The Gap Between God’s Plan and Ours

It’s funny how differently you can think about certain stories after you read them a number of times. You’d think that after going through a certain story multiple times you would stop being surprised or encountering new things and ideas. Going through the Abraham story this time has caused a number of these moments. The thing that really gets me in it is the very slow way that God disseminates information and the completion of His promise.

Genesis 17 picks up 13 years after the end of Genesis 16, which concluded with the birth of Ishmael. So it has been 13 years and we have no details of that time. For all we know it could have been thought that Ishmael was the son of the promise. Something we really lose when we read through a handful of chapters quickly is how time is handled in the story. Years are passed by in the flip of a page.

What is also strange, is for all the times that we’ve had God interact with Abraham, here is the place where Abraham finally receives the most direct information. God appears before Abraham and seems to give a fairly significant amount of information to Abraham.

We get a reiteration of promises already spoken of. It is also here that Abraham’s name officially changes from Abram to Abraham and Sarai changes to Sarah. Circumcision gets introduced as a sign of the covenant between Abraham’s family and God. We also have God finally come right out and say that Sarah will be the one to bear a son who will be the inheritor of this covenant.

It seems strange after all this time that we’re finally getting to these details. They seem, in my mind, to be details that would have been nice to have when the promise was first laid out. Personally, it still seems like it would take a good deal of faith to believe them even with the added detail. While I understand that the whole plan that resulted in Ishmael is presented as a lack of faith, I have a hard time faulting Abraham for it too much.

We still see this doubt in Abraham even now. When told of the fact that Sarah will have a son, he bows down and laughs. Abraham then asks if Ishmael could live under God’s blessing. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Abraham is no longer pressed to believe in an heir to be given, for he already had one, albeit in a devious way.” In Abraham’s eyes he has an heir and there is no need for God to provide another one.

While God agrees to bless Ishmael, Isaac will be the son of the covenant. Abraham’s plan may have been effective in getting him a son, and God will still bless him, but it wasn’t the plan God had in mind. It’s an interesting world where you can achieve the goal you thought God was after, and totally miss what God’s plan really was.

Maybe this is why I have a hard time swallowing whatever people tell me is God’s plan or that God would certainly be for or against something. Not that they couldn’t be right, it just often seems that what we think and the plans we make don’t always line up to what God thinks or plans. Even trying to say something like “I believe the Bible” isn’t entirely helpful. I mean after all, this story from the Bible of God and Abraham is about God not revealing the details of his plan right away, and Abraham in his doubt and uncertainty doing something that didn’t line up with God’s plan.

I do believe that the Bible is the best source we have for what God seeks for us and about what He is like, but that doesn’t mean it is some answer book for every situation in life. It is not a book of formulas and is often a book that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when placed beside our way of doing things. I mean even Abraham laughs about Sarah having a child as old as they are. The truth is we’d be laughing right beside Abraham if that same plan was revealed to us.

We are often just as content as Abraham to let things be done our way. “Hey, God, I’ve already got an heir now so don’t worry about what you were going to do, just bless him.” We accomplish something or view something some way and then simply want God’s stamp on it. The thing is, God doesn’t really seem to work that way in this story. God doesn’t seem particularly angry with Abraham for the doubt, laughter, the plan which gave Abraham a son, or even the questions Abraham sent his way, but the plan God had in mind was still going to happen.

There is a significant gap between the way that God accomplishes things and the way we try to. If the Abraham story is any indication, God moves slowly. He is willing to let Abraham go without too many specific details for decades. I don’t think that this gap has gone anywhere. God still works in ways that are backwards to our normal inclinations.

I know this, but don’t feel that I often have any better clue at tuning in to what God’s plans or desires are. I still struggle against the unknown future and how to best follow after God. To try to learn to embrace his different way of doing things and not seek short-cuts to do things my way. I’ll probably not succeed, but I imagine I won’t be alone in that.



When Our Plans Make More Problems Than Solutions

I feel like it’s been awhile since we’ve taken a look at Genesis. We were last looking at Genesis 15 where God made a covenant with Abraham formalizing the promises of land and of an heir for the land. Now with a context like that you might expect to see Abraham trusting in that reiterated promise and formal ritual to solidify the promise even more. However, what we see in Genesis 16 is not just blind trust, but a very human reaction to a promised unfulfilled and the human desire to make that promise come to fruition ourselves.

Looking at Genesis 16:1-6 we see that Sarah (Sarai) is still without children. God may have reiterated and formalized the promise to Abraham, but the promise is still unfulfilled. Even with the faith Abraham showed in the last chapter, it has not changed the situation all that much. Sarah is still childless, there is no heir, and without an heir land will not really be an issue.

One can only imagine the desperation that is in what happens next. Sarah comes up with a plan. Since Sarah has been unable to bear any children and Abraham was told that the promised son would come from his body, perhaps what is needed is another woman to bear his child. There is this parallel track that seems rather contradictory. God is promising an heir, but Sarah is still unable to become pregnant. Abraham has been given reassurance, so perhaps Sarah is the problem.

With this line of thought in place she offers Abraham her maidservant Hagar to him to see if he can have a child through her. He consents and the plan is a success of sorts and Hagar becomes pregnant. However, the plan in its success also backfires on Sarah. Hagar is now pregnant, pregnant with the child believed to be the promised heir from God (assuming Hagar knew of it and there is no reason to believe she didn’t).

The new reality for Hagar causes her to look down on and despise Sarah. This, of course, makes Sarah irate and blames Abraham for this situation. Abraham then tells Sarah she can do as she feels is right to Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar and she runs away.

This new plan, while effective in producing a pregnancy, was also very effective in producing a fairly large mess. It certainly doesn’t seem like it was the best way to handle the situation, but to me it is a very human way of going about things. So before we “Tsk, tsk,” Sarah for coming up with the plan and Abraham going along with it I think we have to realize a few things.

First, Abraham and Sarah may have trusted in God, but time can increase doubt. When we’re promised something that never materializes for years upon years, it is not unusual to start questioning. Sometimes that may result in questioning the one who gives that promise as Abraham did in Genesis 15. Other times we start to question ourselves wondering if we’re doing something wrong and if there is another way to solve the problem. I think you can kind of see that mentality in this chapter.

In some ways this whole situation feels somewhat removed from me because I’ve never really had God promise me anything directly. I think it is easy for me to say if I had a promise directly from God’s mouth then I’d be sure to trust in it. The reality is if I had to wait years and years to have a promise be fulfilled (we’re somewhere around 11 years of waiting at this point) I might be trying to fulfill that promise in creative ways too.

Second, simply saying that Sarah and Abraham are wrong for trying to do anything without relying on God seems like too simple of a conclusion to come to. Do I think their actions were really in line with faithfulness to God? No, but the reality is that they probably made a lot of decisions in their day to day lives that were not centered around God telling them what to do or not to do. To be honest God isn’t recorded talking to Abraham that many times considering the amount of time between interactions.

This is the same with us today, perhaps even more than with Abraham. I think that the majority of us go through our daily lives without specific promises from God involved. Do we still have to decide and do things everyday without this direct miraculous intervention from God? I sure do. Does that mean that God is not on my mind during the decisions, yes for some of them anyhow. However, reducing the lesson of this passage to the need to wait on God instead of making our own plans is partially there, but just doesn’t really cover the passage and the surrounding context well enough in my mind.

Lastly, this incident with Abraham and Sarah seems more like a warning against cutting corners and trying to do things our way thinking will be more effective. Maybe they aren’t illegal, because many commentators point out the practice that Abraham and Sarah used was not unheard of. However it seems to go against the waiting and trusting in God that Abraham was presented with the chapter before.

Today it may not look like this for many of us. Unlike Abraham we may not have a promise of an heir. However, I think things like this can still happen. When we focus on the results of pastors and leaders in the church rather than focusing on their character and how they achieve their success. When we begin to focus more on tradition or preferences than showing the love and grace of God. These things aren’t necessarily morally wrong in and of themselves, but they’re our own devised shortcuts that we think God will rubber stamp for us.

We’ll look at how much a church has grown over the last how ever many years, but ignore the shallow teaching or the major character flaws in the leadership that should be addressed. We lift up tradition and the way it has been as the way to succeed in following God. Or we try to figure out our own way to accomplish the promise that God has given us like Sarah and Abraham.

There is simply this desire to focus on human success and human solutions. Sometimes it is the right thing to do. We sometimes have ideas and they’re fine. Maybe we pray about them and seek God’s wisdom, but we may not hear anything directly. We have to make that decision.

There are other times though, that I think we try to accomplish what we think God wants but don’t really care how we get there. It’s about the end and not the means. I often think that this doesn’t really work out the best. It can create a mess just like Sarah’s plan did. People can get jealous, hurt, or angry when plans like this fall apart. Perhaps the most pertinent example of the would be the whole drama with Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll over the last year.

Within the whole Abraham story is the idea that faith has a way of being a slow method in the world. There are plenty of quick fixes we can turn to, but God doesn’t seem to always work in the way of quick fixes. In fact more often God’s movement appears very slow to us. Our desire for speed and results can sometimes hurt us, especially when we start to put the results above the path we use to get them. Then we often wind up with more problems than we did at the beginning.

Plans Gone Awry

Plans are a vaporous entity. We craft them like we think that we have ultimate control over them or that we can plan for any variations of that plan. However, we realize how vaporous plans really are and how we can never really grasp hold of them with a whole lot of certainty. That’s the way our life has been these past 2 months or so. In part this is also why I started this blog in the first place, so for those who don’t know what’s been going on with Kristen and I, this will serve as a summary of sorts.

Kristen for the last 2-3 years has been working at a doctor’s office while I had been working on my Master of Divinity degree, which I finished in January. After graduating I put my efforts into getting accredited/licensed and finding a job in the denomination I’ve been in since I became a Christian. All this was in the hope that I could get a position at least a little closer to family, which being in Massachusetts while our family was in Northwestern PA, this wouldn’t have to take too much. This was especially important to us because we are also expecting our first child who is due in early to mid August.

However, these plans seemed to break down from the beginning. The first opportunity to get a licensing/accreditation interview was April which was quite a long time from January. Not to mention the that interview was like 5-6 hours away, which made for quite a drive for a two-hour interview. To cap it all off the interview didn’t even go well, for reasons I’m not even sure I entirely understand. Now it left me in a position where I had to wait another 6 months to a year before I would get the chance to interview again. This left us with a lot of questions. What are we to do for those 6-12 months? What is God trying to show us in all of this? Over time we’ve come up with parts of the answer, but I’m not sure if we’ve completely figured out either of the questions.

Since then we’ve decided that it doesn’t make sense to move closer to home, sure we’d have family, but then neither of us would have jobs. Our hope is to get back closer to home eventually, but for now we don’t know how long that will take. I’ve also been looking for work, but even that plan seems like it may not be what is best. MA has a fairly high cost of living, which most of the jobs I’m looking at would just not cut it to make ends meet. This would require Kristen to still work after we had the baby, and that would require child care, which means more money needed. So as of right now it seems that the best course of action is for me to stay home with the baby while Kristen works since her job would make sure we pay the bills better than anything I would be able to get.

This plan leaves my feelings mixed. Part of me really likes the idea, because it will give me a chance to have time with our baby boy that I wouldn’t normally get, and it allows us to avoid day care for now, which to be fair I’m not entirely against, but I do think family is better. The other part of me just doesn’t like it. I do wish I could get a job and be able to provide for Kristen and our baby so that she could stay at home and take care of him, because I know that is what she really wanted to be able to do. However, this is where the big question comes in of would I be able to find a job that really enables this in the first place? So far the answer has been no, maybe that will change, and I’m still keeping my eyes open.

So that’s where we are now. We’re definitely not where we expected to be, and we’re both hoping we won’t be in this position too long, but we’re just really not sure how long it will be. At this point it is pretty much taking things one day at a time and seeing what happens. It’s not the path we chose, but it’s the path we’re on regardless.