From faith to fear – and back again
The Christian life is a journey, but we sometimes stray from the Lord’s side like foolish sheep wandering from the shepherd.
Abram (Genesis 12:9 – 13:4) had been learning to walk with his Lord by faith. He had been called out of his previous life to new challenges and new pleasures. God had called Abram to journey to a new land that represented all that he wished to give him.
It is the same for us. When we first hear God’s call to turn to Christ and walk by faith, we must leave behind our former securities to live in a totally new way, listening to God’s voice and going where he says. But a land of blessing is ahead of us too.
Like Abram, the Lord leads us to express our dedication to him. After his journey to the promised land, Abram built an altar near Bethel. There he sacrificed and called on the name of the Lord.
He would have piled up some rocks and laid brushwood on them to set fire to. There he would have taken an animal and killed it with a knife, before burning its body and watching the smoke ascend to heaven.
The building of altars in the Old Testament is significant. The animal sacrificed symbolises a substitute taking the punishment for sin and pointing to what Christ would do in the future, not in symbol but in reality.
Calling on God’s name represents a relationship with him, praying and crying out for his help in the trials of life. Building the altar was a central act of worship. It was at the heart of Abram’s spiritual life, and a point of rest and refreshment in his journey with God.
It is right that we too have times when we rededicate ourselves to God, worshipping and calling on him. This shows the importance of regular prayer and Bible study and meeting with the Lord’s people. Jesus went up into the hills to be with his Father. This is vital spiritual living.
So, why does Abram now pack up his tent and move south to the desert area of the Negev, on the edge of the promised land?
He is moving towards the periphery of the land of blessing, towards the southern border with Egypt. Was he wandering from God’s clear path?
We don’t know for sure, but we do know he was moving to a less fertile area and a place less able to support him if famine should come. And that is exactly what happened; things became more difficult for him and famine did arise.
What does this teach us? Firstly, even if we are walking close to the Lord now, temptation may come tomorrow. It was just after Jesus was baptised that he was tempted by Satan in the desert. Yesterday’s commitment and faith is not sufficient for today’s challenges. We need to have constant renewal.
Secondly, Abram is not recorded as building any more altars on his continuing journey southward. If we do not keep in the centre of God’s will, then we are more open to spiritual attack and sin.
In Genesis 12:9 then, we probably see Abram walking from the centre of God’s will. The application is obvious. Are you at a place of worship, forgiveness and trust, or are you eyeing other attractions and straying from the Good Shepherd?
Abram’s weakness is soon exposed. Famine comes to the land and the man of faith gives way to fear. When the famine arrives, instead of crying out to the Lord and staying in the land of promise, he takes things into his own hands and heads further south to Egypt.
Fear floods Abram’s heart, and soon he will be a man of failure. He should have depended on the Lord to supply his needs within Canaan. There was enough food there, for at the end of this sorry tale we read that Abram returns to the land and does not die of starvation. The whole population of Canaan obviously did not migrate to Egypt.
When we are frightened we sometimes tell ourselves that things are worse than they really are. Abram should have relied on God. We can so easily depend on our own schemes to get out of a particular crisis. But God wants us to depend on him and live in obedience.
The ‘father of faith’ sinks to become a frightened refugee. How can such faith and fear reside in the same man? Well, we may as well ask why David, that man after God’s own heart who stood up to Goliath, became a lust-filled adulterer and cruel murderer?
And why did Elijah, the prayer warrior on Mount Carmel who stood up to Jezebel, run into the desert and want to take his own life? And why did bold Peter deny his Lord? The answer is that these were all frail and weak people like us. But God is still at work in us.
Seeking deliverance in Egypt came at a price. Abram had to concoct a lie to take refuge there. Sarai was a stunningly beautiful woman and one that Pharaoh would certainly want in his harem. Abram imagined that Pharaoh would have him killed for his wife.
Again the man of faith was filled with fear. He feared dying from famine and now he feared murder at the hands of Pharaoh. He was willing to lie and say that Sarai was not his wife, but only his sister, to preserve his own life.
He probably excused himself by thinking, ‘Well, after all, she is my half sister’. But that is not the point – she was his wife. We so easily rationalise our guilt.
We need to be clear what Abram did here. He was willing to sell his wife to become one of Pharaoh’s many wives and bear Pharaoh’s children. Abram obviously valued his own life very highly indeed!
What we see here is a terrible spiritual principle being enacted step by step – one sin leads to another, and usually a worse one. The journey into the far country is increasingly dark, dirty and difficult.
Abram not only lies to Pharaoh, but also asks Sarai to tell the same lie herself. Our sin damages others. But something else was at stake here. God had planned that Abram and Sarai would bless the whole world through their descendants; and one of those descendants would be the Messiah, the Saviour of the world.
But God is watching. When Sarai is taken into the harem, the Lord brings terrible sickness on Pharaoh and his household. Pharaoh is stopped in his tracks and challenges Abram, accusing him that Sarai is actually his wife.
Pharaoh is more spiritually aware here than the father of faith. Doesn’t it still sometimes happen that unbelievers have more integrity than believers, and even rebuke them for it?
Pharaoh now sends Abram and Sarai back to where they came from. He does not kill Abram, and instead lets him keep all the treasures he has heaped on him when taking Sarai into his harem. Abram left Egypt an extremely rich man.
Both Sarai and Abram were protected and blessed with Egypt’s riches. It shows us how gracious God is to sinful people. He can turn disaster into blessing. He delivers us from sin and pours blessing on our heads; he is so gracious.
Imagine for a moment that the Lord treated you as you deserved – not only in the sense of final judgement, but also by allowing the full consequences of your sins to have their effects here in this life. If God’s unseen gracious and protecting hand was not continually delivering you from your own folly, where would you be now?
However the story was not over yet. This is also a tale of complete restoration. Abram didn’t merely head north into the desert of Negev within the borders of the promised land. No, he finished right back where he started – near Bethel, at the altar. Genesis 13:4 shows us his restoration was complete. He was back in the place of worship, calling upon the name of the Lord.
Every human being is someone who has turned from God and who needs to come back to him. All of us deserve eternal punishment. The way back to God is to recognise his delivering power, and trust in his way of forgiveness through the Lord Jesus Christ.
We need to come out of rebellion into salvation and blessing. We need to bow at the altar of sacrifice, receiving God’s cleansing through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and we need to live in dependence on him, calling upon him for his help.
There is a way back to God!