Hope in the Crater of Faithlessness

Reading Time: 7 mins

God never delights in seeing his children struggle or suffer. But God does desire that we trust him no matter what the circumstances might look like.

Perhaps part of growing in one’s faith is recognizing that the protagonists of nearly every Sunday school Bible curriculum aren’t the best role models for children. Father Abraham is no exception, as Genesis 12 sees Israel’s greatest patriarch caught in a lie that blows up in his face and nearly costs him and his wife their lives. This is not Abram’s finest hour.

In the wake of a famine that struck too close to home, Abram decides to visit Egypt, where he intends to stay temporarily to wait out the drought (Gen. 12:10). Although Abram didn’t harbor the same level of antagonism toward the Egyptians that we might — since we know more of the story (Isa. 31:1) — as we’ll soon learn, he was well aware of their reputation. From the outset, it’s difficult to know whether or not his decision to resort to Egypt for resources during this crisis was inherently wrong. Agricultural societies were frequently devastated by famines akin to death sentences. Besides, this famine was “severe” (Gen. 12:10). This was no seasonal drought that resulted in a food shortage; this was a catastrophic famine of massive proportions. 

We might sympathize with Abraham as a man deciding to keep his household alive. After all, it’s not like he was packing up and moving to Egypt; his sojourn there was only temporary. Nevertheless, the question still lingers: Did God intend for Abram to take this excursion “down to Egypt” during this crisis? The text is rather silent on this point. However, when all is said and done, Abram’s plans backfire royally, bringing him right back to where he started, which seems like enough of an answer. 

What’s more, it’s worth considering all that Abram had witnessed and experienced up to this point prior to adjudicating his decision. Not too long before this respite in Egypt, Abram was a pagan living among pagans who was chosen to be the forefather of the nation that would spawn the world’s Savior. Plucked out of his homeland in Ur of the Chaldeans, God called Abram to go to the land that he would reveal to him (Gen. 12:1–3). In a staggering display of trust, he follows the Lord’s lead until he is brought to Canaan, where God himself shows up to explain more of his promise to him (Gen. 12:7–8). Even though it didn’t belong to him just yet, every acre, as far as his ancient eyes could see, would one day belong to his descendants. Abram trusted this promise and “called upon the name of the Lord.”

God never delights in seeing his children struggle or suffer. But God does desire that we trust him no matter what the circumstances might look like.

But on the heels of Abram receiving and believing in the words of God, those very words are put to the test. “There was a famine in the land,” in the land of promise, to be specific. No sooner than the Lord had pledged this land to his newfound devotee was that land threatened. Even as the promise is still ringing in Abram’s ears, it seems to have already been thrown into jeopardy. This, of course, is indicative of a pattern that is constant throughout the rest of Scripture. God rarely gives his people a promise without following it up with some sort of trial. This isn’t because he likes to see us squirm; God never delights in seeing his children struggle or suffer. But God does desire that we trust him no matter what the circumstances might look like. Even when things are at their bleakest and darkest, he wants us to call out to him. It would appear, though, that Abram would have to learn this the hard way.

As he and Sarai approach the gates of Egypt, he turns to his wife and divulges another wrinkle in their situation: “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live” (Gen. 12:11–12). Sarai’s beauty poses a real problem, so much so that Abram fears that the Pharaoh’s courtiers would take one look at her and want her for themselves, leaving him to get whacked. As it turns out, Abram is spot-on. After arriving in Egypt, some of the men catch sight of Sarai’s beautiful appearance and boast of her beauty to the Pharaoh (Gen. 12:14–15). Apparently, his harem wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include Sarai, “the fairest of them all.”

Rather than introducing Sarai as his wife, he devises a plan to say that she’s his sister. Although technically true since she’s his half-sister, it’s not every day that you see a patriarch staking his reputation on a technicality. Some interpreters try to argue this ploy is not necessarily deceitful or ill-willed. After all, he’s not really lying; he’s just protecting information so that he can protect his household. However, there’s almost nothing positive to say about this scheme, especially when you recognize that it’s nothing but a self-serving plot that only has one benefactor: Abram. “They will kill me . . . Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me . . . that my life may be spared.” It’s hard to miss the refrain of self-preservation that peppers this plan. 

Perhaps he rationalized this deception as his only option if he wanted to stay devoted to his wife and his God. Whatever the case, glaringly absent from this entire episode is any moment where Abram seeks counsel from the Lord. We never see him pause and pray for divine aid. Not once does he stop and ask for God’s wisdom. Never do we see him wait on the Lord’s word. Instead, he relies on his own wit, opting to trust in his own ingenuity over God’s ability to protect and provide. (Sarai, for her part, doesn’t say anything the entire time, at least nothing that’s recorded. Thus, it’s hard to know whether she was part of the plan or if she just went along with it because her husband was so insistent. If I was a betting man, I’d bet on the latter.)

Abram’s worst fears become a living nightmare, though, as he is forced to watch as his wife is whisked away to the Pharaoh’s house (Gen. 12:14–15). The Pharaoh couldn’t have cared less about Sarai’s honor, let alone Abram’s dignity. He’s the King of Egypt; he’ll have whatever and whomever he so pleases, thank you very much. One glance at Sarai’s beautiful face and she’s promptly fetched for his pleasure, with Abram left holding a bill of sale for a bunch of cattle (Gen. 12:16). In a twisted sort of irony, Abram’s scheming resulted in him receiving the dowry that the Pharaoh deemed worthy of paying for the right to marry his “sister.” And although some donkeys were secured in the deal, it was surely Abram who was left feeling like the ass. 

Life’s troubles and trials have a way of unnerving us. And once we’re rattled and shaken, our grip on God’s promises often slips through our fingers. Notwithstanding the size of the crisis — big or small, national or immediate — failing to trust in the words of the Lord puts us on the fast track to disappointment, doubt, and despair. Presuming the worst instead of clinging to what God has said ushers us into unbelief. This was Abram’s primary problem. It wasn’t his wife’s appearance, nor was it the Egyptians’ apparent impropriety; his greatest transgression wasn’t even his deceitful scheming. It was the fact that he didn’t appear to believe that the God who called would be with him. The very man whom Paul refers to as “the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9) was certainly not earning that title at this moment. 

We should consider how often we are just like Father Abraham. How quickly do we resort to thoughts of self-preservation when faced with a crisis? How often are we prone to taking matters into our own hands when it seems as if God is not? How often do we give ourselves over to doubt and distrust when God’s words appear to be so fragile? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that we are frequently just like the man from Ur, relying on our own ingenuity rather than God’s sovereign ability. 

There is more hardship and heartache in store in the days ahead than we care to imagine. Some troubles may even be so severe that the plans of God may seem to be in doubt and disarray. But when that occurs, our hope is the same as Abraham’s, and that is because our God is the same as Abraham’s. He is the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Gen. 50:24; Exod. 3:6, 15; Matt. 22:32; Acts 3:13; 7:32), the one who keeps his word from everlasting to everlasting. Even if it means he has to intervene and intercede himself, which is exactly what God does for Abram. 

He keeps his word for every feeble and fickle heart.

It just so happens that the home of the Pharaoh is struck with a terrible “plague” (Gen. 12:17), which I like to imagine as a horrible case of food poisoning right as Pharaoh brings Sarai to his room. Somehow or another, Abram’s deception was found out (Gen. 12:18–19), leaving the Pharaoh to pick up his pride, seeing as this Chaldean visitor felt the need to concoct this plan in the first place. Regardless, after everything is cleared up, the Egyptian sojourners are sent away with a royal escort in tow (Gen. 12:20). This itself is another testimony to the grace of God, as Abram and Sarai are on the receiving end of an act of mercy they surely didn’t deserve. The Pharaoh had every right to react disdainfully. But rather than retaliate, he lets his discreditors go free. 

Abram’s Egyptian excursion sees him and his household returning back to where he began — namely, back in Bethel, kneeling in front of the altar of the Lord, calling upon the name of the Lord, on the receiving end of the unmerited favor of the Lord. Only now, his prayers are more humble and honest than before. He’s learned firsthand how needy he is and how desperate he is for the Lord’s words to fill him, guide him, and settle him. It is no accident that this episode “Down in Egypt” is sandwiched between two instances of Father Abraham calling upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:3–4). It is through his failure and fit of fainting faith that we’re able to catch a glimpse at what it looks like to live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).

We are very often confronted by circumstances that trouble us, disturb us, and frustrate what we believe. Even though we know that God’s words are true, we are also prone to distraction, which feeds our doubt. And when we give in to our doubt, we become preoccupied with the troubles and trials that are all around us and ahead of us. And the more life’s troubles capture our attention, the quicker we are overtaken by unbelief. What can we do to combat this debilitating vortex of distrust and despair? What’s the solution? Where do we turn? Rather than turning to our own ingenuity, insight, or intellect, God acts for us so that we might trust in him. He keeps his word for every feeble and fickle heart.

In the crater of our own faithlessness, the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is there with us, embracing us in unending faithfulness. His ability to fulfill his promises eclipses our frailty, our flaws, and our failures. Although we may never be able to shake off our shortcomings or overcome our fits of fainting faith, “the God of hosts” is faithful to his word forever (Hosea 12:5; 2 Tim. 2:13). When fear, doubt, and uncertainty assails us, it is God’s faithful, dependable, and unfailing word that remains our assurance, our steadfast support, and our hope.