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Genesis 11:29 – 25:10; Isaiah. 51:2; Luke 16:22-30; John 8: 56; Acts 7:2;
Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6-29; Hebrews 11:8-19,39; James 2:21-23.
The life of Abraham was associated with the life of five Bible characters, namely Sarah, Hagar, Lot, Melchizedek and Isaac. So far, we have studied four of these characters1. Because faith is the attribute ascribed to Abraham, and thus he is called the father of all the faithful (Ro 4:16), we ought to trace this virtue throughout his life as demonstrated by the word of God. ‘Faith’ was basically what the Lord wanted from His followers, since “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb 11:6). It is also the precondition for baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:37).
All we know about God’s first call to Abraham is derived from the account of St. Stephen the archdeacon and protomartyr, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Depart from your land and from your kindred and go into the land which I will show you” (Acts 7:2,3). We know nothing about the circumstances nor the image in which God appeared to Abraham. This is of little concern to us since God spoke to the fathers in olden times in many and divers manners by the prophets (Heb 1:1). Because He is the creator of everyone, God knows quite well the ways and means that are appropriate for each one to receive God’s word. What concerns us is Abraham’s behavior toward God’s invitation and his life with Him. This is exquisitely expressed in few words in the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:8): “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called”.
Abraham’s life displayed continued obedience of God’s word without argument. Upon God’s first call on him while in Ur (in southern Iraq now), Abraham went out with his wife, his old father and his nephew Lot (son of Haran who died in Ur). They followed the path of caravans northward, to the city of Haran in Syria. There, the family settled for a period of time, at the end of which Tareh died. Then came the second call to Abraham “So Abraham went, as the Lord had told him” (Gen 12:1-4).
This perfect obedience was quite manifest all through the life of Abraham without any objection or argument. When Sarah insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be dismissed, “And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son” but Abraham listened to God’s command, “WhateverSarah says to you, do as she tells you.” Here, we do not hear a single word from Abraham. On the contrary, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away” (Gen 21:9-24).
The same picture is once again portrayed in the following chapter, in the greatest test in Abraham’s life, when God asked him to offer his only son as a sacrifice on one of the mountains. Here again we hear no comment from Abraham, but we read that he “rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him” (Gen. 22:3). “By faith Abraham when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son (Heb 11:17).
Many people believe that faith is a heavenly light that illuminates the path for believers to pursue in full confidence and courage, and this gives them a feeling of security for the present and the future. But what we learn from the Scriptures and from the sayings of Church Fathers is quite different. The greatest two prophets of the OT, Moses and Elijah, were able by faith to get water from a rock and bring forth fire from the sky, but even those prophets were not without human weaknesses, which happened while they were at the peak of their mission and power, then their service ended (Nu 20:1-13, 1 Kings 19:1-16).
Abraham was just the opposite of that. It is true that God performed miraculous things in his life, but Abraham was not a man led by miracles in his daily life. He suffered want, exile, and the death of his wife while in a foreign land. When his nephew Lot was taken prisoner at war, Abraham had to plan and attack the victorious enemies, pursuing them unto Dan (Gen 14:14,15) to free Lot and his family. Abraham enjoyed an internal faith and trust in God; this was noticeable during crises but without being displayed in extraordinary deeds. Since the beginning of the journey of faith in Abraham’s life we read:
“and he went out, not knowing where he was to go” (Heb 11:8);
“By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents” (Heb 11:9);
“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abraham, and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him …When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Gen 15:12,17).
God had promised Abraham to show him the land he would take, and to make him a great nation, and bless him (Gen 12:1,2). But God did not specify the direction Abraham was to take, nor the location of that land. This delayed his movement from Haran, and his travel in Canaan from place to place seeking grassland, and becoming a sojourner in Egypt and Gerar, thus endangering the life of his wife Sarah. When he died, his property in Canaan was no more than the field of Ephron and the cave of Machpelah in Hebron where he and Sarah were buried. The epistle to the Hebrews draws the curtain on the story of Abraham, his children and grandchildren, with a sad note: “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised,” (Heb 11:13).
This is a short statement which describes the life of faith a man can lead in darkness, like a child walking in the night with his hand holding to his father’s. He does not see his footsteps and will certainly falter or go astray if his father leaves him alone. In a life of faith, we have to do God’s will. We need not know it or ask about His will for every step in our life, big or small. A review of the heroes of faith in the Bible, or in the annals of the Church history, would show how they followed a dim winding path to the extent that they despaired of life itself (2 Co 1:8). The dark path of faith becomes the most dim and murky when one feels that God has abandoned him or has become his enemy. Here are some examples:
“ My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O My God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; And by night, but find no rest” (Ps 22: 1-2.”
“ Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “ Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”(Mt 27: 45-46).
“ Withdraw thy hand far from me, and let not dread of thee terrify me. Why dost thou hide thy face, and count me as thy enemy?” (Job 13: 21, 24).
“ God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me asunder; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target, his archers surround me. He slashes open my kidneys, and does not spare; he pours out my gall on the ground. He breaks me with breach upon breach; he runs upon me like a warrior. I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and have laid my strength in the dust. My face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness’ (Job 16: 11-16).
“ Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Why did I come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame” (Jer 20:14,18); (see also: Lam 3:2-15, Song 3:1, and Song 5:6,7).
The reader may ask why God leads his faithful people through such dark corridors without any light or consolation, either from the earth or heaven. They call upon Him but do not find Him; God runs away from them and does not pay heed to their prayers. “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I sought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Co 12:7-9).
The answer we discern from the Bible and from the sayings and experiences of the saints is that a life of faith is one in which a person is liberated from all earthly or material shackles in order to be able to get attached to the One who is unseen. The following are excerpts from the sayings of St. John of the Cross2, in his portrayal of the life of faith:
“To the human soul, faith is like a dark night in which one’s soul would be so dim; it is not guided by any light of its own, but it gives up itself to be guided by faith to its union with Christ. Even those who experience heavenly revelations, they should pursue their life as if they were without such revelations, still in the dark. Like the blind they rely on dim faith, accept it as their guide and light; they do not seek comfort in any personal thought, feeling of perception. If they did, they would go astray. Faith is above all this … As our senses become blinded in this course, we can then see light: “for judgment I came to this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39)3.
At the time in which the man of God feels this utter darkness and the temptation of the devil from every side, this would be the time and the occasion for the human soul to meet with her unseen bridegroom yielding to His will without any precondition so that He would direct her according to His will: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death;” (Mt 26:38). “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt 26:39).
Although we are always invited to lead a life of faith while on earth, this kind of life passes like a dark night from beginning to end, but it gradually turns to be a guide for us, and a means, to unite with Christ. St. John of the Cross depicts such night in the following words:
“Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday, To the place where He (well I knew who!) was awaiting me – A place where none appeared.”4
In all believers, the seed of faith is born and nurtured by the word of God, because faith is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22) and the work of God’s word (Ro 10:8,17). Abraham did not have a Bible by which to receive the word of God. He received the first seed of faith during his first call in Ur, and this was nurtured with the very few words he heard from God. Though few, these words were quite enough to provide the faith we saw in Abraham in all the difficult times of his life, the most noticeable one being illustrated in the delay in the fulfillment of God’s promises to him, or rather their being not fulfilled at all in his life. This ascertains that we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Co 5:7).
Even when Abraham reached Canaan, he found that “the Canaanites were in the land” (Gen 12:5). More than once, there was famine in the land (Gen 12:10). He did not own anything anywhere; and wherever he stayed, he put up his tents again. “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents” (Heb 11:9).
Abraham’s life with God required that all ties of the flesh be cut off. He first left his family and tribe in Ur; he had to separate himself from Lot; then he was ordered by God to obey his wife’s words and dismiss Hagar and Ishmael his son. Then he was to slaughter his only remaining son by his own hand.
After all this, how did Abraham preserve a life of true faith? St. Isaac the Syrian explains the difference between true faith and false faith, saying:
“Out of the faithfulness of the heart there is good hope and reliance on God. That is good. But there is another kind of hope resulting from procrastination, recklessness, ignorance and hypocrisy; this is false hope. A sign of good hope is to be detached from all worldly matters when man devotes his life for God, praying day and night, his main concern being to achieve virtue. False hope is revealed by man’s failure and laziness in prayer and in failing to seek virtue in his life. When faced by the consequences of his ignorance and carelessness or when rebuked for his wrong deeds or bad behavior, he would say, ‘I rely on the Lord and He will relieve me of this burden and reward me with comfort’. If this is what you are, do not deceive yourself. To rely on God and have faith in Him, this must be preceded by toil and unceasing prayer. The life of prayer that our father Abraham lived can be attested to by the many altars he built, the only material evidence he left for many generations until today. After 4000 years, the remains of the cities he built still carry the same names: Bethel, Beer-Sheba and Hebron.
This is Abraham who was able by faith to move away from looking forward to earthly promises to “looking forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10; Rev 21:2,27). This is Abraham who “rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8: 56). He became the father of all the faithful, whom the angels carry to his bosom (Luke 16: 22).
1 - Sarah,Hagar, Lot, and Mechizedek were Bible Characters 5, 6, 7, and 8, respectively. The life of Isaac will be the subject of the next Bible Character.
2 - St. John of the Cross: A Spanish monk who lived in the sixteenth century. The Catholic Church considers him one of her “Doctors” because of his writings on prayer and spiritual life, which are considered among the most magnificent of all Christian literature in these topics.
3 - “The Ascent of Mount Carmel”, book 2, chapter 4.
4 - In this poem, St. John of the Cross summarizes the two books he wrote on the stages of spiritual life. It is included at the beginning (Argument) of his book “The Ascent of Mount Carmel”.
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