Look: “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, ‘I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.’” (Genesis 12:11-13)
Abram (later Abraham) is the patriarch of Biblical faith. Through the grafting of grace, God makes all who believe in His only Son Jesus spiritual descendants of Abraham (Romans 11:11-31). So, it’s instructive, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes uncomfortable to observe him.
In chapter 12, Abram is instructed by God to leave his home of Ur to a land that God would show him. This land was God’s pledge to Abram’s descendants. In obeying God, picking up stakes and moving his entire household, Abram exhibits faith, the kind of faith in God I would like to have.
Abram goes to the promised land, traveling around for a time. But when a famine hits the land, he books. He heads for Egypt.
A history of God’s people going to Egypt in times of crisis would later develop. The Israelites were more or less forced to go to Egypt during a later famine after God had placed Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, in a place of authority through which he could save the people.
In the New Testament, another Joseph, selected by God to raise Jesus in his home, is told by God to go to Egypt in order to save the Christ Child from the murderous intentions of King Herod.
Though Genesis records God’s command to Abram to go to the land He would show him, we have no indication as to whether God told him to go to Egypt when the famine hit. Abram may have just thought, “There’s no food here. I’ll go to Egypt.”
It’s plausible to believe that the trip to Egypt was all Abram’s idea when we see the plot he hatches just as he, Sarai (later Sarah), and their people and livestock are about to enter Egypt. He tells Sarai that he’s afraid that if the Egyptians think he’s married to Sarai, they’ll kill him so that one of them can have her for their wife.
Listen: There are several problems with this plan:
1. Abram is thinking instead of praying. Had he prayed instead of thought, allowing God to guide his thinking, he wouldn’t have suggested such a conspiracy to his wife. I think of Proverbs 14:12 (again!): “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”
Certainly, we’re to think. God gave us our brains. But we need to let God lead our thoughts. If we don’t let God lead, we’re led into sin and into death, separation from God.
2. Abram is yielding to his fears, not following the God who had called him to faith. In this instance (and in another one when Abraham did the same stupid thing), fear beat out faith. Not good!
God had promised Abram: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
God had shown Abram the land that He was going to give to him. Abram knew that God was good for His promises and that in order for Abram to become the ancestor of a great nation, he would need to father a son. Inherent in that promise is another one, that Abram wouldn’t die before he had fathered a son.
Yet, Abram decided to place greater faith in his own intellect, his own analysis, and his own plans than he placed in God.
3. Abram is essentially giving his wife permission to commit adultery in order to save his neck. Not even the Pharaoh thinks that this is a good idea! When Pharaoh finally learns that the woman he’s taken into his house for a wife is already Abram’s wife, he’s horrified. “What is this you have done to me?” he asks Abram. “Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” (Genesis 12:18-20)
Abram isn’t only sinning against God then, he’s encouraging his wife to do so and enticing the Pharaoh to do so.
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis’ observation in Mere Christianity, there have been cultures that have said that men should have only one wife and others that said they could have multiple wives. But no culture has ever said that it’s OK to take another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. This was true even before God gave the ten commandments to His descendants at Mount Sinai. So, Abram is skating on extremely thin ice.
Nonetheless, this third “problem” (read sin) with Abram’s plan is just the result of the fundamental sin: Failing to trust in God.
Like Abram, I sometimes fail to trust in God. I value my own thinking more than I value His. I value my fears more than my faith.
To trust in anyone or anything--even rational fears, even smart analysis, even feelings of love--more than we trust in God is idolatry.
Every sin, in fact, from taking God’s name in vain to murder, from gossip to theft, is idolatry.
Abram’s problem in the wilderness is that he was conflicted about who to worship: God or himself.
That’s what lay behind his other conflicts: God or his fears, God’s promises or the temptations and dangers of the current circumstances.
It’s amazing to me how often this conflict between following God, on the one hand, and following my thoughts, my fears, my plans, my reasoning, or my feelings, come into play in my life.
This conflict is caused by my resistance to the anvil of sanctification on which God wants to forge me and my character for faithful living with Him now and in eternity.
God is interested more in my eternal comfort and my having a God-seeking character than he is in me avoiding problems in this world. (And to God, even death is only a problem, one solved by the resurrection of Jesus in which those who repent and believe in Jesus have a share.)
It can be painful to opt for the eternal security of life with God over the immediate security of doing what we think is right, which is why I try so hard to avoid what God wants to tell me, why Abram concocted his lying conspiracy, and why the hardest petition of the Lord’s Prayer for me is, “Thy will be done.”
It is painful. Every day, Lord, I have to ask You repeatedly to make war on my penchant for comforting myself, for doing what I want to do, for ignoring Your gracious call to turn from temptation and sin and to turn to Christ with honesty and transparency.
It’s painful to heed Your words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
The New Testament books of 1 Peter and Colossians, among others, promise that those who submit to this process will be transformed, becoming more like Christ, fit for eternity with God, fit as an instrument of God’s grace and love in this world.
But what Your Word tells me God is: It is through this painful process that You can set me free from fear and allows me to become my better self. It’s a process that will be incomplete before my time on earth is ended, I know, Lord. But I need the courage to stick with this process, to learn to yield to You, to ask You to guide my thinking and my living.
Abram was confused. He didn’t know what he wanted more, security or You. My desires get similarly muddled, Lord. I need to be unmuddled every single day.
Respond: God, in Jesus’ name, set me free from myself. Set me free from sin. Set me free to live for You with joyful abandonment. You know me: You know how relentlessly willful I can be. You know too how fearful I can become of offending someone. When sin or fear or idolatry tempt me this day, help me to resist. When tempted to act on a comforting lie rather than Your life-giving truth, help me to choose the truth. Help me to follow Jesus and live, no matter how others may judge or dismiss me as a fool or even hate me. No matter how hard following You may sometimes be. Let me opt for the pain of following You over the death that comes from following myself. Let me act on my faith today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]