Flaws and Failures are Not Fatal or Final

The following is an excerpt from J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God, 1973, InterVarsity Press.

Fred: Packer presents this as an insight into how the wisdom of God orders human lives, yet as I read it, I was encouraged by a very ordinary man whose flaws and failures did not disqualify him from service, but were overcome by the power of God at work in his life that made him a new man. 

 Abraham was capable of repeated shabby deceptions which actually endangered his wife’s chastity (Gen 12:10-20). Plainly, then, he was by nature a man of little moral courage, altogether too anxious about his own personal security (Gen 12:12-13; 20:11). Also, he was vulnerable to pressure; at his wife’s insistence he fathered a child upon her maid, Hagar, and when Sarai reacted to Hagar’s pride in her pregnancy with hysterical recriminations he let Sarai drive Hagar out of the house (Gen 16:5-6).

Plainly, then, Abraham was not by nature a man of strong principle, and his sense of responsibility was somewhat deficient. But God in wisdom dealt with this easygoing, unheroic figure to such good effect that not merely did he faithfully fulfill his appointed role on the stage of church history, as pioneer occupant of Canaan, first recipient of God’s covenant (Gen 18:17), and father of Isaac, the miracle child; he also became a new man.

What Abraham needed most of all was to learn the practice of living in God’s presence, seeing all life in relation to him, and looking to him, and him alone, as Commander, Defender and Rewarder. This was the great lesson which God in wisdom concentrated on teaching him. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen 15:1). “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless [single-eyed and sincere]” (Gen 17:1). Again and again God confronted Abraham with himself, and so led Abraham to the point where his heart could say, with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you… God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:25-26). And as the story proceeds, we see in Abraham’s life the results of his learning this lesson. The old weaknesses still sometimes reappear, but alongside there emerges a new nobility and independence, the outworking of Abraham’s developed habit of walking with God, resting in his revealed will, relying on him, waiting for him, bowing to his providence, obeying him even when he commands something odd and unconventional. From being a man of the world, Abraham becomes a man of God.

Thus, as he responds to God’s call, leaves home, and travels through the land which his descendants are to possess (Gen 12:7) —though not he himself, note: Abraham never possessed any more of Canaan than a grave (Gen 25:9-10)—we observe in him a new meekness, as he declines to claim his due precedence over his nephew Lot (13:8-9). We see also a new courage, as he sets off with a mere three hundred men to rescue Lot from the combined forces of four kings (14:14-15). We see a new dignity, as he deprecates keeping the recaptured booty, lest it should seem to have been the king of Sodom, rather than God most high, who made him rich (14:22-23). We see a new patience, as he waits a quarter of a century, from the age of seventy-five to one hundred, for the birth of his promised heir (12:4; 21:5). We see him becoming a man of prayer, an importunate intercessor burdened with a sense of responsibility before God for others’ welfare (18:23-32). We see him at the end so utterly devoted to God’s will, and so confident that God knows what he is doing, that he is willing at God’s command to kill his own son, the heir for whose birth he waited so long (chap. 22). How wisely God had taught him his lesson! And how well Abraham had learned it!

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