I have been communing with Abram lately. I mean, I have been reading and rereading his story, from the book of Genesis. There was no organized Hebrew religion during his lifetime; the temple was still a distant dream in the mind’s eye of God. Yet Abram knew God in a personal way that we can only imagine about. Throughout Genesis, we are told of eight separate encounters between Abram and Yahweh, the first in chapter 12, where God instructed the Hebrew to leave his homeland and head to a land He would show him, promising that He would make him “into a great nation . . . and all people on the earth will be blessed through you” (vs 2,3).
That is a spectacular promise, especially to an old man (he was 75 at the time) who had not yet fathered a child. If God were to say something like this to me, my feet would be flying on the clouds and you would have to drag me back to earth with a net. I would feel special. I would expect my life to dramatically change, and miracles to immediately happen.
But that’s not Abram’s story. Soon after entering the Promised Land, a famine hit the area. Instead of experiencing a technicolor “welcome to Oz” moment, he, his family and household of slaves and livestock began to suffer. For survival, they headed for Egypt, where Abram lied to Pharaoh and got kicked out. He had no choice but to go back to the land of Canaan, where he suffered one hardship after another. The Promised Land might have been a gift, but dwelling there wasn’t easy.
By the time Abram was 99 years old – after trying to “help” God start the nation He had promised by fathering Ishmael through his wife’s slave, thereby creating a messy situation that continues to be a thorn in Israel’s side to this day – the true child of promise still had not been born. Those must have been a very long 24 years, leading up to the climactic conception of Isaac.
Rereading this story, and God’s miraculous fulfillment of His promise to Abram, I am struck by two very important truths. First, just because God gives us the gift of a new life in Him doesn’t mean living it out is going to be easy. In fact (and this is the second truth), the hardships and struggles we encounter are part of the “gift” that ultimately forms us into persons who God will be pleased to dwell with forever in eternity.
This is not sweet music to my ears, but it does build on the spiritual foundation on which my soul depends. Life has been difficult these past couple of years as I have learned to wait on God in many areas of my life, from career changes and growth to family crises.
So I was intrigued to read in a recent Joni and Friends daily devotional about Joni’s church friend who grows a particular variety of grape that only produces fruit under harsh environmental conditions. The vines actually need to struggle in poor, rocky soil for the prized fruit to develop. I’ve heard of similar examples in nature, where hardship produces the most desirable results. Joni’s conclusion: “So maybe the rocky soil and steep inclines in your life aren’t so bad after all. The trials and struggles, disappointments and setbacks you face, this ‘girdling’ that presses you in from all sides, is a ‘bruising of blessing.'”
I find hope in other people’s stories; here is one that I turn to again and again. Barbara Johnson was a contemporary Christian writer who relied on her faith and a sense of humor to preserve her through a string of tragedies. Her husband was in a near fatal accident that left him severely disabled. She lost one son in Vietnam and another son to a drunk driver. A third son was estranged from the family. She herself battled cancer before dying in 2007. Learning that pain is inevitable, she believed that God can empower people to trust Him and choose joy. One of my favorite quotes, from Barbara, rings in my memory as I contemplate Abram’s challenges, and my own:
I don’t have to figure out why or how or when. God has a plan, and I’m committed to it.
That commitment frees me from having to worry about the details. —Barbara Johnson