Faith In A Pagan World
In 1978 Carla and I moved into the village of Isle La Crosse, Saskatchewan for a one month stay. We were supposed to proclaim the gospel as part of a missionary training program with NCEM. It was difficult. On one occasion, I had lost my knife. One day we saw a group of kids who had been at our place and as we talked to them, I noticed that one of them had my knife. When I asked about it, he denied having taken it and I had to buy it back. On another occasion, early on a Sunday morning, a very drunk woman was banging on our door and wanting to get in. This was uncomfortable because we were living in a truck camper set on the ground. We were very aware of the fact that there were not a lot of Christian people in the community. We felt quite alone and longed for Christian fellowship and wondered how to live and even make an impact in this community.
These feelings have happened to me at other times. When I got my first job right out of high school, I worked with an interesting character who did not always show up for work on time because of what he had been doing the night before. Conversations with him were not like any I was used to at the Christian school I had attended. When I attended university I was challenged by other students and by professors. Once I was in an elevator on my way to class. I wore a button on my jacket, “God loves you” and one of the professors challenged me about that statement. How do we live among people who are not believers?
Abraham found himself in such a situation. In one of his travels, he moved to an area called Gerar which was on the eastern border of Canaan. There was a king by the name of Abimelech who ruled in this area. How would Abraham live among these people who did not know God?
I. Wrong Judgements
A. Abraham’s Conclusion
Don’t you hate it when you make the same mistake twice? Sometimes we wonder at others and even ask, “You did the same thing again??!!” The story of Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar, found in Genesis 20, sounds similar to the story of his trip down to Egypt in Genesis 12. He made the same mistake again by saying that Sarah was his sister. He hadn’t learned the first time.
The story in Genesis 20 takes place after the heavenly messengers have announced to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child and just before Isaac was born. This is important when we realize that it comes at a time when Sarah was going to become pregnant and that she could have become pregnant by a man other than Abraham. It was a threat to the promise made about the birth of Isaac.
As they came into this territory, Abraham told Sarah once again “say you are my sister.” As we see later in the story, this was not a lie. She was his sister, at least his half sister. She was the daughter of his father, but not his mother. And yet it involved a deception because he was hiding the fact that she was his wife. Why did he do this? The reason comes out later in the story when Abimelech confronted Abraham and asked him why he did this. Abraham’s reason is given in Genesis 20:11, “I said to myself, There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” We can understand this conclusion, coming as it does just after the story of Sodom. Abraham knew the evil of the people of Sodom and assumed that all people were just as bad. He concluded, naturally enough, that the people in Gerar were also wicked and that they did not have a fear of God. Abraham made a judgement about the pagan world around him.
B. The Righteousness Of Abimelech
The only problem is that he was dead wrong in his judgement. There is much evidence in this story that there was a fear of God in this place, that in fact Abimelech was a man who was prepared to listen to God.
As soon as Abimelech took Sarah into his harem - likely not because she was such a beauty, but because of a political alliance with Abraham - God brought sickness and the inability to conceive children to Abimelech and his household. Very soon after this, God came to Abimelech in a dream and said, in effect, “you’re a dead man.” He had taken a married woman and it is interesting to see the strong view against adultery in this society. I have heard stories in our society which demonstrate that the faithfulness of the marriage vow is not held very highly in some contexts. In this supposedly pagan society, it was held very highly.
But Abimelech protested that he had not yet touched her and that he had taken her in innocence, not knowing she was married and going by the words of Abraham himself which suggested that she was available. That he hadn’t touched Sarah is important. It means that he is innocent and also that Sarah will not have illegitimate offspring. So far, we see innocence because of God’s protection in that he prevented Abimelech from touching her. But was Abimelech a man who feared God or was Abraham right in his judgement? Abimelech was given a choice in verse 7. He was told that he must return Sarah and that if he did not, he was a dead man. How would a man who does not fear God respond to such a warning? If Abimelech had been the man Abraham thought he was, he would not have taken it seriously. The warning reminds us of the warning to Cain when God said to him, “sin is crouching at the door, but you must master it.” Abimelech could act in righteousness or ignore the voice of God as Cain did. Cain, supposedly came from a godly line and failed to listen to God. Abimelech, according to Abraham’s assumption, was from a pagan line. Would he listen to the voice of God?
The next verse is the first indication that Abimelech was not at all like Abraham thought he was. When he heard the warning of God, 20:8 says that “they were very much afraid.” The prompt response of Abimelech was fear of God, a proper fear of God.
The further response of Abimelech demonstrates that he was not like Abraham assumed at all. He returned Sarah to Abraham and then blessed Abraham, giving him sheep and cattle and allowing him to live wherever he wanted. He paid a huge sum of money to Sarah as proof that he had not touched her. His actions demonstrated that he did fear God.
C. Do Not Judge!
The judgement of Abraham was “there is no fear of God in this place,” but how wrong he was in that judgement. Sometimes we look at people of the world and we make the same judgements.
We assume that another person is not a Christian. We make a judgement about their relationship with God. Are we right in that judgement? We assume that people of the world will act in a certain way just because they are not Christians. We assume that unbelievers cheat, are open to adultery and drink too much. Are we accurate in those judgements? We assume that people will hate us because they do not share our faith in God. Is that accurate?
Jesus warns us about making these kind of judgements about others. He said in Matthew 7:1,2, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
One of the places where I have struggled with this issue is in relationship to other churches and pastors. I have often been in ministerial associations with pastors from many other churches. I have sometimes thought - “there is no fear of God in this place.” This has made me afraid and caused me to do one of two things. Either I have avoided contact and just been quiet about my faith or I have attacked the theological position of others with argumentation and sometimes even sarcasm. As I have studied Scripture, prayed about this and continued to relate to these people, I have discovered that I was often wrong about there not being faith in this place. Although we may not always agree on every detail, other people are on a journey to God and do have faith in God. I have learned that it is not right to make judgements about where other people are at in their journey towards God. Whenever people speak to me about someone else and indicate that they are not Christians, I get very uncomfortable. Jesus tells us not to make such judgements.
Abraham made a serious error in judgement when he assumed that there was no fear of God in Gerar. We often do the same thing and the example of Abraham and the teaching of Jesus warns us not to make such judgements about people.
II. Wrong Actions
A. Abimelech’s Accusations
Such wrong judgements are not merely innocent thoughts in our minds. They lead to actions, often wrong actions. This was certainly the case in the relationship of the man of faith Abraham and Abimelech.
In verses 9,10, Abimelech levelled his accusations against Abraham. He was direct and accurate in his statements. Read text. The line that most strikes me is at the end of verse 9 - “you have done things to me that should not be done.”
Abimelech was justifiably not pleased with Abraham’s assumptions and his actions. Later in the text when he gave the money to Sarah, he said, “I am giving your brother…” Instead of calling him her husband he called him her brother. This was a deliberate jab at the lack of integrity of Abraham.
If our wrong judgements result in wrong actions, then people have every right to ask hard questions of us as well, and we better not take those justified hard questions as persecution.
B. Abraham’s Wrong Actions
What were the things which Abraham had done, which Abimelech identified as things “which ought not to be done?”
First of all, because of his deception Abraham opened the door for Abimelech to sin. Abimelech accused him “you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom.” When God approached Abimelech and said to him, “you are a dead man” and when he brought sickness on Abimelech He wasn’t kidding. Abimelech was in great danger and he was brought into this mortal and spiritual danger because of the lie of Abraham!
Furthermore, Abraham was also wrong in the fact that he had acted in fear instead of in faith . Even if Gerar had been a place where there was no fear of God, Abraham still had no right to act the way he did. Did he forget that he had the promises of God? Did he forget that God had chosen him and promised to guide him and bless those who would bless him? Did He forget the God of heaven who demonstrated his righteousness in the incident with Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham failed to act as a man of faith.
Because of these two actions, Abraham was not a good representative of God in the world. Here was Abimelech, a man prepared to fear God and the witness about God was negative because of the actions of Abraham. He did not demonstrate faith, he lied and demonstrated anything but the actions of a man of God towards Abimelech and his people.
C. Living Well In A Pagan World
When we make assumptions about the world into which we go and when we assume that there is no fear of God in that place and when we then act without faith in God and do things that make us poor representatives of Christ, do we not do the same thing as Abraham? How can we live well in a world in which we may encounter situations in which there is no fear of God?
I mentioned earlier that I have often wrestled with this question in the ministerial associations I have been a part of. I have also struggled in other jobs I have had and at school. Another lesson I have learned in these contacts is that I must not be shy about my faith. Paul encourages us in Romans 1:16 when he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” When we remember that God is at work in this world, we have every reason to act out of faith instead of out of fear. So now when I am in these contexts, I try to be bold in speaking about Jesus and about what I understand His truth to be. Quite a number of years ago, I attended a university religion course. The thinking was challenging and the perspective I held was a minority perspective, but I was confident that it was God’s truth and so I continued to hold to it and to speak from that perspective.
However, when I speak, I also have tried to learn to speak with grace in my voice. If people know that I think they are not Christians, I lose my audience. If I use sarcasm or anger in my discussion, I lose my audience, but if I confidently share my view of things with gentleness and reverence, people will keep listening and there will be a chance that God will be able to work in their hearts. Peter encourages us to just such a conversation. He says in I Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” When I hear about people who have confronted others about their foul language, for example, and have, so to speak, put them in their place, I get very uncomfortable. We will gain a hearing for the love of Christ not only when we speak, but in the way we speak.
I remember an occasion when I was making a business deal. I was not happy with the way in which the deal was going and I became very angry and abusive in my words towards the person with whom I was dealing. Afterwards, I had to repent of my actions. One of the things I have always been very aware of is the need to deal with absolute integrity in every business deal I am involved in. Even if I lose money, I am less concerned about that than I am of getting the best out of another person. These experiences have helped me learn the importance of living in a way that is exemplary in all my relationships with people who may not be believers. Jesus talks about being salt and light and warns that if our salt is no longer salty, the kingdom of God loses. Besides boldness and graciousness, our relationship with a pagan world must also be marked by integrity.
I am by nature shy and am always amazed at people like Amos who are so well able to start conversations with strangers. I still am overcome by a lot of fear in this area, but I am trying to learn another principle that will help us to live well as God’s people among those who may not be and that is an attitude of friendliness. I pray that my smile and open attitude will be a blessing to others and as they are attracted to me, they will also come to see Jesus.
Abraham made some serious mistakes because of his fear that the people he was going to be relating to did not fear God. When I read these two phrases, “there is surely no fear of God in this place” and “you have done things to me that should not be done,” I thought of these struggles in my own life and what I am trying to learn. I pray that we will learn to live by faith instead of fear when it comes to relationships to the world out there.
There is another amazing thing that happens in this story to encourage us. Sometimes when I think of these things, I sometimes feel that I am such a failure. Yet, God’s grace comes out in this story in an amazing way. In spite of the mistakes Abraham made, the promises of God that were made way back in Genesis 12, particularly the promise that “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” are fulfilled anyway. Abraham behaved poorly and almost cost Abimelech his life, but in the end, God used Abraham to bless Abimelech and to pray for him to restore his household. Abraham experienced the blessing of further possessions and had his wife restored to him. That encourages me that in spite of my frequent failures, the promises of God will not fail. This is not an excuse to do as little as we can, but rather an encouragement that as people of faith, God blesses in spite of the times we don’t get it quite right. That encourages me even more to not judge others, to be bold about my relationship with God, to speak to others with grace and to live with integrity so that my life and my actions will bring about the building of the kingdom of God.
May God help us all to walk in this way.