Sometimes I think we get the idea that God leaves us in the dark on purpose. We have the bump-into-things view of faith, like walking through a room with the lights off. This morning my wife and I read our devotional page from Oswald Chambers’ book. We talked about our current situation. Nothing seems to have changed to correct the financial crisis we face. The external evidence still points to a dwindling bank account and not enough income. She said to me, “I know that God has His reasons. But I would just like to know what they are”. As I thought about her request, I was reminded of people in history whom God directed.
Abraham is a good example. We have a heroic view of Abraham. We think of him as a pillar of faith. We know the story of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. We remember his negotiation with God to rescue Lot. But we often forget that Abraham had years of struggle and doubt. We forget that he was very human – just like us. And God still chose him.
Abraham started out well. God called him away from his culture, family and friends. God said, “Follow me to a place I will show you” and Abraham responded. Now that takes faith! How many of us would pack up everything we had, sell the house, leave the job and just go somewhere based only on a voice from God. God didn’t even bother to tell Abraham where he was going. He just said, “Get on the road and I will let you know when you need to know”. Abraham made his first stop at a sacred grove on a mountain. There he made an altar and worshipped God. He demonstrated his faith even though he still had no idea what the plan was all about. Things seemed to be settling down.
God showed up and explained that some day Abraham’s descendents would inherit all the land that surrounded Abraham. God would see to it. Of course, there was only one small problem. Abraham didn’t have any descendents. But God told him not to worry. Things would work out exactly as God intended.
Then Abraham got his first real test. There was a famine in the land. Nothing to eat, provisions running low and plenty to worry about. Abraham decided to head for Egypt where food was available. But on the way he realized that Pharaoh would see how beautiful his wife was and would probably want her for himself. Abraham reasoned that if that happened, Pharaoh might just kill him to get Sarah. So, he came up with a plan. He would tell Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. That way, nothing would happen to him. Of course, a lot would happen to Sarah, but Abraham didn’t seem too concerned about her. After all, he had to protect himself so that he could get what God promised. It wouldn’t do much good if he were killed. So, he lied. And things got very bad indeed when his lie was discovered.
Abraham failed the test. Do you think that God would have let Abraham be killed in Egypt if God had already promised that Abraham was going to be a great nation? You have to wonder why Abraham didn’t trust God to take care of the situation. Abraham lied to protect his own skin. But his lie denied God’s promised protection. The Father of Faith made a big mistake (and, as we see when we read the stories, he seems to have made the same mistake more than once).
Of course, after Pharaoh kicks Abraham out of Egypt, Abraham regrets his lack of faith. He comes back to worship God. He straightens out his trust problem. But he has set the tone for the family. Lot follows uncle Abraham’s lead and ends up in a real mess. And Sarah does the same thing. She shows the sin of impatience. God’s promise is only good when she can see how it is going to work out. And as the years go by, she figures that it’s time for her to take over. That decision results in an internal family nightmare, an illegitimate son, more broken relationships and thirteen years of silence from God. And, by the way, just in case we start thinking that it is all Sarah’s fault, we are reminded that Abraham is the one who agreed to have sex with Hagar in order to produce the required descendent. Did Abraham have a momentary mental lapse? Did he forget completely that God was able to handle every problem? Or was the offer to have sex with someone else, with his wife’s blessing, more than any man could refuse?
God returns to the lives of these fractured people and renews His covenant. Abraham finally seems to understand. But there are still trials and failures and regrets and restorations ahead. The Father of the Faith is quite human. The Bible could have painted him as a great saint. But it doesn’t. I am convinced that God wants us to see the ups and downs of his life, and the lives of many of the saints. Why? Because the story is about what God does, not about how wonderful and spiritual we are. God gets the credit. He takes the time to show us that we are all cut from the same cloth. And that should give us great comfort. Our faith is just like the faith of those Bible heroes – struggling, rough and in need of purification. But it is faith nevertheless, and God recognizes it for what it is. If God didn’t give up on Abraham, a man who caused one family problem after another with lies, loose morals and doubt, then God won’t give up on us either.
Let’s look at what Paul (another one of those Bible heroes with a very checkered past) has to say about faith:
“for the righteous man shall live by faith” Romans 1:17
“having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” Romans 5:1
“whatever is not of faith is sin” Romans 14:23
“and without faith it is impossible to please [God]” Hebrews 11:6
A few more references will help.
“but he must ask in faith without any doubting” James 1:6
“for we walk by faith, not by sight” 2 Cor. 5:7
“now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1
Let’s see if we can draw some conclusions from these verses. Faith begins with God’s grace toward us. God was faithful in His promise long before we came to realize that what He says about us is true. Just like Abraham, we responded to something that God had in mind before He asked us to get up and follow Him. In other words, God’s intentions for us came first. That is the essential meaning of “the righteous man is justified by faith”. In the case of Abraham, God looked on Abraham as faithful in spite of Abraham’s human failings. The Old Testament word is “accredited” or “counted”. God counted Abraham as faithful – He decided to see Abraham as faithful. God had something in mind for Abraham. God had no intention of letting Abraham’s human failures stand in the way of divine plans, so God just kept after Abraham, reminding him that the promise was based on God, not on Abraham’s efforts.
We need to see our faith in the same light. God has something in mind for each of us. He has this in mind long before we get started on our journey toward the place He is going to show us. Along the way, most of us get off track. There is a Greek word for this. It is planasthe. It means “to cause to wander, to lead astray, to seduce or mislead” but we translate it as “deceive”. Abraham got off track when he deceived himself into thinking he had to protect his own life in order for God’s promise to be fulfilled. We do the same thing. We don’t see how things are going to work out for us. We worry about the money, our health, the job or any number of “protection” items. And so we begin to take care of those things our own way. We deceive ourselves into thinking that God needs us to lend a hand to His promise. Just like Abraham, we eventually discover that we have made a mess. The first thing we need to know about faith is that it is God’s plan for us, not our plan worked out with an acknowledging nod toward God.
Faith does not begin with us. Faith begins with God. First, God acts on our behalf. His intentions always precede ours. In fact, about the only thing He asks is for us to follow. He didn’t say to Abraham, “Now, get out there and make things happen. Go up the road until you think you have arrived. Set up shop. Build a city. Make babies. Get wealthy and build a big church. Then, when you have done all that, I’ll come back and inspect your efforts”. No, God said, “Follow along and I will show you something. I’ll show you when I’m ready. You just tag along behind”. Funny thing. Jesus said almost the same words. “Follow me”.
Faith begins with God. Actually, it’s a good thing that it does. If faith began with us, we would certainly mess it up. And even better, when we do mess it up, God can still bring about His intentions for us. Abraham messed it up several times. God still produced the results He wanted. God had to deal with all the mess that Abraham made along the way. Extra children. Broken relationships. Bad company. An abused wife. But God was more than able to manage all that mess and still get Abraham where God wanted him to be. Just a bunch of extra baggage that Abraham packed into the trip.
If faith begins with God, why do we carry along so much extra stuff? Why are we always trying to “fix” things that God forgot about? “Wait a minute, God! Did you forget that I have to pay that bill? Did you forget about that assignment I need to do? Hey, what about my plans to take that job? Did you forget I need a new car? Don’t you remember that my husband doesn’t treat me right?”
When faith begins with God, we have absolute assurance that faith will arrive at its intended destination. We’re not in charge, thank God! So, relax! Follow along. Stop adding to the pile you’re carrying. God knows what you need. It’s His train. You’re just a passenger. The greatest struggle of faith is to remember who owns the train. Faith is remembering who’s who. The reason the Bible includes all those stories about the failures of faith’s heroes is to remind us that faith is about God, not about us. And God is able. He is able to take any mess, any circumstance and any problem – the stuff that just seems like there is no way in the world it will ever work – and bring about His intentions.
A ninety-year-old woman gets pregnant. An altar covered in water gets consumed with fire. A starving man in the desert gets fed by birds. A blind man knocks down a temple. And God dies. All of these things are impossible. But they happened because God had His own plans in mind. Isn’t he able to manage your journey?
Paul tells us that once we see our faith in terms of God’s promise toward us, we will have peace. “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” Romans 5:1
The Greek word for “peace” is eirene. In the New Testament, the word is about relationships, not external conditions. The word is not primarily associated with resolution of political conflict, good health, personal well-being or even prosperity. It is associated with words like love, grace, glory, honor, righteousness and mercy. Its opposites are also words about relationships: anxiety, anguish, fear, confusion, division, distress. Peace is the settled confidence that my relationship with God has been repaired. Jesus tells us that he “gives” this peace and “leaves” this peace with us. It is not an announcement that we have accomplished something. It is a gift left behind for us to enjoy. Jesus is giving his followers a going-away present. That present is unbroken fellowship with God. It is a present that we can have right now and it will last forever. It places a safety net over our lives that nothing can take away.
So, the second thing about faith is also about God. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. God has purposes for you. He will see that they are carried out. And to do that, He is ready to give you peace. It is the confidence that God is on my side, that I can trust Him completely. He knows what He is doing. I don’t have to second-guess His arrangements.
That’s exactly what got Abraham in so much trouble. He knew God had plans. He knew God made promises. But he second-guessed how it was going to be done. So, he did what we all do – the commonsense thing. He went to Egypt. He lied to protect himself. He decided that sex with Hagar wasn’t such a bad idea. He told the kings another lie. Instead of waiting for God, he said to himself, “Hey, what gives here anyway? God made me a promise but things look pretty bad. I guess I’d better do something to make all this come true”. God repaired the damage, but the damage didn’t need to be done. Abraham was an impatient man.
Aren’t we the same? Are we ready to wait for God? Do you rely completely on the peace that we have? We know that God has restored the relationship. Why can’t we find comfort in that restoration? Is anything more important? Jesus tells us the same thing (isn’t is amazing that Jesus just reminds us of all those Old Testament lessons we forgot). He says, “Why do you worry about what will happen to you? Don’t you know that your heavenly Father knows all of your needs? Seek Him first – follow along – and let Him take care of the rest”. Jesus is a great tour guide. He keeps putting us back on the train when we decide that there is a shorter way to glory and we fall off the track.
Faith is God first – and God second. First, God comes after us. Second, God looks after us.
If we just kept those two things in mind, we would have the mind of faith. But Paul knows that we struggle. So he provides us with a warning.
“whatever is not of faith is sin”
What is not of faith? Not remembering rule 1 and rule 2. Rule 1: God is in charge. Rule 2: God is able. He draws us to Him. He restores our relationship with Him. He protects and cares for us. As long as we act in accordance with these simple facts of Life (for that’s what they are), we will exhibit faith. As soon as we forget one of these simple things, we step off the train. The biggest problem with stepping off the train is that it is still moving. We get hurt.
The New Testament word for sin is hamartia. It literally means “missing the mark”. In this case, it might as well mean “doing it our way”. It is the Frank Sinatra principle (“I did it my way”). And, by the way, just in case you didn’t know it, Frank Sinatra was not God (neither was Elvis). If I think that I can assist God by doing things my way, I am certainly going to miss the mark. Abraham found out the hard way. God didn’t visit him for thirteen years while Ishmael grew up. For thirteen years, Abraham looked every day on the consequences of doing it his way. For thirteen years, Sarah and Abraham had to deal every day with the results of doing it their way. Not a very happy marriage. And the other mother, Hagar, was right there in their faces every day. There was no option of divorcing and moving across the country. There were no restraining orders. There was no child visitation. Sometimes the consequences of our foolishness need to stay with us to remind us that faith is about God’s way, not ours.
“and without faith it is impossible to please [God]” Hebrews 11:6.
Why is it impossible to please God without faith? Well, think about it. Faith is recognizing those two simple rules. If I act without taking rule 1 and rule 2 into account, I will automatically be singing along with Frank. Notice that the verse in Hebrews doesn’t say, “Without faith it’s pretty hard to please God”. It doesn’t say, “Most of the time without faith it’s tough to please God”. It says that it is impossible. The Greek word is adunaton. It literally means “is not able” or “can’t be done”. Isn’t that amazing! With faith, God is able. Without faith, we are not able. In other words, if I remember that God is in charge, then I know that God is able. But if I forget that God is in charge, then it turns out that I am not able ultimately to please Him because I did not let Him do what He is able to do. How simple is that! God is able. Let Him do it. Sin is just deciding that God is not able and I need to do it. That insults God. No wonder He is displeased.
Sarah wants to enjoy the prestige of being associated with a great man – her husband. God has promised he will be the father of many, a high honor indeed. But Sarah doesn’t have a child. She knows that she doesn’t have a child because God has not yet allowed her to have a child. She recognizes God’s sovereignty when it comes to her body, but she is not willing to recognize God’s sovereignty over the rest of her world. So, she decides to sing along with Frank. She thinks, “God is not able to take care of this. I’ll have to do it myself”. She knows Abraham has eyed Hagar a few times. Every wife knows this sort of thing. So, she comes up with a plan that she knows Abraham won’t refuse. Pretty soon they are all humming along with Frank. When we think God is not able, we deny God’s faithfulness toward us. We call God a liar. It doesn’t work out very well.
“but he must ask in faith without any doubting” James 1:6
There are times when doubt is a good thing. If you are about to step off a moving train and you catch yourself doubting if you can make the step without injury, doubt is good. It probably saved your life. Oswald Chambers reminds us that whenever we encounter doubt in our walk behind God, we need to stop. God does not promote doubt. God is very clear about what He wants us to do, even if what He tells us is only a tiny step of the whole plan. In fact, I don’t know a single person who ever knew the whole plan from the beginning. I doubt (there’s that word again) that even Jesus knew it all for day one. The Bible tells us that he had to grow up learning obedience just like we have to. That’s very comforting. If Jesus had to learn to follow, why should I think that I can just run ahead?
Now James tells us that if we are going to do something with our faith, we need to not start an internal dispute with ourselves. That’s what this word means. The Greek is diakrino. It comes from the idea of separating or choosing between one thing and another.
There are two other words that are translated “doubt”. One is dialogismos. It means “to debate through words” or “argument”. It is used in the New Testament for the idea of evil thoughts or argument. It usually has the sense of trying to justify your actions – arguing with God about how “right” your sin really is.
The other is distazo. Here the idea is that you are stuck between two courses of action. There are two pictures that help us see the meaning: a man standing at a crossroads, not knowing which way to go and a balance scale, equally weighted on each side, tipping back and forth. It means, “to hesitate, to waver, to be uncertain”. It is not argumentative or evil. There is no sin here. It is just being stuck in the middle. God help me, I don’t know which way to go!
James uses diakrino because he does not want us to think about trying to justify ourselves before God nor does he want us to think about simple hesitation. He wants us to see that this kind of doubt is about debating what is the right selection.
We come to a crossroads as we tag along behind God. But God is out just out of sight. We can’t quite see which way He went. So, we have to choose. Right or left. We waver (distazo). We remember Oswald Chambers. Stop! We fix our mind on the mind of Christ and then we feel we should go right. We don’t argue with God about it (“You know, God, you really didn’t make it clear and besides, it looks so nice down the road on the left and I just couldn’t help it”). We take a step to the right. Suddenly we are besieged with doubt – the diakrino kind. Wait! What if this isn’t the right way? Maybe I didn’t hear it correctly? Maybe I should have prayed more? How do I know I am really doing what God wants? Maybe I need a sign? I should open the Bible and find a verse. But what if that doesn’t work either? Diakrino is the doubt that stops acting on faith because it doesn’t believe that God can repair mistakes. It believes God has only one way and if I miss it, I will never recover. The entire universe depends on me making the right choice. The pressure is too much. What will I do now?
James says, “Go forward. God is able to correct you if you are on the wrong path. He’ll get you back on track. But He can’t do anything until you start to move. Just standing there debating with yourself will accomplish nothing”.
Once again Oswald Chambers reminds us that when we move forward on faith, God will simply close the doors if we are off course. Then we can retreat and start again. Remember, it’s God journey. He’s in charge. So get up and get moving. Don’t be afraid to put your trust on Him. He is able.
Rule number 1: God’s in charge.
Rule number 2: God is able.
Rule number 3: Go forward.
Now comes the greatest blessing.
“for we walk by faith, not by sight” 2 Cor. 5:7
“now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1
If we know the rules, we don’t have to know where we are going. In fact, this is a journey of just following with our eyes wide open. It is not “blind” faith at all. We know God is in charge. We know God is able. All we have to do is go forward. Faith is exercised on a “need to know” basis. When you need to know, God will tell you. Faith is realizing that you don’t need to know. But everything is still OK, because He knows.
Our world is convinced that we have to know. We want to know the outcome before the event. What plans do you have for your life? What will you become? How will it all work out? What if it doesn’t come out the way that I want?
Maybe we should think of our need to know like a box. If we knew all the answers, we would be nicely packaged but we would lose the possibility for creative change. God doesn’t tell us everything because we are in a cooperative process of creative change with Him. Our lives are not boxed. Faith is simply knowing that the plans are being revised along the way. And that’s a good thing. When I mess up, the master Architect can redraw the plans and still get the results He wants. God’s disclaimers about life are true: past promises do guarantee future rewards. Past events do guarantee present and future relationships.
So, we’re left with hope and conviction. “now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1
Hope is telling yourself that what God says is true is really true. It’s reminding yourself about rule number 1 and rule number 2. God is in charge. God is able.
Conviction is acting on that hope. Rule number 3: Go forward.
Faith isn’t blind. It’s open eyes obedience.