Occasionally, we get a glimpse of how we're called to believe something that is almost beyond belief. One author put it this way:
I'm not sure exactly what people are referring to when they talk about "the strange beliefs" of alternative cultures, but it's got to be really out there if it's going to out-strange a faith that professes a Savior of the world who was born of a virgin, walked on water, healed people with his spit, died a death that had meaning enough to defeat sin and death in all the universe, rose from the dead, and promised a physical return and a remade heaven and earth. We are the people of peculiar beliefs and practices. (Doug Pagitt, Reimagining Spiritual Formation)
There are periods of our lives - years, even - in which it's easy to believe. There are also periods in which questions come. We don't go looking for the doubts, but they come looking for us. We join a long line of people who have been asked to believe something that seems impossible from our perspective. This is especially true when dealing with matters of life and death. We stand beside the grave of a friend, a husband, a mother, and hear the minister speak about the resurrection and Christ's return. We believe, we want to believe, but there are times that it seems impossible.
How should we respond when God's promises seem impossible?
Today, I'd like to take you back thousands of years to a man who faced the exact same doubts. He lived at a time in which God was only one of many gods that were being worshiped. We're introduced to a man named Abram, who has already made huge sacrifices for his God. By the time this story starts, Abram has already showed extraordinary dedication and obedience to his God. Abram left his family and his homeland, risked his marriage in Egypt, and valiantly fought against a horde of foreign kings to establish his place and reputation. He even gave up his rightfully earned spoils of battle because God instructed him to forgo such a reward. This is a man who has put his life on the line, and who's never so much as questioned God.
The start of this story is a bit mysterious. Genesis 15:1 says, "Afterward..." It sounds like what we're about to read took place immediately after the preceding events, but you could also translate this "sometime later". How much later? Nobody knows. It could have been hours, days, or years. God's first words to Abram in this passage are also cloaked in mystery. God said, "Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great." Why was Abram afraid? We don't know. It could be that he had just conquered the kings and had become a target himself, or that he feared repercussions. It could have been something completely unrelated.
We do know, though, that God had made some promises to Abram which must have seemed impossible. He had promised to make him into a great nation, and to give him the land of the Canaanites. Take a childless senior at least seventy-five years old, who's possibly in danger of being targeted by his enemies, and tell him that he's somehow going to have enough offspring to create a nation that will displace the people who already live in the land. That takes all kinds of faith. Abram faced all kinds of obstacles: his enemies, his lack of children, the delay necessary for that to happen, and the challenge of conquering and displacing the inhabitants of the land. You could forgive Abram for having some doubts.
When I stand at a funeral, I talk about the resurrection day. I mention how God has promised to raise the bodies of those who have died, and that our bodies will be changed from mortal ones to immortal ones. I talk of the hope that we have in God, and about the hope that comes from knowing that Jesus will come back again one day. I'm sure that in a moment of honesty, some of us have heard these promises and looked at all the obstacles, and said to ourselves, "It's really hard to believe." So how should we respond when it seems that God's promises are impossible?
1. We're allowed to question God
Here's what Abram did. He questioned God. You would think that this would be something that God would discourage, but that's not how this story plays out. For the first time, the relationship that had started as a monologue became a dialogue. God told Abram not to be afraid. Abram dared to respond to God and ask him a question:
O Sovereign LORD, what good are all your blessings when I don't even have a son? Since I don't have a son, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no children, so one of my servants will have to be my heir. (Genesis 15:2-3)
"O Sovereign LORD" is a term worth noting. This is the first time anyone addressed God this way in the Bible. It's a term that's used infrequently to refer to God. It's not the usual name (YHWH). It's one that signifies Abram's submission to God, suggesting a master-servant relationship. So Abram addresses God in the most respectful terms.
But there is no mistake: Abram questions God. Abram had great wealth, and God had promised that his offspring would become a great nation. He had concluded, though, that he would die childless, and that one of his servants would become the heir, as was custom at that time. Abram was concerned that his wealth would pass to someone outside his family, and that God's promises would not be kept. His response here is not one of giving God all praise and honor. He questions God. He complains.
You might think that God's next step would be to bellow from heaven, "How dare you question me?" or to take some action to put Abram in his place. Listen instead to what God says:
Then the LORD said to him, "No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own to inherit everything I am giving you." Then the LORD brought Abram outside beneath the night sky and told him, "Look up into the heavens and count the stars if you can. Your descendants will be like that-too many to count!" And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD declared him righteous because of his faith. Then the LORD told him, "I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land." (Genesis 15:4-7)
Good enough? God didn't condemn Abram for questioning him. He reassured him, gave him a visible demonstration of his promise. God put his promise in the form of a binding, unconditional covenant. Verse 7 is in the form of an ancient royal covenant. God didn't condemn Abram. He reaffirmed him.
Abram, though, seems to have become bolder. He came back and questioned God even more: "O Sovereign LORD, how can I be sure that you will give it to me?" (Genesis 15:8)
If I had witnessed this exchange, I'm pretty sure I would be hiding for cover at this point. I'd be pretty sure that God would not tolerate this type of questioning. We're going to look at God's response in just a minute, but I'll tell you something: God didn't condemn Abram for his questions. He didn't tell Abram never to question him again. God responded to Abram's questions.
All through the Bible, God allowed his people to come to him with their questions and their doubts. If you read through the psalms, Israel's book of worship, you find that the psalm writers questioned God about many things. All through Scripture, God's servants have come to him with their questions when God's promises seemed impossible. God doesn't discourage this. He allows us to come to him when we can barely bring ourselves to believe.
I love being part of a church that says , "Doubters welcome here." I love being part of a church that believes it is possible to pray to God at the very moment we have doubts about God's promises. I'd love to cultivate the type of faith that dares to complain to God. Hear that? A faith that dares to complain to God.
As I studied this passage, I came across this quote: "Complaint and faith are not antithetical; complaint is based on taking God seriously." I've always thought that doubt is a failure to take faith seriously enough. I've been wrong. Doubt is the courage to take God so seriously that we dare to bring our questions to him, that we dare to tell him when his promises look impossible.
What do we do when God's promises look impossible? We're allowed to bring our questions to God.
2. We're called to respond in faith despite our doubts
We already read Abram's response to God after his first question. Verse 6 says, "And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD declared him righteous because of his faith." It takes tremendous faith to bring our doubts to God, and to still respond in faith to him. This statement becomes a pivotal one in Scripture. God declared Abram righteous because he trusted God despite his doubts. Nehemiah 9:8 says to God of Abram, "You found his heart faithful to you." Romans 4:18 says, "Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations." Abram took his faith seriously enough to question God, but he responded in faith despite his doubts.
What does it mean when it says, "Abram believed God"? It doesn't mean that Abram had answers for all his questions, or that he had everything figured out. He probably couldn't have passed a theological exam at any of our seminaries. Most of us know here know much more about God than Abram would have. Abram's belief wasn't based on how much he knew about God, or on a comprehensive belief system. It was more relational. Abram's belief was in God's character. Abram regarded God as reliable and competent. He took God at his word. Although he had no children and no hope of having any children, he believed that God would make his descendents as numerous as the stars.
Belief is about taking God at his word.
I promised to tell you how God responded to Abram's second question. God asked Abram to collect a number of animals - a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. To us, this seems like a bizarre ritual. It's not unlike today if I asked you to bring some pizza, chips, and a shirt with a Maple Leaf to watch TV on a winter Saturday night. You'd figure out that I wanted to watch a Leafs game. Likewise, Abram knows by the animals he is told to collect that a covenant ceremony is about to take place. In verses 10-11, he prepares the carcasses of the animals - cutting them in two and "laying each half over against each other"-without God having to give any additional directions.
What's happening here? God is making a covenant with Abram. He, the principle party, passes between the two pieces of the carcasses. God made an unconditional covenant with Abram, spelling out the details of the land that he would grant him. God is putting Abram's concerns to rest, as well as the concerns of all future generations of Abram's descendents. God tied himself to Abram and his people, and their land, for all time.
The meaning of this ceremony is what really got me. By passing through the carcasses, God was saying, "May what happened to these animals happen to me too if I fail to keep my promise." God was invoking a curse on himself if he failed to keep his covenant. He humbled himself by obligating himself to his people.
How seriously does God take his covenant with us today? He's humbled himself, and obligated himself to us all over again. The greatest act of humility was sending his Son to this world. Jesus humbled himself, took upon himself the form of a servant, and was obedient to the point of death. He's given us an unconditional covenant, has promised to fulfill all that he's promised.
How should we respond? The same way that Abram did: by considering that God is trustworthy; by taking God at his Word.
Hundreds of years ago, a monk named Brother Lawrence said, "When we are in doubt, God will never fail to give light when we have no other plan than to please him and to act in love for him."
Got doubts? You're in good company. Some of God's greatest servants have had doubts. Dare to bring your doubts to God. Dare to take him at his word, and to believe him despite your doubts. "When we are in doubt, God will never fail to give light when we have no other plan than to please him and to act in love for him."
We're sometimes afraid to confess our doubts and complaints to God. Don't be afraid. Now is your chance to get honest with God. Complaint is based on taking God seriously. [Give time for silent prayer]
Abram trusted God. He believed that God is trustworthy, that he could take God at his word. God declared him righteous because of his faith.
The Apostle Paul later wrote, "The words 'it was credited to him' were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Romans 4:23-24). We can respond in faith just as Abram did, believing in him who raised Jesus from the dead.
Father, you are trustworthy. We believe despite our doubts. We have no other plan than to please you, to act in love for you, to obey you. May we respond in faith and trust despite our doubts, as Abram did, to the glory of your name. Amen.