One of my favourite pieces of comedy heaven is Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro in the inimitable Meet the Focker’s discussing the Byrne’s family ‘Circle of Trust’.
The basic premise is this: a circle exists, within which you’re completely honest with all the other people who are in it too. But break that trust and you’re outside. With no way back.
The story of Abraham – and our stories too – are also stories about that circle of trust.
Abraham had a promise from God. God appeared to him – physically – and told him to leave where he lived and travel some place new. He promised to bless him, and to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Genesis 15:5.
And as Abraham sets off, it seems God was good to His word. Abraham did well. By all accounts, his wife was pretty fit – although technically also his half-sister, but maybe we’ll leave that one for another day – and his business flourished. He had a healthy spiritual life, God turning up often to chat to him and make him awesome promises about his future.
But somewhere on the way to Isaac and all those offspring, there are a few dodgy, less crowned-with-glory moments. Like the one when Abraham goes to Egypt, worries about how pretty Sarah is, forgets to trust God and instead tells Sarah to lie and say she’s his sister. That caused a few sticky moments, but – phew! – God sorts it out for them and they’re on their way again, somehow with more livestock and servants than they had before.
But then Abraham does it again when they enter the Negev desert. Gets all worried, forgets how it turned out last time, and gets Sarah to lie again. And again, God has to step in, showing up in the king’s dream to rescue Abraham a second time.
And of course, there’s the classic; when Sarah gets fed up of waiting for God to fulfil his promise and instead gives Abraham her maid to have sex with, trying to get some children and fulfil the prophecy that way. And along comes Ishmael and all the problems that causes in their household and throughout history.
Abraham and Sarah were heroes of our faith, but they weren’t perfect. And their imperfections can also be important lessons to us. It’s one of the things I love about the Bible – the good and the bad, every bit God-breathed and recorded for our benefit, to teach us something – 2 Timothy 3:16.
It’s easy to be complacent when things are good, to think we can manage on our own. And it’s easy to be impatient. Even when things are going well – in our jobs, our relationships, our spiritual life – we want better, more, the next thing. We try to find ways to ‘work out’ what God has promised us, rather than waiting on Him, trusting Him to do it His way, in His time. We think it’s a modern-day phenomenon, but maybe this story of Abraham says otherwise.
It’s easy to try and do it our way, to control the risks, manage the exposure. Despite his experiences of God providing for them and looking after them, when faced with problems, Abraham chose to tell half-truths about Sarah, rather than trust God to protect them. It turned out OK for them in the end – thank God for grace – but it wasn’t perfect.
Maybe this teaches us that even the holy, the called, the ones who walk and talk closely with God get it wrong sometimes. Maybe it’s an encouragement to remember that even when we mess up, God’s plans don’t change and He is gracious enough to restore and forgive and get us back on track. Maybe it’s a reminder that when we’re tempted to push on with trying to get done what we think God has asked us to do ourselves, to compromise, to stop trusting, that it’s always best to stop. To pray. To cling to the God of our forefathers and the truth that we know. To stay firmly inside the circle of trust.