Monday, November 1, 2010

Faith in an Uncertain World: Abraham the Paradigm of Faith (Romans 4:16-25)

Christmas was always a big deal in my home when I was growing up. All of the family from two sides would meet at our home. Every Christmas Eve one of the neighbors would dress up as Santa and visit our home just prior to us going to bed. When my mom tried to tell me there was no such thing as Santa I tried to evangelize her. I was afraid that if I had questioned some of the things or had any doubts about Christmas I might lose out.

Many Christians approach Christianity and faith in the same way I did Santa Claus. They have a “Santa Claus” type faith. They have doubts about much but are afraid to express them or to explore the truth of what they believe. Somehow we have come to see doubt as a threat to faith rather than something to drive us towards faith.

In Romans 4:16-25 Paul argues that it was by faith that Abraham was justified. Not by circumcision, not by obeying the law, but by simply obeying God. For some of Paul’s readers this was a paradigm shift in their understanding of how they related to God. Paul is not arguing against circumcision and obeying the law. But he is arguing against it as a way to define their relationship with God. Paul is arguing that ultimately, ones relationship with God is based on believing what God has said. For Judaism and Paul, Abraham became a paradigm of faith. He was the ultimate example of what it meant to turn and believe in God.

But holding up Abraham as a paradigm of faith is problematical even for the Apostle Paul, read Romans 4:19-21. While I agree with Paul I also have to say that this is a rather rosy view of Abraham’s life; Abraham had doubts! So did Sarah, which is why Isaac received his name and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. The fact is Abraham and Sarah are eternal examples of people who had reservations about God’s promise, made mistakes in conjunction with that promise, and yet are held up by Judaism and Christianity as the paradigm of faith. Read through Abraham’s story in Genesis 12-24 and you will realize how much of Abraham’s life exhibits doubt and unbelief! In Genesis 17:17 Abraham laughed at God’s promise! However, Paul understood that Abraham did not have a ‘Santa Claus like faith’ but a faith that decided to trust God in spite of Abraham’s doubts and the very real obstacles to fulfilling the promise.

Why did Abraham not waver in unbelief but instead grow in faith (Rom 4:20)? Because he had no choice! The more impossible the promise seemed to him the more he had to trust that God could do what he said he would do. That is faith; trusting God in spite of the impossible, the unexplainable, and even the unacceptable. It is my hope that I can, in some small way, attain to the faith of Abraham. Believing that God is able to do what He said in spite of all the obstacles to my faith in Him.

I think the most dangerous thing about ‘Santa Claus faith’ is that it ultimately leads its adherents into a life in which obedience is predicated on what one can get from God. The dangerous part is that disappointment with God often occurs and leaves the individual wondering about the relationship between the unexplainable and faith.

In John Irving’s book ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ there is a faithless congregational pastor who declares that ‘doubt is the essence of faith’. This is true because often the world we live in causes us to doubt so much, it is only at that point that authentic faith can arise. There are times when I look at the world and I have to question if there really is a god? The way things are in the world makes me wonder sometimes. But I also cannot escape the fact that creation itself shouts to me that there is a God who created all of this and somehow is holding it together. It is in those times that I need Abraham like faith. It is when I realize that there is nothing I can do. But that is where faith has to begin. Not in a way where I can see how God can do something. Only when I am at a complete loss do I really have the ability to choose faith. It is then that I have to decide whether I am going to trust God and his ability to do the things he said was going to do. That is faith; trusting God in spite of the impossible, the unexplainable, and even the unacceptable. At times I have to be like the man in Mark 9:24 who when Jesus asked “do you believe?” he replied: Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.

This is why Abraham becomes such a great paradigm of faith for us. Not because he simply believed but because he did doubt at times but he also decided that when the situation around him looked impossible, unexplainable, even unacceptable, he decided to trust that God would be able to do the things he promised he would do.


  1. Your comments are very timely to me as I am participating in a Bible study called "Believing God". Some of your thoughts have been echoed in this study. It is so true that unbelief is all around us and is a constant challenge.

    Despite that, I agree that Creation testifies of God and I often think of John 6 where Peter says, "Lord, to whom would we go?"

    Thanks for your honest and thought-provoking comments.

  2. Hear, hear. Well said. The Santa Claus analogy is particularly insightful. It's good to remember that Abraham was called to "Go to the land I will show you." We are not expected to know; we are called to go.

    I am grateful for all the paradigms of doubt and faith in the scripture; if Abraham doubted God, Moses doubted himself. Esther's courage almost failed. Jacob schemed. Peter denied. We struggle with weakness on many levels, but God uses our doubt to bring us to faith. Yet another example of the unlikely grace of God's way in the world.

  3. I have a pastor friend who sets aside one day a month, if needed, to "be an atheist." His point is that sometimes we doubt-- but God does not lose faith in us. We waver and we wobble-- and when we are about to fall over, God sends who or what we need in that moment. As Kristen observes, God uses our doubt to bring us [even closer] to faith.

  4. I like Martin Luther's definition of "atheism." He said a-theism is not so much disbelief in the presence of God as it is not realizing the full capacity of God...

    Though, I think we can add another sense to Luther's definition: there are times when we humans are called to counterpoint the actions of God, to be a-theist or counter-theist. Look at Moses' intercession for his people in Exodus 32:7-14 or the overall person of Jeremiah or Christ's complaint on the cross.

    I wonder if God encourages this critique of God so as to prompt us to think hard and critically about things; to weed out the idols which claim god status, confusing the real from the counterfeit. And what better way to do this than for God to act in such a way which elicits in us a strong, visceral response, one which then prompts a response in kind by God (complex dialog)? After all, an idol does not have the capacity to hear and respond to a complaint or counterpoint.

    In this way, to give God the last word in his first word may be the worst thing we can do. Blind obedience may be the worst of all sins, for it goes against the grain of our very being -- to talk things out.

  5. I do not agree with the thought that "doubt is the essence of faith." If anything, doubt is simply the essence of being human. While my thoughts are in the nascent phases, I believe there is a tremendous misunderstanding concerning faith, both within and outside of Christendom.
    I think, first of all, that many try to make faith so nebulous and mystical that it lacks any meaning at all. For instance, to say that doubt is the essence of faith is a contradiction in terms. While witty, it is simply a misuse of words. I do not disagree with those who experience doubt during a difficult situation, through which they ultimately make it, and come out believing more strongly in God's provision (or whatever), but to say that it was doubt that grew one's faith is to misconstrue a symptom of the overall situation with the situation itself--the catalyst for the growth in faith.
    Another issue is, in line with the above, the definition of faith. What is faith? While there is not the time, space, nor reader attention span to discuss this in detail, it is perhaps simple and efficient to say that faith is a belief in something that one can not, at the immediate moment, prove. This is not to say that it cannot be proven, only that the individual who holds a particular belief in faith cannot, at a particular time, prove. In any case, the next question that must be asked is, faith in what? Here is where those who are arguing against "faith-based" scholarship go astray; they use "faith" in such an ambiguous way that it is really difficult to respond.
    Anyway, some thoughts.