The Belief of Abraham – the Model Calling for us to Follow

In my last post we saw that Abraham obtained that indispensable status of being righteous simply by believing. This was declared in the little sentence:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Belief is not about the existence of God

I now want to unpack what it means that Abraham ‘believed’. Many people I talk to think that ‘believing’ means believing in the existence of God. How many times have I heard “Oh I believe in God” – meaning “I believe that God exists”. Somehow we seem to think that God is impressed and delighted when we affirm His existence. But in fact the Bible is far more muted on that. It states that:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:19)

According to the Bible, simply believing that God exists puts us in the same league as the Devil. I will leave it to you to judge for yourself how much assurance you want to take from that. Now it is true that Abraham believed in God’s existence, but that is not at all the point in this encounter. The reality facing Abraham was that he had no son and he was in his 80’s. In this exchange, God, as he had done several times before, had just finished promising Abraham that He would give him one. It was that promise which thrust Abraham unto a Crossroads of Decision. His choice was not about believing in the existence of God or not, but whether he would believe that particular promise that this God had given him – or not. And in that decision Abraham chose to believe. He trusted that God would fulfill that promise to him. Belief, in this account, is synonymous with trust. Abraham chose to trust God in this matter that was very important to him – which solely by looking on the surface of things did not look very hopeful.

So Abraham chose to believe that promise of a son. In return God gave him something in addition to the promise. He gave him – the word used is ‘credited’ – righteousness. In the end Abraham got both the fulfilled promise (a son from whom a great nation would come) with righteousness almost seemingly thrown in as a side-thought.

Righteousness – not from our merit or effort

I have had the privilege to hear from people of many different religions and philosophies. What I find quite striking is that though their theologies can vary quite substantially, virtually everyone I talk to or read from operates on the assumption that righteousness is obtained through merit, or earned by some specific efforts, ascetic denials or ‘good’ behaviour. We reason that doing more good things than bad things, or doing a certain kind or amount of religious ‘goodness’ allows us to deserve, earn or merit righteousness. I have seen this logic expressed amongst Buddhist friends in Thailand, Hindus in India, Muslims across the Muslim world, in Catholics, Protestants, and even those who believe simply in ‘a Higher Power’ – all of us around the world naturally live by this credo. I remember once interviewing theology students leaving a seminary and being informed by them that it was the balance between our merits and sins that determined our righteousness.

But Abraham did not ‘earn’ righteousness; it was ‘credited’ to him. So what is the difference? Well, if something is ‘earned’ you worked for it – you deserve it. It is like receiving wages for the work you do. But when something is credited to you, it is given to you. Like any gift freely given it is not earned or merited, but simply received.

This account of Abraham overturns the common understanding that we have about righteousness either by thinking that it is a belief in God’s existence, or it is obtained by doing enough sufficiently good or religious activities. This is not the way Abraham took. He simply chose to believe the promise extended to him.

Abraham’s Belief: He bet his life on it

Choosing to believe in this promise of a son was perhaps simple but it definitely was not easy.  Abraham could easily have disregarded the promise by objecting that if God really had the desire as well as the power to grant him a son then He should have already done so. Because at this point in his life, Abraham and Sarah (his wife) were old – well past the age of getting children. Remember when he was first promised a ‘Great Nation’ that he was already 75 years old. In response to that he left his home country and went to Canaan.  Many years  passed since then so Abraham and Sarah  grew very old and they still did not even have one child – let alone a nation! “Why has  God not already given us a son if he could have done so”? he would have wondered. In other words, he believed the promise of a coming son even though he probably had unanswered questions about the promise. He believed the promise because he trusted God who gave the promise – even though he did not understand everything about the promise, nor had he figured out all that God had in mind with it.

Believing the promise demanded active waiting. His whole life was, in a sense, interrupted while he was living in tents in the Promised Land of Canaan waiting (still many years) for the coming of the promised son. It would have been much easier to rationalize away the promise and return home to civilization in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) that he had left many years earlier, and where his brother and family still lived. Abraham had to live with the difficulties of continuing to believe the promise – each and every day – for the many years while he waited for the promise to be realized. His trust in the promise was so great that it took priority over normal goals in life – security, comfort and well-being. In a real sense, living in anticipation of the promise meant dying to the normal goals of life. Believing the promise showed both his trust in, and love for, God. He could have chosen not to believe and returned back to the land he came from (modern-day Iraq). He could have disregarded the promise while still believing in the existence of God and still continuing in his prayers and helping other people. But then he would have only maintained his religion but not been credited ‘righteousness’.

Thus believing the promise went far beyond just mental assent to it. Abraham had to stake his life, reputation, safety, actions in the present and hopes for the future on this promise because he believed he was actively and obediently waiting. This was the Way of Abraham.

Abraham: The Pattern for us – to also believe Promises

The rest of the Bible treats this encounter as a Sign for us.  Abraham’s belief in the promise from God, and the ensuing credit of righteousness, is a pattern for us to follow. The whole of the Gospel is founded on promises that God gives to each and every one of us. These promises are not the same as the specific promise to Abraham of a son. But they are promises nonetheless, and like the promise to Abraham these promises bring us to the crossroads of a decision. Do we believe (i.e. trust) these promises, or not?

What promises are we talking about? Here are a few

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13)

 

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:24-25)

 

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:9-10)

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

 

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

I could go on and list some more. But the point is that these are promises and they are given either by Jesus or in his name – to you and to me. Like Abraham we can choose to believe these promises – or not. Like Abraham, believing these promises will engage and require your entire life. You will have to make your normal life goals and aspirations subservient to these promises. Mental assent to these promises is not the offer that the Gospel is putting on your table. Neither is belief in the existence of God, or valiant and well-intentioned efforts to earn merit. If you believe these promises such that you trust your life with them you also will be credited righteousness. And they will start you on the same journey of faith that Abraham embarked on.  This journey has God paying the price, while you and I are credited life.  This was all foreseen in the subsequent Sacrifice of Abraham.

Though Abraham lived in a different era, with different customs and different rituals, he is a model to us. The promise to Abraham that was literally, historically and verifiably fulfilled stands as a beacon heralding that the same kind of offer is made to us in Jesus.

That Promise to Abraham … Overlooked but Everlasting

Tonight as I write this post the world sits on the eve of the largest one-day sporting event ever. Everyone’s attention is being drawn to the Super Bowl on Sunday and the drama that will be ours given that the Super Bowl features two brothers who are coaching the opposing teams. This Super Bowl will be a family feud! And then there is the anticipation of the Beyonce half-time show.  So much excitement abuzz in the air.

It is amazing to think that with all the attention focused on it now, the Super Bowl will be largely forgotten in just six months. What the world is taking great note of now will quickly be forgotten as we move on to other amusements, entertainment or political events. The rage one day quickly becomes ancient history the next.  Chances are, when you read this you won’t even know which Super Bowl or which teams are the rage just now.

We saw in our last post that this same pattern was true in the really ancient history of Abraham’s day. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and drama that captured the imagination of people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes. I pointed out the obvious, but usually overlooked fact, that the promise given to Abraham about 4000 years ago has literally, historically and verifiably come true. This should give us reason to recognize that at the very least this Promise to Abraham provides an opening case for the existence of the God of the Bible. The story of Abraham continues with a few further encounters with this Promise-Making God of the Bible.  Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learn much more – even to the point of seeing this promise move from the realm of history to that of The Everlasting.  The story of Abraham is not a trendy but quickly forgotten event like the upcoming Super Bowl, it is one of an overlooked man setting a foundation to understand the gaining of eternity, so we’d better take note.

Abraham’s Complaint

Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise recorded in Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had moved to Canaan (the Promised Land) in what is today Israel in obedience to that promise. Other memorable events then occurred in his life except the one that he anticipated – the birth of the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we pick up the account with Abraham’s complaint:

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.

I am your shield,

your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)

 

God’s Promise

Abraham had been camping out in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 80 years old. He complains that God was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continues with:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)

So in their exchange God basically reiterates His initial Promise by declaring that he would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.

Abraham’s Response: Everlasting Effect

The ball was now back in Abraham’s court. How would he respond to this reiterated Promise? What follows is a sentence that the Bible itself treats as one of the most important sentences in the Bible (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It lays the foundation to understand the Gospel and reveals the way to The Everlasting. It says:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is probably easier to unpack this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, thus it would read:

Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no Super Bowl fanfare and so we are apt to miss it. But it is truly significant – and it contains the seeds of The Everlasting. Why? Because in this little sentence Abraham obtains ‘righteousness’. This is the one – and the only one – quality that we need to get right standing before God.

Reviewing our Problem: Corruption

From God’s point-of-view, though we were made in the image of God something happened that corrupted that image. So that now the Biblical charge is that

The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

The visual images that have helped me better understand this were the corruption of elves to orcs in the Lord of the Rings saga as well as the ‘missing’ the mark analogy used in the Bible. How this corruption occurred is explained in the account of Adam which I looked at here. The bottom line of all this is that we find ourselves separated from a Righteous God because we have no righteousness. Our corruption has taken and launched us into a Brave New World of autonomy from God and a propensity to not do good – reaping futility and death in its wake. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to that last 24 hours.

In fact our corruption has made us rather repulsive to God in the same way that the decaying body of a dead rat would be repulsive to us. We would not want to go near such a thing. The sight and stench would impel us to keep our distance. We are separated from the Maker of Life and so the words of Isaiah come true

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Abraham and Righteousness

But here in the conversation between Abraham and God we find, slipped in so unobtrusively that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that God accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness? Once again, so unassumingly that we are in danger of missing the point, it simply says of Abraham that he ‘believed’. That’s it?! We have this insurmountable obstacle of being corrupt ‘orcs’ and so the natural, and dare I say universal, tendency of mankind down the ages is to look for sophisticated and difficult religions, efforts, ethics, teachings etc., – illustrated before our very eyes with the efforts of the devotees of the Mela Kumbh festival – to gain righteousness. But this man, Abraham, gained that prized righteousness simply by ‘believing’.

But what does that mean?  And what does this have to do with your righteousness and mine?  Everything!  We take it up in our next post.

The Hindu Kumbh Mela Festival: Showing Bad News of Sin & Good News of the Gospel

The largest gathering ever in human history officially started this week – the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival which is celebrated only once every 12 years. Organizers expect a staggering 100 million people to descend on the city of Allahabad by the shores of the Ganges River in India through the 55 day festival season, with 10 million having bathed in the Ganges just on the opening day alone. Organizers expect 20 million bathers on the peak bathing day of February 15, according to NDTV. I have been to Allahabad and I can tell you it is a dusty place, with a small-ish town feel because of limited infrastructure. I cannot imagine how these many millions can be there at once without all functions seizing up.  The BBC reports huge efforts being made to bring things like toilets and doctors to meet the day-to-day needs of these people. These Khumb Mela numbers dwarf that of the annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca that Muslims make – a ‘mere’ 3.1 million in 2012.

Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela
Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela

So why will 100 million people spend 120 billion rupees ($2.2 billion dollars) to bathe in the Ganges river, one that has high levels of pollution (When I was there it certainly did not look appealing to jump into)?  One devotee from Nepal reported to the BBC that

“I have washed off my sins”.

Reuters reports that

“I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold.

NDTV tells us that

Worshippers, who believe a dip in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins,

In the previous 2001 festival I noticed on the then-BBC interview that pilgrim Mohan Sharma reported that “the sins we have created are washed away here”.

The universal human sense of ‘sin’

In other words, these multiple millions of Hindus will spend money, travel on crowded trains, endure congested situations and bathe in a river that, from a purely ecological rather than spiritual perspective, is very dirty – in order to have their sins ‘washed away’. Many westerners will miss the significance of this in their quick dismissal of such a ‘superstitious’ idea. Because it is not their solution that should draw our attention, but the fact of the problem that these devotees are trying to solve – their sins.

… does not originate with the Bible

Many people I talk to do not like the Gospel because they think that it is the Gospel that is their foremost accuser of sin.  No one likes being told they are a ‘sinner’ – it is something that makes us uncomfortable and guilty.  Many think that it is the Gospel (and Bible) that is the source for this and they think that if they dismiss the Bible then they can get rid of the idea of ‘sin’.  It is true that the Bible declares that we are sinners, which can be seen as missing the mark in a marksmanship metaphor, or as a corruption of our nature as in an orcs of middle-earth metaphor. But the Bible itself clearly says that it is not the source of this accusation. It says

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15)

The Bible is saying that it is not the source of the awareness of sin. It is also not a function of a certain faith or religion, but rather it is a function of simply being human – of Adam. It is our human moral compass – our conscience – that is the source of the moral allegations against us. It is we that condemn ourselves.

And it is festivals like the Kumbh Mela where multiple tens of millions of Hindus, who have never read the Bible, but are trying to grapple and make peace with their ‘sin’ that should alert us to the truth of this Biblical statement.  The ‘bad news’ of the reality of our sin is shown in the Kumbh Mela Festival. You cannot wish your sins away by ignoring the Gospel, because it is not the Gospel that is first accusing you – it is yourself.

Hindu understanding of ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’

You may think that perhaps these Hindus have a very different idea of what ‘sin’ is compared to what non-Hindu westerners have. Here are some moral teachings from a Hindu guru, Sai Baba, whose books I have read. Ask yourself as you read them “Is what he says is ‘good’ and ‘right’ really ‘good’ and ‘right’ according to my moral compass”?

“And what is dharma (Our moral duty)? Practicing what you preach, doing as you say it has to be done, keeping precept and practice in line. Earn virtuously, yearn piously; live in fear of God, live for reaching God: that is dharma”  Sathya Sai Speaks 4, p. 339

 

“What exactly is your duty?…

  • First tend your parents with love and reverence and gratitude.
  • Second, speak the truth and act virtuously.
  • Third, whenever you have a few moments to spare, repeat the name of the Lord with the form in your mind.
  • Fourth, never indulge in talking ill of others or try to discover faults in others.
  • And finally, do not cause pain to others in any form”

Sathya Sai Speaks 4, pp.348-349

“Whoever subdues his egoism, conquers his selfish desires, destroys his bestial feelings and impulses, and gives up the natural tendency to regard the body as self, he is surely on the path of dharma” Dharma Vahini, p.4

As I read these I find that I cannot argue with Sai Baba. I agree with him that these are good precepts to live by. But when I turn from judging these precepts to having them judge me I recognize that I am not measuring up. And thus, like these millions of Hindus who have never read the Bible, I am conscious of falling short of this standard.  It is just like the Bible says

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

Christopher Hitchens agrees

When you become aware of ubiquity of our moral compass (what I called the Tao in previous posts) you can find it in more and more seemingly unlikely places. For example, Christopher Hitchens, in attacking the Ten Commandments, in a back-handed way agrees with both the universality of our moral conscience as well as our inability to live it (i.e. our sin). After discussing the first of the Ten Commandments he writes:

“…Only then comes the four famous ‘shalt nots’ which flatly prohibit killing, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally there is a ban on covetousness, forbidding the desire for ‘thy neighbours’… chattel. … No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai. Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts…. More important, it demands the impossible: a recurrent problem with all religious edicts. One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions…, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much…. If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species”   Christopher Hitchens.  2007.  God is not great: How religion poisons everything.  P.99-100

Here he tells us two important things. First he agrees that every society ‘ever discovered’ had similar moral teachings as the Ten Commandments. They are universal and ‘self-evident’ as he says, thus showing that they do not get their authority because of the Bible.  Hitchens mistakenly thinks that the Bible is making the claim to a distinct moral authority that is unique from other morals, and is simply grounded in itself.  When he finds similar moral laws everywhere else he then thinks he has dismissed or disproved the Biblical claim.  That Categorically Imperative moral authority comes from something deeper than the Bible – it comes from within ourselves – and it will not go away simply by evading Biblical authority.

Second, Hitchens takes particular issue with the Tenth Commandment against coveting, but the principle applies as he notes to ‘all religious edicts’ – we simply cannot actually live them. He falls short – just like the Bible says. These are two fundamental observations that we can make about our Morals and our behaviour.

When it comes to our sin the Bible is simply a Messenger, trying to make us see the reality of our situation. And as such, its message can fall like ‘bad news’ on our ears. Hitchens responded to this by choosing to shoot the Messenger. The devotees at the Kumbh Mela festival are choosing to respond to the Bad News of their sin through bathing and ascetic sacrifice – without ever knowing if their efforts will be sufficient. But the irony is that the Good News of the Gospel is exactly what Hitchens mockingly cried for. The Good News of the Gospel is precisely God taking the initiative – to use Hitchens words – ‘to invent a different species’, by – to use Kumbh Mela devotee words – ‘washing our sins away’.  The effect of that washing is to transform sin-infested ‘Pinochios’ into real children of Goda different species.  Followers of the Gospel can then rest in the sufficiency of God’s work of ‘washing our sins away’.  The words of Hitchens and the efforts of the devotees show this message of the Gospel is Good News indeed, in the wider backdrop of the bad news of our sin.