I have entitled this message “When Faith Fails,…” but I wonder if most Christians really believe that their faith can fail. A little thought should remove any doubts. What is worry, but a failure of faith? Worry estimates circumstances from the perspective of the person who faces the future apart from believing in a sovereign God Who is also a loving Father.
Worry’s bedfellow, fear, is also a failure of faith. Worry finds its concern in the distant and often unlikely future. Fear faces the problem eyeball to eyeball. The disciples were not worried on the storm-tossed waves of Galilee; they were scared to death. And our Lord rebuked them by unveiling the failure of their faith:
And He said to them, ‘Why are you so timid? How is that that you have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40).
Faith does fail; at least, my faith does. So what happens when it does? Do I lose my salvation? Does God’s work in my life come to a screeching halt, waiting for my faith to return? The incident in Abram’s life described in Genesis 12:10-13:4 gives us an encouraging word, and one that is desperately needed by those whose faith will fail.
Abram Faces a Famine
True faith in God is a faith that grows. In Genesis, and in God’s program for men today, faith grows as it is tested. For Abram, the first test was that of a famine.
Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land (Genesis 12:10).
I suspect that Abram, as an immature saint, had no idea that suffering and trials were a part of God’s curriculum in the school of faith. While Abram believed in God, he knew little of Him. He may have thought that the God Who called him was not able to control nature. In the pagan pantheon, the ‘gods’ had various limited powers. Perhaps his ‘god’ was not one to be bothered with matters like rain or crops. It never seemed to occur to Abram that God was not only greater than the famine, but the giver of it, as a test of faith.
Egypt seemed to be the logical solution. After all, God had sent Abram forth “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Perhaps God wished him to continue southward on into Egypt. Another factor was that Egypt was less susceptible to famines. Egypt was much like Ur. Each was blessed by a great river system which allowed for irrigation. Both lands were much less dependent upon rain than was the land of Canaan.
For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you come, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).
Farming in Canaan was much more a matter of faith than in Ur or Egypt.
Nowhere is Abram directly condemned for his decision to go down to Egypt, but later developments make it clear that his actions did not stem from faith.140 Abram did not consult God, but acted independently. No altars were built in Egypt to our knowledge, nor are we told that Abram ever called on the name of the Lord there. His request of Sarai also reflects his spiritual condition. It would thus be safe to say that Abram’s faith failed in the face of that famine.
Abram Faces the Future
It would seem that Abram made his decision to go to Egypt without considering the consequences. Just outside the border of Egypt Abram began to contemplate the dangers which lay ahead.
Sarai was a very beautiful woman,141 and there was good reason to fear the fate of a foreigner whose wife was so attractive.142 The husband was easily expendable in such circumstances. Abram thus appealed to his wife to accept his solution to this problem of his safety. He proposed that Sarai pose as his sister, so that he would not be killed.
Much has been written concerning Abram’s request. Some have thought that Abram was willing to see his wife married off to an Egyptian for his safety, as well as the dowry it would bring him. This, I believe, goes too far. More likely is the explanation of Cassuto,143 who suggests that Abram asked his wife to pose as his (eligible) sister so that when the men of the land asked for her hand, he could stall for sufficient time for them to leave the land.
It really was an ingenious plan. One of the local men would come to Abram to ask for his sister’s hand in marriage. Abram would consent but insist upon a long engagement (long enough for the famine to end). During this time Sarai would remain at Abram’s home where their marriage could secretly continue and the safety of Abram was assured. It seemed that the benefits were great and the liabilities of such a scheme were minimal.
Such a plan was evil for several reasons. First of all, it tended to ignore the presence and power of God in Abram’s life. God had promised the ends, but seemingly He was unable to provide the means. He promised a land, a seed, and a blessing. Now it seemed as though Abram was left to his own devices to procure them.
One must wonder if there were traces of the pagan religion of the Mesopatomians underlying Abram’s actions. Did Abram suppose, like the pagans, that each nation had its own god? Once out of the land God had promised Abram, was his God no longer able to provide for him and protect him? Such thoughts would enter the pagan mind.
Abram’s plan was wrong because it jeopardized the purity of his wife and the promise of God. God had promised to make of Abram a great nation. From Abram a great blessing to all nations, the Messiah, would come. Now Abram was willing to run the risk of another man taking Sarai as his wife. How, then, could she be the mother of Abram’s seed?
Abram was wrong as well because he looked to his wife to bring him blessing when God had promised to bring a blessing to others through Abram: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Abram was clinging to his wife’s petticoat for protection and blessing, rather than to the promises of God.144
Finally, Abram’s plan was wrong because his fears were hypothetical and his ethics were situational. Look carefully at Abram’s fears—they were all future. He had not yet entered the land (12:11), and what he feared was all stated in terms of the future (12:12-13).
Here is a clear-cut case of situational ethics. Situation ethics first of all poses a hypothetical problem which has no alternatives except ones that are morally unacceptable. The lesser of the evils is then justified in the light of the circumstances.
Abram was not wrong in considering the possibility that someone would appreciate his wife as beautiful and desire her for a wife. It was not even wrong to suppose that someone might even kill him to marry her. Abram was wrong to assume that this would happen and that the only way to prevent it was to lie. Nowhere is the promise and the protection of God considered. Sinful deception is therefore begun before any real danger is ever experienced.
Abram’s Fears are Fulfilled
Someone is sure to protest: “But Abram’s fears were not hypothetical. It happened just as Abram had feared.” Not really! Abram was not the victim of what he feared; he was the cause of what came to pass. Abram’s fear of the future, and his faithless plan of action actually caused the event that followed. Much of what we fear is self-fulfilled.
It is true that Sarai was noted as a beautiful woman and this was reported to Pharaoh. But what was most crucial in what followed was the claim from both Abram and Sarai that she was his sister, and therefore eligible for marriage. While we can only conjecture as to Pharaoh’s action, if the truth were known, he felt fully justified in taking the sister of Abram into his harem.
God worked in Abram’s life in a remarkable way. Abram supposed that the possibilities of escape from the dangers in Egypt were only as numerous as those he had considered. Abram made his decision on the assumption that he could foresee the outcome of his actions. God taught Abram the painful lesson that the possibilities for the future are more numerous than we can predict. And so Abram is faced with a dilemma that he never considered.
It was all well thought out and neatly planned. Sarai would pose as his sister, and Abram would put off any marriage until the famine was over and they were gone. But Abram’s plan considered only the men of Egypt: “and it will come about when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife; and they will kill me, but they will let you live” (Genesis 12:12).
Never had it entered Abram’s mind that Pharaoh might be interested in Sarai. While Abram could put off the plans of others, Pharaoh would not take no for an answer. He took her into his palace, awaiting the time of the consummation of the union.
There is no evidence of a physical relationship between Pharaoh and Sarai. While the preparation period would normally have been at the home of Abram, in this case it would be at the palace. Sarai would likely undergo a relatively long period of preparation for her presentation to Pharaoh. Such was the custom in those days:
Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women—for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women—the young lady would go in to the king in his way: anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name (Esther 2:12-14).
Can you imagine the lonely, agonizing nights Abram must have spent, wondering what was going on in the palace? Abram had asked Sarai to lie so that it would go well with him (verse 13). And it did go well. Pharaoh sent many gifts to Abram and treated him royally. The only thing which kept Abram from enjoying his treatment was the realization of what it meant. Pharaoh was giving these things to Abram as a dowry. It did go well with Abram, but without Sarai, his wife. Prosperity is never a blessing without the peace which comes from being right with God.
Divine Deliverance and Royal Rebuke
Significantly, God had not yet been mentioned in this event until verse 17. Abram was allowed to fail and to flounder until his situation was seemingly hopeless. We are not told that he cried to God for help.
Without warning, God intervened in the life of Abram. Pharaoh and his household are struck by some kind of plague. Its symptoms may have been such as to suggest that the nature of the offense was sexually related. We are given no details here of the plague, nor of how its meaning was discerned.145
Abram was confronted by Pharaoh and roundly rebuked. Abram had no excuse or explanation. So far as we are told, he did not utter a word in his defense. No doubt this was the wise thing to do in the light of Abram’s offense. Pharaoh was not one to be challenged or angered unnecessarily.
The irony of the situation is obvious. Here is a pagan correcting a prophet (cf. 20:7). It was a royal rebuke that Abram would painfully remember. How sad, however, that Abram could not speak, for this no doubt hindered any testimony to his faith in the living God Who had called him. The Christian’s conduct does greatly affect his credibility.
How different reality was from the faithless reasonings of Abram. While in Egypt, Sarai’s purity was protected and Abram’s life was preserved. More than this, all of his possessions were kept intact. And to top it off, Abram and those with him were escorted back to the land of Canaan.
And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him. So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, he and his wife and all that belonged to him; and Lot with him. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold (Genesis 12:20-13:2).
How foolish Abram’s fears must have appeared in the light of history. In order to avoid a famine, Abram was forced to face a Pharaoh. The might of Egypt was not employed against him, but was commanded to assure his safe arrival in Canaan. Indeed, Abram left Egypt even richer than he had come. But none of this was the result of Abram’s faithless and dishonest actions. It was the product of divine grace and providential care.
Verses 3 and 4 recount the retracing of Abram’s steps in reverse order. First he came to the Negev, then finally to Bethel and Ai. And when he returned to the altar he had formerly built, he once again offered sacrifices and called upon the name of the Lord.
Cassuto stresses the fact that Abram’s sojourn strikingly parallels Israel’s sojourn of the future.146 While the occasion for Israel’s presence in Egypt may not have been noble, God’s protection was provided there and they were eventually brought out with great spoils.
Famines would continue to be a part of the life of God’s people in the land to which they were going. But they must learn that famines come from God as a test of faith. If the people of God wish not to face famine, they must face Pharaoh. No matter what circumstance we may be in God is greater than any famine or any Pharaoh. The purity of God’s people must never be jeopardized, for in those days the Messiah was yet to appear for the salvation of His people.
There are many principles in this passage which should greatly strengthen the believer of any age. We shall suggest several.
(1) When God promises the ‘ends,’ He also provides the means. Abram believed God would give him a land, a seed, and a blessing. But in his time of faithlessness he supposed that God did not provide the means. God always provides for what He promises. There is a secular song which is entitled “Workin’ Like the Devil, Servin’ the Lord.” Many Christians seem to believe it. That is not God’s way.
(2) Our faith fails because our God is too small. We know that Abram’s faith failed. We also have seen that this failure did not frustrate God’s plan for his life. But we should be greatly helped to understand why Abram’s faith failed. I think the answer is obvious: Abram’s faith failed because His ‘god’ was too small.
As you know, J. B. Phillips some years ago wrote a book entitled, Your God is Too Small. Personally, I believe that Phillips put his finger on the reason why our faith is so fallible. The emphasis today falls largely upon our faith, rather than upon its object. As someone has said, I may have a little bit of faith in a 747 and be able to fly from here to Europe. On the other hand, I may have a great deal of faith in some homemade contraption which I have built in my garage. That will not get me across the Atlantic Ocean, no matter how great my faith in it may be.
Abram did not know His God well. And this was both normal and natural. He did not seem to think that his God was greater than famine, greater than Pharaoh. What Abram needed was not lessons in increasing his faith, but an increase in his faith by learning the greatness of his God. I believe much of our problem of little faith would be solved by knowing the God we serve more intimately. Abram did not have a Bible to help him, but we do.
(3) Situation ethics is wrong because it refuses to believe in the sovereignty of God. Situation ethics always supposes some kind of hypothetical circumstance in which there is no solution that is morally right. But God’s Word clearly tells us that God never puts us in a situation where we must sin:
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (I Corinthians 10:13).
The underlying error of situationalism is that it refuses to accept a sovereign God Who is able to deliver His people, regardless of their circumstances. Release from the slavery of Egypt under the cruel hand of Pharaoh was impossible, humanly speaking. When Israel stood trapped between the attacking armies and the Red Sea, there was no hope apparent. But the God we serve is a sovereign God. He is able to deliver His people from situations which appear to demand a sinful response.
(4) There are no short-cuts to godliness. Abram was taken aback by a famine, supposing that God’s way should not include adversity. But Abram was to learn that God designs the tests of life to develop our faith, not to destroy it.
Leaving Canaan for Egypt, in my estimation, was an attempt on Abram’s part to short-cut the test of the famine. As we have previously said, God forced Abram to face Pharaoh in place of the famine. But beyond this, we must see that, in the end, Abram had to go back to the place where he departed from the revealed word of God. Abram’s last act of faith and obedience was at the altar he built between Bethel and Ai. The end of Abram’s sojourn in Bypath Meadow was at this same altar between Bethel and Ai.
Have you ever considered side-stepping the path in which God has called you to walk? You may, of course, but the way will never be easy. The way of the transgressor is never easy (Proverbs 13:15). And, in the final analysis, we must resume wherever we left off. You cannot defeat God’s program and purposes for your life, my friend. At best, you can only delay them. And even this is a delusion, for in our failures many lessons of faith are learned.
(5) When our faith fails …God doesn’t. Our faith, like Abram’s will fail. But the blessed truth of God’s Word is that when our faith fails, God doesn’t.
Abram chose to doubt God’s presence and power in the face of a famine. His actions were those which showed he was willing to sacrifice principle for self-preservation. In spite of Abram’s failure of faith, God preserved him and even prospered him. Ultimately, God brought Abram to the place that he should have been.
This principle of God’s faithfulness in the face of our failure is one that applies to us today as well: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself” (II Timothy 2:13).
Here is the beauty of divine election. God has ultimately chosen us to be His children. (This applies, of course, only to those who believe in Christ for eternal salvation.) Just as He saved us in spite of ourselves, so He also sanctifies us in spite of ourselves. Our eternal security, our salvation, our sanctification rests in His faithfulness, not ours. Here is great comfort for those whose faith will fail.
But someone is sure to point to the verse immediately before II Timothy 2:13: “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us” (II Timothy 2:12).
There is a great deal of difference between doubt (faithlessness) and denial (rejection). Abram did not reject God; he simply failed to believe that God was able or willing to act in his behalf. No doubt Abram thought that God only “helped those who helped themselves.”
My understanding is that a true Christian cannot and will not ever renounce Jesus Christ as their Savior. But we will find times where our faith succumbs to doubt. Trials, tests or adversity may momentarily overwhelm our faith and cause us to doubt, and thus to act in violation to God’s revealed will. Such, I believe, was the case with Abram.
I do not mean for us to take this matter of failure lightly. When men do not purposefully act in accord with the revealed will of God, His purposes are not thwarted. God providentially acts to ensure the fulfillment of His purposes. While we may find ourselves precisely where God wanted us all along (providentially), we will never look back on our sin and unbelief with a smile on our face. Disobedience is never a delight to the Christian. Those long, lonely nights in the house of Abram were not worth the dowry of Pharaoh. Failure is always painful, but it never thwarts God’s purposes for his children.
May God use this truth to keep us from careless Christianity, as well as to comfort us when we do experience a failure of our faith.
140 “The Bible does not condemn his action but the results condemn it; so we are to learn by cause and effect relationships.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 143.
“Yet all the indications are that Abram did not stop to enquire, but went on his own initiative, taking everything into account but God. His craven and tortuous calculations are doubly revealing, both of the natural character of this spiritual giant (cf. Jas 5:l7a) and of the sudden transition that can be made from the plane of faith to that of fear.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p.116.
141 Abram, we are told, left Haran for Canaan at the age of 75 (12:4). We know from 17:17 that Sarai was ten years younger than Abram, making her about 65 at the time of this event. How could her beauty be so great at this age? Sarah died at the age of 127 (23:1). In her day, she was simply at the early stages of middle age. Her beauty was so striking she appeared even younger than she was. This satisfies the matter to my satisfaction, at least. Cf. Kidner, p. 117.
142 Stigers has an interesting footnote on this point: “PABH, p. 55 does state that a certain papyrus document states that the Pharoah had a husband killed that he might have the beautiful wife. Modern times do not have a ‘corner’ on such deeds!” Stigers, Genesis, p. 141, fn. 10.
144 A comment should also be made concerning Sarai’s participation in this scheme. I agree with Leupold, who has written, “Sarai’s acquiescence, however, seems to grow out of the idea that there actually is no other safe course to follow. She was as sadly deficient in faith as he himself on this occasion.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 425.
It is true that Peter commended Sarah, and used her as an example for Christian women, especially in the matter of submissiveness. But Peter did not refer to her actions in chapter 11, but rather to chapter 18 and her respectful reference to Abraham as her ‘lord’ at the time when she learned that she and Abram were to have a child of their own. Never is the Christian to sin because someone in higher authority has commanded it (cf. Daniel 3, 6; Acts 5:29).