengthened. We are sanctified by faith according to Acts 26; we are justified by faith in Romans 6; our faith is credited as righteousness in Romans 4; we are saved by faith in Ephesians 2; according to Romans 12 we each have varying measures and proportions of faith. In 2 Corinthians 8 and 10 our faith can excel and our faith can increase. Our faith progresses according to Philippians 1; We work by faith and our faith can comfort others according to 1 Thessalonians, and in 2 Thessalonians our faith can grow abundantly. And back in Romans 1. 16, 17, Paul states “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed a righteousness that is by faith from beginning to end (or more literally, a righteousness that is from faith to faith), just as it is written (and then Paul quotes an Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk) the righteous by faith will live.”
Consider the journey of Abram’s faith as described in Hebrews 11. Four times the writer repeats the phrase “by faith Abraham.” First in verse 8, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” This we looked at last week as Abram responded to both God’s call and God’s promise of blessing by faith.
The second “by faith” statement begins in verse 9, “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” It is one kind of faith that follows God when He promises blessing. It is another level of that faith when the blessing promised is not easily come by. Abraham would live in his promised land as a stranger and tent dweller his whole life. In fact his son and his grandson and even his great grandsons would live as strangers and tent dwellers in that promised land. Abraham’s faith would be tested by the land and wilderness itself as we will see today. His faith would be tested by the current dwellers of the land through war and hard relations.
The third descriptor in Hebrews comes in verse 11, “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” Again, it is one level of faith to answer God’s call, another level of faith to remain obedient to that call even though it is not all you thought it would be, but it is quite another level of faith to trust God while His promises are deferred and your hope is waning and all human wisdom tells you that you are being naive. Abraham believed quite simply that the one who promised was faithful.
And fourth, Hebrews 11.17-19, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” To respond to the Promiser requires faith. To remain while the promise takes obedient effort and endurance requires bigger faith. To continue to trust the Promiser while the promise is deferred seemingly indefinitely requires more bigger faith. To love the Promiser more than the promise requires even more bigger faith. Abraham’s faith was real, and was tested, and was founded upon the Promiser Himself and His faithfulness.
Now, Hebrews 11, without the full council of Scripture, could sound like Abraham’s journey of faith was one steady clean uphill climb until one day he found himself perfected by his faith. That is simply not true. Abraham, on his journey of faith, much like you on your journey of faith, stumbled. Often when he stumbled, he fell. Often when he fell, he crashed.
If the writer of Hebrews can look at Abraham’s life and journey of faith and see a supernatural progression of his faith, and if we can look back at our own walks of faith and be able to say, “I can’t believe how my faith has grown over these years. I don’t even recognize this faith. It must be a gift from God. God has only proven himself more and more to be kind and good and the Keeper of Promises. It’s hard to even believe that what I used to call faith was faith, yet somehow I think it was.” If we can see a progression of faith in the journey of following Christ, can the same be true for the opposite? Is it possible to see a regression in faithlessness when trials and testings come? Please turn to Genesis 12.10-20.
The Natural Regression of Faithlessness
There are four sort of “steps” of unfaith or points of faithlessness that come out in the recording of Abram’s decision and actions. These aren’t necessarily a step one, step two, follow the dots, nor are they an all or nothing description of faithlessness, but as they crop up, even individually, faithlessness or unbelief is nearby. The four factors I see are two lackings and to no-lackings: a lack of trust, a lack of worship, no lack of self-confidence, no lack of sin.
Lack of Trust
According to all natural wisdom, Abram appears to act well. There is a famine in the land. It was severe. Abram was a stranger in that land. He had to provide for his household. So he moved everyone to Egypt. Was Abram to live in a Pollyanna-like existence pretending that circumstances were not what they were? Is faith in difficulty simply pretending it’s not difficult? No. Peter wasn’t able to walk on the sea to Christ because he suddenly denied the storm and the physics of buoyancy. Peter had to be aware of the sea in order to step out of the boat. He had to be aware of the tossing waves in order to know where to put his foot down. Peter’s faith didn’t falter because he was suddenly for the first time aware of what he was doing. Peter’s faith faltered because in his mind the crests were bigger than his Christ; his circumstances were bigger than his Savior.
I realize that this assessment of Abram sounds a bit like conjecture and reading into the passage but recall the first readers with me and what they would have heard in this opening sentence. Moses–reading this account to the very descendants of Abraham who had spent 400 years in Egypt where God was seemingly silent and distant; where they were slaves; where they were abused and misused and murdered. And here is the father of Israel abandoning the very land promised to his offspring and heading straight into the belly of the beast. Much of the proof of Abram’s lack of trust comes in fleshing out our other three lack and no-lacks.
Lack of Worship
Last week I mentioned that one beautiful theme that follows Abraham throughout his wandering and sojourning in the land of God’s promise is his worship of God. Last week we followed along as Abram traveled to the heart of Canaanite country and to one of the centers of their pagan idolatry at the Oak of Moreh, and there we were shown in verse 7, the LORD Himself appeared to Abram and Abram, in faith and devotion to the LORD, built an altar there–he worshiped the LORD. The we are told he left that place, but had no sooner arrived at a land in between Bethel and Ai when in verse 8, he built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD–he worshiped the LORD. Strangely though, when we read next of Abram leaving that area and moving on to the Negeb in the south something is blatantly absent. There is no altar. There is no calling on the name of the LORD. There is no mention of worship. This lack is emphasized by the opening of chapter 13, Abram returns from Egypt to the Negeb, but not until he returns to Bethel do we read again of His sacrificing and calling on the name of the LORD.
When you stop trusting God it is not long before you will stop worshiping God. What is worship but declaring the worth of someone or something. If you do not trust that God loves you, if you do not trust that God keeps his promises, if you do not trust God you will not know the worth of God. You may continue to show up physically, but your heart will be far from him. When we are trusting God in every circumstance we are able to declare with the psalmist no matter what kind of week it has been, “Better is one day in the house of the LORD than a thousand anywhere else.” “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and find Him in His holy temple.”
Whether we call them steps or signs or symptoms, two things that are lacking in those moments or times or even long stretches of faithlessness are trust and worship. And two things that are not lacking are self-confidence and sin.
No Lack of Self-Confidence
How quickly we forget or else simply choose to ignore Proverbs 3.5,6, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your path straight.” When we stop trusting God we immediately start trusting ourselves. “I can figure this out. God hasn’t kept me out of hardship, so I will.” Or, when we find ourselves in a mess, “I got myself into this, I’ll get myself out of it. Then I’ll go back to God.” Abram, in his own wisdom, leaves the land God promised him and moves to Egypt, temporarily. See, even Abram had decided that it would only be for a while. “I’ll take care of this God while you take care of that famine. When it’s over you just call me and I’ll move back and we can pick right up where we left off of me worshiping you in exchange for you blessing me.” Unfortunately, Abram gets to Egypt and in his vast wisdom realizes that he may have moved his family into harms way rather than out of it. But rather than call on the LORD he comes up with a brilliant plan. And when there’s no lack of self-confidence, there’s…
No Lack of Sin
Whatever you want to call it, Abram lied. I know you want to join him and say, no wait, you see, she actually was his half-sister. Stop it. Abram used language to intentionally deceive others. He told a half truth, he neglected to mention, he HE LIED. He also involved his wife and presumably all of his servants in the scheme. And without God’s amazing protection the Pharaoh of Egypt was nearly sucked in. God does not bless a “little bit of sin” just because you think that the ends justify the means. God may allow you to have what you think your after but our sin does reap consequences for us and often for those around us. When there is something or someone you desire as much as or even more than God Himself you will be willing to sin even just a little at first to try to obtain or achieve that thing, that “precious.”
The amazing resolution of the entire fiasco orchestrated by Abram’s unbelief is that although Abram abandoned the land that was promised to his offspring, endangered the very offspring promised to him, and was anything but a blessing to either the nations he left high and dry in the famine or to the nation he brought a plague of boils down onto, God remained true to His promise. God protected Sarai even while Abram would not. God protected the seed of Abraham even while Abram would not. God brought Abram back to the land that God had promised and that Abram had abandoned.
So often we enter into the cycle of unbelief and we’ve stopped trusting God and we’ve stopped worshiping God and we’ve started relying on our own abilities and schemes, and we’ve even slipped into sinful patterns–sometimes very small. Unfortunately even when we recognize the cycle we don’t get off of it right away,. We tell ourselves, “I’ve got to fix this before I return to God. I’ve really screwed things up, but I can do better. I will try harder.” But God says in Psalm 50.15, “Call on me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you and you will honor me.” Notice there is no qualifier of, “unless you brought the trouble on yourself.” I love in 2 Timothy, the last letter of an old and imprisoned Pastor, Paul, to a young and timid pastor Timothy. Paul is encouraging Timothy to remain faithful. He reminds him of a song they both know in 2 Timothy 2 11-13:
Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with Him,
We will also live with Him;
If we endure,
We will also reign with Him.
If we disown Him,
He will also disown us;
If we are faithless,
He will remain faithful,
For He cannot disown Himself.