Abram's story reminds us to stand firm on the promise
of God’s faithfulness if we are going to move forward at all.
If so, did you scream it out loud? Or did you stew on it silently within yourself, too afraid of sounding unfaithful? Either way, you are not alone. In fact, this is the number one question I am most frequently asked. "How much can a person bear?"
This is a good question to ask, especially as we continue our walk in Lent. And it's a good question in light of the story of Abram, who didn’t just ask, “how" but also "when?” More specifically, “Hey God, how will you do this...” and more poignantly, “when exactly will you do it.”
If you were like me, you were brought up believing that...it's wrong to ask God such demanding questions. I mean, isn't this what good Christians are supposed to tell their children not to do. But as we look at Abram's story in Genesis 15, perhaps we could put an end to this theological myth.
Many scholars believe this chapter is the key text for the entire Bible. It exposes God, and even ourselves, in a different light. There's a sense that God is boasting. He says something to the extent of, “Hey Abram, did I mention to you lately that your people are going to be great? You know like 'Creation-size' great!"
And Abram is all like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever, G.”
Now I'm not saying he's dismissing God's promise...But let's face it, he's has heard this speech before. He has had enough and now wants to see more than just a promise. This is his Jerry McGuire "show me the money" moment.
Now up until this point, the biblical picture of God and Abram’s relationship is fairly straightforward. God speaks, Abram listens. God promises, Abram believes. God commands, Abram obeys. But then there comes this point when Abram finally says, “Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. I want to know just how you're planning to fulfill this promise you keep talking about?”
Here is God’s chosen model of faithfulness, speaking the words so many of us have stuffed down inside.
Why are we so afraid to ask God to show us the money...so to speak...to ask God give us a little bit more information? Abram’s done stuffing his emotions.He wants to know exactly what God is going to do to fulfill this big promise he keeps preening about. At his age, it isn’t so unreasonable.
I can picture God giving him that look...it's a look I've gotten so many times from my wife. I'm sure (J. H.) knows what I'm talking about...It's the one that says pull your foot out of your mouth and keep it shut. I'm not sure even my wife's stern look would have stopped Abram from moving forward in his inquiry. His story reminds us all to stand firm in the promise of God’s faithfulness if we are going to move forward at all.
But hear me when I say: standing firm doesn’t mean standing still or silent.
During our Lenten journey, we are not called to be complacent. We are called to look deeper at our relationship with God. If we are in a relationship with God then it's supposed to be a dialog, not a monologue. God gives and we take just as much as we give and God takes.
Abram will not sit back in silent obedience. And neither should we, because God doesn't. In fact, God tries to smooth things over...by giving his faithful one another divine promise: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield;...trust me when I say...your reward shall be very great,” Abram wasn't afraid. Just very impatient and frustrated.
How much more can a person bear?
Now there are two ways of looking at this story. We could focus on the idea that Abram lacks faith, and wonder why on earth God singled him out as righteous, knowing he had such a bad character flaw. Or we could look at the relationship Abram had with God that allowed him to act so boldly? Let's put ourselves in these shoes.
When we face our own perplexing questions, feel the anxiety of doubt and uncertainty, whenever we struggle with frustration and disappointment,…people like to tell us it’s "just a crisis of faith." Or “Buck up,” they say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle!”
When I hear that, I get angry. And my anger turns to feelings of guilt and shame, because everyone knows good Christians aren't supposed to feel that way. And this only makes me feel more angry, and of course more guilty, anxious and frustrated. Where's the good news in that scenario?
For too long the church has taught us to think of faith as an "unquestioning acceptance" or "silent submission." This troubles me on so many levels. The most obvious is... it causes an unhealthy relationship between us and our creator. The more shame and guilt we take on, the more apt we are either to crumble under the sheer weight of it, or runaway from the relationship all together. If we follow in the footsteps of Abram’s faith journey, we clearly see that questioning God can be a healthy way to grow our relationship.
God doesn’t smite Abram with fire and brimstone for asking so many questions. Instead God takes him outside and gives him an astrology lesson. As they gaze at the stars God puts his arm around him and says, “Look up there and count all those stars, if you are able, and you will see how many children you will have.”
I doubt Abram knew that our galaxy is just one of dozens out there. But under this canopy of glowing glory, I know he faithfully, if only briefly, believes. And “the Lord reckoned him as righteous.” His belief is not in question...neither is his faith. His patients however is wearing thin.
Abram points out the obvious again, “Okay God, you’ve been saying this for a long time, but how am I to know that I shall possess it?...Show me the money!" Abram wants to know more. Apparently the field trip to the planetarium wasn’t enough.
In looking back a bit, we know Abram left his family to follow God, and even though God had blessed him abundantly for doing so, Abram still wanted to know more. Isn’t it funny how God showers us with blessings upon blessings, and yet we still grumble for more. Then we ask, “How much more must a person bear?”
Traditionally the season of Lent is a time for sacrifice. So for 40 days we endure some great struggles with the hopes of coming into some kind of spiritual or divine reward. But in reality, Lent is about our journey with God, and the relationship that grows along the way. Abram doesn’t ask questions to be a pain in the butt. Instead he asks because he has made a commitment to keep the covenant with God.
He doesn’t whine, “When am I going to get what I want to be happy and successful?” He doesn’t demand to be satisfied or made to feel content. Instead he simply walks with God, talks with God, and builds a relationship with God. Together they create a healthy, trusting, and honest relationship with one another...one that allows him to ask any question he wants. In other words, Abram takes God’s active presence in his life very seriously.
Their story is the key text for the entire Bible, because it tells us that God comes to all of us, seeking to be in a personal relationship with each one of us. God is always ready to bless us...to protect and provide for us.
Our impatience, or questioning does not change God. Instead it is our own faithful relationship with God that changes us. Our failure to believe or comprehend what we believe does not negate God’s covenant or God’s steadfast faithfulness towards us. Even in our lack of faith God remains GOD.
Abram believes God will answer him, because he stands firm on the promise God made with him. He believes God’s promise is real because he knows God intimately! It is in his relationship that he has discovered how only God could do something so amazing as giving him an heir.
Through this promise comes our greatest reward…Jesus Christ, son of David, Son of Abraham. He is the new covenant, the heir to our promise of eternal salvation. Jesus, God incarnate, came to be with us...to walk, and talk, and teach, and love and to give his life...for you...and me! Through our faith in Jesus we are counted among the stars of the universe, we become “citizens in heaven” as Paul writes.
By the sacrifice Jesus made for all, we are washed clean of our sin, and redeemed by God's loving grace. But we are also invited into a personal relationship with God, who is responsive to our believing faith. Our patience and faith, therefore, is our reward that pays out in everlasting abundance.
And exactly how much of God's grace and love can a person bear?
That’s a very good question.
The Bible, NRSV. Gen. 15:1-15; Philippians 3:17-4:1.
Bartlett, David L, Barbara Brown Taylor. ed. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Byassee, Jason. "Temptation to Cheat." Sojourners, Feb 2016: 48.