A view of the front and back cover

On Calvin and Hobbes and Building Character

The “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip by Bill Watterson ran from November 18, 1985 to December 31, 1995. One recurring theme was his father telling six-year-old Calvin, “It builds character.” The things he said build character include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bug bites
  • Camping
  • Numb toes
  • Starvation
  • Shoveling the walk
  • Playing sports (baseball)
  • Enduring cold weather
  • Food
  • Suffering a tough life
  • Learning to ride a bicycle.

So basically, any time Calvin had to do something he didn’t like, his father said, “It builds character.” One in particular stands out to me. Calvin complained that it was cold in the house.

Calvin: It’s freezing in here!! Why can’t we crank up the thermostat?!

Dad: Consuming less fuel is good for the environment and it saves money.

Calvin: Oh.

Dad: And being cold builds character.

Calvin: I KNEW IT!!

https://www.reddit.com/r/calvinandhobbes/comments/83o3q6/being_cold_builds_character/

Blame it on Paul and James

I imagine, like Calvin, the last thing you want to hear about this crisis is it builds character. So I won’t do that. I’ll let Paul do it.

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope …

(Rom 5:3-4 NRS).

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. So Paul agrees with the dad. Sorry, Calvin.

But when we’re going through suffering or trials of any kind, it’s hard to see anything positive. It’s hard to “count it nothing but joy,” as James said (1:2). It’s hard to think about the perspective and maturity you will gain when all you want is for it to be over. After you go through a few trials, though, you can look back and see, “Yes, I am a better person for having gone through that.”

At some point, we all ask something like, if God loves us, why is there so much suffering? Why won’t God get rid of the Coronavirus? If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), why is God allowing all the chaos and suffering of this pandemic? We think love wants to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. And that is true, to an extent (Mat 7:9-11). But that is only part of the picture. My experience living with clinical depression and Irritable Bowel Syndrome has convinced me that God’s love cares more about our character than our happiness. I wouldn’t have chosen those trials and the crises of faith that came with them, but they made me more compassionate and wiser. They stripped away any what’s-in-it-for-me aspect of faith I had before. And they resulted in a WD Award Winning book.

A view of the front and back cover
I was pleased with how the front and back cover looked.

As wonderful as that is, what I really hope for is people telling me after they read my book, they got diagnosed, or they started counseling, or they now understand why their son, daughter, spouse, or parent acts the way they do. In other words, that it really helps others living with depression. That is often where perspective and wisdom happens. God allowed me to go through this, so I can help others who are going through the same thing.

A New Prayer for Perseverance

The only way your faith can mature is to go through trials and experience God’s faithfulness through them. James said it this way.

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

(Jam 1:2-5 NRS)

In that spirit, I wrote this prayer I am using to get me through this, and I hope it helps you.

“God, you said through your servant James that the trying of my faith would produce perseverance and wisdom. I would rather you remove it from me. For that matter, I would rather You remove it from my family, from my neighbors, and from the world. I am facing the brutal facts, and they are overwhelming. But if You choose not to remove it immediately, I know there must be a reason. There must be a lesson in this, even if I can’t imagine what it is right now. I confess that I am lacking wisdom in this trial. You promised to give me this wisdom, the perspective I need, if I ask. So I ask You to give me wisdom to see as You see, and to use this until You choose to remove it. Amen.”

Don’t Call It “The New Normal”

I added the word “immediately” because God will remove this at some point. Or our medical experts will find a cure and/or vaccine. We can take some comfort in knowing historically, no pandemic lasts forever. The plagues of the 14th and 18th centuries did come to an end, as did the Spanish flu of 1918. That is why I refuse to use the words “new normal.” New normal implies this is what life is going to be like from now on. Social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, washing hands and sanitizing surfaces several times a day are all good for flattening the curve. And the sooner we get everyone on board with that, the sooner it will be over.

But it won’t be like this forever. One day, it will be safe to gather together again. We’ll be able to go back to church, movies, and concerts with our friends and family, and without masks. We’ll be able to shake hands and hug those we love. I and others will be able to seek out speaking engagements in person rather than on screen. But for now, the loving thing to do is to protect each other by stopping the spread of the virus however we can. Remember who you are doing this for. I socially distance from you, so I don’t have to socially distance from my wife. No offense, but I’d rather get close to her than to you.

So stay safe and six feet apart. If you can’t do that, wear masks and wash your hands. And remember the words of Paul and James I shared with you. They had it right. Suffering and the trying of our faith does produce perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, so that the trying of our faith makes us mature and complete, lacking in nothing. Ask God for wisdom to see how this is forming your character to conform to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Because as bad as this may be, the only thing that could be worse is if we have to go through this and not learn what God wants us to learn from this trial.

Grace and Peace to you.

If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.

six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category

Vlog Part 2

six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category
In the last photo, notice the Nonfiction winner (humble brag)

The May/June issue of Writer’s Digest is out, listing the winners of the 2019 Self-Published E-book Awards. You’ll see in this montage my lovely wife put together, I am listed as the winner in the Nonfiction category. I know I’ve told you about it, but seeing it in print is so exciting.

I have my own YouTube channel called Almost Ordained. You can follow the link to check it out or even subscribe. “Almost ordained” because I have two seminary degrees, but never got ordained. That means I have the theological and biblical training, but I can’t pastor a church or perform sacraments or weddings. My sister took up that mantle.

I have links to the latest episodes below, along with running times so you can gauge whether you have time for it. This is an example of a vlog (video blog). As the name implies, it is a blog done on video. Keeping some kind of diary or journal is often helpful in getting through a stressful time, so I encourage you to do it, whether on video, your blog, or the old-fashioned way.

Episodes

Kingdom Priorities (23:18)

Wisdom from Psalm 30 (30:05)

A New Haircut, The Stockdale Paradox, James 1:2-5; and Letting Perseverance Complete Its Work (28:08)

Confessions of an Ex-Prophet (58:07)

Coronavirus Confessions, and Why Gardening Is Good for Depression (12:08)

The Second Sign of a False Prophet (30:39)

Confessions of an Ex-Prophet

Announcement

So many people staying at home now. Some of you are busier than ever with your kids at home instead of school. But some people have some extra time on their hands. I’ve been wanting to start a podcast, and now seems like a good time. So if you are bored sitting at home, you’ll have something new to listen to. The first episodes will be on faith in a time of Coronavirus. I’ll let you know when it’s up. In the meantime, here is a script for what I think will be the first episode.


I want to talk to the prophets of America. I know usually in December and January, you give a word to the faithful for the coming year. I have gone back and listened to what you predicted for 2020. One minister made it pretty easy. He asked 20 prophets to make predictions for 2020 and played them all. 20 prophets. I transcribed the program. Here is a word cloud I made from it.

word cloud from transcript of January broadcast of "20 Prophecies for 2020"
What’s missing?

God is big, no surprise. Going is big, probably because you were talking about what God is “going” to do in 2020. Year is big, of course, because you were talking about the new year. I also see America is prominent, again no surprise. I see Gregorian at the bottom and Hebrew at the top to the right, because a couple of them talked about the alignment of the year 2020 on the Gregorian calendar with the year 5780 on the Hebrew calendar. Because 5+7+8+0=20. I’m sorry, but I don’t call that an alignment. 20 is not the same number as 2020.

But regardless of that, you know what I don’t see? Coronavirus, COVID-19, or pandemic. No mention of a virus at all. Nothing that would even suggest what we’re going through now. I know the Biblical writers knew nothing about viruses, but you still could have used some Biblical term, like plague, or pestilence, or disease. The word “shaken” or “shaking” should be on there. I did hear that a few times. This could be called a shaking. But even then, the rest of their message did not sound like they were anticipating this current crisis. One of them did say we would see a shaking in the first four months. That is the closest any one of them came to predicting this. And a couple of others mentioned a “shaking like nothing before.” Again, that could be a reference to what we’re experiencing now. But one of them specified “the soil will be shaken.” That sounds more like an earthquake than a pandemic.

So out of 20 prophets, who claim to hear directly from God and speak directly for God the word for today, only a couple of them even hinted at what we are going through now. And on top of that, one of them said she had just come from a conference of 42 prophets from around the world. I didn’t get the transcript of that. But if any of them saw a pandemic coming, she didn’t say so.

And you see decade is prominent? Several of them talked about not only what the year would bring, but also the decade, because this is the beginning of a new decade. Except it’s not. The decade does not begin in 2020. It begins in 2021. Even if you don’t know when the decade begins, God does. Why would God make a mistake like that?

What is this the year of? According to them, it’s the year of fire. The year of evangelism. The year of the Father. The year of the voice. The year of the mouth. In reality, it is the year of Coronavirus, the year of pandemic. Why didn’t that make it onto your list of “Year of”s? Is it possible you heard a voice or saw a vision that you thought was from God, but it wasn’t?

First Sign of a False Prophet

Back in Biblical times, this was how they detected a false prophet. This is from the English Standard Version (ESV).

… when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

(Deu 18:22 ESV)

Are you going to curse me for pointing out that your prophecies are not coming true? Go ahead. This verse says I need not be afraid of you. You prophesied miracles, healings, and the manifest glory of God in worship, where people are gathered together. They will even gather in stadiums, you said. Are people gathering together now? No, because we have to maintain social distancing. Stadiums are closed, along with businesses, and schools. Churches are closed and moving their services online. They aren’t gathering together.

You prophesied healings. Instead, people are getting sick at an alarming rate. You prophesied prosperity. Look what’s happening to the economy. People are losing jobs in record numbers. Does that sound like prosperity? You prophesied that every dream would come true this year for God’s faithful. This is not what we were dreaming.

How do we know the prophet is false? Deuteronomy 18:22 could not have summed it up any better. … if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken. You spoke words in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak. And since most of you were on that program because you’ve been doing this for years, I think it’s safe to guess that this is not the first time. These were not the first prophecies that did not come true, meaning, you spoke words in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak. You spoke presumptuously. Again, I ask, is it possible that you heard something or saw a vision that you thought was from God, but it wasn’t? It’s time to own up to that fact.

A Democracy, Not a Theocracy

What was the penalty in ancient Israel for speaking false prophecies? According to Deuteronomy 18:20, the prophet was put to death. There are some indications in the Bible that was not practiced consistently, but still, that was supposed to be the penalty. Think about it. Speaking a word in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak? That is taking the Lord’s name in vain, a violation of one of the top ten commandments. We usually think of taking the Lord’s name in vain as saying like, OMG! Or Jesus Chr…! But that is a minor offense compared to false prophecies. When you speak in the name of the Lord, and God did not speak to you? You speak in the name of the Lord presumptuously? That is much more serious.

So in ancient Israel, they were supposed to put someone to death for that. We can’t do that here. Israel was a theocracy, and we are not. In a theocracy, you can put someone to death for blasphemy or speaking the Lord’s name in vain. You can’t do that in a democracy or republic. And personally, I’m glad for that. Because if we were still living by that standard, I shouldn’t be alive today.

Redemption Is Possible

Sorry for scaring you with that talk of the death penalty, but I want you to get this is serious. And I want you to know redemption is possible. We are not in the theocracy of ancient Israel, so no one is going to stone you to death or put you in front of a firing squad. But you are still accountable to God for every careless or presumptuous word you utter in God’s name (Mat 12:36-37). But redemption is possible.

I did not get on stage or broadcast prophecies to the public, but I did say things to people who came forward in church services seeking a word from God. And I spoke in the name of the Lord. But looking back, I have to admit I had no idea if it was the Lord or not. And sometimes, it was clearly not the Lord. How do I know? Because it did not come to pass, or it led me or others to do the wrong thing. I know what it is like to hear something and think it is from God and then find out it wasn’t. It’s a really tough pill to swallow. It will make you question everything you thought you knew about God. But even though it is scary as hell, it’s a good thing when you own up to it.

I Spoke Presumptuously Too

I used to belong to a church that encouraged people to flow in the gifts of the Spirit according to 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Part of your task as a believer, they said, was to uncover which of those gifts was yours. I felt drawn to gifts of prophecy and healing. I didn’t know if either of them was for me, but I thought if I didn’t try, I would never know. I was cautious at first, but with practice I grew bolder. One time, a young man came forward who I knew pretty well. We were both involved in the youth ministry of the church. He had just been married, and he was worried about being able to provide for both him and his wife, and potentially children down the road, and he said he wanted some security. I could hear the distress in his voice. I told him something like, “I hear the Lord saying, security does not come from your job. Security only comes from trusting God. The Lord will provide.”

Did the Lord really say that? Or was I just parroting what I had always heard in the church? “Trust God for your needs. God will provide, no matter what the circumstances. Jehovah Jireh, the LORD will provide.” To this day, I don’t know. I do know that even as I said it, I felt like a fraud. I was single. I had never had to take care of anyone other than myself, and I was barely doing that. Still, I had money coming in. I knew where it was coming from. I had security. And whenever it looked like I might lose it, did I say, “That’s okay. I trust God. God will provide. I’ll be fine.” Oh, no. I was scared spitless (as in, when you get scared, your mouth gets dry). Who was I to “prophesy” to my friend, “Don’t worry. Be happy. Trust God”? I didn’t know it for a fact, but it sure felt like I had spoken in the name of the Lord presumptuously.

I didn’t do much prophesying in the church after that. And when I did, I played it a whole lot safer. I wouldn’t tell people to do things I wasn’t doing myself.

I Wasn’t the Only One

As I saw how people in that church were pursuing the gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:1-11 for the full context), I became more and more disillusioned with the whole thing. I saw people prophesying things that did not come true. Not just church leaders, or members who believed they had the gift of prophecy. I’m including the televangelists they held up as being the most anointed people on earth, people like the ones on this “Prophecies for 2020” program. They “prophesied” things “under the anointing” that did not come true. They told people, “Your cancer is gone. Your arthritis is gone. Your MS is gone.” None of it came true. How many times did I go forward to get healed of my Irritable Bowel Syndrome? I can’t even remember. Guess what? Never healed.

Jesus himself told us, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Mat 24:11 NRS).

I know you never thought you would be one of those false prophets. Neither did I. You thought your gift of prophecy was real. So did I. But if you know deep down you are a fraud, it’s time to come clean. Look at what you prophesied for 2020 and compare that with what is really happening. It doesn’t match. One “prophet” even said on February 28, it would not become a pandemic. Did you miss the news? It became a pandemic. You said God doesn’t do anything without first telling God’s prophets. Why didn’t God give any of you a heads up?

Giving up Too Early?

You might be thinking, “The year is not over. The good things I prophesied can still come to pass.” Maybe so. At some point, we will get control of the Coronavirus. We will be able to contain it, because of measures like shelter-in-place, social distancing, and quarantines, and hopefully, because of new medicines and vaccines. After that, we’ll see people gathering in churches and stadiums again. When people know it’s safe to go out, not only for themselves but for their elderly neighbors and relatives as well, they will start shopping and spending money again. The economy will bounce back when people get back to work. That’s not the prosperity you prophesied. That’s just the natural order of things. You don’t get any credit for that. And besides, we don’t know if the economy will be as strong as before, even after Coronavirus is gone. Some businesses closed that might never reopen.

Where are the healings you prophesied? The US now tops the world in number of Coronavirus cases. We need those healings, and we need them now. Did you claim you were anointed to heal with the same Spirit that anointed Jesus to go about healing all who were oppressed of the Devil? Are you going to do like Jesus and go into New York or California or one of the other hot spots and say, “Let all who are sick come and be healed in the name of Jesus”? The fact that you’re not doing that, that you have never done that, speaks volumes to me. If you do that and have cures medically verified, then whatever I say about false prophets and fake healers doesn’t apply to you.

The Truth Will Set You Free, But …

But if you know you have prophesied things that did not come true, redemption is possible. I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It will be painful. You know, when Jesus said, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Joh 8:32 NRS), I think he should have added, “But first it will hurt a lot.” Here’s what you need to do. 1) Confess; 2) Repent; 3) Get back to basics; 4) Embrace uncertainty; 5) Focus on the Fruit rather than the Gifts.

Confess

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

(1Jo 1:9 NRS)

You will have to confess that you spoke presumptuously. You will have to admit you were wrong. Not just to God, but to the people who have been watching you in church, on YouTube, on TV, or whatever. See, I told you it would hurt. But the good news is God is faithful. If you confess, God will forgive and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. The people may or may not understand, but you have got to get right with God before you can minister to them.

Repent

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

(Mar 1:14-15 NRS)

Jesus came to announce the Good News that the kingdom of God has come near. What is the proper response? Repent. Repent means stop and turn around. Turn away from the path you are on and follow the way of the Good Shepherd. That means you must stop prophesying. In fact, you should give up your ministry entirely for a time, so you can finally unlearn the errors you’ve been preaching.

“But the Lord called me to preach and prophesy.”

Maybe. But did you or did you not prophesy falsely and presumptuously, even when you were sure it was the voice of the Lord? That shows how spiritually disoriented you’ve become. If you try to preach to people now, you are the blind leading the blind.

When I first started hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, I was thrilled. I could hear God speaking to me. But then, the truth became unavoidable. That voice that for years I thought was the Holy Spirit within me was something else entirely. Was it the Devil, or was it my own imagination? I don’t know, but either way the result was the same. My whole world crumbled to the ground. But that was when my relationship with God really began. Because I finally learned to follow the truth, wherever it led. Even if I had to let go of some of my most cherished beliefs, I made a commitment to accept the truth.

I don’t care how deeply you feel it, or how sincerely you believe it, or how many Bible verses you quote. If the facts on the ground say it’s not true, it’s not true. We don’t need false prophets speaking from their own imagination, wishful thinking, Bible verses taken out of context, the devil, or whatever they are hearing. We don’t need to hear, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We need the truth. That is the only thing that will set us free.

I know this hurts. Being a prophet has become part of your identity. It always hurts when we find out we are not what we thought we were. I’ve been there. But how can you effectively minister in the name of the Lord when you yourself are following a voice that is not of the Lord?

I think you should take a sabbatical, so you can get reoriented to the truth. But if you won’t do that, then at least tell the people since you prophesied things that did not come true, you are clearly not qualified to be a prophet. You will preach the Gospel, but you will not be giving any more prophetic words. Furthermore, there will be no more prophetic words in your services or prayer meetings from you or anyone else. There was no judgment in the Bible for not speaking false prophecies, only for speaking them.

“But people will leave the church. We will lose money.”

Do you remember Jesus saying, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Mar 8:36 NIV)? God does not call ministers to scratch itching ears by telling them what they want to hear. God calls ministers to feed his sheep by making the truth of the Gospel known to them. I was so disoriented I didn’t even know what the Gospel was anymore, which brings me to the next step.

Get Back to Basics

Remember this verse?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

(Joh 3:16 NRS)

Martin Luther called this the Gospel in a nutshell. God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only[-begotten] Son for us. Through Christ, we have eternal life.

And notice, it’s not about health, wealth, success, and making every dream come true. Nothing about prophecies, healings, miracles, signs, or wonders. It’s about receiving the gift of eternal life, which means life in relationship with God. God loves us. That is the Gospel, and Gospel literally means “good news.”

Are we worthy of that love? Absolutely not. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). That is the reason God gave his only Son. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRS).

Our relationship with God is broken because of sin. But Christ died so our sins could be forgiven, and our relationship with God restored. That is eternal life. And because our relationship with God has been restored, the kingdom of God has come near.

And eternal life does not just mean we go to heaven when we die, though that is also part of the good news. Your relationship with God begins in this life and will continue even after you die.

Paul told it this way to the Corinthians.

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”  

(1Co 15:3-4 NRS)

Christ died for our sins. He was buried. He was raised on the third day. All in accordance with the scriptures. God promised in the scriptures to send a Messiah, who would bring righteousness and the kingdom of God to this earth. Jesus Christ was that Messiah, who fulfilled God’s will according to the scriptures. How do we know? He rose from the dead in accordance with the scriptures. Death did not end his life, and it will not end ours. Nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39).

Those are the basics. When was the last time you preached a good sermon on that? You don’t need any supernatural gifts of the Spirit to share the basics. Get to know them again before you even think about taking the stage, the microphone, or the pulpit again.

Embrace Uncertainty

When I first had to face up to the fact that the brand of Christianity I was following was wrong, I mean, not just wrong but egregiously wrong, I didn’t know what to do. This scripture came to mind.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

(Mic 6:8 NRS)

The gifts were not working for me, so I thought I had fallen out of favor with God. I thought God was going to require some great sacrifice, and I didn’t think I could go through with it. Praise God, I didn’t have to. Just as the angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, the Lord stayed my hand from making one of the worst mistakes of my life.

God wasn’t looking for any great sacrifice to prove how much I loved him. God didn’t require me to obey every voice that said it was God without testing it first. God wasn’t blocking gifts or blessings from me because I didn’t instantly obey the voice I once thought was God but was beginning to question. God did not want me inventing new doctrines that cause division based on a Bible verse here or there that I or someone else took out of context.

What does God require of me and you? Do justice. Treat others with love and kindness. Walk humbly with your God. That’s all.

Now, if you are used to thinking of yourself as a prophet, that last one will be the most difficult. When you thought you were one of the chosen few mouthpieces of God on earth, you walked with God but not humbly. After my great humbling, I had to rebuild my faith starting from zero. Certainty was no longer a virtue. It was a sin. If I was to continue walking with God, I had to completely redefine the most basic terms for a life of faith, like faith, Gospel, discipleship, obedience, the Holy Spirit, sin, holiness, the Word of God, salvation, healing, redemption, the truth, etc. I had to admit I didn’t know what any of those terms meant anymore, and I was going to have to learn from scratch. My walk with God was now a limp. I could not even stand in faith without leaning on Jesus. That may sound scary. You may think you want to avoid that at all costs. Truth is, if it had been my choice, I wouldn’t have chosen to go through that. But I’m telling you, that is where I learned what it means to walk humbly with God.

Some people think faith means being certain about whatever you say. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Or, “The Lord told me this.” “God told me that.” “This is the word of the Lord for 2020.” And all the while, God is saying, “Leave me out of this!”

Faith is confidence or assurance, but it is not certainty. There is no humility in certainty. You can’t learn and you can’t listen when you are certain of everything. There is no way we as mortals can know everything, so embrace uncertainty. Try walking humbly with God for a change.

Focus on the Fruit Rather Than the Gifts

I can’t blame anyone for wanting the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10. Gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, they must have been spectacular to see. What must it have been like not only to see them, but to wield these gifts like Peter or Paul? I can only imagine what it would be like to actually have and use these gifts. The key phrase there is, “I can only imagine.”

Even though at times I thought I might have some of these gifts, I really never did. It looked like I would almost get there, but I never quite made it. Over the years, I have come to doubt whether these gifts really are for the church today. Maybe they were just for Jesus and the first Apostles, because the foundation of the church was still being laid.

But even if you do believe in these gifts for today, remember Jesus warned us that such gifts are not in and of themselves proof that the man or woman is of God. “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mat 24:24 NRS)

When it comes to false prophets, this is what he said. “You will know them by their fruits” (Mat 7:16 NRS). We need to look for what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit before we accept any signs and omens. What kind of fruit should we look for?

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

(Gal 5:22-23 NRS)

If you give up on your so-called gift of prophecy, what should you do? Cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, first in yourself, then in your ministry. They used to tell me that a church without the gifts of the Spirit had no Holy Spirit and therefore was dead. Now, when I look for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a church, I don’t even think about the gifts. I look for the fruit of the Spirit. When I see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then I know the Holy Spirit is present. And where the Spirit of God is, there is life.

Eternal life, that is.

Paul’s Lesson about God’s Timing

Finally, I’d like to say again if you realize you have prophesied falsely and are willing to come clean with it, God bless you. I know it takes a lot of courage. But I want to suggest again that you step down from whatever ministry you are involved in. I’m speaking from experience. I know how disorienting this is, and you will need time to rebuild your faith from the ground up.

If you won’t listen to me, think about Saul of Tarsus. He persecuted the church because he was absolutely certain that he was right, they were wrong, and God was on his side. Then Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said, “No, Saul. You’re the one who’s wrong.” I’m actually paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.

Do you get how disorienting and humbling that must have been for him? To go from thinking he was absolutely right because he was standing for God and the scriptures, to finding out he was absolutely wrong, and God and the scriptures were not on his side? I have a pretty good idea. How long do you think it took him after that to go on his first missionary journey? According to some New Testament timelines I’ve seen, it was about thirteen years. What did he do during that time? We get a hint of it in 1 Corinthians.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …  

(1Co 15:3-4 NRS)

So this is the Gospel he preached. That Christ died for our sins, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day, all in accordance with the scriptures. But he wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples before his death, so how did he know the Gospel? Look what he said at the beginning of verse 3. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.

He had to receive the message of the Gospel from the disciples before he could hand it over to the Corinthians, or to any of the cities he evangelized. After this verse, he goes on to explain some of the details of how he learned from them. If he had clung to his certainty that he was right in the face of overwhelming evidence he was wrong, he never could have learned the good news that would eventually turn him from Saul of Tarsus to Paul the Apostle.

Second, even though the message of the Gospel was simple, the implications for a man like Paul were staggering. I think it took him that long to come to a place where he knew again what he believed, why he believed it, and what that meant for his life. For him to try to take his place as a minister of the church before then would have been a mistake. You believe in God’s timing, right? He followed God’s timing. If he hadn’t, well, who knows? We might never have even heard of Paul the Apostle.

Conclusion

There are a lot of false prophets in the world today, just as Jesus warned us there would be. Some ministers have taken it upon themselves to expose them. I think that is important work. I have watched them on YouTube and learned a lot from them. Some of these false prophets are definitely wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on people’s earnest desire to draw closer to God, taking their money in exchange for words that feel good but hide them from the truth.

However, I know it’s possible some of them honestly believe they are speaking the Rhema words of God. I’ve been there myself. One of the good things that may come out of this crisis is that it is exposing false prophecies.

You spoke only what you heard, but what you heard was not from God. You believed it was. I understand that. You don’t want to admit you were wrong, not only this time but also in times past, because that would mean the end of your prophetic ministry. I understand how scary that is. Where I might have sounded harsh, it was only because I wanted to break through that fear and stubbornness, so you could see the truth. The truth will set you free, if you accept it. It will hurt, but it will set you free.

Redemption is possible, if you follow the five steps I laid out for you: confess, repent, get back to basics, embrace uncertainty, and focus on the fruit of the Spirit. I know because I’ve been there. Even if you lose the world, you will find your soul. The false gods must be swept away before we can know the true God.

My Third Principle for Recovery, Part 2

My third principle for recovery says some kinds of faith are good for recovery and some are bad. In my previous post, I talked about the Word of Faith and why it was bad for my recovery. Here is an example of what I mean.

It Was (Not) All Up to Me

When I was young I had an uncle with a terminal illness. Of course, I prayed for him. But when I got into the Word of Faith, it changed how I prayed, because they taught, “Believe and receive your healing.” Okay, it’s not my healing in this case, but it’s my uncle’s healing. But they had me thinking if my faith is strong enough, or if his faith is strong enough, he can be healed. Even though doctors say, “There is no cure,” I am following the lead of my televangelist preachers who say, “Oh yes, there’s a cure, faith in Jesus Christ.”

I tried telling him, and he didn’t buy into it. I tried telling other family members. They didn’t buy into it. I was the only one who bought into it. So if it was going to happen, it had to happen through my faith.

And so I prayed. I prayed sometimes for hours on end. I fasted and prayed to make it happen at times, and that really freaked my family out. “Wait a minute! You’re going to not eat?” for however long I was going to do it. They really thought I’d gone off the deep end there. And they were a lot closer to the truth than I was at the time, I have to admit now. Not that there’s anything wrong with fasting, but me thinking I could break the power of Satan over my uncle with it? Guess where I learned that. No, it didn’t work.

And so, eventually, when he died, my family—even though they were sad—accepted it as the natural outcome of his disease. Because I thought my faith was supposed to change it, this was a victory of Satan over me. More specifically, it was a victory of Satan over my faith. That was a lot of pressure to live under. Understand, this is all speaking from the perspective of my Word of Faith background. This is the harm that can come from this particular understanding of faith.

Word of Faith vs. Real Faith

If Christian faith is important to you, as it was and still is to me, it’s important to have a sound biblical definition of faith. Those who preach the Word of Faith message claim faith is something you use to receive what you want from God. Whatever you pray for, believe you receive, and you will have it. Mark 11:22-24. And when it comes to sickness and poverty, this is the work of the devil. The devil comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10. Abundant life isn’t sickness and poverty. Abundant life is health and wealth. So you can overcome any sickness and financial struggle with nothing but faith. When I bought into this, I didn’t even know I was living with clinical depression. So when it didn’t work, the depression and feeling of betrayal was probably worse than most because of it.

What saved me was something I first heard from my religion professor in college. She taught that a true biblical understanding of faith is not about trying to convince yourself to believe something you just know is not true. It’s not about believing all the right doctrines. If they respond to normal questions anyone with a brain might ask with, “Just believe,” or “Just take it on faith,” or “That’s faith. You shouldn’t ask questions about that,” or anything like that, that’s a bad faith for recovery.

And faith certainly is not about thinking you can make God do what you want if you believe. The primary understanding of faith throughout most of the Bible is a trusting relationship with God.

Faith Is Trust and Relationship

Those two words are really important, trust and relationship. It’s something you build, over time. One analogy I could make is, when my wife and I were seeing each other, I was the first one to say I love you. It took her some time to say it back to me. And I understood that, because of past experiences, it was difficult for her to trust, not just me, but any man that she would be in a relationship with at the time. It was going to take time in our relationship to build the trust where she could say it.

The same was true when I wanted to propose marriage to her. I brought up the subject, and it’s a good thing I did before buying a ring and presenting it to her, because at the time she just wasn’t ready. It was going to take time in relationship together for her to get her trust to where, if I asked her to marry me, she would be able to say yes. And that really is what faith is like. You are building a relationship with God. You may have difficulty, at first, trusting. And along the way, you are going to experience some doubts. I suppose, maybe you can over time have so much trust that you have no more doubts. Theoretically, I guess it’s possible, even though I haven’t got there myself.

But what is more important in a relationship, having no doubts, or being able to talk about those doubts honestly? You can talk about it with God. In fact, over the years, I’ve learned honesty is much more important to a healthy relationship with God than belief. You can be honest with God. I would also seek out someone who you can talk to about doubts and issues that come up. They’ve probably had the same questions and issues come up on their journey. The most helpful people are usually those who have “been there,” so look for a mentor, someone with genuineness in their relationship with God.

Believe, and You Will Receive (Maybe)

Another thing to notice is if they talk about faith as if you should be able to control everything in your life, that’s a bad faith for recovery. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a certain prayer they’ve made famous, and others have latched on to. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

When I tried to help my uncle “believe and receive” his “promise of healing,” I nearly robbed him of the peace of mind that came from him being reconciled to God and being at peace with himself. Thank God there was a minister in his life who was able to counsel him with wisdom. Because he had the wisdom to know what we could control, and what we could not, my uncle knew serenity in his last days.

He prayed things like, “Lord, we lift up _______ before you and ask that you heal him. However, if it is not within your will to heal his physical illness, then heal him in other ways. Surround him with your presence and comfort him. Grant him the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Give him assurance that you love him. And if this is the sickness unto death, receive him into your eternal kingdom.”

There is a lot of wisdom in the way he prayed. It was the perfect balance of what we can control and what we can’t. He asked God to heal him of his physical illness but did not make any claim that God was somehow obligated to do it because of this or that Bible verse. And I should point out before he used the phrase “sickness unto death,” he had already had conversations about the possibility of death and what it meant to my uncle.

Almost everyone, when they near the end of life, needs more than physical healing. They need to be made whole in their mind, in their soul, in coming to terms with end of their lives in this world. And if they believe in God, they may have questions about the state of that relationship that need to be answered. Like I said, a lot of wisdom, but I did not fully embrace it at the time.

Do Not Pray “If it be thy will”

In the Word of Faith, they tell you not to pray, “If it is Your will” when God has already promised healing in the Bible. So when he prayed that, inwardly, I rebelled. I thought that just guarantees he won’t be healed. 1) If it’s a promise in the Bible, you don’t pray “If it be thy will.” God wouldn’t have promised it if it wasn’t God’s will. 2) You are already expressing doubt in your healing when you say that. So it was up to me to keep praying for him “according to the Word.” I thought the outcome of his illness was under my control, and accepting death was surrendering to Satan.

Hopefully by now, you understand I don’t accept that definition of faith anymore. I’m probably going to have to write a book on all the ways the Word of Faith messed me up. Again, I say, thank God that minister was there to model a truly biblical and Godly faith for my uncle. He was able to die at peace with himself and at peace with God. And even then, I knew that was really more important than curing his disease.

From Faith to Faith

One lesson in this is any kind of faith that tells you, you are supposed to control things you cannot control is bad for recovery. You need to stay away from that. You need the kind of faith that teaches wisdom to know the difference between what you can control, and what you cannot. You need the kind of faith that doesn’t beat you up for not having “enough faith,” whatever that means.

And something I found through all this is when you do read the Bible in context, it teaches a kind of faith that is good for recovery. I’m talking about the kind of faith my professor taught me, the kind my uncle’s minister showed, because it’s good at teaching the wisdom between what you can control, and what you can’t. But again, only when it’s read in context. So that’s what I want to leave you with. Faith that is good for recovery shows itself in serenity, courage, wisdom, and peace. So I invite you to make this prayer a part of your recovery.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know that difference.

-The Serenity Prayer

Grace and peace to you.

Entertaining Angels Unaware

Song: “Entertaining Angels” by the Newsboys, with lyrics.

Continuing this character study of Abraham and those associated with him, for the last two weeks I have pointed out that Hagar deserves to be listed among the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11. It might have escaped your notice that Sarah is in fact listed in this chapter. I missed it at first, because I was reading from the NRSV. Verses 8-12 talk about Abraham. But in verse 11, there is some disagreement. Here is how the NRSV translates it:

By faith he [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised.

(Heb 11:11 NRS)

Like the rest of this passage, the focus is on Abraham’s faith. However, in many translations, verse 11 is about Sarah’s faith rather than Abraham’s. Here is how the ESV translates it.

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

(Heb 11:11 ESV; see also NAS, NIV, and KJV)

To have such significant differences, there must be some quirks in the Greek text that make translation into English difficult. You’d be surprised how often that happens. This is why it’s good to read from more than one translation. Digging into a disputed text like this is just the kind of thing I love. However, since so few women are listed in Hebrews 11, we should look at how Sarah responded to the promise of bearing a child. And remember, she is ninety and has passed menopause.

Hospitality In The Biblical World

Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt
Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt

Turning our attention to Genesis 18,

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.

 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on– since you have come to your servant.”

So they said, “Do as you have said.”

 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”

(Gen 18:1-6 NRS)

This is middle eastern hospitality in action. This was true not only in Abraham’s time. Many cultures in the middle east still practice the ancient rules of hospitality. Traveling in ancient times was difficult and dangerous. Traveling through a desert presented its own challenges. Hot, dry, and difficult to find water. Abraham is in a place famous for its trees, the oaks of Mamre. Imagine how welcome the shade would have been to travelers.

Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent in the shade in the heat of the day. Three men appeared near his tent. That must have been shocking, to be in your tent and “Holy crap! Where did these men come from?”

Sir, Please, Let Me Serve You

Abraham bowed to them, spoke to the leader as “my lord,” and called himself their servant. Again, this was not at all unusual for that time and place. Saying “my lord” and “your servant” did not mean Abraham recognized the leader immediately as God. It was normal to say this to someone when you offered gifts or hospitality.

The Hebrew word ‘adoni sometimes meant “my lord,” literally. It could also be equivalent to “Sir” (see Translation Notes). Abraham is saying, “Sir, please, do not pass by. Let me show some hospitality to you.” If you see LORD in all capital letters, this is referring to the Divine Name of God (Yahweh). But in this verse, the letters are lowercase.

Abraham tells Sarah they have visitors, and she needs to make some bread for them. Sarah would not have been angry with him for that. In their world, they could have visitors any time, and everyone had their jobs to do when that happened. If you saw people traveling around there, especially in the heat of the day, you knew they would be hot, thirsty, and hungry. He and Sarah flew into action to serve them.

Prepare The Fatted Calf For Them

Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

(Gen 18:7-8 NRS)

He didn’t just give them bread and water. He prepared a calf, tender and good, along with curds and milk. Herders like Abraham did not eat meat often. It was reserved for special occasions. When you showed hospitality, you gave your best.

While Abraham was entertaining them, one of the men (presumably God or the Angel of the LORD) revisited the promise of Abraham having a son with Sarah (Gen 17:15-16). God gave Abraham a timeline.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

And he said, “There, in the tent.”

Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

(Gen 18:9-10a NRS)

In due season, the meaning is clearer in the ESV: about this time next year (also NAS, NAB, NIV; see Translation Notes). In the previous chapter, God had told Abraham he and Sarah would have a son of their own at this season next year (Gen 17:21). We were told then that Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety. How much time passed between this passage and Abraham’s last encounter with God in chapter 17? It couldn’t have been long. They are still the same age as in the previous chapter. Was it days or weeks? My guess is they traveled to the oaks of Mamre and were resting there, so it would have been a week or two to travel there.

As Good As Dead

In the New Testament, Paul says at this point Abraham was “as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old)” (Rom 4:19; see also Heb 11:12).

Paul did not mean he was like, in a wheelchair, barely able to move on his own. He and Sarah were still capable of doing the tasks of living. He bowed, he hastened, and he helped prepare food for the guests. Sarah prepared and baked bread. They weren’t ready for the nursing home. But in terms of his ability to procreate, he was “as good as dead.”

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

(Gen 18:10b-12 NRS)

It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women (cf. Gen 31:35). Sarah had passed menopause. Remember, she had been barren even during her childbearing years, and now she was past even that.

After I have grown old…shall I have pleasure? They weren’t even having sex anymore, so how was she going to get pregnant (see Translation Notes)? They were still in good shape for their age, better than my grandparents. But should we be at all surprised that Sarah laughed when she heard God say this? Was she laughing because she was surprised, or because it still sounded ridiculous? In other words, is this the first time she has heard this?

What Did Sarah Know And When Did She Know It?

I guess it’s safe to assume Abraham told Sarah what God told him from the previous chapter. He told her about the name changes, because she was introduced as Sarah rather than Sarai. Abraham had circumcised himself and every male of the household, and there was no way he could have hidden that from her. But did he tell her everything?

You know how sometimes when something big happens, but there is one embarrassing or unbelievable detail, you might leave that out when you tell others? Did Abraham leave out that one detail about the two of them having a son? Was he waiting for the right time to spring it on her? We don’t know from the text, but these are some questions you would need to answer to write a fictionalized version of this story.

When Sarah heard this, her reaction was the same as Abraham’s in the previous chapter: She laughed. Perfectly understandable if this is the first time she heard it. If Abraham had told her before, she could have stopped herself from laughing. On the other hand, maybe he did, and she laughed because it still sounded ridiculous. How will God respond?

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”

But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid.

He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

(Gen 18:13-15 NRS)

She Laughs

Sarah and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall
Sarah and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall

God wasn’t offended when Abraham laughed (17:17ff). Why is God offended at Sarah for laughing? The answer I always heard was that when God made a promise, especially in person, Sarah should not have doubted. But come on, we’re adults here. We all know how babies are made. The text has made it clear. They were in their nineties, and that ship had sailed. And if that’s the reason, again, why wasn’t God offended when Abraham laughed?

No, there was another reason for God to be offended. God was a guest in Abraham’s house (or tent). Remember, in their culture, hospitality to guests was central to their sense of right and wrong. You must be kind and generous, and there was shame if you held back anything from them. Your guest says something, and you laugh at him. Is that kind and generous? Is it hospitable? Even if what he says is 100% certifiably insane, laughing at him was a breach of hospitality.

Not to mention it revealed she was eavesdropping. It probably wasn’t the first time. A stranger visiting your tent was the most exciting thing that could happen in that world. That was how they got their news of what was happening in other places. Of course she wanted to hear what they had to say. I don’t know if eavesdropping would have been a breach of hospitality, but it might have been.

Was God offended at her doubt or her inhospitality? Or maybe something else is going on here.

Why Did Sarah Laugh?

I actually think there was more going on here than God being offended. Let’s compare God’s response to Abraham’s laughter vs. Sarah’s laughter. With Abraham, God repeated the promise and gave his son a name, Isaac. God promised to establish an everlasting covenant with Isaac. Abraham saw then that God was 100% serious, and went home immediately to circumcise himself and every male of his household, because that was what God commanded. And he did it because, as the author of Hebrews says, “he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS).

When Sarah laughed, God said, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” As with Abraham, God is telling Sarah this is a promise from the LORD. God is 100% serious about this. And when Sarah denies laughing, God says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” She is probably doubly embarrassed, first at being called out for laughing, second for being caught in a lie.

But if you’ve been a parent, coach, or teacher, you have probably had moments when your children or students were laughing and joking when you knew they needed to be serious. You may rebuke them mildly, like God here, or you might totally pitch a fit. One way or another, you needed to make clear to them, “This is no joke.”

God doesn’t make promises God can’t or won’t keep. Abraham has already shown he is on board with this plan. Sarah needs to be on board too.

At some time, maybe after he healed from his circumcision, Abraham said, “Sarah? You know how God told us we need to have a son? I think now would be a good time.”

She lifted up his robe and said, “The dead has come back to life!”

The Promise Fulfilled

Sarah and Abraham did indeed have a son. They named him Isaac, as God said (Gen 17:17, 19), because Isaac means “he laughs.” Abraham had laughed when God first told him, and so did Sarah. After he was born, Sarah said,

“God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me…. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

She laughed again, this time for joy rather than skepticism. And people laughed with her, not at her. The reproach of childlessness was gone. Why did God wait until Abraham and Sarah were both “too old”? A woman who had been barren her whole life, and a man who was “as good as dead” gave birth to a son when he was one hundred and she was ninety-one. Why was it so important for Abraham and Sarah to have a son? The New Testament gives two reasons.

  1. The Gospel of Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham and Sarah. This was the official beginning of the bloodline that would one day bring the Messiah into the world.
  2. Paul made a point of saying Abraham was “as good as dead” for a reason. It was the first hint that the Messiah himself would be resurrected. The theme of rising from the dead follows Isaac everywhere, as we will see next week in perhaps the most famous episode of Abraham’s story.

Of course, Abraham and Sarah knew none of this. As the author of Hebrews said,

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.

(Heb 11:13-14 NRS)

Seeing From A Distance

Abraham and Sarah lived as strangers and foreigners on the earth. They were promised a homeland for their offspring, but they never received it themselves. They were promised through their seed, all families of the world would be blessed (Gen 12:3). They did not see that happen. But they fulfilled their role in God’s plan to make it happen.

Abraham was seventy-five when God first called him. He was one hundred when Isaac was born. Twenty-five years between the time when God first promised to give him descendants so many they could not be numbered, and the beginning of its fulfillment. Along the way, he and Sarah lost hope at times, they stopped believing at times, and they probably wondered sometimes if Abraham had imagined these encounters with God.

But when God appeared and made it 100% clear exactly what, how, and when the promise would come to pass, they considered the one who promised to be faithful. They trusted that God would not promise something God would not or could not fulfill. That is what faith looks like, according to Abraham and Sarah.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

(Heb 13:2 ESV)

Translation Notes

Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season,[כָּעֵ֣ת חַיָּ֔ה] and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him

(Gen 18:10 NRS)

In due season. In Hebrew, the phrase is ka`eth chayyah. A literal translation would be “according to the time of life” (KJV), or “when the time revives” (NAS study note). I don’t know what that means, but I like the poetry of it.

NAS translates it, “at this time next year.” Halladay justifies that translation.

Hol2487  חַי

4. var.: Gn 1810•14 2K 416 a year from now.

(pg 101)

God repeats this promise in verse 14, adding “at the appointed time” לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד (WTT) (la-mo`ed) to “at this time next year” (ka`eth chayyah).

My Husband Or My Lord?

“After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

(Gen 18:12 NRS)

My husband, HEB ‘adoni, lit. “my lord.” In 1 Peter, we read this:

Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.

(1Pe 3:6 NRS)

This is part of a section where Peter admonishes wives to accept the authority of their husbands. I’m not sure he should have picked Sarah as an example of that. He may have been her lord legally. But as my wife once said to me, if I tried to be her “lord,” I would have my hands full. I don’t think Sarah was the type of woman anyone could easily boss around. Remember, her name meant “princess” or “queen.”

As I said earlier, “my lord” wasn’t always literal. Sometimes it was equivalent to “sir” (18:3). Sometimes a woman’s husband would be called her “lord,” but in that context it means “husband,” not necessarily “lord.”

Paul tells us that by faith in Christ, we have become Abraham’s offspring (Gal 3:29). But Peter also says women can be Sarah’s daughters by doing good and not letting fears alarm you. I think that’s a good takeaway.

Shall I Have Pleasure?

The Hebrew word for pleasure here is `ednah.

Hol6102  עֶדְנָה  (noun common feminine singular absolute) (sexual) pleasure Gn 1812. †

(pg 266)

I think it says a lot about Sarah that when God promises she will bear a son, her first thought is of `ednah, translated “pleasure.” Holladay notes it refers specifically to sexual pleasure. (By the way, I don’t think I will ever look at any woman named Edna the same way again). She was a woman who owned her sexuality and enjoyed it. In the Bible and in many conservative Christian and Jewish traditions, that is the most dangerous woman there is. Stay away from her, they warned their sons, as in Proverbs:

For the lips of a loose woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.

(Pro 5:3-5 NRS)

 Sheol is a Hebrew word for the underworld, the place where all souls go after they die. It wasn’t thought of as Hell originally, but it took on that meaning in some translations. So is that last verse saying, her steps follow the “Highway to Hell”?

If Sarah could have sung “Highway to Hell”

Seriously, though, Sarah’s first thought about sex was not childbearing but pleasure. She thought that pleasure was lost to her, so it was probably with some nostalgia she said, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

A Mitzvah Is Not For Pleasure

To orthodox Jews and some longstanding Catholic traditions, that is sinful. The primary purpose of sex was (and is) to conceive and bear children. Any sex that was done for pleasure rather than procreation was a sin. Engaging in any sexual activity that could not result in having children (pulling out, birth control, masturbation, put your dirty little mind to it and you can think of other acts) was and, in some traditions, still is forbidden. That included having sex with an infertile woman. How do they reconcile that with Sarah? Or Rachel? Or Hannah? Or the mother of Samson? Or Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist?

Not surprisingly, there is extensive discussion on this in Rabbinic Jewish tradition. That may be a topic of a future post. For now the point is the way conservative Western traditions have viewed women’s sexuality is like this:

  1. The man and woman were commanded to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). It is a mitzvah (command from God) for a husband and wife to have sex, so they can bear children.
  2. The mitzvah is to procreate, not to do it for pleasure.
  3. Men did not trust women who had sex for pleasure, even if it was with their husbands.
  4. Women could not be trusted to control their own desire. So her father controlled it before she was married, and her husband controlled it after.
  5. Having sex for pleasure makes you no better than an animal.

Give Me That Old(er) Time Religion

Sarah enjoyed sex with her husband and saw nothing wrong with that. We must assume Abraham did as well, since he saw no need to “control her urges.” She and Abraham used sex to enhance their relationship apart from childbirth, until they were not able. Even at ninety years old, she remembered it as pleasure. And she thought of it right in God’s presence. Sinner! God must have been furious!

Not exactly. God reprimanded her for laughing at the idea of having a child. God did NOT reprimand her for thinking of her pleasure. God told her in effect, “Yes, even at this age, you and your husband will have pleasure again. This time, you will be fruitful and multiply.”

Christianity and Judaism trace their origins to Abraham and Sarah. It’s a shame that for much of our history, we did not learn from how they approached sex as husband and wife.

Character Study Abraham, part 1

The 11th Chapter of Hebrews is like the Faith Hall of Fame. It lists people from the Old Testament who accomplished great things “by faith.” I’d like to start this character study of Abraham by looking at his entry in this august chapter.

Abraham receiving the promises of God.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren– because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

(Heb 11:8-12 NRS)

His list of accomplishments continues, but let’s stop here for a while. In verse 12 (above), the one person referred to is Abraham. He is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible, and the reasons are mostly related to his faith. By faith, or because of his faith, he left his home in Ur of the Chaldees with his father to go to Canaan. His father only made it as far as Haran (Gen 11:31-32).

After his father’s death, he heard God call him to the land of Canaan and obeyed. He and Sarah and all their household went with him, wandering and living in tents, because they had no land to call their own. Abraham did this because he believed God’s promise that his descendants would inherit all the land of Canaan, despite three great reasons not to believe it:

  1. He had no descendants. His wife Sarah was infertile, so they had no children.
  2. Sarah was past childbearing age. She was doubly infertile now.
  3. Abraham was past childbearing age, “as good as dead” in terms of his procreating ability.

In the face of all this, God promised Abraham to make his descendants “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Gen 15:5; 22:17).

Paul says of Abraham, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (Rom 4:19 NRS).

Wow, what a model of faith. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, so he had no doubt whatsoever, even though he was a hundred and Sarah, who was ninety, had been barren her whole life. He believed what God said immediately and never doubted for a second. Actually, it appears Paul was engaging in revisionist history, because here is what the original account in Genesis says.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

(Gen 17:17 NRS)

What does the Bible really say about Abraham? That would take a whole book to go through. For now, I’ll just focus on the two instances where God promised descendants to Abraham.

Genesis 15

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

(Gen 15:1-3 NRS)

At this point, he is not called Abraham but Abram. He and his wife are Abram and Sarai. It’s not until chapter 17 that God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. Abram has already thought about who will be his heir. He has no offspring, so he made a trusted slave his heir. He thinks that is the best he can do. God has just promised him, “Your reward shall be very great,” yet he cannot believe it because he continues childless.

It sounds like he expected God to give him children, and God hasn’t delivered. Let’s go back to chapter 12 when God first appeared to Abram.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

(Gen 12:1-4 NRS)

God called Abram when he was seventy-five years old, which should give hope to some of us late-bloomers. God commanded him:

  1. to leave his country, his father’s house, and his kindred
  2. to go to a land God would show him (turned out to be Canaan).

God made promises to Abram:

  1. God will make him a great nation
  2. God will bless him and make his name great, so that he will be a blessing
  3. God bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him
  4. In him, all families of the world will be blessed.

Those are some pretty big promises. But many of them appear to be contingent on his bearing children. Perhaps he could build a great nation, but without descendants, how could it continue? How can his name be great if he has no sons to carry on his name after he dies? All families of the world will be blessed through him, but what about his own family? How can a man with no family of his own bless other families?

These are some of the questions that must have crossed Abram’s mind between the time he left his father’s house in the land of Haran and this scene in chapter 15. God made some great promises, but Abraham still can’t comprehend how God will bring them to pass. Now God has decided it’s time to take on Abram’s questions head on.

But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”

 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 (Gen 15:4-6 NRS)
The vision of the Lord directing Abraham to count the stars (woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 Bible in Pictures)
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15:5 NRS)

Abraham’s Righteousness

This is probably the incident Paul was thinking of in Romans 4:19 (above). Abram is not a hundred, and Sarai is not ninety in this scene. We’re not told how old Abram is at this point. We just know it’s between seventy-five and eighty-six, because Ishmael has not been born yet.

In response, we are told Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is a very important verse to Paul. It is one of the cornerstone verses for his doctrine of salvation through faith, not by works of the Law (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6. For a different application, see Jam 2:23).

The LORD reckoned his belief/faith (translations vary) as righteousness. This happened long before the Law of Moses even existed. Therefore, Paul contended, righteousness comes by faith, not by works of the Law. This is the scene we are told Abram indeed did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body. He was not good as dead yet, but he and Sarah had never had children, and her clock was ticking.

So it appears if you want to be righteous before God, you should be like Abram. When God says something, just believe it. Do not weaken in faith; do not doubt; do not consider your circumstances. Abram believed the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. So if the Bible says it, just believe it. Don’t question, don’t doubt. Believe like Abram, and you will be righteous like Abram.

Really?

But I’ve already shown you a couple of chapters later, when God makes the same promise, Abram laughs. Not only that, here’s what happens just in the next verses.

Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”

But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

(Gen 15:7-8 NRS)

How am I to know that I shall possess it? Does that sound like someone who did not weaken in faith? To review, God promises Abram:

  1. He will have an heir of his own issue. In other words, his heir will be his son biologically, not by adoption. Abraham believed that.
  2. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven. Abram believed that.
  3. He would possess the land of Canaan. Abram asked God for proof.

Is two out of three good enough? No, with God, it’s all or nothing. You believe everything, or you’re not righteous in God’s eyes. Except God already counted Abram righteous after believing the first two promises. But God can’t do anything unless we believe. I guess Abram will receive the promise of an heir of his issue and many, many descendants. But as for possessing the land of Canaan, he just lost that promise, because he did not believe. You know I’m kidding, right?

No, God’s plans are not derailed because Abram showed a moment of doubt. If you’re trying to make Abram a paragon of belief that never wavers, never weakens, never questions, and never doubts, you are not reading the Bible. That is probably what annoys me most about a lot of Biblical fiction. They think they have to portray characters like Abraham as always believing, always honest, always faithful, and in doing so, they rob them of their humanity. How are we supposed to connect with them if they were too perfect to be human? Thankfully, the Bible does not do that.

Let’s Cut a Covenant, Abram

In order to understand what happens next, you have to know something about blood covenants. In Abram’s world, people would often use covenant ceremonies to seal an agreement. They almost always involved shedding blood in some fashion. In some cultures, they might cut themselves to use their own blood to seal the agreement. More often, the blood would come from an animal. One type of ceremony involved lining up several animals and splitting them in half. Each party in turn would walk between the halves of the animals, their feet bathing in the blood, while speaking their promises in the agreement. This sounds brutal to us today, but the fact is it was a brutal world.

The point is when you hear what God tells Abram to do, don’t think in modern terms. Abram was already very familiar with this type of ceremony.

He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

(Gen 15:9-11 NRS)

I wonder how he went about doing this. What kind of blade did they have in the Middle Bronze Age capable of splitting all those animals in two? I’d think you would need steel the quality of a Samurai sword, which obviously was not available then. But since it was a common practice, they must have figured out a way to do it. Of course when you have three dead animals and two dead birds all lined up, that’s going to attract some buzzards, so Abram had to drive them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

(Gen 15:12 NRS)

I love that phrase a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. It really creates a mood. Perhaps it foreshadows the night of Passover, when darkness covered the land of Egypt. Abram’s mind must have been conjuring all kinds of creepy thoughts of what might happen next.

God Appears to Digress

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.

(Gen 15:13-14 NRS)

This is definitely foreshadowing his descendants’ bondage in Egypt and the deliverance called Passover. Of course, ancient Israelites listening to this story would know what this was referring to. After telling Abram he would die in peace and in old age (v. 15; he lived to be 175 years old), God tells him,

“And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

(Gen 15:16 NRS)

So Abram’s descendants will be slaves of another nation. God will bring judgment on that nation, they will escape with great possessions, and they shall come back here (the land God is promising to his descendants). Why doesn’t God just give him the land now, and then they will won’t have to go through slavery and oppression? God says the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

What happens when their iniquity is complete?

The reason God says he will give this land to Abram’s descendants is because of the iniquity of the current inhabitants, here the Amorites. When Moses writes down the Law for the Israelites, he warns them not to engage in the same iniquities as the Amorites (and a bunch of other nations), or God will drive them out of the land as well (Lev 18:24; 1 Ki 21:26; 2 Ki 21:11).

What iniquity is God talking about? After reading the prophets, I have to say it is mainly injustice and unrighteousness, corruption in religion and government. The natives of the land are all living according to what is right in their own eyes rather than loving their neighbors as themselves. That is what the prophets complained about the most. Verse 16 means if trends keep going as they are, the Amorites will reach a point where they are totally irredeemable. God will give the land to Abraham’s descendants in order to establish a people who live by righteousness and justice (Gen 18:19).

I’m not sure what God meant by the fourth generation. God just said they will be there for 400 years. A generation is normally considered 40 years, so it would take 10 generations for them to come back here. That requires further study.

Abraham’s First Theophany

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

(Gen 15:17 NRS).

This is an example of a theophany. A theophany is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a visible manifestation of a deity.” It means God is appearing in person in a visible form. For example, during the wandering in the Wilderness, God appeared to the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As you can imagine, a theophany is rare. So far, Abram has only heard God speaking but hasn’t seen God take on any visible form. That changes in this verse. The theophany here is a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. The text doesn’t specify how Abram heard God’s voice up until now, but this time the voice will come out of the theophany.

On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

(Gen 15:18-21 NRS)

This ceremony was familiar to Abram, as I said before. Of course, you did not promise something in this manner unless you were serious. I think the symbolism said, “If I break the terms of this covenant, may I be split in half like these animals.” I’m not sure, but I think both parties of the covenant usually passed between the halves while declaring their part of the agreement. In this case, God passes through, but Abram does not. God makes promises, but Abram does not. You would expect if God gave so much to Abram, God would expect something in return. I think God did want something from Abram, but God does not say anything about it here. We should revisit that later. For now, though, Abram’s mind must have been blown.

Conclusion

So Abram, you asked how you would know your descendants would possess the land? God just appeared in a theophany of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch that passed between the pieces of the animals you slaughtered. You heard from the theophany God would give the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the…all the rest of them, to your descendants, thereby sealing the promise in a blood covenant. Is that enough to convince you?

The next scene I want to look at is when God appears to Abram again and makes a promise so impossible that Abram laughs (Genesis 17). How will God respond?