"After these things:" thoughts on faith and faithfulness

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Genesis 22:1)

As a pastor, I regularly have conversations with people who are struggling in their faith. Sometimes they find the gospel difficult to believe. Sometimes they are discouraged because of continuing struggles with sin. Sometimes they are disillusioned because their faith feels so fragile.

I resonate with these struggles, because I have experienced them and at times continue to experience them. What follows is a brief personal reflection that came out of my own personal struggles. I hope you might find it helpful.

A few weeks ago, as I was reading Genesis chapter 22, I was struck by a phrase that I’d never really noticed before. Three simple words: “After these things.” But those three little words give us a glimpse into how the life of faith works.

A Little Context

Genesis 22 is one of the high points in the story of redemption. God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering. God is testing Abraham. He’s asking Abraham to trust him with the most precious thing in his life. The thing all Abraham’s hopes and dreams are riding on. The thing Abraham loves more than anything else.

But there’s also something deeper going on here. God has promised that he would bless the entire world through Abraham and his offspring (Genesis 12:3). And he’s even told Abraham redemption will come to humankind specifically through Isaac (Genesis 21:12).

So when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, this doesn’t just look like the death of Abraham’s hopes and dreams. It looks like the death of God’s promise. It looks like the death of hope for humanity.

In the face of this command, Abraham is confronted with a single agonizing question: Can God be trusted?

In one sense, this is the most difficult question Abraham has ever faced. Can God be trusted with the life of my son? Can God be trusted to make good on his promise?

But in another sense, God has been answering this question since the moment he called Abraham decades ago.

Scandalous Grace

Genesis 22 probably takes place at least 35 years after God’s initial promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. Over more than three decades, Abraham has learned what it means to live by faith. But Abraham’s story is less about the greatness of his faith and more about the greatness of God’s faithfulness. We tend to think of Abraham as this great hero of faith, but Genesis tells a different story.

In Genesis 12, when Abraham tells Pharaoh that his wife Sarah is his sister (and gives her to be part of Pharaoh’s harem!), God blesses Abraham. In Genesis 20, when Abraham does the same thing again, God blesses him again. When Abraham doubts God’s promise to give Sarah children, and decides to impregnate Sarah’s servant Hagar (Genesis 16), God blesses him yet again!

Abraham’s story is one of scandalous grace. It is a story of God’s unilateral faithfulness. God makes good on his promise time and time again. God is faithful even when Abraham is unfaithful. God blesses Abraham when all Abraham deserves is punishment.

How Faithfulness Produces Faith

Sometimes we treat the Bible as a collection of stories about heroes of faith we’re supposed to emulate. But when you really pay attention, you find that the only hero in Scripture is God. This isn’t primarily a story about our faith. It’s a story about God’s faithfulness.

And that is what eventually produces this rock-solid faith in Abraham. That is why he is able to trust God in the face of the most agonizing request imaginable. That is why he can stare down the prospect of losing his own son and say with confidence, “God himself will provide the lamb” (22:8).

Over the course of decades, Abraham has learned to distrust himself and trust God. He has seen God make good on his promise over and over again. He has experienced God’s repeated blessing in spite of his unfaithfulness and sin. He has learned that when he can’t count on himself, he can count on God. The faithfulness of God is what makes Abraham into a man of great faith.

That is such a comfort to me. So often my faith is weak. I waver, I falter, I sin. I decide to do things my way rather than God’s. But God is patient with me. He refuses to give up on me. He continues to bless me in spite of myself.

Over time, I have seen how that has strengthened my faith. I certainly haven’t arrived yet. I continue to struggle with sin and doubt and plain stupidity. My struggles, my failures, my sin have all shaken my confidence in myself. But the relentless, unstoppable grace of God has given me a confidence in something far greater than myself.

See, you and I aren’t meant to trust in ourselves. We are meant to trust something outside ourselves. We aren’t meant to trust in the strength of our own faith. We are meant to trust in a God who is strong when we are weak, in a God who is faithful when we are not, in a God who has himself provided the Lamb.

image: "The Sacrifice of Isaac," by Caravaggio