God’s Faithfulness And Our Doubt Are Not Surprising

As we’ve been going through the Abraham story the promise of an heir for Abraham has been hanging over much of it. It has been the source of doubt for Abraham and Sarah. It has also caused them to develop their own plans for procuring a son. Yet here in Genesis 21:1-21 we finally have the birth of the promised son, Isaac.

For as much as the birth of Isaac has been anticipated, there is very little time spent on Isaac’s arrival. Just within this chapter there is more time spent on what happens regarding Ishmael than there is on Isaac’s arrival. Doesn’t that seem a bit backwards? It does at first, but I wonder if it is really all that backwards.

If you think about the fact that so much of the dialogue regarding the birth of Isaac has primarily been within two circumstances. The first is the announcement of a a promised son in the first place. This is the establishment of the promise of God and makes sense that this would be a place of discussion. The second circumstance seems to be in the context of doubts or struggles that Abraham is having. God shows up to reaffirm the promise and attempt to alleviate the doubts of Abraham.

At the birth of Isaac there is neither of these circumstances in play. We have been told of the promise already and there is no presence of doubt now that Isaac is actually here as God has promised. John H. Sailhamer puts it this way, “The plan not only came about, but more importantly, it happened as it was announced. Thus the narrative calls attention to God’s faithfulness to his word and to his careful attention to the details of his plan.” While I may disagree that God revealed his entire hand from the start regarding the details, the message that God’s promise was fulfilled is certainly true and may explain why this is such a short event.

Walter Brueggemann takes a similar track, as he focuses the importance of this passage on the connection between the word of God and the birth of Isaac. He goes on to say, “Indeed, the whole story depends on that coupling. It insists that one cannot separate the eternal purpose of God and the concrete biological reality.” Again the emphasis seems to be the faithfulness of God, but Brueggemann acknowledges that this was not just a spiritual achievement, but one that take form through the natural process of child birth.

So if the fact that Isaac has come just as God had promised is the reason for a short, but meaningful announcement of his birth, why then does Ishmael get a longer treatment? I think that this is because unlike Isaac, who is unmistakably the promised one, the problem is what to do with Ishmael. We should not be surprised by the arrival and future of Isaac at this point, but the fate of Ishmael is more uncertain.

Ishmael is introduced as mocking Isaac during the feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning. Sarah is the one who spotted this and tells Abraham to send him and his mother packing. Abraham is uncertain of what to do. Abraham does not have the negative view of Ishmael that Sarah seems to hold. In fact God doesn’t seem to hold this negative view of Ishmael either. While God tells Abraham to do as Sarah wants, God also let’s Abraham know that Ishmael will be taken care of. He will become a great nation also even though he is not the son of promise.

Brueggeman puts it this way, “God cares for this outsider whom the tradition wants to abandon. There is no stigma attached to this “other” son. All are agreed on the preciousness of Ishmael–Yahweh, angel, Hagar, Abraham–all but Sarah.” We see that put on display by the actions of the angel of God in Genesis 21:17-19. God provides water for Hagar and Ishmael even though Hagar had thought they were going to die (or at very least that Ishmael was going to). Ishmael is taken care of by God, even if he is not the son of the promise.

So what kind of impact does this story have on us today? I find it to be a somewhat difficult question to answer. As I’ve mentioned on earlier chapters we often do not have the direct promises like Abraham had with Isaac, so the idea of God’s fulfillment of promise can be a bit more nebulous than it appears in this passage. That’s not to say that God doesn’t promise us anything, but that often they aren’t as concrete as I will give you a son.

Again the biggest take away seems to be the faithfulness of God. Both the birth of Isaac and the care of Ishmael show God being faithful to his word. What is interesting is how understated this faithfulness really is, particularly in the case of Isaac. While it is worded in a way to get the point across very little space is taken to acknowledge God’s faithfulness. One could almost call the presentation matter of fact. As if there was never any doubt God would do as he promised so why make too big a deal out of it.

Another aspect to think about looking at the larger story is that God spent much more time with Abraham working through his doubts and worries. When we come to the resolution of the promise God is obviously the cause of it, but is absent in any kind of role in the story. We see Abraham and Sarah celebrating, but God isn’t an active player.

Compare this to the story of Ishmael and we see something very different. In the uncertainty of what to do with Ishmael, God is there. He is there with Abraham letting him know that God will take care of his son. The angel of God is there to help Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. The longest engagements with God in the Abraham story seem to be about doubt and struggle.

While I don’t want to draw any formulaic expression from this tendency, it does give us hope that the God we often doubt, even as we believe, engages that doubt and the struggles of faith. This challenges the idea that we must never doubt or at least never show doubt in our faith. We see God dealing with the doubt of Abraham a number of times in this story, but still keep his word to Abraham. It’s strange that we see God most silent at the fulfillment of his promise. What we have a God that doesn’t find his faithfulness strange, but also doesn’t seem to find our human tendency to doubt, worry, and struggle to believe strange either.

To Laugh at the Impossible

What if we were told by God that something impossible was going to happen in our lives? That something against the laws of nature or probability would occur? Would we believe such a thing or would we laugh? To be honest, I’d probably stick myself in the laugh category. It is so easy to be skeptical of things that seem beyond my comprehension that I would probably laugh either thinking that it was a joke or in derision.

I would not be the first to do so. As we saw last week in Genesis 17, Abraham laughed when God said that Sarah would give birth to a son. We see this play out again this week, only with Sarah now laughing in Genesis 18:1-15.

The story sets us up with the Lord appearing to Abraham. This appearance of the Lord is connected to the arrival of three men. How these two realities connect is uncertain. People have very different takes on it. Walter Brueggemann in his commentary basically says that it is enough to say that it is the Lord and move on. John H. Sailhamer in his commentary on Genesis goes into great detail and focuses on it a lot more. However, I am more in line with Brueggemann on this. How exactly these three men are the Lord isn’t really very important to the story, the main importance is that they are.

Abraham appears to know this or is just very hospitable and prepares a meal and rest for his guests. While the three men eat, they inquire about Sarah and say that this time next year she will have a son. Sarah hears this and laughs. She can’t believe what she hears. That’s impossible.

At this promise and declaration of the Lord both Abraham and Sarah have now laughed. Dwelling on this reality has two effects on me. First, it makes me suspicious of those who declare Abraham and Sarah as people of great faith, but never go into the struggle that they faced to be faithful to the difficult to believe promise of God. I’ve already talked a bit about this, but I think we do a grave disservice to fellow believers when we gloss over the doubt and struggle of faith in our own lives or the people whose lives are presented in the Bible.

The second effect is that it makes me rather suspicious of those who want to peg people from an earlier age as willing to believe anything. It’s a fairly popular thought that religion was only developed from superstitious people in the past who believed anything that they were told. These last two chapters cast doubt upon such claims.¬† Abraham and Sarah are recorded not as people willing to believe anything no matter how impossible it is, but rather as people who come up to the limitations of the natural world and have a hard time believing in things beyond that limit.

Both of these approaches are ones that I am not very comfortable with and seem to go against what you read here. They seem to me to be overstatements that have their own agendas. One seeking to marginalize doubt and the place of questions in the faith. The other seeking to marginalize belief and faith in God in general.

As Brueggemann says, “Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity.” Faith will include a struggle, anyone who tries to say otherwise is selling bad goods.

Ultimately the response God gives to Sarah is something we all have to wrestle with. God replies to Sarah with a question. “Is anything to hard for the Lord?” What is interesting about the text is that we are not given a response to this question. Sarah simply denies laughing, even though God points out again that she did indeed laugh.

Yet this question is still something that we all must wrestle with. Do we believe that anything is too hard for God? It is a question that I want to say yes to. I do believe that nothing is too hard for God. Yet at the same time deep down I struggle with that idea. I struggle because believing in things beyond the natural world is looked down on in our modern, scientific, materialistic world. I struggle because of times where if God could do anything, why didn’t God stop this or change that.

These struggles don’t change my answer, but they are a struggle to fully embrace the idea that nothing is too hard for God. The positive thing though is that God doesn’t seem too hung up about our struggle to believe. Even with Abraham and Sarah, their struggle and their laughter at the “impossible” didn’t change God’s plan. They still received Isaac despite their laughter of disbelief when it was proposed.

So even it we struggle all is not lost. I think that often like Abraham and Sarah our lives are a mixture of faith and lack of faith. We may trust and have faith in the God we have sworn to follow, but still laugh in disbelief when dealing with the details of what God has planned for us all. It may be something large like a son at an advanced age, or it may simply be that God would use us in a meaningful way. Even in these times of struggle and doubt, the question of God is before us all.

Is anything too hard for the Lord?

A Faith With Doubt is Deeper Than a Faith Without

Sometimes the concept of faith seems so anemic to me. It seems that faith is so often presented as an easy action. It is something that we have to be certain of and never doubt. We even present figures like Abraham as figures of great faith, but so often eliminate the tension, the pain, and the doubt from the stories. It seems to me though that the power of a faith like Abraham’s comes not from constant certainty, but a willingness to struggle, question, and even doubt. To give voice to that doubt and yet still be willing to believe.

This is the thought that I had reading through Genesis 15:1-6. I have often heard that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness, but less often have I heard the context of that statement. It comes at the end of a rather awkward, but honest exchange between God and Abraham.

God initiates this exchange and comes to Abraham in a vision and says, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward will be very great” (This is a bit different from the NIV, but this is the general translation I would go with). Now it’s hard to say exactly what God is all talking about here. Was God telling Abram not to be afraid because of the battles of last chapter, Abraham’s tendency to be fearful, or simply because being spoken to by God or one of his angel’s tends to shake people up a bit?

I think you can make a case for any of these options, but regardless God seems to be trying to speak encouragement to Abraham here. He is telling him to not be afraid, that God is his protector, and promising a very great reward. This all sounds good doesn’t it? Wouldn’t we be happy if we heard from God that he was going to be our shield and that we would get a great reward?

I imagine that for many of us it would make us happy, but Abraham doesn’t respond in a way that we might expect. He responds with doubt and openly wondering what God can give him, because he has no heir. Abraham responds with the frustration and struggle that surrounds him. God’s promise of being made into a great nation would require an heir, but yet no heir is present. God is bringing reassurance and encouragement, but what good is it if God hasn’t provided an heir?

Such doubt is rarely expressed out loud. Personally, I’ve rarely even heard of Abraham’s doubt here expressed when I’ve heard the Abraham story preached on or taught. What is funny about this is that God doesn’t seem to be too surprised or taken aback by Abraham’s confession. Perhaps God’s initiation of this conversation between him and Abraham was done to allow Abraham to be open with his doubts and struggles. After all, this is the first time we see Abraham talking directly with God (even if it is in a vision).

God’s response to this was to say that Abraham’s servant will not be the one to inherit his wealth. The Lord instead directed Abraham to look at the stars and to try to count them, if he could. God then expressed to Abraham that he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.

This is an interesting way to address this issue. As Walter Brueggemann comments, “The new promise offered (vv. 4-5) offered no new data not already known to Abraham when he refused (vv.2-3)… the promises are the same in substance. But the two responses are very different.” God offers no new data and presents nothing new to Abraham in order to change his mind.

How did Abraham react to this? Genesis 15:6 says this, “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” What I find interesting is that Abraham believes in the Lord, not in the promise that God gives him. Now I’m not suggesting that Abraham didn’t believe what God was promising, but that it was not what was promised but who was promising it that Abraham put his trust in.

Brueggemann puts it this way, “[Abraham] is not guilty of pious abdication. Rather, it is a quite specific response to a concrete promise from a known promise-maker. The faith of Abraham is certain of one point. There is a future to be given which will be new and not derived from the present barrenness. He believe that God can cause a break point between the exhausted present and the buoyant future.” Ultimately the promise of God means nothing unless Abraham believes in the power and the reliability of the God who is giving that promise.

Now this doesn’t end the struggle, Abraham still ends this exchange without an heir. There was no magical solution to this problem right here, and the story continues on without this heir for a bit more. However, Abraham was able to put his trust in God, even with his doubts and the struggles he had. His trust in God was greater than the doubts and struggles that he had, even if those doubts and struggles didn’t necessarily vanish.

I think that this is why Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness. Our faith isn’t about our certainty or about knowing all the right things. It is ultimately about trusting God through the doubts and the struggles that we have. It is about believing in the One who is the one who made the stars of the sky, even if our actions may not always reflect a perfect trust.

Abraham believed that God could handle the doubts, insecurities, and struggles involved not just in life, but in a life of following God. He had no trouble speaking such doubts to God and yet was able to still believe. Do we believe in a God who can handle our doubts? Maybe even more importantly do we present a God who can handle our doubts, uncertainties and struggles or do we put forward a God who is angered by or unable to deal with the doubts we may bring to Him?

Personally I think a faith that is able to articulate our doubts, both to God and to our fellow believers is a deeper faith than one that simply pushes away or tries to explain away all of our doubts. Abraham did believe in God and follow Him, but as this passage and honestly most of Abraham’s life that is recorded in the Bible shows, he has his doubts and sometimes allows them to hijack his life. It is this faith through doubt that is viewed as righteousness. Faith is too often presented without all the doubts and struggles. I wonder if that that is why faith seems like such a shallow thing so often to me.

 

Final Thoughts on The End of Our Exploring

The End of Our ExploringI can’t remember exactly when it was, but it was either in late college or early on in seminary that I realized the importance of questions. So when the offer to get a review copy of a book about questioning came up on the blog Mere Orthodoxy I took it because who wouldn’t be happy to get a book that only cost a review of it. It seemed like a book that could be very interesting. Most books are content to give prepackaged answers from a popular figure, so a book on questioning kind of bucks that trend. So how does this book go about talking about questions?

This book is ultimately about learning to question well. We live in a day where questions are viewed as important, but it sometimes seems like answers are less important than the questions that are being asked. Questions are also viewed in some circles as a challenge to authority and therefore heavily discouraged and squashed when they do arise. Anderson deals with both of these issues and ultimately seeks to have us ask good questions and to teach those around us to ask good questions, instead of being afraid of questions.

At this point it should be said that Anderson is focused on questions centering around Christianity and faith. This isn’t so much a manual on questioning across any discipline, but more of how questioning should function in our faith. I’m just saying this because Anderson comes unapologetically from a belief in Jesus Christ as central to his faith and also his questioning (this should be picked up in the subtitle A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith). This needs to be realized because Anderson is honest about where he comes from, he is not working from any idea of a “clean slate” in regards to his questioning.

In fact if there was one point all people should take away from this book it is to learn to question our questions more. I think we all too often assume a “clean slate” or that we’re asking our questions from a neutral starting place. The reality is that we ask questions based on our experiences past and present. It isn’t that hard to believe that our questions would be influenced by those aspects of our life. It probably isn’t hard to believe¬† that the answers that we’d accept would be influenced by that as well. The idea of not coming from a “clean slate” or neutral starting point isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something that I think we have to be aware of if we are seriously asking questions. Are we really wanting well thought out answers? Do we just want the answer that will make us happy? Will we then reject any answer that doesn’t fit the assumptions that we already hold? I think these are important questions no matter where you are in life and is a main point in the early chapters of this book.

I think another point of The End of Our Exploring worth noting is his emphasis on questioning in a community. He talks about the need of a community to pass along its traditions and the questions that go along with that tradition, which I think is a great insight. As he puts it on page 129, “When the questions are forgotten, tradition ossifies into a rigid, hardened legalism that everyone must accept even if no one can remember why.” I’d call this aspect questioning with the past and present church community that we’re in.

He reinforces his idea that later on page 175 where he says, “Our local church communities, instead of on blogs or at conferences, should be where the hardest questions about the Bible are pursued (rather than passed over.)” While I agree with this sentiment, it’s possible that he could be read as saying that the church is the only place these questions should be discussed. I don’t think he is really saying that, but if he is I’d disagree with him a bit. I’d call it one of the places we should be asking the hardest questions but not the only one.

I would place importance also on questioning and inquiring with those who don’t readily agree with us as important aspects too (not saying that all our church communities will agree with us on everything, but there is probably at least more common ground than not). He seems to as well since he has a whole chapter dedicated to that kind of questioning too. The reason why I think that this idea of communal inquiry is important is that it helps us run into the questions of others. This helps us sharpen our own questions, help others question well, search for answers, and look at the answers we already have when we disagree with them. However, I’d say we need both questioning within our own church community/congregation, but also with others that may be outside that community. I think this is important so we don’t become ingrown and over confident in our questions and answers, but also because our lives are often more than just our church community or at least should be. So the types of people we are inquiring with should reflect that to some degree.

The ideas of questioning our questions and inquiring within a community are two ideas that really popped out at me in the book. I do wonder though if there is that much difference between Anderson’s idea of community inquiry and the current focus on dialogue, at least in terms of practice. Yes he may be calling for a search for answers based on some authority, but I’m not so sure it would look that much different either.¬†Regardless, I think that searching for answers within a community is important whether you call it inquiry or dialogue. I also think that Anderson is right in saying that some authority has to be recognized to get anywhere with this process. I guess I just wonder if he doesn’t play a bit of semantics at the same time.

I think this book does more right than wrong. I think Matthew Lee Anderson does a great job at bringing up the issues around questioning. I may wonder about some of his thoughts or if he’s just playing with semantics to make a differentiation, but overall the content is solid. I’ve also heard that the grammar is not the greatest in the book in places, but I’m not a grammar nut so I can’t speak on that too much. I did notice that one of his many footnotes didn’t make sense so there does seem to be the possibility of errors and editing that could have been done better.

Who do I think would enjoy this book? Honestly anyone who wants to take questioning of their faith seriously. This book is somewhat easy to read, but moderately hard to digest. It may surprise you how easy the book reads, except for maybe when you hit a big vocabulary word like ossifies. While the sentences by themselves may be easy to read they form ideas that take a little bit of thinking through when put together. This may not be a super easy read for everyone, but if you’ve been experiencing doubt and have questions about the faith this may be a good book to read. Not because it gives you the answers, but because it might help you sort out how you should be questioning.

To finish up here, I’ll leave you with the analogy that I keep coming to about this book. It reminds me of a beautiful tapestry. If you look too close you’ll find that the edges are maybe a bit frayed or not quite stitched just right, but it doesn’t really take away from the final picture. There are little statements I’m not sure I agree with here and there, the random footnote typo, or whatever, but it doesn’t take away from the book’s message or the insight that is within. This work may be frayed around the edges in places, but the picture it presents is not undone because of it. Maybe it would have been even better without the flaws, but it can still be appreciated and admired for what it is.