One of our children’s favourite movies was the LEGO Movie. At one point in the movie, one character, voiced by Morgan Freeman, says to the main character, “Believe. I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”
When it comes to Christianity, words like “belief” and “faith” are very important but what do they mean? I believe that Albany is the capital of New York but so what? Is that different than me believing that Jesus rose from the dead?
A concept like believing needs more than a dictionary definition, we need a story. In the New Testament, Paul had the opportunity to talk to different communities about faith. In both cases, Paul chose to illustrate it with the story of Abraham. James, the half-brother of Jesus, when discussing faith went to the same verse in Genesis describing Abraham’s faith that Paul did.
We are going to take a look at the story of Abraham and look to his faith as an example. I can assure you that is belief was much more than a cat poster.
Who was Abraham? He was originally known as Abram and he was from the city of Ur in what is today Iraq. His father was called by God to leave Ur for the promised land of Canaan, which we now know is Israel. His father got distracted half way there but God called Abram to finish the journey.
Abram was blessed in many areas, including wealth. But one thing he lacked was a son to whom he could pass on his inheritance. Many people today get along just fine without children but in that culture, having an heir was essential. At the start of this story, Abram’s only heir was one of his servants, which wasn’t ideal.
God spoke to Abram as he had to before. What I love is that Abram engages God on the issue that was closest to his heart. He wanted a son and was not afraid to press this when God spoke to him. This type of freedom is probably why Abram is described as a friend of God.
At this point we need to be aware that Abram is old and his wife is both old and barren. And yet God promises that Abram would father a son who would be his heir. Abram heard that promise and he believed it. Abram had faith. How could he do that?
If we read Genesis, we see that there are three chapters of ongoing interaction between Abram and God before the big promise. There was a development in the relationship. God had come through before and Abram believed God would continue to be faithful.
What kind of faith was it? Was it simply belief that God was powerful enough to make such a thing happen? It included that but it was more. We do know that Abram’s faith didn’t include full understanding. We know this because when God was slow in fulfilling the promise, Abram tried to move things along by fathering a child with his wife’s servant. This tells us two things. Faith doesn’t require all the details. And even the heroes of faith are immune from messing up.
But there is something else we need to know. Just seven chapters later God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the child of the promise. As a parent, this story horrifies me. I can’t help but put myself in Abraham’s place. Could I do what he did? Many people look at the story of the sacrifice of Isaac and wonder if they want to worship such a God. This is based on a misunderstanding of the story. Many see it as a test to see if Abraham loved God more than his son. But that was not the test. In addition to promising that Abraham would have a son, God also promised that son would become the father of a great nation. While at this point the son was born, Isaac was still a boy and the great nation was no where to be seen. The reason that Abraham was willing to put Isaac on the altar was that he was still believing God’s promise. If God said that a great nation would come from Isaac then that’s what would happen. Abraham probably didn’t anticipate the solution being a last minute supply of a ram to be a substitute sacrifice but he did believe God would be faithful.
What this means is that the faith of Abraham was not just hypothetical but was practical. It was not just theory but was something that he would base not just his own life but the life of his son on.
It is fairly easy to have a theoretical or hypothetical faith. We can look at a list of doctrines and tick off the ones we agree with. But that wasn’t Abraham’s faith.
The New Testament tells us that we are saved by faith and not by works. But that faith is not one divorced from works. Living out our faith is important without works being a way for us to earn our salvation or bribe God’s love. We would never separate our feelings and actions in any other relationship, why should we do it with God.
Abraham demonstrated his faith by bringing Isaac to the altar. How do we demonstrate ours? About six years ago, I left my previous church without having another church to go to or the promise of other full-time income. But it is what we felt led to do and we placed that situation in God’s hand. I say that not to brag about being a hero of the faith but to confess that it was really hard. The first two months of that were some of the worst and felt like everything was falling apart. But I can look back at those three years and see clearly that I was being prepared for the ministry I’m in right now.
Christian faith is meant to be faith in real life. It is not about the “what ifs” but about the “whens.” Let me give you an example of moving from theoretical to real. Imagine that we lived in a world where physical death was only an unlikely possibility, the result of some rare accident. We could keep our beliefs of an afterlife as purely theoretical. But the truth is that everyone of us will die. It is a reality that each one of us will face. We have to ask, do we really believe what Jesus promises about the resurrection of the dead? How will we respond when when we are on our death bed and are about to breathe our last?
This is relevant to every area. Do we really believe it is important to care for the poor? How do we show it? Do we really believe that prayer is important? How do we show it?
Abraham showed his faith. He heard a promise of God and believed it. But he demonstrated that faith even in the most difficult circumstances. Do we believe? Do we really believe? Is our faith theoretical or practical? How do we demonstrate our faith in such a way shows that we really believe. Our test will look much different than Abraham’s but we will be tested.