Let’s think about Genesis 12-16—of God’s promise of a son to Abram and Sarai. This son extended God’s blessing promise made to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15. And, as we now know, the birth anticipated a son born of Abram’s lineage centuries later: Jesus, the Son of God.
The plan started badly. As the years passed Sarai’s time for motherhood ended without a child. It seemed that God’s promise had failed so Sarai, feeling the weight of infertility, offered a solution. Her Egyptian attendant, Hagar, could be her surrogate. Abram agreed and Ishmael was soon born. Problem solved!
Not really. Ishmael’s birth led to a problem that simmers till today. In the Middle East Ishmael’s offspring are still at odds with the offspring of Abram’s second son, Isaac. And even more, it displayed the fallen human impulse to help God be God.
In Genesis 17 God told Abraham that ninety year-old Sarai would finally birth her first child. God’s promise would be kept … even if it was much later than expected! And in chapter 21 Isaac was born.
What emerges is Abram’s impatient faith and a flawed version of God. The God he had in mind didn’t rise to the level of the God who confronted him in chapter 17:1-2—“I am God almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and you may multiply you greatly.” And God’s blameless way would be through Abraham’s wife and not a surrogate.
Now let’s take this account of Abraham’s early unbelief and ask another question. How many Christians today are still on the wrong side of this problem-solution story? Abram and Sarai decided God needed their help and Hagar’s womb. But they were foolishly wrong. So God restated his promise; and then fulfilled it.
This problem of a too-small God is still present in the church today. I, for one, am guilty—with my regular impulses to help God do what I think he should do. But God isn’t any more impressed with my wisdom than he was with the Hagar solution in Genesis 16.
I know this leap from the Genesis account to today’s world may feel overstated. But it’s not. Let’s consider John’s gospel and Galatians—books that both confront the problem of faulty faith. And Paul refers explicitly to the Hagar episode in Galatians.
In his gospel John made the contrast between faulty faith and authentic faith the guiding theme of the whole: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
Early in the gospel we read of flawed faith when followers saw Jesus as a miracle-worker and no more. Jesus dismissed this faith (in 2:24); and then exposed the inadequacy of any Spirit-less belief in his exchange with Nicodemus. Faith is birthed from above, not below.
Jesus later nudged Mary and Martha to a deeper faith when Lazarus died. They believed Jesus could prevent his death but they weren’t sure Jesus could raise him from the grave. And finally the disciple Thomas—despite all he had seen—refused to accept claims of the resurrection until Jesus met him directly. Then Thomas responded with real faith: “My Lord and my God!”
In Galatians the apostle Paul rebuked an unstable Christian community for their faith-failure. They started with a Spirit-stirred “faith working through love” but faltered when a false gospel of faith-plus-law-keeping displaced Paul’s message. False apostles followed Paul and Barnabas to Galatia and insisted on helping God. How? By focusing on their personal obedience … and (without saying so) not on Christ.
This was a behavioral, self-focused faith rather than a Christ-centered and Spirit-active faith. And Paul was stunned: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Even more, Paul turned back to the Hagar story to make his point: “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave [Hagar] but of the free woman [Sarah]” (Gal. 4:31).
So the problem is still alive today. There are still those in the church who dismiss a Spirit-birthed and promise-based faith as too passive. They believe, instead, that God wants us to bring about his Kingdom through our own efforts: by obeying God’s moral commandments. Seeking, with God’s help, to build a society of morally and doctrinally refined believers.
They apply the same impulse Sarai and Abram tried when they decided to help God by using Hagar. Even when God hadn’t suggested the approach. What Abram and Sarai couldn’t accept was the patience God desired. He still knows how to keep his promise.
Authentic faith always has a single focus, the Son. With a response of love and heart-based obedience. It receives his word as living and active in each moment of life. Nicodemus missed this in John 3. Mary and Martha, too, needed a clearer vision of Jesus … and more patience. Thomas also needed a shift—from seeing Jesus as a powerful teacher to embracing him as the Lord of Life.
The writer of Hebrews commended the faith of many Old Testament saints in chapter 11. But some “were stoned [and others were] sawn in two” as they awaited a promise that never arrived before they died. This underscores the relational quality of faith: Jesus is God’s promised savior. Faith must always be centered on him. And the Spirit now discloses him to us … when we’re listening to him. When we’re abiding in the word and in his love. And when we’re spreading that love to others.
So the life of faith is always focused on Jesus who changes us through his love. And our human efforts to help God build our version of behavioral faith has a problem: it doesn’t work. But forming faith in us isn’t a problem for Jesus!