There’s a slightly crazy story in the Bible that speaks to the slightly crazy in my life, even though some of the details are a bit different.
God chose this nothing-special-about-him man to be the patriarch through which God would grow His people and, eventually, through which He would birth Christ to save the world.
So God lets Abraham in on this plan when he was 75 years young. He and his wife, Sarah, had no children, but when God made this promise to him, “Abraham believed the Lord,” (Genesis 15:6).
But then life happened.
Days gave way to months, and months gave way to years, and Sarah didn’t conceive. Slowly, their confidence in the Lord’s promise began to waver. Nobody was getting any younger, and, finally, they cracked.
Eight years later and still childless, probably fairly depressed and in need of a good marriage counselor, Sarah came up with a brilliant plan to “help” God make good on His word. She convinced Abraham to sleep with her servant, and, sure enough, the servant bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, at the ripe old age of 86.
Patting themselves on the back, Abraham and Sarah looked forward excitedly to God extending their family line through Ishmael, making the Abrahams into a great nation, blessing them, and giving them a beautiful land to live in under God’s protection with everything they could ever want.
Until Abraham turned 99 years old and God said, “No, no. You’re mistaken. Ishmael is not going to father My people. That was never My plan. I always intended to bless you with innumerable descendants through your wife, Sarah. You know, the moral way?”
More literally, God said to Abraham, “I will bless [Sarah] and will surely give you a son by her…she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her,” (Genesis 17:15-16).
This time, however, instead of responding in faith to God, Abraham hit the floor and laughed (Genesis 17:17). The text doesn’t explicitly say how Abraham laughed, but it could have very likely been a mocking laugh, as could have Abraham’s rhetorical question he asked under his breath, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old?”
Hold up just a minute there, Abe. Aren’t you the same dude who had his first son at age 86? What really is even the difference? You were old then, and you’re old now. GOD HAS DONE THIS FOR YOU BEFORE. And you’re going to doubt Him now?
Yeah, he is. Just like we do.
Honestly, it had been 13 years since Ishmael was born – 13 years since God had done the improbable in Abraham’s life. That was plenty of time for Abraham to lose the awe over that situation…or to rationalize it away.
Instead of learning from that experience and trusting God anew, Abraham says to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Genesis 17:18).
Abraham is bargaining with God! He’s trying to help God out again… “No, no, God. Making my super old and, up until now, totally barren wife pregnant would be way too much effort. Just use the boy I already have to carry out your grand plan of redemption!” When you think about it, that’s pretty kind of Abraham to look out for God like that… he was just trying to spare the Almighty the stress of having to figure out a way to make a woman who shouldn’t be able to get pregnant conceive.
Now, if I were God, my patience with this Abraham guy would be all but over. Yes, he has had faith at times, but, by and large, he has mucked things up over and over, taken matters into his own hands, and thinks he knows better than Me the majority of the time. I’d be ready to exercise my holy judgment right about now.
But God doesn’t do that.
God pours out grace.
“Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers,'” (Genesis 17:19-20).
Do you see what God did there? He answered Abraham’s prayer for Ishmael.
Abraham loved Ishmael dearly and wanted the best for him. He asked God to bless Ishmael. Now, true, Abraham was thinking that blessing should come instead of God blessing Sarah’s future son. But God, rich in love and mercy, blessed Ishmael in addition to blessing Sarah’s son. A lot of times we think, “Poor Ishmael! He was conceived in a sinful way because his dad didn’t trust God, and then he got gypped out of his inheritance when Isaac came along.” But we forget that God loved Ishmael as much as He loved Isaac. Abraham asked God to take care of Ishmael, and God did (although, not quite like Abraham had in mind.)
So what can we learn from this story? It’s okay to “help” God keep His promises, and He may even doubly bless you for doing so? That’s probably not the takeaway.
I think the morals of the story are more along the lines of a) God can be trusted, b) He doesn’t need our suggestions, c) He shows us more grace and mercy than we deserve when we don’t trust Him, d) He is okay with us telling Him what’s really on our minds, e) He makes wrong choices work out for our good, but not without allowing the natural consequences to break our hearts, and f) nothing is too hard for God.
If I’m honest, I’m a little too much like Abraham. I have faith at times, but, mostly, I doubt God’s power and trustworthiness. I doubt God’s intelligence and try to “help” Him by suggesting ways He should work my life out for me. I forget God’s track record of provision and follow through in my life and in the lives of others. And, like, Abraham, I need to stop distrusting and start waiting patiently for the Lord to unfold His perfect plan.