Grieve

If you are looking for a good biblical role model for a happy, loving marriage, I would not suggest turning to the story of Abraham and Sarah.  As they struggled through the sorrows of a childless marriage, Abraham nagged Sarah about it until she agreed to let him try to get a baby with her servant.  Twice she ended up in the harem of foreign kings when Abraham feared admitting that she was his wife.  Twice her shame and bitterness over Abraham’s liaison with Hagar drove her beyond the breaking point so that she chased Hagar away.  After she finally bore a child in her old age, she watched in horror as Abraham took her beloved son away with the intention of sacrificing him.  Sarah did not enjoy a perennially happy and supportive marriage.

Nevertheless, in this world, love is not the alignment of two ideal persons.  Love happens between two very imperfect individuals.  The truth is that despite his many failures in their marriage, Abraham and Sarah had traveled through life together as partners for well over 50 years.  Abraham loved Sarah, and when she died, it broke his heart.    

Genesis 23:2 puts it succinctly and bluntly, “Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” 

This is the first time that Scripture gives us a close-up look at the pain of grief.  It is also the first time Scripture gives us the picture of a grown man crying.  These two matters meet in Abraham: Grief and tears.  Abraham’s heart breaks, and it trickles out through his eyes. 

Psalm 139 tells us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Tears are a part of the way we are formed, so, according to God, our tears are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  They play an important role in the health of our body and soul. 

Bill Donahue comments, “What is more elemental to the human soul than the shedding of tears?  It separates us from all other living things.  Animals don’t sob uncontrollably at the loss of a fellow member of the species or mourn their dead for days.  To weep is to express the soul of humanity.  It’s how we communicate love and grieve loss.  We weep at the sight of a vacant seat at the table.  We mourn the cool, unrumpled side of the bed once occupied by one who gave us unbridled warmth and love.  Every song, every smell, every piece of clothing, every familiar pathway reminds us of the loss, reminds us of the tender hand we once grasped or the lips we once tasted.  Lovers, family, friends—to love them is more than we can bear.  Tears flow freely at the mention of a name or a glance at a photograph.” (In the Company of Jesus, p. 165) 

Abraham’s tears are a model to all of us.  In the face of grief, it is right for us to cry. 

Apparently, tears are but a portion of what grief involves.  Layman’s Bible Commentary points out, “Abraham mourns and weeps, indicating that, in addition to crying, he goes through the traditional mourning customs of his day: tearing clothes, cutting his beard, spreading dust on his head, and fasting.  This is all done in the presence of the dead body.”    

It is not healthy when we try to contain a broken heart merely within the confines of one’s ribcage.  It is most healing to our body and soul if the tearing of our heart breaks froth in overt ways: the tearing of one’s clothes, the cutting of one’s beard, the spreading of dust on one’s head.  When your heart breaks, find a way to let the breaking come out.  We grieve best when we find a way to let our grief be released physically.

There is one other piece to Abraham’s grief: The rest of Genesis 23 describes the negotiations Abraham goes through to purchase a burial plot—at an exorbitant rate—for Sarah.  For over 50 years, Abraham and Sarah had wandered through that land as aliens, never feeling the need to purchase any acreage in the land God had promised to give to them—until now, with the compulsion to buy a burial plot!  For Abraham, the purchase of this land is of great importance, for it enables him to honor and memorialize the woman he loved. 

We grieve best when we find fitting ways to honor and memorialize our loved one. 

Can you discern the character of God?

Let’s face it: the death of a beloved child is always a grievous and horrible tragedy.  To think that God would call a person to kill their beloved child intentionally is completely horrible and ugly.

The ancient Moabites and Ammonites worshiped a god, Chemosh, who demanded such a despicable thing from his followers.  The very name, Chemosh, meant “Destroyer” or “Subduer.”  The Moabites built great statues of Chemosh with an oven in his belly.  The doors to his belly would be opened, and parents were required to throw their baby into his burning belly. 

Sadly, we might expect the followers of a god named “Destroyer” or “Subduer” to demand such a heartless act from his subjects.  But the God we meet through Abraham has been given the names El Roi (the God who sees me) and El Shaddai (the God who nourishes).  Moreover, the child born to Abraham and Hagar was given the name Ishmael, meaning “God hears.”  The God of Abraham is not a heartless god but a God who sees and who hears and who nourishes because he cares for us.  Could the God of Abraham ever demand the death of a beloved child?

Yet Genesis 22 begins with the words, “After these things God tested Abraham.”  Then God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 

How are we to make sense of this?  Is God really going to demand that Abraham kill his own beloved son?  What is God testing in Abraham?  Is God finding out whether Abraham will blindly obey a horribly ungodly demand?  Or is God testing whether Abraham will rightly discern the character of God and the ways of God? 

Abraham had previously faced and passed a similar test.  When God revealed to Abraham (in Genesis 18) his plan to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for their evils, Abraham carried on a lengthy argument with God on behalf of the potential innocent citizens there, saying to God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from you!  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”  Abraham discerned correctly that God is righteous and would judge in keeping with his righteousness.  Where is Abraham’s argument with God in Genesis 22 when it comes to the potential murder of his own innocent son?

To blindly obey an ungodly demand that is contradictory to the character of God and the ways of God is not the way to pass a test of faith.  As the chapter progresses, Abraham is in grave danger of flunking this test (and I hate to consider the trauma this caused Isaac).  But we find indications in this chapter that Abraham rightly discerned the true character of God.  In verse 5, Abraham promised the servants that he and Isaac would worship then the two of them would return.  He didn’t believe their trip up the mountain would end with the death of Isaac.  In verse 8, Abraham declares, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.”  He recognized that the character of God is to provide what is good for his people rather than to demand what is evil from them. 

Indeed, verse 14 looks ahead to the greatest provision God would make for his beloved children: “So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide;’ as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’”  The true gift from God that would save Isaac’s life and our lives for eternity had not yet been provided, but on that mountain, many years later, it would be provided.

The ram in the thicket rescued Isaac that day, yet some decades later, Isaac still died.  But God had a plan to provide a permanent solution to the tragedy of death, and God ordained that it would take place on that particular mountain.  Many years after Isaac carried the wood for the offering up that mountain, Jesus took the wood for the sacrifice upon his own shoulders and walked up the very same hill—the mountain about which it had been repeated for so long, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”  Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the wood, then the cross was lifted into place.  Three hours later, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished!”  Then he breathed his last, and he died to overcome death for all who trust in him.  

God does not want us to blindly obey demands that are contradictory to his character.  What God wants is for us to know God’s true character and to act in accordance with his true character—and the key characteristic of God is that he loves us so much that he laid down his life for us on the very mountain where it was said, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Dare to plant a tamarisk tree

Life is fleeting.  James 4:14 tells us, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  Psalm 102:11 laments, “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.”  2 Samuel 14:14 puts it this way, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up.”

Genesis 21 offers a picture of the fleeing and precarious nature of our lives.  The chapter begins with the birth of Isaac.  By verse 8, Isaac is weaned.  Many of us can testify as to how quickly our babies grow.  As the song says, “Turn around and you’re tiny; turn around and you’re grown; turn around and you’re a young wife with babes of your own.”

In verse 10, Abraham’s son Ishmael is kicked out of the home.  Family conflict forces estrangement.  The next time we hear about Ishmael in Genesis is after Abraham dies and Ishmael helps Isaac bury their father.  Estrangement cut their relationship short and revealed another way in which life and relationships are precarious.

In verse 25, Abraham complains to Abimelech that some of Abimelech’s servants have seized a well that Abraham dug and depended on.  The injustice of stealing Abraham’s well threatens Abraham’s ability to care for his herds and flocks, and endangers his very livelihood.  With no source of water, life is extremely precarious.  Injustices exacerbate the perilous nature of life.

In verses 24 and 27 Abraham makes covenants with Abimelech, but the report of the seized well by some of Abimelech’s servants leaves us wondering how trustworthy Abimelech actually is.  Cutting a covenant with someone whose integrity is suspect leaves us again in the precariousness of life. 

How are we to handle life when we face the fact that we are but a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”?

Genesis 21 points us to two vital truths—two grounds for hope in the midst of our fleeting lives:

1: Abraham “called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.”  To call on the name of the Lord is to call out for (to ask for) something that God has, that we do not have, and that we want to receive from God.  What does God have which we want?  What Abraham stresses here is that God is El Olam, the “eternal God.”  God has stability beyond the confines of time.  God has staying power, and Abraham wants to anchor himself in that stability.

Abraham is over one hundred years of age.  It is obvious that he is on the downward slope of life.  He has just watched one son weaned and his other son driven away.  He has watched the water supply that is vital to his family’s survival stolen then restored.  He is face-to-face with the fleeting nature of life.  He seeks to connect himself to Someone who is longer-lasting than the span of one life.  He longs to belong to the One who is everlasting.

In the book Chasing Fireflies, Charles Martin tells of a young boy who is found near the railroad tracks where the woman who had kidnapped him years before threw him out of her car before driving into the path of an oncoming train.  The boy is taken to a foster home while a search if made for his real parents.  After a woman looks him over for a mark that would have identified him as her son, the boy, who does not speak, writes out his question: “Who was that lady today?”

“‘She’s a momma…looking for her son.’

“‘Did she think I was him?’

“‘Yes.’

“He wrote without looking at the page.  ‘Am I?’

“His question pressed me against the railing.  Men [and women] spend their lives asking Who am I when the real question is Whose am I?  I don’t think you can answer the first until you’ve settled the second.  First horse, then cart.  Identity does not grow out of action until it has taken root in belonging.” (p. 233)

 Abraham knew that he belonged to El Olam, the Eternal God.  Knowing that gave his life stability and hope even amidst the fleeting nature of life. 

2: Abraham “planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba.”  Tamarisk trees are common in the Negev today.  They were planted in the desert by the Bedouin for their shade and for the soft branches which the herds eat.  These long-living trees can reach 30 feet in height and can produce as many as 500,000 seeds.  In planting a tamarisk tree, Abraham wasn’t looking at the moment; he was looking ahead.  He was investing in the future.  He was investing in that which is long-lasting.   

When Anne Frank hid for two years in some concealed rooms behind a bookcase in the building where her father worked, she kept a diary.  In that diary she looked ahead to the future.  She wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world…. Where there’s hope, there’s life.  It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again…. Those who have courage and faith shall never perish in misery.”  Though she had no idea at the time the impact her diary would make upon the world, Anne Frank was investing in the future.  Her diary was a “tamarisk tree” that has given encouragement and strength to thousands upon thousands of people for over 70 years so far. 

Though our lives may be fleeting, we can keep investing in the future.  As Anne Frank pointed out, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Ask God to help you to know what “tamarisk tree” you might plant. 

God cares about the ugly stories

I confess to you that if God had chosen me to write the Bible, I would have written it quite differently.

I tend to think that to inspire people in their faith, the Bible should have portrayed the key figures as purely noble models of faithfulness—not as flawed individuals like Peter denying that he knew Jesus, or David having an affair with the wife of one of his generals, or Abraham abandoning to the desert his wife’s servant and the child they had together.  I would have filled the pages of Scripture with victorious stories of the Red Sea parting, and manna coming down from heaven, and the walls of Jericho falling.  I would have left out depressing passages like Hagar and her son being chased away from their home. 

But God insists on stories like this being included in Scripture because God seems to have a special place in his heart for those who have been shunned, disenfranchised, exploited, mistreated, and abandoned.  In the pages of the Bible, God keeps telling their names and their stories.

Although I would have omitted from Scripture the story of Hagar’s and Ismael’s abandonment in the desert, God includes it.  And though I would still rather ignore it, God would have us listen to Hagar’s story, because the stories of those who are disenfranchised matter immensely to God.

Indeed, Hagar’s story is included in Scripture because so many disenfranchised people find themselves in her story.  Phyllis Tribble writes about Hagar’s travails in Genesis 16 & 21, “All sorts of rejected women find their stories in [Hagar].  She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.” 

 Genesis 21 begins nicely enough, with a party thrown to celebrate the weaning of Isaac, the miracle baby born to Abraham and Sarah in their great old age.  But the story quickly turns ugly.  Sarah sees Ishmael (the 16 or 17-year-old son Abraham had with Hagar) “playing with her son Isaac.”  (Some scholars suggest that this could mean that Ishmael was playing as if he was Isaac, as if he was the child who was the heir.  Other scholars speculate that this could mean that Ishmael was molesting Isaac.)  Sarah demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ismael.  Abraham gathers some bread and a skin of water and sends them off.  When the water runs out, Hagar leaves her son under the shade of a bush while she walks “a bowshot” away so that she would not watch her son die of thirst.  But God heard the boy crying and sent an angel to minister to Hagar and to rescue them. 

Abraham and Sarah may have closed their hearts to Hagar and Ishmael, but God had not.  Abraham and Sarah may have cast Hagar and her son aside, but God was still listening to their cry.  Abraham and Sarah may have abandoned Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, but God went to the desert to find them.

God has a special place in his heart for those who are abandoned.  Since they matter to God, those who are cast aside should have a special place in our hearts as well.  I have read that some churches in China welcome new members by saying, “Jesus now has a new pair of eyes to see with, new ears to listen with, new hands to help with, and a new heart to love others with.”  As God’s people in this world, it is our job to look at others with God’s eyes, to listen to others with God’s ears, and to care for others with God’s heart. 

Some years ago a prisoner shared, “My next-door cellmate is black, 24 and illiterate.  I do all his reading and writing.  The guy received a letter from a concerned citizen.  The writer called him a human being.  The guy made me read that particular sentence over and over and over.  The thought of someone calling him a human being made all the difference.”  When we look upon others with the eyes of Jesus, and listen to others with the ears of Jesus, and care for others with the heart of Jesus, we can make “all the difference.” 

God listens to the cry of the disenfranchised, and he shares the stories of those who have been abandoned.  May we do so as well. 

Arguing with God

Do you ever argue with God?  Have you ever considered who actually provoked the argument?

Genesis 18:23-33 records an argument between Abraham and God, in which Abraham questions the goodness of God.  But verses 17-21 suggest that it is God who stirs up the argument, for God asks himself (in verse 17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” 

To set the context: In verse 18, God speaks of his desire for Abraham to be a blessing to the nations of the earth.  In verse 19, God expresses his desire for Abraham to guide successive generations in the ways of righteousness and justice.  Then God confides in Abraham, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin.”  From there, Abraham and God argue over God’s impending judgment against Sodom.

I believe that God stirs up this argument with Abraham in order to teach Abraham three important lessons pertaining to righteousness, justice, judgment, and in what is involved in being a blessing to others:

Lesson #1: Righteousness begins with hearing the outcry of those who are hurting from injustice. 

The Hebrew word translated as “outcry” in verse 20 (ze’akah) appears throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to describe the agonized cries of the oppressed and brutalized.  It is used to describe the cries of Israelite slaves in Egypt in Exodus 2:23, and the cry of the oppressed widow and orphan in Exodus 22:22-23, and the cry of the cheated laborer in Deuteronomy 24:15, and at various places in the book of Jeremiah to describe the screams of terror of an individual or a city when under attack. 

Ray Vander Laan comments, “Ze’akah, one of the most impassioned, power-filled words in Hebrew communicates intense emotion…. Such an outcry rises out of great pain, suffering, and despair caused not simply by impersonal suffering but by the brutality and cruelty of other people.  Scripture reveals that God never fails to hear ze’akah, and his response against those who cause it is frightening.”

People from all around were being abused, oppressed, cheated and mistreated by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Ezekiel 16:49 states, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  The outcry of “the poor and needy” had come to God, and he was determined to do something about it.

Lesson #2: God’s care includes judgment; God’s response to the outcry of the suffering includes decisive action to address injustice. 

David Seamands remarks, “‘But,’ someone continues to protest, ‘I don’t understand this anger of God business—it scares me.’  Maybe it will help if we ask, What is the alternative to the anger of God?  The alternative is not a God of love, because…love and anger are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other.  The alternative to anger is apathy, which would mean an apathetic God who is morally neutral and indifferent to the outcome of the battle between good and evil.  That would make him a God who sits on the moral fence of the world and says, ‘I don’t care what happens to them.  Let them sin if they want to, that’s their business.  I’m not going to interfere in their lives.’  So whenever the biblical picture of a holy God who gets angry about sin seems old-fashioned and frightening, try to imagine something a whole lot scarier—an apathetic God who doesn’t care.  Imagine what it would be like to live in a world like ours if God were personally indifferent and morally neutral.  That would be a terrifying nightmare.”

“It is the reality of a holy God who is irreconcilably opposed to all sin that makes life tolerable in a world like ours…. It means, too, that we know which side God is on—he has declared himself on the side of right and righteousness.  That’s comforting—not scary!” (Freedom from the Performance Trap, p. 76-77)

The judgment that will come against Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 comes as God’s response to the outcry of those who have suffered.  Judgment against injustice flows out of God’s care for those who cry out to him.

Lesson #3: Righteousness involves interceding on behalf of others.

When God’s compassion for others begins to makes its home in Abraham’s heart, he begins to plead with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  When God begins to grow within us a genuine concern over the outcry of those who are suffering, we will cry out to God for their sake. 

Proverbs 21:13 stresses, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.”  Abraham’s ears were not closed to the cry of the needy, neither was his heart.  May we open our ears and our hearts to the cry of those who are hurting so that we join our prayers with theirs.

God Embraces the Joke

I discover in Genesis 18:1-15 two characteristics of God that I tend to overlook but which I want to pay better attention to for the refreshment of my soul: God is not in a hurry, and God gets the joke.

The passage begins with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent “in the heat of the day.”  This is the time for rest.  It is the time for taking it easy—especially when one is 99 years of age.  But as the passage unfolds, Abraham does very little resting.  The text reads, in part, “When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them…. And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it and make cakes.’  Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.”

Abraham is 99 years old, but he is consumed with rushing and hurrying.  This report of Abraham’s hurriedness is presented in contrast to the unhurried nature of God.  While the text describes Abraham as running and hurrying and getting others to hurry along, we find the Lord standing with Abraham in verse 1, given the opportunity to rest under the tree in verse 4, being refreshed by some bread in verse 5, and eating in verse 8.  Moreover, God is content to wait until Abraham is 99 and Sarah is 90 before giving to the two of them the child they have longed for.

What we find in this passage is a 99-year-old man who is driven by anxious hurry, and a God who is not. 

I am like Abraham.  I rush.  I hurry.  I get impatient.  I want to be more like God who is willing to stand, to rest, to eat leisurely, to be refreshed, and to work things out in God’s good timing. 

Many years ago, Ruth Graham wrote, “He was not quite tall enough to see over the dashboard of the car I was driving.  ‘Hurry up, Mom!’ he urged.  But he was too young to read the road signs that said 45 miles per hour.

“As I began to apply the brakes, he demanded, ‘Why are you stopping?’

“‘There is a school bus that has just stopped,’ I explained.

“As soon as we started again, he urged, ‘Pass him, Mom.’  He was too small to see the double yellow line.

“I thought to myself, ‘How like me when I pray!’  Spiritually I am too young to read the road signs, too small to see what lies ahead.  Yet how often I am guilty of telling God how to run things.”

In verse 10, the Lord announces that Sarah will have a baby within the year.  Verse 12 reports that “Sarah laughed to herself.”  (In the preceding chapter—in Genesis 17:17—we are told, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?  Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”) 

Gordon Wenham suggests, “She laughed not out of cocky arrogance but because a life of long disappointment had taught her not to clutch at straws.”  Sarah laughed because it was the only safe response.  If she didn’t laugh, her heart would break.

I would be inclined to think that such a response would result in a rebuke or punishment from God.  I tend to fear that God is perennially bothered by my doubts and by my miniscule faith.  But that is not what we find here.  God gets the joke!  Rather than rebuking them for laughing at God’s promise, God embraces the joke.  God tells Abraham to name the son Isaac, which means, “He Laughs” (Genesis 17:19).

Perhaps one of the best kept secrets about the character of God is God’s ability to embrace and enjoy the humor of life.  G.K. Chesterton says about Jesus, “His pathos was natural, almost casual.  The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud, proud of concealing their tears.  He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city.  Yet He concealed something. 

“Solemn Supermen and Imperial Diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger.  He never restrained His anger.  He flung furniture down from the steps of the Temple and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell.  Yet He restrained something….

“I say it with reverence—there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness.  There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray.  There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation.  There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth, and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth [His merriment].” 

I want to grow in the likeness of the God we meet in Genesis 18:1-15.  I want to become less hurried and more willing to embrace merriment with God. 

The Surprising Sign

When God said to Abraham (in Genesis 17:10), “Every male among you shall be circumcised,” I assume that there was something in that aged man that wanted to scream out, “God, you can’t be serious about this!  You are not really going to have me cut off the foreskin of my penis as a sign by which people will know that I belong to You, are You?”  The covenant of circumcision makes me think that God has a sick sense of humor, or God is weird, or there is something here that I need to look at more closely.

Genesis 17:11 refer to circumcision as “a sign of the covenant.”  A “sign” is a marker that points people to something or that spells out the significance of something.  What does circumcision point to?  What meaning does it communicate?

Circumcision points our attention to two dynamics of our relationship with God: intimacy and cost.

Intimacy: In his book The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan points out, “To be circumcised is to be wounded in a place of intimacy and vulnerability.  It is to permit, even invite an act of violence—a sharp knife, a painful cut, a bloody removal—in that part of a man he otherwise most guards and hides.  It is also the part he most intimately joins with a woman.  Circumcision is being scarred in a place of deep identity, where a man understands himself to be a man.  It is being wounded at the only source where a man can create life.  Many parts of a man’s anatomy are useful: with his mind he imagines, with his hands he devises, with his feet he deploys.  A man can create many things, but only in this one place can he create life.  It is here the knife is applied.  The scar, the wound, sets this man apart: it says that here, even here, especially here, he is a marked man.  He is one who belongs to God.” (P. 96)

In the website “The Thirsty Theologian,” David Kjos adds, “I believe circumcision demonstrates the depth of intimacy God wants to have with his people. He wants such an intimate connection with us that he put the physical mark of his covenant with us in the most intimate possible place. Furthermore, the removal of the foreskin represents the uncovering of our most hidden parts. Think about it: even when a man is entirely naked, his most private part is still covered by his foreskin. Only under the most intimate of circumstances is he entirely exposed, and then only to the one with whom the intimacy is shared. God wants that degree of intimacy with us.”

The reality of our faith is that God invites us into a deep, vulnerable, and intimate relationship with Him.  Circumcision points our attention to this fact.

Cost: In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines a “Christian” as “One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor; one who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.”  Bierce captures the popular thinking: The Christian faith is to be embraced whenever it makes us happy but placed on a shelf whenever it becomes uncomfortable to us. 

But Mark Labberton remarks, “Seeking a call that evades suffering is a decision neither to follow Jesus nor to live in the real world.  How can we read the Gospels and hear Jesus say, ‘Take up [your] cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24), and believe that isn’t for us?  Suffering is not the goal of following Jesus.  It will, however, be a consequence, because it’s a call to love the real and suffering world.  The ‘cross’ we take up isn’t an accident of circumstances but a willful choice to imitate the love of Jesus, who took up his cross out of love and calls us to do likewise.” (Called, p. 126)

Circumcision points us to the fact that faith is not always comfortable to us.  Circumcision points us to the fact that faith is costly at its core.

Interestingly, circumcision was a sign that was not easily seen or noticed by others.  Though James Michener includes a moving scene in his book The Source about a handsome ancient Jewish lad who fell in love with Greek culture and endured the pain of a reversed circumcision to fit in with the Greek athletes.  When the athletes paraded through the city naked, the boy’s rabbi father saw that his son had cast aside the mark of the covenant, and it broke the father’s heart. 

The apostle Paul tells us that since the time of Jesus, we are given a different mark to identify us as God’s people.  In Ephesians 1:13b-14, Paul writes, “Having believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory.” 

Though the Spirit of God is invisible, the Spirit’s presence in our lives is meant to be seen.  In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus states, “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  And in John 13:35 Jesus stresses, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

The mark we have received is the Holy Spirit, and this mark is to be seen not through a change to our physical appearance but through a change in our heart.  This mark is to be seen and recognized through our love for others.      

The God who cannot walk away from an empty heart

Some passages in the Bible are downright ugly, for the simple reason that the Bible honestly reports the ugly consequences of human sin.  Genesis 16 is one of those ugly passages—full of emotional abuse, sexual manipulation, physical abuse, and a prophetic warning of perennial ethnic strife.

God had promised to give Abram descendants, but Abram is old, and no children have arrived, so Abram complains to God (Genesis 15:2-3).  God renews his promise to Abram, but still no children arrive.  Abram’s impatience grows.  Apparently, Abram complains to Sarai at least as much as he complains to God about it, and apparently he says to her the same thing he said to God, “You have given me no offspring!”  Apparently, Abram nagged Sarai with reminders of the Babylonian law of the day, the Code of Hammurabi, which stipulated that an infertile wife should provide her husband with a surrogate child-bearer.  Eventually Sarai gives in and says to Abram, “Go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her,” but it seems that she continues to resent the pressure Abram had put on her, for when the slave-girl becomes pregnant, Sarai says to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you!…. May the Lord judge between you and me!”

As far as the society of that day was concerned, Hagar was a person of virtually no value.  She is used as a vessel through which Abram and Sarai can have their child.  Through this arrangement Hagar does not replace Sarai as Abram’s wife; she doesn’t even become a second wife to Abram; she is simply a surrogate mother.  According to the law of that day, Hagar does not even have claim to her own child.  The law considered her baby the child of Abram and Sarai. 

A young woman, whose blog site is titled “The Journal of My Insignificant Life,” writes, “If I don’t need love, why am I crying?  If I don’t need love, why am I suffering?  When I’m alone, I feel like dying.  My soul is ripping, so heart-breaking.  ‘Cause I dream of love, though I tried to hate it.  Yes, I dream of love, and I know I’ll never find it.”

Those could have been Hagar’s words.  By law, she is merely a surrogate child-bearer, but she longs for more.  Society allows her to be used and abused, but she longs to be loved. 

So she runs away.  By the time we meet up with her by a spring in the wilderness (in Genesis 16:7), she is alone, impoverished, pregnant and miserable.  As Ann Spangler points out in her devotional on Hagar, “There is almost no worse nightmare for a woman.”

But, in the midst of this ugly chapter, God shows up.  Larry Crabb explains why: “It isn’t only nature that abhors a vacuum.  God does too.  But the vacuum he abhors is spiritual.  He can see a dry riverbed and not fill it.  But he cannot see an empty heart and walk away.  His love won’t let him.” (The PAPA Prayer, p. 145)

The angel of God finds the runaway slave-girl and, with a play on words, asks her, “Hagar (which means “Flight”), from where are you fleeing?  And to where are you flying?”  As the conversation continues, the angel tells her to name her child Ishmael, explaining, “For the Lord has given heed to your affliction.  Ishmael means, “God hears.”  That child’s name would be a constant reminder to Hagar, and to everyone else, that God heard the groaning of Hagar’s heart, and that God cared for her.  Hagar then gave to God the name El Roi, which means “God sees me.”  It is actually the same word we find at the beginning of Psalm 23.  There it is translated as “The Lord is my Shepherd,” but it is literally, “God is the One who watches over me.”  And the well there becomes known as Beer-lahai-roi, which means, “The well of the Living One who sees me.” 

In the midst of this ugly chapter, Hagar met the God who heard her angst and who saw her sorrow. 

Jerry Sittser lost his wife, his mother, and his daughter when a drunk driver hit the family van he was driving.  He writes about the grief and pain he endured in his book A Grace Disguised.  He also describes how God found him even in his pain: “To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely.  In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true selves.  We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.” (p. 90)

Even in the midst of the greatest ugliness of life, there is a God who “cannot see an empty heart and walk away,” who hears our groans, and who takes notice of us in our sorrow.      

Give up trying for a flawless faith

Bible Truth & Prophecy | Thought for January 12th. “COUNTED … TO ...

I struggle with perfectionism.  I buy into the lie that my worth is dependent on how good (flawless) I can appear to be.      

David Benner nails me in his book The Gift of Being Yourself: “The roots of our pretend self lie in our childhood discovery that we can secure love by presenting ourselves in the most flattering light.  A little girl hides her hatred of her brother because she knows that she should love him.  This lack of integrity is then reinforced by her parents, who commend her loving behavior.  A young boy denies his resentment after he fails to get something he desires.  In so doing, he takes a step toward a loss of awareness of what he is really feeling.  In short, we learn to fake it, appearing as we think important others want us to be and ignoring the evidence to the contrary” (p. 61-62).

So I am caught by surprise when Genesis 15:6 says about Abram, “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

What is so righteous about what Abram?  That he “believed the Lord”?  How flawless was his belief?  Just before this (in Genesis 15:2-3), Abram was expressing his doubts to God and complaining because God had not brought him any children.  Just after this (in Genesis 15:8), Abram is expressing his doubts again, wondering how he can believe that God will give him the promised land.

Apparently, righteousness is not determined by flawless believing or by pretending that one’s faith is stronger than it is.  Apparently, in God’s assessment, righteousness has more to do with integrity of relationship with God.  Apparently, righteousness is more about right relationship than about flawless faith.  Apparently, righteousness has more to do with God’s grace than our ‘perfect’ behavior.

The rest of Genesis 15 makes this particularly clear.  God told Abram to bring a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon, and Abram cut the heifer, goat and ram in two and set the halves across a rut from each other. 

This may seem bizarre to us, but it made sense to Abram.  To seal—or to “cut”—a covenant between two parties in that culture, animals were “cut” in two.  The halves were then set on opposite sides of a depression, with the blood of the severed animals draining into the space between them.  The two parties making the covenant would remove their sandals and walk through the pool of blood between the severed creatures.  In doing so, each person would be making a statement: This covenant is now sealed with blood.  May it be done to me, as it has been done to these creatures, if I should ever break the covenant we have established between us.  Or may it be done to you, as it has been done to these animals, if you should ever break the covenant we have established between us.

Abram understood the cutting of a covenant.  What he didn’t understand was how an individual was to cut a covenant with the invisible, transcendent God.  He understood that he, Abram, was capable of taking off his sandals and walking through that pool so that the blood stained his feet as a visible sign of the covenant God was cutting with him, but how could God do it?  It made sense to him that he—a mortal—should pledge his life to the Almighty God, but how and why would God Almighty pledge his life to Abram?    

It seemed to Abram that he would be the one who could and who should walk through the blood and pledge his life, but the One giving direction had not yet told him to do so.  Thus, Abram waited…and chased away vulture…and waited.  

Then Abram saw the most amazing sight.  He saw God, like “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” pass between the severed animals!  As it turned out, it wasn’t Abram who swore upon himself the punishment of a broken covenant.  It was God!  It wasn’t Abram who promised to pay with his life if anything went awry.  It was God!  It wasn’t Abram who ended up with blood on him.  It was God!

What Abram saw that night was fulfilled in Jesus, for it was in Jesus that God took upon Himself the punishment for our sin (for us breaking the covenant between God and people).      

Abram’s righteousness, as it turns out, was not contingent on Abram’s flawless faith or perfect behavior, but was covered by God’s grace.  And our righteousness, as it turns out, is not contingent on our flawless faith or our efforts at perfect behavior, but is covered by God’s grace.

I pray for God to help me to give up my efforts to appear flawless, and I pray for God to help me to live more deeply in His grace. 

Prosperity’s Test

Life presents us with many tests—many opportunities to determine what is in us, and many opportunities for us to sink to the lowest or to rise to the highest.    

Life presented Abram with many tests.  When he faced the test of scarcity, with a severe famine in the land, his trust in God floundered, and he fled to Egypt.  When he faced the test of fear, his integrity floundered, and he passed his wife off as his sister.  In Genesis 13 and 14, Abram faces tests of prosperity (abundance).  Genesis 13:2 tells us that when Abram came back to Canaan from Egypt, he “was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.”  Verses 5-6 add, “Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together.”  How will Abram handle himself in this test?

A student once sent a letter to Jay Kesler.  In the letter he asked, “I have been told that money is the root of all evil…. Is it all right for Christians to have money?  What attitude should a Christian have toward wealth?”

Kesler answered, “First of all, it’s the love of money, not money itself, that is a root of all kinds of evil.  People sometimes toss around a little slogan: Love people; use things.  Unfortunately, we often turn that around: we use people and love things.  The Bible suggests a word that has helped me: ‘stewardship.’  Nothing we have—time, money, talents, resources—belongs exclusively to us.  The resources belong to God and are merely loaned to us.  We are stewards, managers.  The Bible does not make an issue of how much money we have so much as our use of it and our attitude toward it.

“God allows some people to acquire a large amount of money.  They are responsible to use it wisely according to Christian values.  Others have less.  But certainly by global standards, most Americans are wealthy.  Sin comes when one is selfish or irresponsible in the use of income or accumulated wealth, regardless of degree.  Wealth should be used to help others, particularly those in need….

“It is not hard to see, then, where both communism and capitalism conflict with Christianity.  Communism assumes that wealth itself is bad.  And capitalism allows wealth to be used selfishly.  Christianity, on the other hand, calls for a compassionate use of what we have.  But when 10 percent of the world’s population uses 90 percent of the world’s resources, something is out of focus.”    

When the love of money consumes us, we close our hearts to others; we set aside compassion and we set aside ethics; we love things and use others; we step on others to get the things we want.

We see a bit of this attitude in Lot.  When choosing what land to take, Lot made careful consideration of the economic factors but overlooked the moral and spiritual factors.  Though Abram was his elder and should have had first choice of the land, and though Lot should have at least offered to share the good land with his uncle, Lot “chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan.”  Lot then turned a blind eye on the corruption of Sodom and kept moving closer and closer until he took up residence in the wicked city.    

But Abram did not become consumed by the love of money.  In the midst of conflict with his nephew over desired grazing land, Abram approached Lot with gentleness and consideration.  His priority was peace with his nephew rather than profit.  He was willing to suffer loss for the sake of his relationship with Lot.  When a foreign army attacked Sodom and carried Lot away as a slave, Abram did not gloat self-righteously that Lot got what he deserved, nor did he hide himself away to protect himself and his goods.  He risked his life in battle to rescue Lot.  When the king of the wicked city of Sodom offered to reward Abram, with the possible obligation of being beholding to him, Abram turned it down.  Abram’s integrity mattered more to him than the accumulation of wealth.  Instead, Abram tithed a tenth of everything to Melchizedek, priest of God Most High.

Abram passed this test.  Integrity, faithfulness, and concern for others mattered more to Abram than wealth.