"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you ... In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials ..." - 1 Peter 1:3-4, 7
I've been thinking about old man Abraham, stumbling around from place to place with God's promise knocking around in his mind: a promise from Yahweh to do wonderful things for he and Sarah. "I'm going to make of you a great nation," Yahweh said (Gen. 12:2). Then Yahweh expanded the promise, declaring that God would use Abraham to bless other nations (Gen. 12:2). And then one more time, Yahweh made a third promise, this one even more specific and wildly audacious. "Listen," Yahweh said, "no one but your very own son shall be your heir" (Gen. 15:4)
First in a grand claim, then in an open promise, and finally in a specific pledge, Yahweh set before Abraham hope. And not for what Abraham had done, but solely out of God's generosity. "You, Abraham, will be blessed. That," Yahweh says," is what I have purposed for you."
But, of course, the great drama in the story is how much time there was between the moment God first made the grand promise to Abraham and the day Sarah gave birth to young Isaac. Twenty-five years! That's how long it was between the day God made the vague guarantee and the day the promise began to be realized. And that is to say nothing of the seventy-years leading up to the promise itself!
For twenty-five years, all Abraham and Sarah had was the promise. For a quarter of a century, these two sojourners had to travel by faith - being led along by the promise, wedded to each other and to what God assured them would be their future.
The hope was tested.
And faith for Abraham and Sarah was not a one-time thing. Faith for these two partners was a process of refinement. It came by trials. It came by struggle. It came by failure. And - always - it came by grace.
We Are Abraham; We are Sarah
When I read Peter's opening words from his first letter, it is clear we are Abraham. We are Sarah. The promises are different, but not by much.
Where God promised Abraham and Sarah a future, God gives us the same through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:9).
Where God promises to make Abraham and Sarah a great nation, God is making us a "holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9) through Jesus Christ.
And where God promised to give a rich legacy and inheritance for Abraham and Sarah's children, God guarantees an even richer inheritance for us who are in Christ Jesus (1 Pet. 1:4).
This, Peter tells us, is what God has purposed for us. It's not conditional. It's a guarantee.
But, that is not to say our faith will not be tested. Indeed, as Peter says, it will be tested.
Trials Will Come
Recently, some things have happened in our family that have tested our faith in God. God has been incredibly generous and faithful to us since we've moved to Greencastle, blessing us with a great community, generous and sacrifical love from family, a beautiful place to call home and rich experiences with friends. And, in the course of the last several years, my wife and I have also begun to see fruitfulness in our own labors. This has been a great source of joy. After struggling for years trying to discern what God's will is for her life, Anna has begun to find her calling outside the home. And as her spouse, I found myself saying over and over again this last year how grateful I am for Anna's new found sense of clarity. It took a long time - many years of wandering and wondering - but we really felt she had found work she loves and for which she is incredibly gifted. Anna seemed to be tasting hope and began seeing a future for herself.
Then, in the course of the last few weeks, the hope was injured.
Has that ever happened to you? Do you know the pain of discouragement?
The old proverb says hope deferred makes the heart sick. That is certainly true, but it is equally true that a hope injured crushes our spirits. And we all know this to be true.
We can see a future before us. Suddenly the door to that place closes, and we are left in shock and grief. Or, the door to that future never opens, and the result is the same. A young couple learns they cannot have children. A child struggles with a medical condition. A dream of a long and enjoyable entirement is changed by a diagnosis of cancer. A job is eliminated. An opportunity to move into a new place in life never opens up. Our business plans don't take off.
True Faith Has Bruises
But, the longer I'm hanging in this game called faith, the more I'm coming to realize the certainty of God's promises come by dramatic perseverance in the face of great odds. In our culture, we make a big deal about the faith confessions of new believers. That is certainly something to celebrate. But, it can be an incomplete picture because true faith comes with and by trials. True faith includes being tripped up by discouraging news occasionally. True faith comes after fumbling away God's promises a few times like Abraham hedging his bets in Egypt or Peter cutting his losses with Jesus. True faith comes after you've been knocked around a few times in life.
So, I suppose, true faith has bruises. It's got scars and some embarrassing stories. Yeah, true faith has more to do with spiritual resilience and brushing yourself off after you've taken a fall or two or ten than it does with 100% unwavering assurance and early enthusiasms. True faith learns to grit it's teeth as it pushes its chin out against the battering realities of life. That's the type of faith I think Abraham and Sarah learned in those twenty-five years of waiting and suffering and backsliding and eventually believing so deeply in God's promises they were willing to put everything on the line ... and I mean everything ... if only they could trust God.
What is more, true faith is refined by these trials; it becomes more resolved and clarified. Often times, these trials are God's way of getting us to let go of what we think is the promise in order to discover an even better promise. We think this job is God's answer, this spouse, this move. Again, that seems to be part of the lesson of Abraham's story. He was so focused on getting just that one biological son that he nearly missed God's grander plans for his life. And perhaps that is what God is doing with our family right now ... with all of us when we face these set-backs. Maybe he's trying to open up our eyes to even bigger things. That's hard to say, though, and is certainly something we should never presume to say to anyone else. It is only with the benefit of time that we can realize what things were part of God's bigger plans for us and what things were just unfortunate losses or unfulfilled hopes.
But, what I do know is my wife and I are trying to move forward in faith - trusting that God's promises for us and for our family here still hold true. Because that's the only way we can walk. Just like old man Abraham and incredulous Sarah. They've gone down that road for us and have left us an example. And if they were standing here with you right now, they'd say the same. We are receiving the outcome of our faith. Even if we can't see it fully yet, it's there. And it's ours. The promise is ours.