As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. – Romans 4:17
Paul is addressing a series of questions posed by the Roman Christians as they try to make sense of this new way of life they have started to follow. It was clear from the number of issues Paul addresses – salvation, sin, the promise of God, faith, circumcision vs. uncircumcision, law, predestination and more, that they were feeling the tension of living this new life in a world that was contrary to it. Furthermore, trying to explain this God and life to others, let alone walk in it was a constant challenge. Paul uses the story of Abraham as an example of someone who lived in the tension of the kingdom – someone who both received the promise of God, and had to wait for its total fulfillment. By using Abraham as an example, we can see how to apply those same principles in our lives.
What’s Your Name?
Abram had a problem. He had received a promise from God about his descendants… The ones he didn’t have, and didn’t see any opportunity of having. He was 75 when he answered the call to start this journey with God, his wife was barren, and yet this new and mysterious God was talking promise – promise Abram was crazy enough to believe. This belief, however, was not without its challenges:
After this the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children so a servant in my house will be my heir.” -Genesis 15:1-3
While Abram did not lose faith, he was having problems seeing how God was going to make good on the promise. God answered Abram, but did so with more assurances of the promise. For Abram, he would still have to wait at least another 15 years before He saw the promise fulfilled.
When the time was close for the promise to be fulfilled, God turned up the heat yet again:
As for Me, this is my covenant with you: you will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. -Genesis 17:4-5
Not only did Abram have to hold this promise close to his heart, waiting for God to fulfill it, but now he had to be identified with it… Called by it. There was no escaping, no excusing and no relief from the tension of knowing there was a promise, but having nothing more than a promise as proof.
The Pressure Cooker
Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual. – Daniel 3:19
Pressure cookers are interesting devices, because they use pressure to raise the cooking temperature of the water in the cooker past its normal boiling point, resulting in faster cooking than traditional methods.
Looking at Abram, it could be easily said that his life resembled a pressure cooker. Our own lives feel that way sometimes, when we are standing strong on God’s promise or on our prayer, yet the struggle, the challenge, and the pressure increase. We know our “boiling point” – our point where we think we cannot believe anymore, cannot follow, cannot see God coming through, but God gets in and allows us to be placed in a situation that goes even beyond that point. How are we supposed to maintain faith in that situation, when we have used every ounce of faith we have? How do we continue to live a life of faith, when all we can say about our belief is, “I don’t know… I just know”?
Stress vs. Tension
Stress and tension are strange bedfellows. Often they are seen as one and the same, or synonyms of another. While there are differences between the two, our reaction to both is often the same – get rid of it as fast as possible. Face it: stress and / or tension are uncomfortable, unnerving, and unable to be controlled by us. Too much of it and our body begins to break down. We get sick or even die.
Getting away from stress is a natural “fight or flight” reaction. We make quick decisions, toss the cargo overboard, sacrifice the weak, or in the case of Abram and Sarah, look for a natural solution to a spiritual promise
So [Sarai] said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her” – Genesis 16:2
You would think that either Abram and Sarai would find relief in their decision, or that God would tell them that “the deal is off” because they didn’t wait long enough. Neither happened. Yes, they had a son, but God didn’t speak to them about this son. He only spoke to Ishmael’s mother. For God, the promise was still on. While God would bless Ishmael, this would not deter God from fulfilling His promise in His time, in His way. Furthermore, God didn’t release Abram and Sarai from the tension of waiting for the promise. The pressure continued to build, the water pressed past its own boiling temperature, and God kept the lid on. Why would God put Abram and Sarah, you and I through the tension of a life of promise that we continue not to see? Why would He give us the “keys to the kingdom”, if you will, when we are unsure if the key is going to work in the door, or worse – if we wouldn’t see the door for a long, long time?
The Kingdom… An Eternal Perspective
For us, the kingdom of God and His promises exist on a time plane. We think in terms of natural response, normal timeframes and explainable scenarios. God, however lives outside of time, and as such does not measure His action and response in terms of time, space, or even reason:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things- and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” – I Corinthians 1:27-31
God doesn’t always fit our logic. He does things the way God does. He is not dependent upon our earthly marketing efforts to make Him acceptable. Even when Abram asked him point blank, “what will you give me, seeing that I am childless”, God responded by giving him nothing – nothing more than His word.
He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:5-6
The key for Abram was settling into the tension. Abram believed that God was able to be God, fulfilling what He said without Abram’s, or anyone else’s help. Abram believed God was so active in the world and in his life, that when he left home he “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10)”.
Abram didn’t know, but he knew. He realized that he was dealing with something that was outside of his strength, his ability, even his realm. This was a kingdom reality that was coming from God alone. Abram didn’t know the mechanics or time of it, but he did believe that it would happen. That God would make good on his promise.
Kingdom Tensions, Heavenly Harmonies
Personal trainers who are worth their salt will incur the wrath of those that they are training every now and then. This is because they promise results, but then put the trainees through rigorous, tiring and yes, painful workout sessions. The tendency of the trainee is to immediately hit the scale or mirror to see results, but the trainer will dissuade them from doing so. The trainer knows when the right time is to check for results, but until then, the trainee must trust the trainer, knowing that the trainer knows what they are doing and that they will keep their promise as long as they keep their relationship with the trainer.
Tension in the right situation is good, for it produces a result that nothing else can. Guitar strings by themselves are useless, but when stretched along the body of the guitar, produce a beautiful sound. Abram allowed his life to be “God’s guitar string” that God didn’t just play during Abram’s life. God continued to play Abram’s song, calling him the father of the faith for all who would believe. Abram’s song is a song that we can not only sing, but we can make our own song that others will sing
Being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised. This is why it was credited to him as righteousness. The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. – Romans 4:21-24
God’s Work… Our Work
What we do with this – how do we live in both “the now and the not yet”? How can we be accepting of “the fullness of time”, and God’s determination of when that is?
- Let God be God alone.
- Settle into the fact that the promise is His to keep
- Trust the Trainer – don’t rush to the mirror to look for results
- Realize stress and tension are not the same – don’t start tossing things overboard in the tension
- Let God play your song to those around you