Wednesday, March 20, 2019

No, But …

And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before you!’

God said, ‘No, but …’ ”

Two lines out of context. Allow me to supply some.

Abraham is once again in conversation with God. This is the fifth time God has brought up the subject of his covenant promises. Months or years are passing between each remarkable event, but every time the Lord appears or speaks or encounters Abraham in a vision, he elaborates further on what he intends to do on Abraham’s behalf. In Genesis 12, he promises to make from him a great nation, give him a great name, bless the whole world through him and protect him from his enemies. Each new encounter provides details the previous ones did not.

Moving Too Slowly

In between encounters four and five, Abraham’s wife Sarah concludes things are moving a little too slowly for her. She’s in her mid-seventies now. Men and women lived significantly longer in those days than we do today, but bearing children at that age was every bit as unlikely. So she offers her husband her Egyptian servant Hagar in hope that “I may obtain children by her.” Hagar conceives, bearing a son whom Abraham calls Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

As was customary in those days, Abraham officially names his son. But the name itself is not his idea. The name Ishmael is given to Hagar by the angel of the Lord in the wilderness. God, who has been speaking to Abraham personally for over a decade, is now giving him instructions through intermediaries. Not ideal, but perhaps that is to be expected when we go freelancing, which is to say we try to carry out what we believe to be the plans and purposes of God in the energy of human will and by ingenuity and contrivance rather than in simple faith.

More years pass. Ishmael is a teenager. His father is now 99, and God makes his first appearance since the confirmation of the covenant in chapter 15. He reconfirms his covenant, and this time he explicitly and graciously includes Sarah in it. The same Sarah who ill-advisedly gave Hagar to her husband. The same Sarah who is now ninety years old.

It’s at this point Abraham balks, and he says to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”

Praying Nonsense

Now, I suspect I pray nonsense like this all the time. I bet you do too.

It’s not that I doubt in principle God’s ability to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” If it is God with whom we are dealing, of course all things are possible. It’s not at all that I lack faith in God’s power. He can do anything he pleases. He’s God. It’s in the job description.

So, no, I don’t doubt God’s power, and I actually don’t think Abraham doubted God’s ability to deliver on his promises either. Sure, he laughed. But when he laughed, he was lying on the ground. He had fallen on his face. Abraham was fully humbled before the Lord, not challenging him in any way. His questions remained in his own heart. He did not articulate them, but the Lord heard them all the same:
“Abraham said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ ”
Who knows? Maybe when Abraham laughed, he was laughing at the dawning realization of his own foolishness and the magnitude of his own failure.

Maybe Abraham had the same problem I have. We could call it a failure to fully apprehend the love of God, or the wisdom of God, or the plans and purposes of God. Maybe we could just call it a complete and utter failure of imagination and leave it at that.

Not Part of the Divine Program

Let me clarify something here. When Abraham says, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you,” I don’t think for a second he is concerned that God will strike Ishmael down or anything like that. What he’s asking, I think, is that God’s promises and blessings for his family and the world be realized through Ishmael rather than Isaac. Ishmael he knows. Ishmael he has raised. Isaac is merely a figment at this point. He’s a word, a name, a nothing. He would become far more important than Ishmael to his father in the long run, but Abraham is human and finite and short-sighted. He has no possible way of grasping that in the moment. He’s all caught up in his love for the son he can see, not the son he can’t. In effect, he is expressing his preference for his own program rather than God’s.

Thus we find Abraham, confronted with God’s unchanging promise and character, praying for something that is not even second best, but inferior, substandard, the product of faithlessness and sin and a far-too-low view of God’s love. Like me, he cannot wrap his head around the alternative. His eyes are fixed on the thing he has been doing for the last 13 years: investing himself in raising a son on whom all his hopes — and here I mean his spiritual hopes, not just his earthly hopes — have been pinned. Now he finds himself unexpectedly confronted with the reality that God has been doing something different the whole time, something that really should have been perfectly apparent to him all along. Ishmael, after all, was conceived in the flesh. He was man’s idea, not God’s. He was never part of the divine program.

So God says, “No, but ...”

Invested in the Wrong Stock

Now, I’ve had my own Ishmaels. I’ve had my share of things I did for what I thought were good reasons in hope of producing good results that turned out to be entirely wrongheaded and fleshly. I don’t know what your Ishmaels are, but I’m guessing there are a few out there. Maybe your Ishmael is your vision for your ministry, marriage, or family. Maybe your Ishmael is the way you wrongly understood a particular scriptural idea, taught it, lived it, and even maybe messed up other people’s lives with it. Yes, that happens. Maybe your Ishmael is the way you parented or the way you viewed your relationship to your wife or husband. Maybe your Ishmael is your self-concept: your ideas about your own spiritual gifts, field of service or purpose in the world.

Then one day, after years of feeding these pet ideas, nourishing them, living with them and watching them grow and even produce results of a sort, we suddenly discover we were wrong about them all along. God had something better, more faithful, more profitable and more spiritual in mind for us from the very beginning and we never saw it. We have taken a fork in the road, and we have gone way, way, way off course. We invested in the wrong stock, and we stand to lose the lot.

Now, when we discover that the way we have been investing our lives is less than optimal (and sometimes, let’s face it, very defective indeed), the temptation to try to salvage something out of a pet project is enormous. This is the reason Abraham blurts out something so sad and shortsighted. And yet no means no. When God says it, it REALLY means no. The length of time we have put into a losing cause, the financial cost, the emotional investment, the potential embarrassment of conceding failure or sin in front of friends, family and peers ... none of these things matters when weighed against the long-term spiritual cost of refusing to admit we were wrong.

When we have set our sights far too low and finally realize it, it is infinitely better to accept our Father’s correction and get with his program than to double down on a losing hand.

Pet Projects Conceived in the Flesh

Now, maybe nothing like this has ever happened to you. Maybe it never will. But if it does, keep this in mind: God is not interested in what we think might be done to rehabilitate our personal pet projects conceived in the flesh and the hopes and dreams that attend them, however attached we may have become to them and to what we think might have been. God may even choose to bless our ill-conceived, pseudo-spiritual substitutes as we send them on their way; that’s how gracious he is. But from our perspective, there can be no hanging on to them, no tweaking of the divine plan to accommodate them, and no looking back once we bid them adieu.
“Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.”
Does that seem harsh? It really isn’t. I cannot see that scripture gives us any possible recourse other than to send the products of the flesh packing, and to move forward in the Spirit.

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