Praying and Waiting
A Biblical Hero’s Lesson In How NOT To Do It
By Beth Demme
Are you good at praying … and then waiting? I spend a good amount of time praying, even listening, but I’m terrible at waiting! Abraham, the patriarch of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths was also not good at waiting for God’s promises to come true.
Things start out well. God tells Abraham to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house and go to a location that is “to be determined.” (Genesis 12:1) Abraham, and his wife Sarah, left everything, including the safety and security of their clan—the clan Abraham would, by rights, have ruled one day—for an unknown future with God. (Genesis 12:4)
When Abraham and Sarah arrived in a place called Canaan, quite far from their homeland, God told Abraham to raise his eyes and look around, “for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.” (Genesis 13:14-15) God also told Abraham his offspring would be “like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring can also be counted.” (Genesis 16)
That’s a lot of descendants!
Time goes by, life happens, but Abraham and Sarah have no children. Abraham starts to worry about whether or not this promise from God is really going to come true. He doesn’t see how he will have a lot of descendants if he can’t even have one child. Abraham asks God, “what will you give me, for I continue childless… you have given me no offspring.” (Genesis 15:2-3)
I can relate to Abraham. I know I’m supposed to believe and trust, but … waiting makes it hard.
Waiting creates an opportunity for doubt to creep in. I find myself wondering if perhaps I misunderstood God’s promises.
God reassures Abraham. God invites Abraham to look at the stars in the night sky and says, “count the stars if you are able … so shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) At this point, the Bible says, Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
Abraham had tremendous faith, but like other biblical heroes, he was human.
After God reassured Abraham, he and Sarah, as faithful as they were, took matters into their own hands. Sarah tells Abraham to go make a baby with another woman, Hagar, a slave. (Genesis 16) It works! Abraham gets an heir, whom he names Ishmael (Genesis 16:15).
But guess what? That wasn’t what God had in mind! In Genesis 17, God says: Abraham, maybe you weren’t paying attention, but actually this covenant is between me and you and Sarah. Actually, God said to Abraham, “As for your wife [Sarah] I will bless HER, and moreover I will give you a son by HER. I will bless HER, and SHE shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from HER.” (Genesis 17:15-16, emphasis added)
Do you know what Abraham does? He laughs. “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Genesis 17:17)
I picture old Father Abraham rolling on the floor laughing about the ridiculous idea that he and Sarah could have a baby after all these years of waiting. When Abraham regains his composure, he tries to make a more sensible agreement with God: “And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’” (Genesis 17:18)
In other words, Abraham tells God, “I worked it out! I found a way to get a descendant. Everything’s going to be fine. I’ve got this under control!”
Oh wonderful, relate-able Abraham! He trusted God until he didn’t, and then he went into self-sufficiency mode and took care of business.
God, perhaps rolling his proverbial eyes, says, “nope.” God says: “Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac [meaning laughter]. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will [also] bless him and make him fruitful.” (Genesis 17:19-20)
God is gracious about Abraham and Sarah taking matters into their own hands but makes it clear that the plan was still unfolding, they just hadn’t given it enough time.
We, rightly, hold up Abraham as a model of faith. But notice that our model doesn’t always get it exactly right.
Abraham thought he knew the best way, a better way than what God envisioned.
Typically, I don’t even realize I’m doing this until I see it in hindsight. I pray and I wait. Maybe I even wait for what feels like a long time to me. In God’s timeline, it’s a nanosecond.
Even as I am overwhelmed at times with the deep sadnesses of our modern world (gun violence, human trafficking, immigration fueled by desperation, a changing climate, hungry children, and more), I remember that time is still unfolding, God is still at work. Like Abraham and Sarah, I follow God into an uncertain future. Along the way, I’ll probably take matters into my own hands again and again. I pray God will be gracious to me along the way.
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