When your life is stuck on pause: Believe the God of Grace Midst the Doubts (Gen. 15:1-21)
When our lives are stuck on pause, one of the biggest hurdles we often find ourselves stumbling over is doubt. One moment we believe God for the impossible. The next moment we doubt God and fear the worst. We are a walking contradiction; a breathing paradox. We believe and doubt God’s promises, His provision and His person. What do we do when the reality gap overwhelms us? A lot of questions start to bombard us in a season of “stuckness.” Can I truly keep going like this as my life is on pause? How long? Will I have the strength to persevere if things don’t go as planned? Would I be able to handle loss in my future? Can I live with sickness if that comes? We’re afraid of losing relationships. We’re afraid of losing possessions. We’re afraid of losing our position. We fear emotional pain. We fear personal pain. We fear financial pain. So we doubt.
But sometimes it is not that we don’t trust God, we are not sure if we can be faithful and we wonder if God should truly trust us with so much. We don’t trust ourselves. We are afraid we are going to mess it up. This is where Abraham is right now. He is called the Father of faith, but that does not mean he never doubted. Today we are going to see that he is full of doubts, but right in the midst of it, he also believes. In fact, one of the most quoted Scriptures about Abraham’s amazing faith is found right here in this chapter full of his doubts (Gen. 15:6). How is that possible? Can you be doubting and believing at the same time?
Before we dig in here, I was thinking about this question: What is the difference between doubt and unbelief? Are they the same thing? Os Guinness in his book God in the Dark was very helpful in breaking this down. He writes, “…to believe is to be “in one mind” about trusting someone or something as true; to disbelieve is to be “in one mind” about rejecting them. To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and disbelieve at once and so to be ‘in two minds.’” He writes that the “heart of doubt is a divided heart.” Unbelief is the “willful refusal to believe or of a deliberate decision to disobey.”
Doubt says I am having a hard time believing. Unbelief says I refuse to believe. Doubt is honesty. Unbelief is stubbornness. Doubt says I know I could do this if had the strength. Unbelief says I will not do it. Doubt keeps searching for the light. Unbelief is content with darkness. Doubt says I don’t know what God thinks. Unbelief says I don’t care what God thinks.
Doubt can lead to unbelief. When you doubt, the key is to be aware of the movement of your heart in that direction towards unbelief. Guinness adds, “Continued doubt loosens the believer’s hold on the resources and privileges of faith and can be the prelude to the disasters of unbelief.” What does God think about our doubts? What does God think about the doubter? And how do we survive the life stuck on pause when we are plagued with doubts? What should I do with my doubts? First of all:
I. Struggle with doubts increases our capacity for more of God (vv.1-6).
I want to make several observations about doubt here:
a) Doubts are inevitable
The text picks up with “after these things.” What things? Abraham had a moment of victory. He was selfless to save us selfish nephew. Abraham was like a King. He was feared and celebrated. The King of Sodom had tempted him to make a name for himself and set up a kingdom and get the land…his way. Abraham refused. Abraham glorified God (with the help of Melchizedek). Abraham seems to have it altogether. Abraham is the fearless father of faith right? Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose, right?
Notice “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Fear not.’” When the word of the Lord comes to someone, it is usually a prophet. God sees Abraham as a prophet here. God hasn’t spoken (that is recorded) since Gen. 13:17, and now it does again and the first word out of God’s mouth is not to fear. Why does He say that? Because Abraham was afraid! If God hadn’t said it, we would not have known. Perhaps Abraham never voiced his fears to God. No one knew how he really felt. Aren’t you glad you have a God who can address your fears before you can articulate them? Paul says we groan inwardly (Rom. 8:23), but those are prayers God cannot refuse.
Now why was Abraham afraid? It could be because whenever God shows up it is like, “Okay, God is here. This could be a good thing or a bad thing.” Or Abraham was afraid that the Eastern Kings will come after him again and possibly with bigger armies. But as Pastor Kent Hughes notes, “His great victory had not brought him any nearer his promised inheritance. Long ago when he first responded to God’s call, Sarah was barren (cf. 11:30). Their journey had begun in barrenness, but with hope in God’s promise. But the thousand-mile journey, the sojourn in Canaan, the fiasco in Egypt, the return to Canaan, and the victory over the kings were all carried out under the shadow of barrenness. Now barrenness persisted. Abram’s servants had children. Other men’s children clung to his garments. Likely, Abram mused, ‘So what if everybody knows my name from the Nile to the Euphrates? So what if I’m rich? What difference does it make if I have no children?’ Restless, dark doubt gripped his faltering heart. Fearless Abram feared.” Challenge follows victory. Victory times are vulnerable times. So doubts are inevitable. Where there is belief, there will be doubt. They are normal part of our journey of faith.
b) No amount of doubt restrains God’s goodness and greatness toward us
Notice what God says: “I am your shield.” Warren Wiersbe says, “God’s I AM is perfectly adequate for man’s “I am not.” Not “I am going to give you a shield, but I am your shield!” The shield in the OT was always a picture of divine protection. The shield was the primary defensive weapon of the OT warrior…”It provided a barrier between the vulnerable flesh of the warrior and the dangerous impact of various weapons.” As a shield, God is intimately involved in every situation. God is saying, “I will absorb all the pain that comes in your direction Abraham.” How does a shield protect us? If we stay under it! So we may have all kinds of things that we could worry about, but stay under the shield. Pay attention to the Lord not all the attacks, not all the enemy, not all the darkness, not all the evil. We have to just keep your eyes on the shield. Just stay under the shield. We have to stick under His protective covering. Abraham is getting a bigger view of God. All this time God has not been just giving you protection, Abraham. He Himself has been Abraham’s protection.
Then God says, “Your reward shall be very great.” A better translation would be, “God is the one who will reward you in great abundance” (NET Bible). The focus is on God as the source of the reward. The King James Version and NIV translates it as God saying, “I am your reward!” Even though you came empty handed materially Abraham, what I am going to give and what I am to you will be more than enough. There is no greater reward than God. Compared to God, all the plunder Abram just gave back to the King of Sodom is as nothing. All the gold and diamonds of the world are less valuable than a grain of dust in comparison to having God as a reward. I am your protection. I am your provision. Look at me Abraham. I am bigger than what you see! What you ultimately need is not something from me, but more of me. Donald Barnhouse says, “God’s method of supplying our need is to give us fresh knowledge of Himself, for every need can be met by seeing Him.”
How does Abraham respond to this? Does he fall on His face and worship? Does he build an altar? I love the honesty of the Bible. Abraham responds with, “What will you give me?” I love it. Isn’t he just like us? We have an amazing time of worship and we sing, “I don’t have a job. I don’t have a spouse. But you are more than enough for me!” Thank you Lord for ministering to me! We update our facebook status. We are full of joy. Then we get in the car, take a deep breath, and…start bawling. “Why haven’t you given me a wife! When are you gonna give me a job…booohooo!” If I were God here, I would have such a big smile as I tell my faithful one that I am enough for him, only for that facial expression to change into sheer disgust as he says I’m not giving him something. But not our God!
Abraham is saying, “That’s nice God, that you are my protector and provision and all that. But what’s success without a successor? Where’s the kid? Thank you for the peace of security, but can I have the joy of prosperity too?” Some years have passed (possibly less than 10 years, cf. Gen. 16:3) and still no child. Abraham is not getting any younger. The curtain is about to close. His family line is facing extinction and God doesn’t seem to be wearing a watch. Why the delay?! Yahweh has delivered his enemies into his hand, but is he able to deliver a son into Abram’s household? Did it erase from your to-do-list God? God is so patient. We are not as we are often cursing at the drive through window and at our microwaves.
Notice that God’s declaration of who He is comes before the confession of doubt. God doesn’t wait for Abraham to share his doubts and then decide whether He will be Abraham’s provision and protection. No amount of doubt restrains God’s goodness and greatness to us. Neither does God take it away after the doubt: “Fine then, if you are going to whine and not be patient, no shield for you and no reward for you!” Thirdly:
c) Lay and pray your doubts freely before God
Sometimes when we feel like God’s promises aren’t happening fast enough, we try to make it happen because we don’t want God to look bad. We try to fix the problem. Look at Abraham who has been thinking of his way to provide for himself. Typically, a childless couple can adopt a son (perhaps this is why Lot was so important to Abraham?) sometimes a slave, to serve them in their lifetime and bury and mourn them when they die. In return for this service they designate the adopted son as the heir. Should a natural son be born to the couple after such action, this son becomes the chief heir, demoting the adopted son to the penultimate position.
Abraham is thinking, “God, you have promised me offspring (Gen. 12:1-3), but that doesn’t look like it will be in the cards. Thus, maybe you really meant that I would just have an heir. An heir can be anyone, really; it need not be a son of my wife’s womb. Now I understand, God, what you are really doing.” When we find God to delay and the pause does not seem to get unstuck anytime soon, we think of lesser possibilities and are tempted to be content with less than God wants to give us. We settle. We compromise. Aren’t you glad that God proves not only better to us than our worst fears but better to us than our wildest dreams? By the way, Abraham calls God Adonai, which means Lord, Master, or Sovereign. It points to God’s absolute right to rule. So even though Abram is confused and asking God to clear up matters for him, he is asking submissively, not defiantly.
But how will God respond to all this doubting and scheming? Look at verse 4. God welcomes it! He doesn’t say, “How dare you doubt? You are not welcome here, you ungrateful crybaby! I am going to find another seed of the woman!” This teaches us something. Lay and pray your doubts freely before God. Don’t vent them. Don’t suppress them. Pray them. God is not shocked. He is not calling 911 when we doubt. He welcomes doubts. Go and struggle with Him with it. Don’t nurse it in your heart. Don’t be ashamed of doubt. It is not a betrayal of faith or surrender to unbelief.
At the same time, God does not say, “I’m glad you doubt. It’s great you are always questioning everything. You are one smart cookie.” God actually challenges the doubt. While the conservatives will say, “Why are you doubting, you heathen?!” The liberals will say, “Doubt everything. Be skeptical. Be cynical. Deconstruct everything.” Steven Sernau says, “Our problem is not that we’ve been taught to question our faith, but rather that we’ve been taught to reject any answers. Doubt can be a state of mind—or it can be a way of life.” So both extremes are harmful. If you are going to doubt everything, then you should also doubt your doubts! If you are going to be cynical about everything, are you cynical about your own cynicism?
d) God can even use our doubts to bring Him glory
When Abraham struggles with doubt, God reveals more of His calling in Abraham’s life! God knows how much we can handle. As our capacity and faithfulness grows increasingly (not perfectly), God shows us more about what He’s doing with us. God tells him it is not going to be by Abraham’s little plan of an heir, but his own son. And again, He shows Him creation as an illustration. Surely the one who brought all these stars into existence can bring a son for Abraham, who was beyond all human hope and help. God makes an altar of remembrance out of the stars to remind Abraham of the promise. See what God does? He uses even our doubts to bring Him glory! Notice God uncovers more of the plan to Abraham here. What is He doing? He is telling him to trust in God’s person, trust in God’s provision and trust in God’s timing. The further we go in obedience, the more God shows us of His plan. God leads us step by step.
Gen. 15:6 tells us that Abraham is definitely a believer. He is saved. I think he was saved back in Gen. 12, but here we see evidence and declaration that he was truly a believer. He believed God. Abram was justified, he was declared righteous by God simply because he believed what God had said in Gen 12 and now confirmed here. The force of the Hebrew construction conveys an ongoing faith repeated from the past. Wiersbe notices, “The Hebrew word translated ‘believed’ means ‘to lean your whole weight upon.’ Abraham leaned wholly on the promise of God and the God of the promise. We are not saved by making promises to God but by believing the promises of God.”
How was Abraham a believer? The same away you and I are. He saved by faith, not by his works. We look back at the cross and we are saved. The Old Testament believers looked ahead to the cross and were saved by credit. Pastor Steve Cole adds, “Abraham knew that through this seed, blessing would come to all the families of the earth (12:3). As Paul argues in Galatians, the word seed is singular, not plural, thus pointing not to all of Abram’s descendants, but to the one descendant of Abram, Christ (Gal. 3:16). So when Abram believed in the Lord, what he believed specifically was the promise that a Savior for the world would come forth from his descendants…Though he didn’t know Jesus’ name and he had no visible evidence other than God’s verbal promise, Abram looked forward in faith to God’s Redeemer and thus it is recorded here that God reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Struggling with God with your doubts is good. Pray them. Don’t be ashamed of them. Lay it out before God. And in doing so, you will find God growing your capacity for more of Him. Be patient and trust Him. He will use your doubts for His glory! Lastly and quickly,
II. God’s unmerited grace is greater than our greatest doubts (vv.7-21)
God initiates more dialogue with Abraham. Abe is happy there is good communication. God brings up the land promise in Gen. 15:7. And Abraham says, “Well, since you and I are speaking and you are just opening up like crazy, tell me more about this land.” God again without rebuke, then says, “I will show you.”
Now we have this really strange animal ceremony. This sounds weird to us, but the audience then would know exactly what this means. He’s making an agreement. If it was modern day, we would have said, “ “Get your lawyer, and a permanent pen, two witnesses, and meet me down at the courthouse where they have a public notary.” This is how we make a public document binding today. We get witnesses. We get lawyers. We sign a document. It is sealed by a notary.
So Abraham also knows what God is doing. He is going to make an agreement, actually it is confirming a covenant. So Abraham sets it up as they would do it. He gathers the animals and cuts them in half. The Hebrew word used in v.18 to describe the ritual is berit, which literally means “cutting a covenant.” It was a very common practice in the desert communities of the Middle East. When you “cut” a covenant, “the participants in the covenant walked through the blood of the animals that collected in the middle of the pieces in order to enact the treaty and curse the one who breaks the promises.”
The animals were cut in two and placed opposite each other so that the blood formed a pool, a so-called blood path, in between the pieces as they drained. The two parties—the greater party who establishes the terms of the covenant first, and the lesser party who either accepts or rejects the terms second—then walked through the blood as a way of saying, “May what was done to these animals be done to me if I do not keep this covenant.” The one who failed to keep the covenant paid for it with his life.
When you cut an animal in half, and walk between the pieces, you are ritually identifying with the cut animals and acting out the consequences/penalty for breaking the covenant. You are saying, “If I do not keep my end of the contract, may I be cut off, may my flesh be cut up and strewn out on the land” (see Jer. 34:18). This was to make the one who promises accountable to pay the penalty for failure to fulfill the promise/breaking the contract. This was always done when a great king went into a relationship with small vessel kings.
Notice the prophecy that God gives Abraham in Gen 15:13-16. God reveals more of His plans for Abraham and his seed. His seed will be stuck on pause for 400 some years and it will be hard and difficult. However, through that, God will be faithful and get them out and they will get the land eventually, by the fourth generation. Abraham will not see this, however. God’s plans for us are often filled with hardship and pain, but God will be faithful through them and eventually it will get better, if we are in Christ. If you are not in Christ, this world is as good as it is going to get for you. God even gives some of the dimensions of the land in vv.18-21. In other words, I will be faithful, even in the hardest of times. I am also patient. And if God is not faithful, He agrees to sentence Himself to death.
So here comes the ceremony in v.17. The greater King passes through the pieces. This verse uses the same two words that describe God when he came down on Mount Sinai, and when God went with the Israelites in the desert at night. “A smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” are taken to be symbolic of God’s presence, which is often associated with fire (Ex. 13:21-22). What appeared was the semblance of God’s glory. God in essence says, “May I die if I am not faithful to you.”
Now at this point, the “lesser” king walks must walk through. Notice back in Gen. 15:12 that a “great darkness fell upon him.” This means Abraham was freaking out. It was not a normal kind of sleep. It was an overwhelming sense of dread/horror/darkness/terror, where he felt crushed to the ground. He felt an incredible heaviness. He is freaking out! Why? Though I know that God will keep his end of the covenant, what about me? I’m going to fail. I’m not going to be able to get to the finish line. I’m full of weaknesses and sins and evil. I’m surely going to let God down. I’m surely going to let myself down. I’m going to die!
Then an incredible thing happens. A blazing torch appears—a flaming torch, a lamp of fire—and it also represents God. Fire always represents God. From the burning bush to the pillar of fire God uses to guide his people in the desert. God walks in Abraham’s place! Alan Stanglin says, “There was no doubt that Abram and his descendants were going to sin. And so God stood in for him. God walked the path of blood in Abram’s place. The promise from the Lord, in addition to the son, the descendants, and the land is that God is going to pay for his people’s sins. God pays the price whether he or Abram or his descendants violates the covenant. Either way, it’s on God.” God is saying, “I will bless you, no matter if I fail, or no matter if you fail. Either way, I will be cut up. I will pay the penalty, I will be accountable, I will take the consequences, regardless if I fail, or if you fail.” God will absorb the cost regardless of who fails. This is an unbelievable one-sided covenant.
Abram had no idea about the cost of this oath of grace. But centuries later a darkness came down again. It was so dark that it put out the sun at noon. Mark 15 tells us, “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).” What happened to Jesus when he was crying out? Jesus was “cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 53:8). Why? So that God can say to us, “If you believe in me, I will bless you unconditionally,” regardless if God fails, or if Abraham/man fails. What incredible grace! Notice Abraham says nothing more here. How can you? Grace is overwhelming and quieting of our doubts.
When we remember that God did fulfill His promise and took the consequences of even our failures, we know we can trust Him. Guinness says, “God is more certain, more faithful, and more gracious than our doubting views of Him.” In fact, God proves not only better to us than our worst fears but better to us than our wildest dreams.Guinness says,
“What is more, faith, like health, is best maintained by growth, nourishment and exercise and not by fighting sickness. Sickness may be the absence of health, but health is more than the absence of sickness, so prevention is better than cure. Equally, faith grows and flourishes when it is well nourished and exercised, so the best way to resist doubt is to build up faith rather than simply to fight against doubt.”
As we struggle with doubts, we get to know God better. As we get to know God better, we find that there is grace that overwhelms our doubts, that is rooted in the person and work of God through Jesus Christ! We begin to see that we have found protection/security in others things. Other things are our shield instead of God. God shows those things to us. Or we see that we are looking to something to be our reward besides God. We have put our faith in the wrong things. But as we turn from those things, come to the Lord again, we begin to see that unless God is our shield, we have no shield and unless God is our reward, we have no reward.
Guinness, Os (1996). God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt (23). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Guinness, O. (29).
Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (222–223). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be Obedient (44). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
Krell, Keith. “Fear Factor,” http://bible.org/seriespage/fear-factor-genesis-151-21#P20_8182 accessed 9 February 2012.
Driscoll, M. “God’s Covenant with Abraham,” http://marshill.com/files/2005/01/02/20050102_gods-covenant-with-abraham_en_transcript.pdf accessed 9 February 2012.
Meyers, J. “Genesis 15-The True Promise Keeper,” http://www.tillhecomes.org/sermons/genesis/genesis_15/ accessed 10 February 2012.
As quoted in Cole, S. “Making God’s Promises Yours,” http://www.fcfonline.org/content/1/sermons/071496M.pdf accessed 10 February 2012.
Hamilton, V. P. (1990). The Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (420). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Cole, S. Ibid.
From a sermon by Keller, T. “Real Confidence in a Real World,” as transcribed in http://westloop-church.org/messages/old-testament/15-genesis/174-real-confidence-in-a-real-world-genesis-151-21 accessed 9 February 2012.
Duguid, Iain M. (1999). Living in the Reality Gap Between Promise and Reality: The Gospel According to Abraham (56). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&P Publishing.
Mathews, K. A. (2007). Vol. 1B: Genesis 11:27-50:26 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (166). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be Obedient (47). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
Cole, S. Ibid.
Walton, J (2001). The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (423). Grand Rapids,MI: Zondervan.
Stanglin, A. Ibid.
Keller, T. Ibid.
Guinness, O. (216).