For most of us, if we’re honest, there’s a tendency to look at people that God really uses and blesses, and to think, “I don’t measure up. I don’t even come close to that.” There are some people who really are blessed by God, and who make an impact in this world that is unbelievable. And then there’s us. Part of our struggle in life is that we think that it takes somebody really unusual and gifted to be used by God, and right away that rules most of us out. We know ourselves, and we know that we’re filled with struggles and doubts and questions. And so we conclude that it’s probably going to be difficult for God to really use us in any substantial way.
One day as I was reading my Bible, I remember thinking, “Why are there so many really bad people in this book?” I know there are villains in most books, but the Bible isn’t a novel or a work of fantasy. It’s a record of how God has been at work in history, not as a passive observer but as an active participant. Along the way, there are a lot of stories of people that God chose to use. The funny part is that a lot of them are people that you wouldn’t expect. I’m not talking about little faults. I’m talking about some pretty significant issues – prostitution, murder, corruption, deception, very loose morals. I kept asking myself, why would God use people like this?
I’m finding that the Bible actually teaches something very different from my premise that God uses extraordinarily gifted and committed people. The reality is that God uses people just like me – full of hang-ups and doubts and questions that don’t really have answers. This summer, I want to look at some of the people that God has used in the Bible. I’m calling them “Famous Bad People of the Bible.” Each of them is recorded in Scripture for our benefit, so we can learn from their lives, possibly to avoid the mistakes that they made, but also, ultimately, to discover that if God can use people like them, then God can probably use somebody like me.
One of these people – actually one of the better ones – is somebody called Abraham, or (his original name) Abram. I almost feel bad including Abraham in the list of famous bad people that God chose to use. When we think of him, we don’t usually consider him to be a famous bad person. He’s considered the father of three major world religions today – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He has a remarkable record of faithfulness to God. At God’s command, he left an important and flourishing city for an unknown land, without any questioning. He was brave and loyal to his family, defending them at any cost. He was the recipient of a covenant from God, that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. He was respected by others, and was a successful and wealthy rancher. When put to the test, he was willing to obey God, even to the point of giving up his own son. I’m sure that I couldn’t come close to the track record of faithfulness that Abraham displayed during his lifetime.
But Abraham did make mistakes – or at least they look like mistakes in hindsight. To be honest, I’ve always thought they were mistakes, but as we’re going to see today, the lines aren’t always too clear. It is clear that some of the actions Abraham took had some very negative consequences and ended up getting in God’s way. In all of the three events we’ll examine, I can sympathize with what Abraham did. I think we’ll find that there are some parallels to some of the ethical dilemmas that we face today in our businesses, in our families, in the major life decisions we make.
Let’s take a look the first of three events in Abraham’s life. This event is found in Genesis 12, which is on page 13 of the pew Bibles. This story is pretty early in what we know about Abraham. God had just called him to leave his country, and Abraham had obeyed and gone, just as God told him. Genesis 12:10 says, “At that time there was a severe famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to wait it out.” We don’t know how long Abraham had spent in Canaan, but you can imagine that this would have been a little bit disconcerting to Abraham. He had just moved to where God had told him to go, and already he had to move on somewhere else. God told him to move there, and I would have been wondering why, if I had obeyed God, things weren’t working out. Abraham decided that he would have to move, at least temporarily, until the famine was over, so he decided to go to Egypt.
As Abraham headed for Egypt, he realized that he had a problem. Read what happened in Genesis 12:11-13:
As he was approaching the borders of Egypt, Abram said to Sarai, “You are a very beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘this is his wife. Let’s kill him; then we can have her!’ But if you say you are my sister, then the Egyptians will treat me well because of their interest in you, and they will spare my life.”
Sarah is at least 65 years old at this point, but she’s still stunningly beautiful. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls praises Sarah’s beauty. You wouldn’t think this would be a problem for Abraham – having a beautiful wife – but it created a moral dilemma for Abraham. What if people were so attracted to Sarah that Abraham became nothing more than an obstacle? Abraham’s solution: pretend that Sarah isn’t a wife but a sister. Abraham protected himself by twisting the truth, even if it did open Sarah to romantic interest from others.
Was Abraham lying? Not really. He was stretching the truth. What he said was technically accurate. We read later on that Abraham and Sarah had different mothers, but the same father, so they were technically brother and sister. But Abraham purposely concealed the fact that they were married. He was technically honest, and yet he was concealing the truth.
At one level, we can appreciate what Abraham did as smart. He read the situation, and at one level, his plan worked. His life was spared. They treated him very well. But Abraham’s solution also spun his world out of control. Read what happened with me in verses 14-16:
And sure enough, when they arrived in Egypt, everyone spoke of her beauty. When the palace officials saw her, they sang her praises to their king, the pharaoh, and she was taken into his harem. Then Pharaoh gave Abram many gifts because of her—sheep, cattle, donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
The results of Abraham’s plan: Abraham’s life was spared. He received many gifts and obtained a position of influence in Egypt. The bad news, though: he lost his wife to Pharaoh’s harem. God had called him to a new land and promised to make a great nation from him. Yet picture Abraham at this point. His plan works, but he sits in a tent in Egypt with all of God’s promises dangling like frayed threads: no land, no family, nothing even resembling the beginnings of a blessing. It was the first time that Abraham was faced with the challenge of trusting God, even though obstacles stood in the way of God’s promises being fulfilled. But it wouldn’t be the last.
Abraham’s plan worked – but in some ways it didn’t. Read what happened in verses 17-20:
But the LORD sent a terrible plague upon Pharaoh’s household because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called for Abram and accused him sharply. “What is this you have done to me?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why were you willing to let me marry her, saying she was your sister? Here is your wife! Take her and be gone!” Pharaoh then sent them out of the country under armed escort—Abram and his wife, with all their household and belongings.
Abraham, a man who’s commended three times in Hebrews 11 as a hero of the faith, faced the same dilemma that we all do today, and he chose wrong. The question is this: when is trusting God not enough? When should we take matters into our own hands, even if it means cutting minor ethical corners? I know the answer we’re supposed to give – we should always trust God and never take things into ou r own hands – but what does that mean in our everyday lives, when we need a job or we’re about to lose a contract? Where does what God does stop and what I do start? When we face obstacles and dangers in our lives and careers, should we just trust God or should we do something about it? We’re going to come back to this in a minute. Let’s continue to look at what happened in Abraham’s life.
The story of Abraham’s life continues, and Abraham goes through some amazing experiences. He rescues his nephew, Lot, in a daring raid against four kings. He meets with a mysterious man named Melchizedek who blesses Abraham and acknowledges that it’s Jehovah who has helped him prevail. God then promises a son to him. But then Abraham faces another test in which the obstacles looked bigger than God’s promises. Turn to Genesis 16 and read the first three verses with me.
But Sarai, Abram’s wife, had no children. So Sarai took her servant, an Egyptian woman named Hagar, and gave her to Abram so she could bear his children. “The LORD has kept me from having any children,” Sarai said to Abram. “Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed. So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram first arrived in the land of Canaan.)
It’s hard to read this story and not be shocked, but actually, what happened was quite acceptable back in those days. Sarah was at least 75 years old at this point, and after all, ten years is a long time to wait for a baby. I think I’d start to develop doubts as well. At that time, a married woman who didn’t have kids would be ridiculed and shunned. The normal course of action would be to do just what Sarah did – to give a female servant to her husband in order to produce heirs. That wasn’t shocking; that just was the way things happened. Any children born to the servant woman would still be considered the children of the wife. They didn’t understand biology like we do today. They saw the mother as the incubator for the seed that was planted in her, so that one incubator was almost as good as another. It sounds shocking to us today, but back then it was just how things were done. It wouldn’t have been surprising to read back then that Abraham had chosen this course of action. It was almost expected at that time.
Once again, the results were disastrous. On one level, the plan worked. Hagar became pregnant. Abraham had an heir on the way. But everything else fell apart. Hagar knew that she had become indispensable to the family, and she began to act as if she was superior. Abraham was so overjoyed at the pregnancy that he didn’t seem to care how Hagar was acting. Abraham gave Sarah the right to deal with Hagar as she wished, and Hagar ended up banished and alone. Twice now, Abraham has stepped in for God and his plans have worked, but everything else has fallen apart. There’s still no true heir. Actually, it’s worse than having no true heir. Now there’s a rival heir to the true heir that will soon be born. For the next thirteen years, until God appears to him again in the next chapter, Ishmael is the heir. The plan worked, but everything the plan was supposed to accomplish was once again in jeopardy.
I wish I could pull out a simple lesson, like Abraham lacked faith, and you should never do what God has promised to do. The passage looks disapprovingly at what Abraham did, but the lesson isn’t that we should wait on the sidelines waiting for God to act all our lives. Sometimes God wants us to move out in faith. Abraham’s problem wasn’t really a lack of faith; he just seems to have been considering all of the options. But it does seem that sometimes, when we try to help God out, we end up getting in the way. We’ll come back to this thought in a minute.
The final scene we’re going to look at today is found in Genesis 20. Genesis 20:1-2 says, “Now Abraham moved south to the Negev and settled for a while between Kadesh and Shur at a place called Gerar. Abraham told people there that his wife, Sarah, was his sister. So King Abimelech sent for her and had her brought to him at his palace.” We’ve read this before. He’s tried this at least once before, possibly more often. In fact, Abraham says in verse 13, “When God sent me to travel far from my father’s home, I told her, ‘Wherever we go, have the kindness to say that you are my sister.'” This plan may have worked in many cases, but it failed on two occasions. This was one of them.
Genesis 20:3 says, “But one night God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him, ‘You are a dead man, for that woman you took is married.'” How would you like to have that kind of dream? Abimelech plead innocence, and God responded in verse 6-7:
“Yes, I know you are innocent,” God replied. “That is why I kept you from sinning against me; I did not let you touch her. Now return her to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. Then you will live. But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and your entire household will die.”
We read on in the chapter that Abimelech did do as God said, and that Abraham prayed for his house to be healed, and that all ended well. Sarah was pregnant at this time with the son that God had promised. Last time Abraham told this lie, he almost lost his wife. This time, he not only almost lost his wife, but he almost lost his claim to the heir. If things had gone much further, the paternity of Isaac would have been in doubt. Once again, Abraham’s attempt to help out backfired and ended up as just another obstacle that God had to deal with.
Here’s the thing: we don’t know how many times Abraham tried this approach, and it worked. It seems that he tried this ruse everywhere he went. We only know about the two times that it didn’t work, but to us it looks very much like a failure. He was a man of faith, but there were at least three times in his life that his plans actually got in the way of what God wanted to accomplish.
Abraham’s story is a comfort to me. There are a lot of times that I want to trust God, but I don’t understand what my role is and what God’s role is going to be as well. There are times in our lives, that despite all of our faith, we reach a crossroads and we need to make a decision. Do we buy the house or don’t we? Do we take this job or wait for something better? Do we marry this person or do we stay single? We pray about these decisions, but God doesn’t answer, at least in a way that makes sense. So then we either have to decide to wait, sometimes indefinitely, or to go ahead and make a decision, without any assurance that the decision we’re about to make is what God wants us to do. What do we do in those cases?
Should Abraham have tried to have his own child through Hagar? Was he circumventing what God wanted to do? Yes, in hindsight, but at the time he probably thought he was just doing his part. Should he have stretched the truth about his wife to save his life? He did cross an ethical line there, but it seems that he thought he was doing the right thing – just using common sense to avoid a really bad situation.
As I thought about Abraham’s life, some lessons came home to me that are very relevant in my life.
1. Even godly people sometimes have a hard time knowing what to do.
I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse, but sometimes even godly people, spiritual giants, have a hard time knowing what decision to make. It’s not easy. Here’s Abraham, a hero of the faith, and he faces these situations in which he just doesn’t know, and the solution that he chooses ends up being the wrong one. There are times that even those of us who are really trying to follow God just don’t know which course of action to take. There are sometimes no easy answers.
It’s four years ago tomorrow that I started at Richview – that’s hard to believe. When I was making the decision to come to Richview, I prayed ab out it, I talked to friends and family about it, I prayed about it some more, and in the end I felt like I made the decision that God wanted me to make. But I just wasn’t sure. I remember talking to a friend, and saying, “What if I made the wrong decision? What if I go to Richview and it’s a disaster? What do I do then?” Don’t worry – I think it was the right decision, and I believe God was leading me here, but sometimes it’s hard to know. I’ve heard of pastors who have gone to churches and it seems like it was a huge mistake. Didn’t they pray? Yes, they did. But sometimes it’s hard to know, even for a godly person, what to do.
I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse about whatever decision you may be facing. It may make you feel worse. I’m not saying that there aren’t times that God makes his will known, and that it’s very clear. But there are other times that we can pray and at the end of it all, we just don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard to know, even after we pray about it, if we’re making the right decision or not.
There’s another lesson that I think we can learn from Abraham’s life.
2. Our plans may be successful but fruitless if they don’t meet with divine approval
The funny thing about these three episodes in Abraham’s life is that his plans worked. His life was spared. They did believe that Sarah was his sister and not his wife. He did have a son. At one level, all of Abraham’s plans worked, but at another level, it was a disaster. All of Abraham’s good intentions added more obstacles to what God wanted to accomplish. They didn’t bring him closer to God’s plans for his life. They actually took him further away from what God wanted to accomplish.
This is the scary part. I can have my whole life planned out – who I’m going to marry, what I’m going to do, all sorts of goals – and all my plans can be successful, but still be fruitless if God isn’t in them. Abraham accomplished everything that he set out to do, but he moved further and further away from what God wanted and promised, instead of closer and closer.
Abraham cut some moral corners. Sometimes we think that we have to cut moral corners to succeed in some area of our life. It could be at work, where bending the truth is almost expected. If you don’t do it, it could cost you your career, your commission, or a really big client. We can bend the truth, and on one level, we can succeed – but God won’t be in it. We can have all the success in the world, but if God isn’t in it, it will be fruitless.
One more lesson from Abraham’s experiences:
3. When our plans don’t work out, God is still big enough to handle it.
Anybody here ever make a mistake, that’s set your life on the wrong track? A bad career decision; a mistake in who you chose to marry; a really bad moral choice. At times it can seem that the decisions we have made have sent our lives so far away from what God intended that it’s hopeless – but it isn’t. God is big enough to handle our lives, even our mistakes. God’s plans will ultimately prevail in our lives.
That’s why I love these stories about Abraham. Abraham kept on trying to help, but he kept getting further from what God wanted to do. God never threw up his hands and said, “I give up! I can’t work with this man.” The promised son was born. Abraham became the father of many nations. Jesus Christ was born as a descendent of Abraham. You and I can be recipients of the grace that came through Jesus Christ, who came to die and rise again to set us free from the power and the penalty of sin. It’s all because God can take ordinary human beings and use them, despite their mistakes. God is big enough to handle my mistakes.
I’ve planned good parts of my life. I look back now and I’m thankful my plans never worked out. I’ve had some of my plans work out too, but God wasn’t in them. Probably the best thing we can do today is to get to the end of this service and say to God, “I give my life to you – all of my plans, all of my desires. Unless you’re in them, they’ll go nowhere. I submit myself to you. Work in my life – even in my mistakes – to bring yourself glory.”
We sing that song – All for Jesus. The words say this, and I’m going to ask you to make this your prayer today as we close:
All for Jesus
All I am and have and ever
Hope to be
All of my ambitions
Hopes and plans
I surrender these into your hands
For it’s only in
Your will that I am free
Your greatest hopes and plans, would you surrender them to God’s hands today. Your greatest mistakes, would you ask him to work in your life to accomplish his promises. In Jesus’ name, Amen.