The faith of Abraham (part 2)

I recently read a book about hope, written by a well-known pastor who had ministered to many people in seemingly hopeless situations. The stories were painful and poignant, about people in dire situations, crying out to God and waiting for an answer. They had prayed for loved ones to be healed or rescued, only to watch them suffer or even die.

As a result, some turned their backs on God in disillusionment. How could they believe in a God who would let such things happen? How could such a God be loving, or good, or fair?

The question is age-old, and the pastor’s counsel was wise and biblical.

And yet…

As the book ended, I remained a bit uneasy about its message, not because of what was said, but because of what was left unsaid. A deeper, underlying problem of vision and faith needed to be addressed.

What was needed was a look at the faith and hope of Abraham.

As we saw in the previous post, Abraham demonstrated his faithfulness by believing in God’s promise and acting on that belief. When God said go, Abraham went. When God said, “I’m going to give this land to your descendants,” Abraham believed, even though he still had to live there as a stranger, even though he knew his descendants would be enslaved and abused for centuries. Do we have that kind of faith?

The portrait of Abraham in the book of Hebrews deepens the lesson. “By faith,” the writer tells us,

Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Heb 11:8-10, NRSV)

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are portrayed as co-heirs of the promise of land. Throughout their lifetimes, they had to live in tents as resident aliens. They never inherited the land themselves. They were promised a future they would never personally see. But they had a vision that sustained them, as did all the exemplars of faith in Hebrews 11:

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-16; cf. also vss. 39-40)

They all lived by faith, but died without receiving the promises. Does that sound unfair? Where’s the reward for their faithfulness? What good is a promise that only comes true after you die?

These are the questions for a truly Christian hope.

To be clear, some promises were indeed fulfilled. God promised Abraham a son, and Abraham believed (Gen 15:1-6). And God was faithful to that promise. It took time — perhaps as long as 25 years. That’s longer than most of us would be willing to wait for anything before losing faith. But God came through. Indeed, so confident was Abraham in the faithfulness of God, that he obeyed even when asked to sacrifice Isaac, the one through whom God’s further promises were supposed to be fulfilled. He knew that God could do the impossible — even raise a slain son from the dead — and was ready to do whatever God told him, whether he understood it or not (Heb 11:17-19).

Hebrews teaches us that Abraham endured, faithfully, because he looked past his temporary tent to a permanent dwelling place, a city with real foundations, one both designed and built by God himself. He wasn’t waiting for Canaan to clear escrow. He wasn’t waiting to see his name on the deed to the property on which his tent was pitched.

He was waiting for something more, something permanent: a “better country,” a heavenly “homeland.” The word translated as “homeland” is not actually about land or property, but the place you call home, the place you belong. Abraham wouldn’t have been able to draw you a floor plan of the heavenly home for which he longed.

But he knew with whom he wanted to spend eternity. And God was not ashamed to be called his God.

So keep praying for all the things you hope God will do today. But let all of those prayers be taken up into the promises that will remain true for an eternity of tomorrows.