(Estimated Reading Time 7-9 Minutes)
In our last post we looked at how long Abraham had to wait before God’s promises came to fruition in his life. If you missed that post you can check it out here: Read Part 1. Now it is time to look more specifically at why God made Abraham wait 25 years before his son of promise, Isaac, was born through Sarah.
In part one of this series on Abraham’s waiting I hinted at the idea of how waiting on God tends to reveal latent idolatries within our hearts. An idol is not just a statue or figurine of wood and stone that we physically bow down to and worship. Fundamentally, the sin of idolatry involves trusting in anything other than God to bring us lasting joy, peace, salvation, prosperity, security, or a sense of well-being. Idols are things that we invest our hearts in, and before we know it, they come to control our choices, moods, emotions, priorities, time management, use of money, actions, and speech in a way that contradicts the revealed will of God.
The Wall Street executive who jumps out of a window when the market crashes. He or she was killed by idolatry. The overbearing parent who shelters their child, hinders their independence, and becomes depressed if their child doesn’t succeed in the way they want. This is idolatry. The single person who pins all their hopes and dreams on finally finding THE ONE. Nothing is more indicative of idolatrous undercurrents in the heart than using such a blatant Messianic description for one’s significant other.
The trouble with idols is that we all have them in our hearts to some degree or another, and even worse, they tend to materialize out of the very gifts and promises that God has given to us. As Timothy Keller once wrote,
“The human heart is an idol factory that takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.”
When we look at the life of Abraham, we see that one of the reasons God required Abraham to wait 25 years for his breakthrough, was because he wanted to first purge Abraham of the lingering idolatry that was still latent in his heart for all those decades. Abraham may have come out of Babylon, the land of idols, when he was in his 70’s. But it took many more years before the idols completely came out of Abraham.
Abraham Looks in the Mirror
The passage in which God fully confronts Abraham for his idolatry is Genesis 17. Just prior to Genesis 17, in Genesis 15 God had reaffirmed the covenant he originally made with Abraham in Genesis 12.
In Genesis 15:1, God tells Abraham that He is still with him, and that He will still be his Shield and Provider of the original promised dynasty from Genesis 12. With a note of desperation Abraham replies, “O LORD God, what will You give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” “You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir” (Gen. 15:1-3).
Calming Abraham’s fears God responds,
“This man shall not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And he took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:4-5).
Then comes one of the most positive statements ever made about anyone in the Bible; a statement which would eventually become foundational to our entire understanding of the Gospel itself. “Then he (Abraham) believed in the LORD, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
What happens next in chapter 16 is a bit of a shocker, especially in light of Abraham’s stellar exhibition of enduring faith in the previous chapter. At the age of 86, not more than a few years after the promise of Genesis 15, Abraham decided he was not going to wait on God to do things His way. Sarah hadn’t produced a baby yet, and she convinced Abraham to have a child with their handmaid Hagar. Abraham listened to his wife and Ishmael was born.
Now for many years I thought to myself, “I’ve heard many people talk about Abraham’s mistake here, but maybe he was simply ignorant. Maybe he didn’t really know that God meant the child of promise was supposed to come through him and Sarah. Maybe Abraham was justified in figuring, ‘Well, God only said the child would come through my body (Gen. 15:4), so maybe having a child with Hagar is no big deal.’”
If you look carefully at the language of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:4, God telling Abraham that the child would come through his body meant that the child would be the offspring of him and Sarah. The reason this is clear goes back to the “one flesh” language of Genesis 2:24 in the Garden of Eden. Abraham would have known that his body included Sarah in the equation, because he knew that the unity of man and wife into one flesh was a part of God’s creation ideal.
Although many Ancient Near Easterners practiced polygamy and slept around, the Bible never presents polygamy as God’s ideal. There are many places in the Bible where polygamy is seen to present all kinds of social and relational problems, which has led many commentators and scholars to deduce a clear polemic against polygamy in the Hebrew Scriptures.
My point is this: Abraham knew that the promise God made to him in Genesis 15 was not meant to be fulfilled through anyone other than Sarah, yet he still disobeyed. He let the glorious promise of God to him become more important than seeing God fulfill that promise in His own time and in His own way. Abraham took a good thing God was giving him and turned it into an idol. He had waited long enough, and now he was going to have things done on his own terms.
And just as a side note, Sarah was also an accessory to the crime. This poor woman had left all she knew to follow Abraham around in the desert. He had after all promised her lots of kids and a great dynasty. After so many years of waiting however, she just couldn’t wait any longer either. “Go sleep with my maid and let’s make this thing happen already!” That is the subtle nature of idolatry. It is almost always connected to something seemingly good and harmless, and even to the work of God itself.
With His patient style and swagger, God let Abraham live in his fantasy world for about 13 years. Abraham raised Ishmael, bonded with him, and grew to love him deeply. All of his hopes for what God had promised him were now connected to this young little lad. Then one day God showed up again and told Abraham,
“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Gen. 17:15-16).
Instead of rejoicing, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years-old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years-old bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17). “And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (Genesis 17:18).
You have to read between the lines a little bit to see what is going on here, but in effect, God was telling Abraham, “You made a mistake.” When God revealed this to Abraham, Abraham looked into the mirror of his own soul and saw his lack of faith, his mistake, and his idolatry. In the moment all Abraham could muster was a laugh, and a bewildered, “Surely this can’t be! Let it be Ishmael! I love that boy so much. Don’t force me God to deal with the idolatry in my heart. Don’t show me my mistake. Let me just live as though I did things right the first time.”
Abraham saw that he had not waited on God’s plan A and tried to substitute his own plan B instead. He saw that his trust in God, his understanding of God’s ways, and his understanding of God’s abilities, still needed to grow. The man of faith saw that there was still going to be a lot more to his walk with God before he would grow into full maturity.
There is nothing Abraham wanted more in his walk with God than to see his child of promise finally come into the world. And yet, it was precisely Abraham’s desire for this good thing that led him to stray from the perfect will of God. In short, Abraham began to love the thing God was promising Him more than God Himself.
Many of the greatest leaders throughout the history of Church have recognized that our own desires, even for good things, even for the things of God, are often at the root of all our sins. The famous Saint Augustine of Hippo defined sin itself as “disordered love,” and saw that all virtue is rooted in rightly ordered love and affection.
Consequently, the greatest struggles most of us will ever face in our walk with God are likely to be rooted not in a rebellious longing to spit in God’s face and blatantly disobey Him, but in the overwhelming pressure and subtly deceptive nature of our distorted love, affection, and desire for good things. This is the reason why complete surrender to God, even of one’s good desires, is indispensable as we walk the narrow and sometimes lonely path of discipleship. Some of the old school preachers used to call this practice “mortification,” and rightly so. There has to be a death to one’s self, not just to one’s outward sins, but more deeply to one’s plans, goals, ambitions, ego, perspective, personality, sentimentality, and will before God is able to do things in His own way and in His own time in our lives.
I once knew a preacher who, after giving a sermon, had a young man come up to him and say, “I really want to know how to live this life of faith, what do I have to do?” The preacher responded to him, “The secret to the life of faith is not learning how to live, it is learning how to die.”
If I were to ask you right now, “what is the one thing in the world you want more than anything else?”, what would that thing be? I am sure if you are like me you have a list of at least five to ten things! Maybe you are hoping for improvement in a financial situation, to find a new job, for a door to open in ministry, for a friend or loved one to come to know the Lord, for your first child to be born, or to find your spouse, etc.
This desire, or list of desires, has probably taken up a lot of your time, energy, thoughts, and prayers; maybe even to the point of making you physically stressed, overworked, and sick at times. As much as you might believe that your desires are good and your intentions are pure in pursuing these things, let me encourage you from the story of Abraham: make sure you don’t just pray for your desires to come to pass and then go pursue them. Make sure that you also let them go, recognizing that your true joy can only be found in God Himself, and not even ultimately in the good things He gives to you. Always keep God Himself as the primary pursuit of your life, and let Him allow the chips of life to fall where they may.
As aptly stated by St. Augustine:
“In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide” (Confessions 4. 10. 15).
What Abraham was learning during those 25+ years of waiting and then through his initial blunder in producing Ishmael, was that there are indeed gifts that come along with being a man called according to God’s purpose. But if those gifts ever become more the focus of one’s heart, rather than the Giver who is behind those gifts, idolatry can take root and create all sorts of problems. It is surely no coincidence that as soon as Ishmael was born there was immediately strife within Abraham’s home between Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16:5-15).
Save yourself the trouble, die to self, surrender, and don’t settle for plan B.
A Prayer of Surrender
I pray that You would rightly order all the loves, affections, and priorities of my heart. I know that Your ways are better than my ways, and Your wisdom is beyond my understanding. I also know You have many good things planned for my life and my future. Help me Heavenly Father to trust in Your perfect timing as You execute Your perfect will for my life. Guard me from the temptation to take matters into my own hands, or to assert my own will against You. Help me to not go astray.
LORD I surrender my will to You, my emotions, my expectations, my schedule, my personality, my hopes, my dreams, and all my rights. May none of these things ever come before You. May there not be any idols lifted up in my heart. May You be my only God, my only Savior, and my only Hope, today, and forever.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.