When God Disappoints
James 1:2-4 "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
Beginning in the last few verses of Genesis 11 we are introduced to Abraham, the patriarch of our faith. Here he is called Abram, for God has not yet brought the change to Abram and Sarai that also resulted in His changing their names to Abraham and Sarah.
Verse 1 records God's call to Abram. From the structure of this verse and the verses that come before it, we know that God had given Abram this specific command some years earlier. "The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you."
Abram had started out from Ur in obedience, but instead of continuing on to Canaan, he settled for a time in Haran. Obedience delayed is disobedience. Faith postponed is unbelief. And God would have to deal with this deficiency in Abram just as He must deal with it in each of us during our own journey of faith.
Verses 2-3 record God's promises of specific blessings to Abram. And verses 4-5 show Abram's response. He now obeys fully. "So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there."
In verses 6-7 we have Abram's entering into Canaan, God's promise to give the land to Abram's descendants and Abram's response of faith and worship in the building of an altar at Shechem. In verse 8 Abram's journey into promised land continues and we see that he built another altar to God. "From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD."
Up to this point, with Abraham entering Canaan as commanded by God and with building altars and worshipping God, it seems that even though Abram had a slow start, he is now well into an obedient relationship with God. And then God does something to bring Abram to a whole new level of faith.
Verse 10 "Now there was a famine in the land" A famine - in the promised land! Have you ever had a famine experience come upon you? A time of great need when it seemed that God had turned away from you? Maybe you found yourself asking “Why has God let this happen to me? Doesn't He care? Why is He not answering my prayers? Is He punishing me for something?”
The good news is that just as God did not abandon Abram, so God has not and will not abandon any of us. God has a greater good in mind.
In the midst of Abram's obedience to God it seems like Abram deserves a blessing, but is given an unfair curse instead. But what God has really given to Abram is an opportunity. Because every circumstance brings the opportunity for us to choose to move closer to God or away from God.
Abram has a choice. A choice to trust God, turn to Him and develop deeper faith; or to turn away from God choosing instead a diminished faith. A faith of convenience, not conviction. A weak and useless faith. A faith like too many of us.
Unfortunately faith is not strengthened through teaching alone, just as developing any skill is not developed through study alone. As an athlete develops his skills on the practice field, so we strengthen our faith on the practice field of hardships. As the soldier prepares himself for battle through the hardships of boot camp, so we develop faith for spiritual warfare in the boot camp of hardships. As a musician develops his skills during endless hours of practice, so we too develop our faith through much hardship.
And just as there are no shortcuts in developing winning athletes, effective soldiers and master musicians, so too there are no shortcuts in developing faith. It is always developed through the choice to persevere during hardships.
That's what James tells us in our focus verses - James 1:2-4 "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything ."
Is practice really joyful for athletes and musicians? Is boot camp really joyful for a soldier? Absolutely not. Just as hardships are not joyful for the believer. But knowing that there is a necessary purpose to our hardship helps us to accept and endure it.
Deciding to endure the hardship develops perseverance which produces the intended result - winning athletes, effective soldiers, master musicians and faith filled Christians - this is the point. Knowing the end result is worth the effort while makes the effort itself worthwhile. It is confidence in the end result that brings joy through the process.
It was God's intent to develop Abram's faith through this hardship - the famine - so that he would be adequately equipped for what God intended in and through his life. God's intent is the very same with each of us. Each of us has been called by God, not simply to salvation but also for works that are significant for God's eternal kingdom. And our great Coach allows hardships to develop and strengthen the faith we need to accomplish what God intends in and through us. It's not pleasant, but it is best.
No practice is itself joyful for an athlete or musician, no boot camp itself is joyful for the soldier. And while no athlete, musician or soldier who values their profession would ever think of quitting practice, but far too many of us fold in the face of hardships and never develop the winning faith that makes a difference in God's eternal kingdom.
Abram, like us, will exercise great faith in other circumstances, but not this time.
Even so, it is definitely not my intent to be critical of Abram, but instead to draw some lessons from what he experienced when his faith was challenged so that we might be better prepared to stand strong when we face hardships in our own lives. I'm grateful that God gives examples such as Abraham, and explanations such as James' so that we have the benefit of a training manual to prepare us to expect hardship and to understand God's purpose.
Robert Candlish lists seven challenges to Abraham's faith that may have influenced his decision to turn from God to his own resources. These are conditions in his life that made him particularly vulnerable to failure. We should consider each of them carefully in our own lives to see if any are applicable to us.
Challenges to Faith:
1. Unfulfilled expectation . Abraham's wife was barren - unable to conceive. This was a much greater problem in the culture of that day. To a man whose name "Abram” means “Father of many” the fact that he was childless had to have been a real challenge to his faith. Especially when God had promised "I will make you into a great nation”. As time went on, and God delayed in fulfilling His promise, the delay surely led to disappointment and to doubt.
What expectations has God left unfulfilled in your life? Perhaps for months or years? If God has truly promised, will you continue to choose to believe and to trust His timing?
2. Unknown destination. God had not yet confirmed to Abram that he had arrived at his final destination. Hebrews 11:8 tells us, "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." In Genesis 12:7 God is quoted as telling Abram that He would give the land where he built the altar to his offspring, but Abram may not have yet known for sure that he had arrived in the land of promise.
Are you, as Abram, uncertain that you are now where God wants you to be? Are you even now facing unexpected hardships and wondering if you should stay and gut it out or move on? Will you realize that God's intent for you is much more than your comfort, He wants your commitment to trust and obey so that He might bless you far beyond your temporary comfort. Will you choose to seek Him in prayer and to wait confidently upon His confirmation?
3. Unfamiliar surroundings. Verse 1 quotes God as telling Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household . . ." He was called to leave behind the familiar, the comfortable, the secure, to go to a place of uncertainty. Just as with Abram, God also calls each of us to leave behind our old life that we might follow Him to a place of promise. Sometimes it means leaving behind certain people, places and activities to fully obey.
We know this was difficult for Abram, because Genesis 11 confirms that instead of leaving his father's household, Abram's father, Terah went with them and that they made it only as far as Haran where verse 31 tells us they “settled” (until Terah died there).
Has God called you to separate yourself from any people, places or habits that have been comfortable and familiar to you? And have you not yet fully obeyed because it's hard? Will you see from Abram's story that partial obedience is disobedience. And that ultimately disobedience brings far more hardship than obedience? With God's help, will you choose to fully obey his call to separate yourself from your past so that you can fully yoke yourself to Him?
4. Unexpected loss. Obviously his father, Terah, must have been very important to Abram. And although Terah's death seemed to allow Abram's journey to Canaan to continue, surely the loss must have weighed very heavily upon Abram for many years.
Have you suffered the pain of losing someone or something precious to you? Maybe a loved one, or a relationship, or a job. Maybe, like Michelle Daylrumple, something has robbed you even of the future you thought you would have. Has that pain even caused you to question God's love and weakened your trust in Him and your commitment to Him?
If so, I recommend you read the Psalms and look for how David himself poured out his anguish to God and how even in doing so, he reminded himself of God's great love and great power. And David's confidence was strengthened to trust a bit more. And his trust was rewarded by our faithful God, just as your trust will be.
5. Unsettled home. In Canaan Abram had no permanent home as he had in Ur and in Haran. Hebrews 11:9 says, ". . . like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents . . ." Like each of us, Abram must have felt a deep need for a place to belong, a place of his own, a place to call home. But the promised land was to be given to his offspring, and during his own lifetime Abram was to own none of it except the burial plot for Sarai.
Perhaps you too are in a place of uncertainty, feeling uprooted and insecure about having a place to belong. Can you relate to Abram because of loneliness and uncertainty because of loss of job, or home, or relationship? Maybe you feel disconnected and alienated. As Rick said in this week's sermon - you may say you're "fine", but you're really not at all fine! This is when we really need each other. And God has provided a church family for each of us as a place of "belonging." Will you let us help you to find your place and to give you assistance and assurance in doing so?
6. Unexpected opposition. God had called Abram out from his own people in his own land. Abram must have anticipated that God would have brought him to a better place with better people than where he'd lived before. But we know from later descriptions of the people of Canaan that they were idolaters, probably even more cruel and perverted than the people he had left behind. He found himself a stranger among people who had no concern for him and his family and his God.
Do you live in an uncomfortable situation? Perhaps in your workplace, or neighborhood, or even your own family. Do you feel as though you're among strangers and enemies? If so, will you choose to seek security in the person, promises and provision of God Himself? Psalm 23:5 tells us that God will even sustain us in the midst of our enemies if He is our shepherd and we follow Him.
7. Unfair circumstances. This was the final straw. For all of Abram's efforts in obeying God's call you would at least think that God would reward him by blessing his circumstances. A famine in the promised land just doesn't seem right and fair at all. And if Abraham was like me, he might be asking the self-centered questions I have too often asked - "Why has God allowed this trouble? Doesn't He know? Doesn't He care? Won't He help me? How long must I suffer?"
Have you ever been in that situation? Most of have or will face financial distress, or declining health, or difficult relationships or some other painful hardship. And every one of us must decide for ourselves whether to trust and obey, or to seek our own way.
What did Abram decide? Verse 10 tells us that Abram left the promised land to seek his own solution in Egypt.
James Montgomery Boice lists several things that help us to understand how Abram made his wrong choice. They are things that should serve as warning signs to us so that we might avoid the same kind of failure:
Conditions for failure:
1. Lack of trust. Abram was right to be concerned about the circumstances of the famine. Faith is not ignoring our circumstances - that's insanity. But faith is choosing to see our circumstances not from our own limited earthly perspective, but from God's unlimited eternal perspective. Faith is trusting that God sees and knows and cares about our circumstances and will bring about the right result even in the midst of what we don't understand and cannot control.
Paul experienced plenty of those occasions and tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks . . ." Paul knew from personal experience that God can be trusted in all circumstances because when he chose to trust God he found God always faithful.
Do you know for sure that you can trust God? If not from your own experiences, from the experiences of others that are recorded for us in the Bible? The first step in making the right decision is to trust God in all circumstances.
2. Lack of worship. Abram built an altar in Shechem and in Bethel. But scripture doesn't record him worshiping again until after he returns from Egypt. That is generally what happens when we stop trusting God - we also stop worshiping Him. If God is not worthy of our trust, He is not worthy of our worship. And if we can't trust God, we can't trust His people, so we tell them we're "fine" when we're not. At some point we just stop coming to church and associating with friends from church. And without worship our spiritual life withers away like a parched plant when water is withheld.
Do you find yourself increasingly avoiding church activities? And becoming increasingly alienated from church people? If so you are probably not living close to God and are not trusting Him. But how could you trust Him for your eternal salvation and not your earthly circumstances? And if you really do trust Him for eternal salvation, He's worthy not only of trust for everything else, He's certainly worthy of your genuine worship. Worship Him for what He has done, and you'll find you have confidence in what He will do.
3. Confidence in self. When someone stops trusting God and stops worshiping Him, the next step is confidence in self in place of confidence in God . The thought is, "If God can't be trusted, I'm on my own." We choose then to turn from God's wisdom through God's Word and begin to have greater confidence in what makes sense to us personally.
God's truth is no longer the measure by which we judge all things. God's Word is no longer relevant to our circumstances. And we take His place in deciding what is right and wrong for ourselves and the actions we should take.
And we confidently set off in the wrong direction, being filled with ourselves instead of God. This is exactly what happened to Abram. In his confidence, Abram comes up with solution to his problem - the big lie.
Abram probably even thought to himself that he wasn't entirely lying since Sarai was actually his half-sister. Whenever you want to do something wrong you will always be able to come up with some reasonable justification.
Have you too found that you are taking actions based on what makes sense to you instead of seeking and submitting to God? If so, you will soon see for yourself that self confidence is the path to painful consequences because it leads to . . . .
1. Increasing sin. We see this with Abram's scheme in verses 11-13 "As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, "I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, `This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you."
Abram's initial sin of unbelief now brings the additional sins of causing others to support the deception and also to replace their trust in God with loyalty to Abram. That sin certainly expanded to involve all of the servants. And ultimately Abram's lie contributes to Pharoah's sin and brings consequences upon him and his entire household.
Small compromises and sins always lead to bigger compromises and sins. Always! And the only way to stop the momentum is to humble ourselves before God, to confess our sin and repent and to return to trusting in God instead of self. Otherwise, like Abram, we too will suffer . . .
2. Great loss and humiliation. When we turn from God to self and reject God's clear commands, we often do so thinking it's the best way to protect something or person we cherish. But that's the very thing or person we will ultimately lose because of our schemes. In verses 14-16 we see that Sarai was taken into Pharaoh's household despite Abram's scheme.
At first, because of the lie, Abram was treated well and was well compensated. But the wealth of the whole world would not have been enough to compensate Abram for the loss of his wife, his reputation and honor, and his fellowship with God. And he must have suffered so greatly that the gifts from Pharoah were just more salt in a painful wound.
But where Abram is unfaithful, God remains always faithful. He will still honor every promise he spoke in verses 2-3. And so He protected Sarai while in Pharaoh's household. Verse 17 "But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai." And not only did He protect Sarai, God also protected Abram from worse consequences from Pharoah. But Abram does have to endure the public exposure of his sin and the deep humiliation of the consequences of his unfaithfulness to God.
Pharaoh's rebuke is recorded in verses 18-19 . It was a greatly humbled Abram who departed Egypt to return to Canaan. And yet, God in His great love and grace gives him another choice with another chance.
3. An opportunity to repent
The good news is that the next chapter tells us that Abram returned directly to the altar he had built in Bethel and there recommitted himself to the Lord in deep repentance. And God restored Abram. And while Abram's faith continued to be imperfect, he is forever memorialized in God's Word as one of the heroes of the faith and a great example to us.
The choices God gave to Abram, he also gives to each of us. The choice to see our circumstances from our limited perspective or from God's eternal perspective. The choice to accept our hardships and trust God for His purpose and provision, or to resenting our hardships and reject God and turn to our own way. The choice to persevere to become mature and complete in faith, or to retreat in resentment and become bitter and worthless.
What choice will you make in your circumstances today?