Christianity prides itself on the goodness of “faith” over “works.” And yet the idea of “faith” can sometimes be a crushing burden on our backs. I don’t know where you’re coming from, or what you’ve been through this week, but if you and I live in the same world, then I know without a doubt that some of you, maybe many of you, are struggling. The Bible is FULL of God’s promises, but sometimes, when those good promises come face to face with the reality of this broken world and our broken lives, we doubt those promises, and we become afraid.
What do you do when faith isn’t enough, or when you’re barely hanging on by a thread to God’s promises – what then? What happens when those promises you’ve memorized crash into the reality of your broken life and your faith isn’t enough to sustain you?
The Example of Abraham
Abraham was a man who had received God’s promises, and while he is often memorialized by children’s Bible stories as a man of great faith, he was also a man of great fear. In the book of Genesis, though God promises him an entire nation with descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky, Abraham doubts God’s promises. Can you blame him? He has no children by the time he is ninety and his wife is barren. How is God going to bless all the families of the earth through him if he doesn’t have a family of his own? What God is promising Abraham is life, but his circumstances feel like death. And it’s not just Abraham’s family line that’s at stake; the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
This is why Abraham isn’t just worried – he’s afraid. In Genesis 15, God says to him, “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? … Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” Abraham had already heard God’s promise (Gen 12), he was trying to hold onto the hope of its fulfillment, but everything around him was saying, “It’s hopeless.”
We can relate to Abraham’s situation. Many of us know God’s promises, maybe we can even recite them from memory. But sometimes when those promises meet the reality of our impossible circumstances, they sound too good to be true.
Rom 8:28 – “For God works all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” – Really God? But what I’m going through doesn’t feel “good” at all.
Jer 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” – But Lord, I don’t feel like I’m prospering. I don’t feel like there’s much of a future for me.
Matt 11:28 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” But Lord, I have come to you, haven’t I? And yet I’ve been so weary for so long.
So what is the response God gives to Abraham, and to us, in this death-like state when our faith won’t sustain us? When we struggle to believe his promises? Right after God tells Abram in verse 7, “I will give you this land to possess,” Abraham continues his pleading in verse 8, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” Abraham has heard this before, but he wants confirmation, something more firm to stake his life on than a verbal promise. We all can relate to Abraham. We hear God’s promises directly in scripture, but we still ask in our hearts, “Lord God, how can I know that you will never leave me nor forsake me? You seem so far away.” Or “Lord, you say ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,’ but my heart still feels stained blood red with sin. How can I know this is true?” How do we know God will keep his promises to us when so many people fail us in life? Sometimes even the ones who are closest to us.
The answer God gives to Abraham, and to all of us, is the covenant. We don’t use the word “covenant” much to describe anything, except maybe the covenant of marriage, but the covenant is a theme that unites the entire Bible. At its most basic level, a covenant is an oath-bound relationship between two or more parties. When we get married, we bind ourselves by oath to fulfill our obligations to our spouse. This doesn’t sound very romantic, but the love and health of a marriage rests on that original covenant promise. In divine covenants, God sovereignly (by his own power and will) establishes the relationship with His creatures. Unlike human covenants, a divine covenant is one in which God binds Himself by His own oath to keep His promises.
So in Genesis 15, we have an example of a covenant ratification ceremony. When you get married, the covenant ratification ceremony in our culture involves saying your oaths/vows and exchanging rings before witnesses. But the covenant ratification ceremony here is a bit different. God tells Abraham, “Bring me a heifer (young cow) three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle dove, and a young pigeon. And be brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other” (v. 9-10). In Abraham’s time, when a higher power, like a vassal or king, made a covenant with a lower power, the higher power would say his oaths, which were usually the things he would give to the lower power if the lower power fulfilled the terms of covenant, and then the lower power would walk between the dead animals to invoke a curse on himself, as a way of saying, “If I don’t keep my end of the deal, let me become like these animals here!”
Abraham wants to know, “Lord, how can I get this land? What do I have to do? How can I have descendants that are more numerous than the stars in the sky? What must I do? What obligations must I keep?” But the amazing thing here is that God gives his oath and it doesn’t include any conditions on Abraham’s part. God says in v. 13: “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” Sounds like a covenant – the higher power is saying what he will give to the lower power. But what is required of the lower power? Verse 15: “As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.” There are no obligations placed on Abraham here as part of this covenant. It is unconditional. All the obligations rest on God.
And not just that, but unlike other covenants, Abraham doesn’t walk between the animals. Verse 17 tells us: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” The smoke and fire represent the presence of God, just like the pillar of cloud and fire that would guide the Israelites later through the wilderness. God passes through these dead animals as a way of invoking the curse of the covenant on himself. Instead of Abraham bearing the curse for failing to keep the covenant, God says he will bear the consequences when Abraham breaks it. God binds this covenant with his own life, which is unthinkable. “Abram, you want to know how you can know for sure that I will keep my promise? Though your wife is barren, though you are in a death-like state, I swear on my own life that I will keep it.”
For many of us who struggle to believe and trust in God’s promises, we need to remember the covenant God made with Abram, and with us. We may cry out to God and ask, “God, what must I do to change this death-like situation I’m in?” And God’s answer is, “I will change it.”
God Keeps His Promises through Christ
Abraham didn’t fully understand what it could mean for God to invoke this kind of curse on himself, but we are privileged to know the rest of the story. God promised to fulfill the covenant, and he promised that when Abraham failed and we his spiritual children failed, we would not become like these dead animals; God himself would. And we see this come to fulfillment when Jesus, God in the flesh, goes to the cross. We all have failed to keep the covenant, because of our sin and unfaithfulness, and yet Jesus goes to the cross to become like those dead animals, because God’s covenant is unbreakable.
What will rescue you from your death-like state is not the great faith that you need to win God’s favor, but the great faithfulness of God in fulfilling his covenant with Abraham by giving us Jesus Christ. Jesus did what we could not do in perfectly obeying God, and yet went to the cross to take the punishment for our failures that we could not bear. When we, like Abraham, are afraid and doubt God’s promises, we need to remember his covenant. We need to remember that because God walked between those dead animals, the curse of the covenant fell on his Son, Jesus, and not on us.
But God was not satisfied in just removing the curse of the covenant from us and putting it on Jesus. God’s plan was to bless all the families of the earth by overturning that original curse that plagues all of humanity since the Fall, and God did this by raising Jesus from the dead so that he lives today and declares through his life that death has no sting.
When faith is not enough, when our faith fails us, or we struggle to even have faith, we need to rest, not on the strength of our faith, but on the sufficiency of God’s unbreakable covenant. The answer that we need to hear when we are afraid, because the pressures of the world and the persistence of our sin weigh us down, is Jesus lives. Jesus lives, so broken marriages can be restored from death to new life. Jesus lives, so there is hope and power for those of you trapped in addiction, for those of you who feel enslaved to sin. Jesus lives, so all you who struggle with anxiety and fear about the future can look beyond the trials you’ll face in this life to your future with God in heaven. Because Jesus lives, God has fulfilled his oath to Abraham and is blessing all the families of the earth through us, his children, as the gospel goes forth and as his children go out into the world to love their neighbors as Christ’s ambassadors.