As preached by Timothy O'Day.
How does God help us overcome the problems that confront faith?
1) The power of God overcomes doubt of His ability.
2) Communion with God overcomes doubt of His credibility.
3) The mercy of God overcomes human inability.
Problems and Faith
September 10, 2023
You’ve probably heard it said (maybe even to you) that faith in God is a crutch, meaning that you have problems and you deal with those problems by believing in God and his promises. In this thinking, problems present a need for deity and religion.
In my experience, however, problems are far more often a reason for rejecting belief in God rather than a reason for embracing him. I hear from people much more often that they could never believe in God because certain events depicted in the Bible or characteristics revealed about God in the Bible. Problems arise in their thinking and these problems keep them from faith. And it is this feature—problems getting in the way of faith rather than problems pushing us into faith—that the Bible depicts most of the time.
For example, as we have seen, Abraham has received an incredible promise from God—land, descendants, God’s presence, and the fact that he, through his chosen offspring, will be a blessing to the whole world. And God has cared for him and given him many reasons to trust him as he awaits the fulfillment of these promises.
But there are problems that make faith difficult: Sarah, the one whom God has said will be this promised child, is barren. Not only is she barren, but we read in Genesis 18:11 “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.”
Abraham and Sarah lived in the ancient world, and while those who lived in the ancient world did not have the luxury of modern medical knowledge, they weren’t biological idiots. They knew that this meant no kids. This is a problem when it is placed next to God’s promise.
But what we see in Genesis 18-19 is that God graciously meets the problems that threaten faith in his promises. How does God overcome the problems that confront faith? Let’s just point out three ways and make some application along the way.
1. The power of God overcomes doubt of his ability (18:1-15)
One of the greatest obstacles to faith in God’s promises is doubt of his ability to actually deliver what he promises. We saw in Genesis 16-17 that God rejected Abraham and Sarah’s human attempt to bring about his promise of a child. He reassured Abraham that he would give him a child through Sarah in chapter 17, but he did not say how. This leads us to Genesis 18. As we see in verse 1, the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. This is a unique appearance. As chapters 18-19 unfold, we see that three figures appear, one being the Lord and two being angels. Theses figures appear as men (see 18:2, 16), but one is the Lord God and two are angels. We know that two are angels because, as these two left the Lord and went to Sodom, they are identified as angels in 19:1. And we know that the third figure is the Lord because 18:1 tells us that the Lord appeared and 18:10, 13 one of the figures speaks as “the LORD.” This, like the angel of the Lord in Genesis 16, is a theophany—a visible manifestation of God.
That Abraham understands that this is the Lord is clear in the way he responds. Even though it is during the heat of the day (18:1), which is a convenient time to sleep and not a convenient time to receive guests, Abraham ran to them, greeted them, identified himself as a servant of the Lord, and then quickly ran to prepare a feast of bread, lamb, curds and milk—what was a mighty feast on short notice.
But what was the purpose of this visit? We begin to understand when the visitors ask Abraham in verse 9, “Where is Sarah your wife?” You may have noticed by now that in Genesis God is asking questions to which he already knows the answer. The questions, then, aren’t pure questions. They are questions with a purpose beyond extracting information. The purpose here is to get Sarah’s attention. After Abraham says that she is in the tent, the Lord repeats the promise he made in Genesis 17:21 that Sarah would have a child by God’s power a year from this time. Now, I say this is for Sarah’s sake because God had already announced this to Abraham in Genesis 17. Why come and say this again? For her faith. And she clearly needed this help because, as we see in verses 10-12, Sarah is doubting God’s promise that this will actually happen. Verse 12 tells us that she laughed to herself, the Hebrew meaning in her inward parts. This laughter wasn’t just under her breath but in her mind and heart. And it is easy to understand why she would laugh: the end of verse 11 says that the way of women had ceased with her. Not only was she barren, she was biologically out of business.
Such an internal response to this promise should seem natural to us. You know how the story ends, so maybe you don’t feel the tension. Sarah doesn’t yet know because she hasn’t experienced it. She just knows that her body isn’t doing what it used to and in order for God’s promise to come about, it must.
While her response to this promise is expected, what happens next isn’t. The Lord asks Abraham in verse 13 why Sarah laughed and adds in verse 14, “is anything too hard for the Lord?” Sarah, afraid and embarrassed flat out lies and says that she did not laugh, but the Lord insists, “No, you laughed.”
If you think awkward moments are comedic, then this might be one of the funniest portions of the Bible. I try to imagine it in my minds eye and picture how awkward Abraham and Sarah must have felt. When the Lord asks Sarah “Why did you laugh,” only for Sarah to deny it and the Lord insist, “No, you did laugh,” makes me think of other cringe moments I’ve experienced at dinner parties or social gatherings. After a moment of awkward silence I can see Abraham trying to relieve the tension by saying, “So, more goat milk? Anyone? Anyone?”
The Power of God on Display for Sarah
But even more striking than the awkward nature of this scene is the power of God on display. Sarah has laughed in her own mind, and the Lord knew it. Could it be possible that the Lord who opened her mind in a way she thought impossible could also open her womb?
What we see in this incident is that what is undeniable reinforces promises that must be grasped by faith. What happens here is comparable to what happens in Mark 2:1-12. In that passage, Jesus is surrounded by people, but a group of friends lower a paralytic man through a roof in order to get to Jesus. Upon seeing their faith, Jesus says to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” This is a promise that must be received by faith. Some of the Scribes who heard him say this, though, questioned in their hearts, “why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But Jesus immediately perceived in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, and so he asked them, “which is easier? To say to this man that his sins are forgiven or to say ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?’” What Jesus means with that statement is which is easier to see and believe? Obviously, if the man’s sins are forgiven nothing changes to the naked eye. Who is to say that Jesus actually has that power? But if he also says, “Get up and walk,” and the man does, then it proves before their eyes that Jesus’ words carry authority. So when Jesus says to the man, “Rise, take up your bed and walk,” he displays that he has power to do what he says. It is an undeniable act that reinforces the statement that must be grasped by faith.
The Power of God and Your Problems
The Lord promised to give Sarah a child, which is not a promise that he has made to you and me. He has, however, promised that all those who trust in Christ will have resurrection life. One day Jesus will call the names of those who belong to him from the grave and they will live. Just as God promised to bring life from Sarah’s grave of a womb, so he promises to raise up his people from the grave.
But the people we love die and it seems so permanent. Our own bodies are breaking down and decaying, could God truly make this new? The answer is yes. He has given us an undeniable act that reinforces the promise of resurrection that must be grasped by faith—namely, the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is a resounding “Yes” to God’s promise to give life to our mortal bodies. And even if you do not see the resurrected Jesus in his glorified body, you see the undeniable effects of his resurrection still spreading throughout the earth. Like a rock thrown into a pond through causes ripples to spread through the water, so the resurrection of Jesus has left ripples of his reality throughout history.
Are you a believer who is considering jumping into sin because the resurrection seems impossible? Don’t say that something is too hard for God when he has already shown his power in Christ.
Are you an unbeliever this morning who thinks that Christianity is too good to be true? Don’t say that something is too wonderful for God to do: you can be forgiven, made new, and have an eternal hope in Christ Jesus.
But perhaps you worry about God’s goodness more than his ability. If so, look to what we see next in Genesis 18:16-33.
2. The presence of God overcomes doubt of his credibility (18:16-33)
In the second half of Genesis 18, the Lord departs with the angels and Abraham comes to set them on their way. As they go, the Lord says in verses 17-18, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” Again, this is not so much a question as a declaration of God’s intention: he will share with Abraham what he is going to do because Abraham is integral to God’s plan to bless all of creation. From Abraham will come the seed of the woman that will crush the serpent. By way of the covenant, God now communes with Abraham in a new way and brings him into his council.
This communion does two things. First, it gives Abraham the privilege of knowing what the Lord is doing. As the Lord says in verses 20-21, he is sending the angels to Sodom and Gomorrah as witnesses because of the great outcry. Abraham is a prophet, as is clearly stated in Genesis 20:7. And prophets, according to Amos 3:7, are told by God what is to take place. Second, this communion is intended to transform Abraham by exposing him to who God is. As we see in verse 19, God is brining Abraham into his council because Abraham has a unique role to form the new people of God. He is to teach them to walk in the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice. But Abraham must know righteousness and justice to teach it and he will know it by being with God, who is himself righteousness and justice. That God is teaching Abraham about righteousness and justice already is clearly displayed in how he explains what he will do. In verses 20-21 God says that…
• He is sending witnesses to investigate and corroborate the charge. Does God need to do this? He knows all things, even when a woman laughs inside her head! He does this not because he needs to know but to model justice for those who are not omniscient.
• He makes his plans known to faithful men. He does not hide his dealings from Abraham but makes them plainly known so that his decisions can be investigated
• He has compassion for the suffering. He is acting "because of the outcry” against the city. People are suffering and God is responding to their cries.
Is God Good?
With this new communion with God, Abraham is left in the presence of the Lord as the angels leave in verse 22. He has just learned that a whole city may be wiped out. His concern is not that the city will be destroyed per se, but that the righteous may be destroyed with it. This would not be justice but miscarriage of it. So what does Abraham do? He is able to take his knowledge of God’s goodness and experience it by communion with him. In verses 23-33, Abraham draws near and asks the Lord if he plans to sweep away the righteous with the wicked and progressively lowers the number of the righteous that would need to be in the city for the Lord to spare it from judgment. In asking these questions, Abraham gets to experience God’s mercy and justice first-hand instead of just hearing about it. In each question that Abraham asks the Lord (50, 45,40, 30, 20, 10), he finds that the Lord prioritizes mercy for the righteous over judgment of the wicked. But as we see in chapter 19, there is only one righteous in the city. While the Lord does not spare the city, he does spare Lot, the one righteous man. In doing this, the Lord actually shows himself to be more just and more merciful than Abraham dared to dream.
In these verses, then, communion with God allows Abraham to experience the fact that God is good and experience his value to God as God hears him.
Communion with God and Your Problems
Consider the problems that cause you to doubt God’s promises. What would consistent communion with God do to your doubts? You might hear and want to believe that God will forgive you of your sins and make you new in Christ, but it sounds too good. When you consider the reality and the depth of your sins, you wonder, “Could God really love me and want to commune with me?” The answer is yes. Jesus is the friend of sinners and calls the weary to himself.
Jesus, in speaking to those who come to him in faith, says in John 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
In Christ, God makes himself known to you and does not hide what you need. Like Abraham, he brings you in to transform you.
Or consider this prayer for the church given by Paul in Ephesians 1:16-19, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might.” This prayer covers that you need. You need his Spirit to enlightened and transform you as you know God; you need to know the great hope he has given you in Christ and the rich inheritance he considers you to be in Christ; and you need to know that his power is working to transform you as you trust in Christ.
In short, all of the head knowledge that you have about God being good needs to become yours through communion with God. He is just to keep his promises, but you need to commune with him to experience this reality yourself. You will know yourself only when you experience him and you will experience him through his word given to you and prayer by the power of the Spirit that he gives to you.
And perhaps this all sounds good to you, but you are still wondering, “Can I do even that?” If so, I have good news for you, and it is our third point.
3. The mercy of God overcomes human inability (19:1-38)
Chapter 19 brings a new scene into our view. The angels come to Sodom and, in verses 1-14, the evil of Sodom is quickly confirmed. While Lot, Abraham’s nephew, quickly welcomes them and is hospitable like Abraham (even though he isn’t as generous in his food), the rest of the men in the city are certainly not interested in their well-being. They surrounded Lot’s house and, as we see in verse 5, demanded that Lot bring them out so that they may “know them,” which is a euphemism for sexual activity. The outcry against Sodom was homosexual activity. In recent history, some have pushed against what seems clear in this chapter by pointing to Ezekiel 16 and saying that the sin of Sodom was its lack of hospitality and caring for the needy. This certainly was one of the sins of Sodom. In Ezekiel 16:49-50, the sin of Sodom is listed as pride, prosperity without caring for the needy, haughtiness, but also doing an abomination. But what is that abomination? The abomination is more clearly spelled out in Jude verse 7, which in speaking about final judgment says “Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by unerring a punishment of eternal fire.”
All this to say, Sodom and Gomorrah where places that had completely abandoned the way of the Lord, righteousness, and justice. This abandonment of the Lord manifested itself in neglect of the poor, pride in themselves, and sexual licentiousness. This is why the city was destroyed.
But Lot? Lot was spared because he was righteous.
The Curious Case of Lot
But was Lot really righteous? There are indications in the passage that he was consider to be righteous. After all, Abraham pleaded that the righteous would not be wiped away with the wicked, and Lot was not wiped away. On top of that, 2 Peter 2:6 calls Lot righteous.
But what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that Lot was perfect. His actions in Sodom and after the events of Sodom cry out to us that he was not perfect. In order to protect the angels he took into his home, he offered his daughters to the men surrounding his house. After Sodom, he gets drunk and fathers children with his daughters. To say that Lot is righteous, then, is not to say that he is a perfect moral example. He certainly is not.
In Genesis, this word for righteous has been used before. We see it in Genesis 6:9 and 7:1, both speaking of Noah. In 7:1, Noah is called righteous “in his generation.” This is similar to how Lot is being described as righteous. Lot was righteous not in that he was perfect but in that he did not abandon the Lord as the city had. When the whole city showed up at his house, he said No to their request. Stop and consider how hard that would have been: The entire city shows up at your home demanding that these two strangers be handed over to them so that they might sexually abuse them. As 2 Peter 2:7-8 says that Lot was “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard).”
In this use of the word righteous, it isn’t saying that Lot is perfect. It is saying that he desired the way of the Lord. And we clearly see this desire in two ways. First, as I already stated, he did not delight in wickedness but spoke against it. Second, he believed the angels when they announced that God was going to destroy the city. His future sons in law laughed at the announcement, but he believed it. The righteous are known by faith and those with faith are counted as righteous.
Sodom: The Preview of Final Judgment
Both 2nd Peter and Jude (2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7) point to Sodom as a preview of what final judgment will be like. What can be learned by looking at it?
First, Lot is called to leave because he does not belong. The fact that he is tormented by the activity of the wicked makes this clear. He is meant for a different city.
Second, Lot is rescued not merely by an announcement, but by actual intervention. In 19:15-16, Lot is warned but stalls in his escape. There is no word as to why he lingered, but he did. At the very least, this is a warning to us that it is hard to leave behind what you know and friendship with the world is a constant threat. The mission of this worldly system is to get you to call sin normal and righteousness weird. Worldliness is just that. And when sin seems normal, it is hard to leave the world.
Third, Lot is ultimately rescued because Abraham interceded for him. Look at 19:29, “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out fo the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.” Abraham pleaded for Lot and God loves to be merciful.
God’s Mercy and Your Problems
If anyone is going to make it to the New Jerusalem, it will ultimately be because Jesus, our great high priest, intercedes for him. What you ultimately need, then, as you face problems that cause you to doubt your faith in God’s promise is Christ himself. You need the power of Christ to redeem and change you; you need the presence of Christ to transform and comfort you; and you need the mercy of Christ to intercede and rescue you.
Whatever struggle you are in right now, you need Christ most of all. And he has given out the call saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”