Our strength—or rather, our reliance upon it—is still pride. Therefore, 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, we’re finally and 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 than others in a certain area or areas. But what’s that in comparison to God? Before him, even our strength is weakness. Until we’re willing to acknowledge this, even what little strength we have is useless to him.
Studying the life of Abraham may be 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. Repeat steps 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. Let’s break down this cycle even further, using the best-known example from Abraham’s life:
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 thirteen years—until Ishmael’s 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 first Abraham also has to pray for an entire kingdom’s worth of barren women, 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 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 he does. And then, 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. God spares Isaac, and makes a great nation of him and his offspring (Genesis 22).
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 “sensible” or “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. We give birth to Isaacs instead of Ishmaels. We grow fruit that lasts, not dead branches to be burned. God does something so much greater than we ever could have imagined that we have no choice but to praise him—and rejoice in our weakness that gave him the opportunity to work.
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—spend some time in 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 about this part of Abraham’s life, and let God do the talking. Even if you don’t read through the Genesis passages, think and pray through these questions:
• What right now has 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? What would your Ishmael look like?
• What small successes and evidences of God’s presence in your life can you focus on instead, as you wait for “this” to happen?