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Although they would never admit it to themselves, let alone voice it in public, there are millions of Christians who are disillusioned with what is called Christianity. What the Church promised to them on the authority of God's Word - the inner strength to the holy, the joyous fellowship with God in life and peace in the midst of turmoil - simply did not materialize. Many of these tragic people burn with a quiet anger at God feeling that He has shortchanged them. God advertised His kingdom in His Scriptures, but blatantly failed to follow through in doing as He said.
Most of these believers would testify to setting out on the pathway of faith with singing heart and high hopes of a joy-filled walk with God. Then at some point early in their new-found faith they realize the joy has evaporated and the promises of God seem to be a mirage in the desert. After some earnest struggles to get back to where they were they gave up and resigned themselves to going through meaningless religious motions in a quiet despair.
All who have walked the pathway of faith in God and His promises have faced the bypath these folk have settled into. I have been there myself.
The despair and frustration is caused by a basic error in understanding the nature of God's promises. When we look at them as a challenge to our human nature to be actualized by our will power we are already being sidetracked into the cul-de-sac of despair. The truth is that faith does not rest in our ability to do what He promised, but in His ability to make good all He has promised.
In the biographies of the men of faith outlined in the Scripture the Holy Spirit records all the mistakes they fell into so that we can avoid them. The one that instructs us in faith more than any other is that of Abram.
Although Abram could trace his descent from the godly Shem, son of Noah, he was born into a family ensnared in the idolatrous apostasy of the post-flood civilization instigated by the sons of Ham. Abram lived in Ur, a city of Chaldea where the moon was worshipped and the stars consulted for decisions. When he was 75 and his wife Sarai was 65, God revealed Himself as the God of Glory (Acts 7:3). The man who worshipped the glory of the mood was confronted with the Glory who made the moon. From that day Abram walked in union with God.
At the time God made certain promise to Abram:
1. He would give Abram descendants that would be as the dust of the earth and the stars of the heavens.
2. As Abram left Ur he would de divinely led to a land where he and his descendants would live.
3. The promises would one day culminate in a descendant through whom all nations would be blessed.
Abram had nothing to do with the terms of God's promise. It was God's initiative that gave them to Abram, and his character that guaranteed their fulfillment. All Abram could do is what one does with any promise, accept and say thank you. With the second term of the promise Abram did just that, packing his bags and moving his camel train up the River Euphrates, his only compass and map being the inner voice of God.
It was the first term of promise that he wrestled with. Sarai was 65 and childless. How could a great nation be born of a childless couple now well beyond childbearing age?
He decided to facilitate the bringing about of the impossible! By taking his nephew Lot along and adopting him into his family, the promises would pass to him and so be fulfilled through his family.
The inner direction of God led them to the land of Canaan which was to be the home of the nation of promise. It was here that Abram's plan failed. The flocks of both Abram and Lot had grown so large that their herdsmen began fighting for the best pasture land. Sadly the nephew and his uncle realized they had to separate. Lot went to the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah; Abram to the highlands of Canaan.
Time was slipping by. Abram knew that if ever he was to bring about God's promise in his life he would have to act fast. With Lot gone he fell back on a custom of the day. A man with no children would often adopt a child of one of his slaves that had been born in his house. Abram began making plans to adopt Eliezer, son of a slave picked up in Damascus en route for Canaan. As his heir Eliezer would receive the promises God made, and so through him the nation would be born that God had promised. But even as he did it, Abram was uneasy; it was a solution that did not seem to fit what God had said to him back in Ur.
It was during this period that God again made Himself known to Abram (Genesis 15). This time He is going to seal His promise with a covenant oath that Abram might have further reason to believe. This must be one of the most amazing chapters of the Scripture! God gives Himself to a human being. He prefaced the transaction with, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great."
Abram's unease surfaced. God was giving Himself away to Abram, but if he did not father a son could he really way the God had kept His word?
"O Lord God" he said, "What wilt Thou give me since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Since Thou has given me no heir, one born in my house is my heir." (Genesis 15:2, 3)
The answer came quickly and to the point:
"This man will not be you heir; but one who will come forth from you own body, he shall be your heir." (Genesis 15:4)
God then led the aged man outside his tent and showed him the myriads of stars that studded the black sky. "So shall your descendants be," (Genesis 15:5) He said.
But the years passed, and what was so vivid to Abram that night became fogged and dim. Abram was 86, and Sarai 76. For Sarai the waiting for a promise that was too absurd to be fulfilled became a hurt within. Deciding to take the matter into her hands, she have Hagar, a swarthy Egyptian slave girl, to Abram that she might produce the promised heir It was a custom of the day, though never condoned by God. It hurt her deeply to do it, but it would produce the child and the promise would be fulfilled.
Abram, his own faith weak and still struggling to find some way to actualize God's promise, went along with Sarai's suggestion.
The man who had been given God's covenant promises united with the slave girl in his desperate attempts to make God's words materialize. The resultant child was named Ishmael, a half-breed Hebrew whose name meant "God has heard." The name spoke to a spiritual experience that the mother had had while carrying the child, but also declared the feeling of Abram and Sarai at the naming ceremony. As far as they were concerned, in this black-haired Egyptian-Hebrew "God had heard" and made good His promises given in Ur.
As the lad grew his aging father told him of the covenant made between him and the invisible God. He told of the terms of the promise and assured the lad that he would one day inherit them and sire the vast nation of promise.
But he was wrong. Ishmael was not the son of promise. Abram and Sarai had fallen in the trap that so many stumble into as they start out on the road of faith in God's promises. They had misunderstood the meaning of a promise. They had interpreted God's promises as a challenge to them, instead of realizing them to be an announcement of what He was going to accomplish without their help. A promise to a child of a bicycle for Christmas is not a challenge to him to do his best to procure a bike by December 25th! It is an announcement of what the parents plan to do for him without his help. When God promised a son to the old couple, it was not a pass, but an announcement of what He would do out of His infinite resources.
Their misunderstanding has sinister undertones. It is a slander of God's character suggesting He will not do as He has said. It is a turning of trust to self, certain that independently of God the announced intention can be achieved. But it is hard to find fault with such action. They are obviously sincere in wanting what God wants: it certainly does not look like rebellion against God! But their wrong is basic. They are seeking to achieve God's announced intentions in their own ability and strength, and this always ends in disaster.
This path is the one that Eve traveled in Eden. The devil did not suggest that Eve become a devil! He suggested rather that her action would result in her becoming like God. That was subtle for man was made in God's image. In a few millennia God is going to say to Israel, "be ye holy for I am holy" which certainly sounds as if man was to be like God! Can a man be faulted for wanting to be like God? The subtle temptation was that they should pursue the course of being like God, but quite independently of God, using their own will power and struggles to achieve what only God can do.
The Pharisees fell into this same error. They dedicated their lives to understanding God's law and its application to life and ended up not with righteousness, but with slavery to rules and regulations that they had set up for themselves to keep. The were seeking to do what God had announced as His intention, but out of their own self effort and will power.
The Church is full of such misguided zealots today! Seeking to achieve the holy lifestyle outlined in the Scripture, but in their own strength. It is difficult to fault such enthusiasm and sincerity, but tragically they are producing an Ishmael. Speaking of this, Jesus told the story of the two houses.
"Therefore every one who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came and the winds blew, and burst against the house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And every one who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And; the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall." (Matthew 7:24-27)
It is obvious that He was talking about the nature of the foundations that the houses rose out of. It was not the condition of the actual house that was in question, but the foundation from which their strength came. Our actions must be rooted in Him, and not in the sand of our human self effort.
The lad Ishmael grew and was educated in the promises given to his father in Ur, everyone supposing that he would play the major part in their fulfillment. Abram was approaching his 100th birthday and Sarai nearly 90 when God once more revealed Himself (Genesis 17:1-21).
The dialog began by God revealing Himself in a new name: El Shaddai, or the Almighty God who ever manifests Himself in the helplessness of His people. At the same time gave Abram a new name - Abraham. The name was a statement of the promise. Abram meant, "exalted father," but Abraham meant, "father of a multitude," The renewal of the covenant was sealed with circumcision.
Thinking that the new name was but a belated recognition of the boy born to be heir 13 years before, Abraham accept the change without thought. But God continued to speak. Sarai would have her name changed to Sarah, meaning "a princess," and God went on, "and I will bless her indeed and give you a son by her . . ." Abraham could hardly believe his ears. What was God saying? Had not this matter been solved in the birth of Ishmael? A laugh began inside Abraham. Sara - a mother at 90? Ridiculous. The laugh surged through him and he roared out loud. Composing himself he prayed. "Oh that Ishmael might live before thee."
The word from God was firm. "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name, Isaac." In Hebrew the name Isaac means, "the sound of laughter." Abraham had laugh at the impossibility of God's promises, now God laughs back with the name of the child to be born. In the name of the child would be a reminder that when faced with what God would do man could only laugh knowing his own helplessness to achieve it, and at ;the same time hear the laugh of God's delight in His plan to do for man all that He had covenanted.
Elated and awed at the announcement of the miracle God would perform, Abraham was also confused and sad. How could he tell his son Ishmael that he had been mistaken for 13 years? The boy was not heir to the promises, just the son of a slave woman. Ishmael was enraged at the news and seethed in hatred at the child yet to be born.
Some time later Abraham receive a visit from the Lord who appeared to him as a man with two traveling companions. They sat in the doorway of the tent eating and talking. Sarah, in the woman's quarters at the rear of the tent, listened at the curtain. Suddenly she heard her name. The Visitor was saying that she would have a son. At once Sarah laughed softly. The Lord no only sat with Abraham in human form, but was also behind the curtain with Sarah and say, "Why did Sarah laugh saying, 'Shall I indeed bear a child when I am so old?" Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:13-14). Confused Sarah denied what the Lord said, but it had been done, Sarah had added her laugh to Abraham's.
Her laugh was the completion of helplessness. They had run out of ways to bring to pass God's promises, and all they could is to laugh incredulously at what He said. Their faith is explained in Romans 4:21. ". . . and being fully assure that what He had promised, He was able also to perform," and in Hebrews 11:11 "By faith even Sarah received ability to conceive . . . since she considered Him faithful who promised."
Looking at themselves they could only see the impossibility of producing a son, and so could only laugh at the incredibility of the promise. Faith became immediately strong when they saw beyond their own total weakness to the God who would manifest his faithfulness to his word, and power to keep it in and through their helplessness.
The babe was born, and they named him Isaac according to God's direction. At the naming ceremony his name rang through the comp. It was as if God laughed with them in the brining to pass of his promise among men.
The way of faith for all believers is explained in this story. The Christian life is not a massive effort of self struggling to achieve God's will, but rather the self helplessly resting in his character and faithfulness to do all that He has promised. In this sense there are only two religions in the world. One is the religion of doing, which takes in every world religion including apostate Christianity. The other is the religion of resting in the God has done and is doing. The one is a list of rules that the adherents must seek to keep by their struggles in order to achieve all that God has promised. The other is the glad announcement of what God had done to bring man to Himself and with it the invitation to partake and say thank you.
In my own experience of coming to mature faith, I trod the path of the struggles of self effort that produced an Ishmael before I discovered the free joy of the Isaac lifestyle. After I was born again I met some Christians of the Ishmael variety who urged me to exert my will to be like Jesus. They gave me rules that they looked upon as unbreakable if the Christian life was to be success. Every Sunday was the time for rededicating myself to the keeping of the rules and so pleasing God.
We knelt and made our promises to God. We vowed that we would struggle against sin, avoid all temptations, rise early to pray and read Scripture and witness to at least one person every day. As I would rise from my knees having made such promises to the Almighty it was with a smug feeling that I was a better Christian than other who had not made such extravagant promises to His. As I walked out into the world, I remember bracing myself for the week. My honor was at stake, I had to prove to God I loved Him by perfectly keeping every promise I had made. I was sure that as I kept my wows I would come closer to God.
But inevitably by midweek I had broken one or more of the promises made so sincerely on Sunday. Viewing my weakness and fickle emotions I was disgusted with myself, and in my despair usually went on to fail in all the vows I had made. Every week was marred by failure, and each Sunday I came contrite before God to make more promises sworn with all the sincerity of my being.
But for all my devotion and honest struggles to make the Scriptures come to pass in my life, I was miserable. The joy of the Lord was a mirage in my desert of frustration and despair. I was a child of the Spirit married to slavery of rules and regulations that promised to bring about the lifestyle of holy joy I saw in the Scripture. The resultant Ishmael lifestyle was better than most, but fell hopelessly short of the Isaac that laughed and danced through life with God.
One day I read Jeremiah 31:33b-34:
"I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD', for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
Realizing that God was making four promises that covered all of life, I continued to read, looking for the degree of dedication I had to make to experience them. There was nothing. The passage made it clear that God was the sole promiser, all man can do I receive. The verses in front of me told me of what God would do, not what I should try to achieve.
I could hardly wait for the Sunday service. At the call for dedication I ran forward and prayed, "God, I promise You that I will make no more promises to You! I rest on the promises You have made and trust You to keep them." When I rose to my feet I did not feel pride, but helpless in my dependence on God. I walked into the world knowing that my honor was not at stake, but His, and he was able to do all He had said.
That day I came out of the bypath of human struggle on to the main highway of faith which is resting helplessly in God, expecting Him to do all that He has promised. My life became the Isaac way, laughing with God through life. There have been times that I have slipped back into self effort, but upon realizing it, repented, laughed at myself for being so foolish and returned at once to rest in God.
To hear this Good News can be shocking to many, for it means that the regulations of a church and our self imposed rules are not making us holy after all, but are rather the shackles of slavery. Such news is as devastating to us as the news that Ishmael was the son of slavery not the promised heir, even though that had sincerely believed he was for 13 years!
When Isaac was approximately four years old Abraham has a feast to celebrate his being weaned (Genesis 21:8). Ishmael took the opportunity to spew out his venom at the child of promise (Genesis 21:9). Sarah ordered the slave and her son to leave the camp, to which Abraham later agreed. Her words are echoed by Paul centuries later (Galatians 4:28- 31) as he calls upon the Galatians to throw off all trust in their self effort and keeping of endless rules so that they might live out the Spirit of Christ within them. It is God's command to us today: "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman." (Galatians 4:30).
This in itself can be more difficult than repenting of sin! Hebrews 9:14 speaks of cleansing, or repenting of "dead works," i.e. works that originate in self effort. It seems so right to sincerely try to please God, and so secure to be snug in the strait jacket of rules!
Only as we helplessly rest in what God has done for us and is doing now within us will we know the joy of the Lord and His power made manifest in our life to make good all he has said.