Our strength—or rather, our reliance upon it—is still pride. And because of that, it must be broken. Watchman Nee, in his book Changed Into His Likeness, put it this way, “The characteristic of those who truly know God is that they have no faith in their own competence, no reliance upon themselves.” When we reach that point, then we’re truly useful to God.
Even much of the strength we think we have comes from our need to compare ourselves to others. We may be correct in thinking we’re much more gifted in a certain area or areas in comparison to others. But what is that in comparison to God? Before Him, even our strength is weakness. Until we’re willing to acknowledge that, even what little strength we have is useless to God.
On a personal level, studying the life of Abraham may have been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in terms of understanding God’s work in our lives. Over and over, you see this cycle:
a) God calls Abraham.
b) Abraham tries to do things his own way, and fails miserably.
c) Abraham finally “gets it,” relents and allows God to accomplish His will in His way, and with His timing.
d) Abraham himself begins to truly reflect God’s will.
e) God brings Abraham to a new level—and a new test.
f.) Repeat b.-e.
In the end, Abraham gets where God wants him, but in God’s way and God’s way only. Abraham was an ordinary man with an extraordinary God. So let’s take the cycle and use it to break down what’s probably the best-known example:
a) God promises Abraham a son (Genesis 15).
b) God doesn’t appear to be doing anything, so Sarah pushes Abraham to take matters into his own hands. “Here, sleep with my servant Hagar; we’ll have a son that way.” The result: A ton of family contentiousness (Genesis 16)—as well as millennia of religious contentiousness, via the birth of Ishmael, the forefather of Islam.
c) God waits 13 more years, until Ishmael’s has reached adulthood and neither Abraham nor Sarah have the human ability to bear any more children, and repeats his promise to Abraham (Genesis 17-18).
d) Oh, and Abraham also has to pray for an entire kingdom’s worth of barren women first, because he hadn’t managed to break that nasty habit of calling Sarah his sister whenever another king was around—yet another trust issue for Abraham. Imagine for a moment how it must have felt to pray for the barrenness of those women, in light of the years of waiting Abraham’s already had. But once he does, then at last God delivers on His promise (Genesis 20:17–21:1).
e) Years later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac—the very same son God had promised, and given. But now, Abraham doesn’t flinch. As a result, God spares Isaac, and makes a great nation of him and his offspring (Genesis 22).
Likewise, we often want to do God’s work, but nearly as often we don’t want to do it God’s way. We rationalize why we shouldn’t wait, or why some other way would be so much more “efficient.” But unless what we do starts with God, it’s worth nothing. We must not will to do, but will to receive, and then share what God gives us.
When we lay down our strength, we give God permission to exercise His strength through our lives. We give birth to Isaacs instead of Ishmaels. We grow fruit that lasts, not dead branches to be burned. We witness God doing something so much greater than we ever could have imagined that we have to choice but to praise Him—and rejoice in our weakness that gave Him the opportunity to work in our lives.
And when it comes right down to it—when you look at the results instead of the circumstances—what’s really the easier and more rewarding route, to give birth to an Ishmael or to an Isaac? Think about it.
Lay It Down Today
If you’re a reader—and since you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are—take the time to read through Genesis 15-22 (or at least Genesis 15:1-6, 16:1-6, 20:1-7, and 20:14–21:3). Don’t try to analyze it; just read the story of this part of Abraham’s life and let God speak. To help you process (and even if you don’t read through the Genesis passages), take the time today to think and pray through these questions:
• What right now has got you wondering, “Why hasn’t this happened yet?” If your impatience were to get the better of you, what would you try to do on your own strength? In other words: What would your Ishmael look like?
• What small successes and evidences of God’s presence in your life could you focus on, while you wait for “this” to happen?