Here’s the warning: even the greatest men of faith can and do make huge mistakes. And if it could happen to Abraham it could happen to anyone.
I love the Bible’s realism. It never attempts to suppress unpleasant stories or gloss over its heroes’ weaknesses and failures. The examples go on and on, from David’s adultery with Bathsheba to Peter’s denial of the Lord. Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, does not emerge with his reputation unspotted.
Abraham’s story opens in Genesis 12 with the call of God to him to leave his own country and go to the land which the Lord would give to him, where he would be blessed greatly in order to bless the whole world even more greatly. So Abraham went. He did what the Lord told him to do. He obeyed the call of God, and traveled hundreds of miles across the Middle Eastern desert to a land he had never seen.
FAMINE IN THE LAND
But things didn’t go so well once Abraham got there. For one thing, he didn’t receive the land that God had promised to him. Abraham didn’t conquer or inherit it. He didn’t become King of Canaan. Abraham ended up living in Canaan as an outsider who never had a settled home or even a house to live in. He was a resident alien with no permanent status. Abraham never became a citizen of the land that was supposed to belong to him. The New Testament says of God that “He did not give [Abraham] any of [the land] as a heritage, not even a foot’s length” (Acts 7:5), and that “[Abraham] stayed . . . in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents” (Hebrew 11:9). In fact, the only bit of Canaanite real estate Abraham would ever own was his family burial plot (Genesis 23:1-16).
As if that rather curious fulfillment of God’s promise to give Abraham the land wasn’t enough, Abraham also didn’t have a son. He went out confidently to Canaan where he remained a stranger. He waited patiently for a son, but there was no sign of a child. It’s hard for us to imagine how disappointed Abraham must have been, how puzzling God’s ways must have seemed to him. Did Abraham begin to question whether he had heard God correctly? Did he doubt what God had promised? Did Abraham suspect that he may have been mistaken, or even worse, deceived in his understanding of what God had said? If he did, it would only have been human of him.
And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any more discouraging for Abraham and Sarah in Canaan, they did. The rains didn’t come; drought parched the fields and shriveled the crops. Famine stalked the land. So Abraham left Canaan to try to find food in Egypt, and there his faith failed him. We read, continuing the story in Genesis chapter 12:
10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”
Have you ever run across this classic definition of a lie? When asked to explain what a lie was to his Sunday school class, a young lad creatively combined two passages of scripture to come up with this: A lie is “an abomination unto the Lord, but a very present help in time of trouble.”
Well, not really. It would be more accurate to say that a lie, at least in Abraham’s case, is a reprehensible failure of faith. Abraham lied about his wife Sarah because he was frightened of Pharaoh’s power and worried about Pharaoh’s lust. The King of Egypt was an absolute ruler who could do anything he pleased. And Sarah was a beautiful and desirable woman. Abraham was terrified that Pharaoh might simply get rid of him in order to take her something dictators have been known to do from time to time. So he made Sarah pretend to be his sister instead of his wife. This was not only an act of cowardice on Abraham’s part; it showed a shameful willingness to sacrifice Sarah’s virtue in order to save his own skin.
What can we say about this sad episode, this stumble in Abraham’s walk of faith? What is there to learn from his example? In the first place, there is a sort of encouragement here. Obviously, it’s not an encouragement to imitate Abraham. I don’t think God wants us to resort to lying whenever we find ourselves in a tight spot. But this honest story of Abraham’s failure is encouraging to me in this sense: I realize that maybe I’m not so different after all. You know, it’s easy to think of the people in the Bible as heroic, larger-than-life figures. That’s especially true if we don’t read the Bible thoroughly or carefully but only know a few of the most famous stories. Abraham leaves his homeland by faith, staking everything on the bare promise of God, and becomes the father of all believers. David faces the giant Goliath armed with only his sling, his courage, and his unshakeable confidence in the God of battles. And he wins a great triumph for himself and his people. Peter, inspired by more than flesh and blood, is the first to proclaim openly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. All heroes of faith seem so far above and beyond me that I wonder whether I’m even in the same spiritual area code.
But then I read further and see Peter denying that he even knows the Lord, and David lusting after another man’s wife and committing a treacherous murder to get her. And then here comes Abraham down into Egypt, frightened and anxious, forgetting all about the promises of God and trying to survive by his own sly deceitfulness. And I realize that we are alike after all. These great believers have many of the same weaknesses and flaws that I do. It seems that we are all stumbling pilgrims, trying to walk by faith toward the Father’s house, but often falling down along the way. So Abraham’s actions in Egypt can serve first of all as an encouragement, a reminder that even the greatest servants of God have feet of clay. Therefore you and I shouldn’t despair when we fail to live up to our faith. It doesn’t mean we’re disqualified from the family of God.
And then, secondly, this story can also serve as a warning to us. The apostle Paul says of a later example of stumbling from the history of Israel that:
These things happened . . . to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us . . . So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.
1 Corinthians 10:11-12
Here’s the warning: even the greatest men of faith can and do make huge mistakes. If it could happen to Abraham it could happen to anyone. And it will happen to you or to me whenever we grow morally careless and spiritually overconfident. So be careful: “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
The point is not to conclude, “Oh well, everybody sins, so it isn’t such a big deal. We’re all just weak.” God forbid that we should take a casual attitude toward moral or spiritual failure or downplay the seriousness of sin in any way! No, the point is that we must always be on guard against temptation. Because we know that we are weak, we learn to mistrust ourselves and exercise great caution. This is what Jesus was talking about when he commanded his disciples to “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.” This is why he taught us to pray each day, “Save us in the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.”
So Abraham’s story is an encouragement. It’s a reminder that we’re all weak. It is a warning that we watch and pray and be on guard against temptation. And finally, his story is instructive. It teaches us a valuable lesson about God’s grace. Here’s what happened in Egypt:
14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves, and camels.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.
Martin Luther’s comment on this sorry episode was that all the trouble stemmed from the fact that Abraham had lost sight of God’s Word. He failed to remember and trust in God’s promises. God had promised that Abraham would have a son and inherit the land. So he couldn’t die in Egypt, nor could Abraham lose Sarah to Pharaoh. Abraham was fearful because he knew that Pharaoh could kill him with a single command, and Abraham had something that Pharaoh wanted. But he also had the promise of a God who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Ruler of all earth’s rulers, whose Word stands above all earthly powers.
There is a mysterious dynamic at work in this encounter between Abraham and Pharaoh. Abraham, the man of faith, was charged by God to be an instrument of blessing for all peoples on earth. But in this his very first encounter with a foreign leader, Abraham by his lack of faith brings a curse instead (see v. 17) and plagues are visited upon Pharaoh and his household. When Pharaoh finds out the truth he reprimands Abraham, but he does nothing to harm him. Instead, the king restores his wife Sarah to him and sends him back to Canaan with all the wealth Pharaoh had earlier given to Abraham.
So here’s the final score:
- Abraham’s lie was discovered.
- His attempts to protect himself failed.
- Despite the shameful way he used her, his wife was not harmed.
- Both of them were delivered from all danger and need.
- And in addition, they were enriched with the wealth of Egypt.
Abraham was faithless, but God was faithful. God protected him, cared for him, blessed him. Abraham deserved punishment really but he received grace.
As he headed back to the promised land, I can imagine that Abraham pondered these lessons. He must have been embarrassed by his own weakness, but even more astonished by God’s goodness to him. If he could take from this episode the lesson of trusting God more and himself less, the embarrassment would have been worthwhile.
From Abraham’s example in the opening verses of Genesis 12 we can identify the characteristics of saving faith:
- Faith is responsive. It answers God’s call and accepts his invitation.
- Faith is sacrificial. It willingly gives up a life focused on the things most people think are important for the sake of what God commands. Confronted with all the world’s glittering options, faith chooses life with God.
- Faith is receptive. It recognizes that God offers infinitely more than he demands, and it embraces all of the promises of God.
- Finally, faith is obedient. It does what God says, and lives as he directs.
But now after finishing all of Genesis 12, I need to add one more characteristic of the authentic faith that I see in Abraham. Faith is resilient. It bounces back. When it stumbles it picks itself up and gets back on the path. In one sense, it doesn’t matter how many times we fall, as long as we get up again, turn back to God, and keep on walking by faith.
They say that the secret of being a successful airplane pilot is to make sure the number of your take-offs is equaled by the number of your landings. It’s equally true that the key to becoming a successful man or woman of faith is to make sure that the number of times you stumble is equaled by the number of times you repent and return to obedience.