Just Do It: A faith, hope, love reading of Abraham’s call narrative

I was charged by a game studio with taking my ideas of faith, hope and love and demonstrating them as a hermeneutical framework, or a way of reading a biblical text in order to apply it to the here and now. We began, as you do, with the Abraham call narrative. The following was the result, and it’s presented here your edification and entertainment:

Faith. Hope. Love.

Faith is about the story in which our understanding of self and others is embedded. It’s about the implicit beliefs that guide our actions, our self talk, our narrative, our engagement with others, and the contribution we make to this world of things, and possibilities, and new journeys.

Love is the outworking of that story, the way we see others, the openness (or otherwise) to the other, and to the process of embrace and engagement and participation that in and of itself opens up a world of possibilities. We engage others according to the faith story by which we live. Not the story we espouse, necessarily, but the one that guides us at a deeper level. What we truly believe will be evidenced by how we engage others in love, and how free we are to treasure their otherness.

Hope is that vision we have of “future”. Not THE future, but future — possibilities, innovations, restorations, collaborations, new life, new things, new opportunities. It is the deep-seated belief that THIS, whatever this is, is not the end, that ALL THINGS can become new. There can be birth from barrenness. There can be new growth from devastation. There can be new life from death. There can be reconciliation from division. What we do with this belief, what we envisage and what we build, reaffirms the story in which we locate our understanding of ourselves and the world. The person who lives forever hoping in new life, restoration, reconciliation, and enters that world with curiosity and wonder, is a person with a deep-seated belief in a wonderful story, a story that also guides how they engage with others in love, which is the tangible, actual, NOW incarnation of the story and the foundation for hope.

Abraham is a man whose story, when we first encounter him, is his father’s story. It’s a story about a place, a home, that is his father’s home, his father’s legacy. Then “God” turns up — how he presents himself we don’t know, but according to the story this God speaks. And he gives Abraham (who’s called Abram at the time) a promise. A promise based on what? On a covenant, on an agreement between God and this man based on nothing more than God’s trustworthiness to follow through on that promise. And that promise is that God will make Abraham’s name great, that he will be blessed, and that his descendants will be a blessing to the world.

What a story!

That’s the kind of story you don’t forget in a hurry. If you believe it, and I mean really believe it, that’s the type of story that gets deep inside, that changes things, that alters your journey, that makes you think perhaps the things I’ve been doing all my life are not that important or that significant and what I should be doing instead is living out of that promise.

This is Abraham’s FAITH dilemma. This is how the story disrupts where Abraham is. You don’t get to walk around this type of promise. You don’t get to treat it like a piece of small talk. There’s nothing idle about it. It’s a gift that confronts and that demands attention. And that’s what FAITH does. It comes as a road block to the way we’ve been doing things, to the stories we tell ourselves. It stops us in our path and tries to convince us there’s another way, another reality, an alternative story. And that’s often in spite of the stories we tell ourselves based on the realities all around us. Because everywhere we turn, alternative stories are bombarding us. It was no different for Abraham — he would have had his alternative stories too, whatever they were. Stories about what it meant to be successful (lots of land, many wives etc), stories about what it took to appease the gods in order to secure their favour (child sacrifice was no doubt among them), stories about what it meant to leave a legacy for your descendants (do what your father did, take on your father’s property and tribe, etc etc etc).

God shows up and says, Go — I will bless you.

That’s quite a mindshift. And a big deal is often made about how Abraham follows this command and GOES, as if that is the point of the story. To me, it’s not the point — the point is that this promise enters his world and disrupts everything. It’s not Abraham’s response that is the remarkable thing here, it’s the fact of the promise in the first place, from a God Abraham has never met. It’s about the fundamental shift in Abraham’s knowing that takes place when God lands in front of him. It’s as if God goes, Don’t know this, know that! You thought you knew this thing … well, think again!

It’s the type of mindshift that occurs in the Matrix, when Neo is finally shown what reality actually is, versus the computer program he thought was reality. It’s not just a new direction Abraham is given — it’s a whole new reality. A brand new way of seeing the world. The curtain has been pulled back revealing what is real.

Now, if you thought this was important for how Abraham then faced the rest of his life, imagine what it meant for a group of about 5000 people several hundred years later, descendants of Abraham and people of the “promise”, exiles from the tribe of Judah, having witnessed the destruction of their temple and experienced their forcible removal from the land of promise, AND the downfall of their Davidic king. Everything these people have witnessed, these people who are now living for God knows how long in the camp of the “enemy” in Babylon, confirms to them that either God is NOT a God of his word, or the promise has run its course. Either way, they have plenty of reason to be downright miserable. As for faith? Well, they clearly got that wrong.

But, from among them arise these preachers, poets, writers, prophets, who remind them of the old stories, perhaps they’ve even memorised the old scriptures — maybe they’ve even got a scroll or two that they rescued before Nebuchadnezzar brought their temple to the ground. Whatever way they could, these people of God, in the face of great and violent opposition from the exiles themselves it should be said, keep re-telling the old story. Abraham. Yahweh. Promise. Blessing. And in the face of everything they have witnessed, and are still witnessing, they are urged to believe. They are urged to believe that the promise holds true, that Yahweh hasn’t abandoned them, that the “blessing” rolls on.

Hard to believe for these folks? You’d better believe it. Impossible to believe, I’d say. But the prophets don’t give up. For 70 years they keep spruicking the same message: believe, believe, believe, and don’t give up. And by the way, here are a set of behaviours that indicate belief, just so you know if you’re believing or not.

That’s how faith works. It presses upon us when the alternative story seems so believable. It demands our attention. It disrupts the stories we have chosen to hold onto. It exposes the Matrix for what it really is, again and again.

And the primary story produces secondary stories. The BIG story in which we locate ourselves isn’t like an ancient myth that only gets dusted off when someone comes across it by accident, like Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s a living story, which means it keeps producing episodes of the grand narrative. For example, Abraham is given a promise of blessing at the start of the narrative, but that story keeps unfolding in new experiences, new moments of choice, of opportunities to live out of that narrative. I’m thinking of the episode in which he and Sarah are hoping for a child. And then the episode of the sacrifice of Isaac. These are micro narratives and the macro narrative. And this is also how faith works, and how it keeps pressing into a our day-to-day reality. If the grand narrative is trustworthy, if, like in The Matrix, it really is a picture of what is real and not just another illusion, it will keep shattering the illusions we have built around ourselves. Why? Because our default position is to keep constructing illusions that help us engage with unfolding history and our part in it. An example: Abraham pretending Sarah is his sister; sleeping with Hagar to produce a child; Cypher choosing to go back into The Matrix because he misses the taste of steak.

This is where LOVE comes in. As a way of knowing, LOVE isn’t about feelings, though feelings certainly come into it. LOVE is the treasuring of the otherness of the other in relational encounter. In other words, it’s the discovery that the other occupies a different space from you, experiences time (the story) differently than you, then not only recognising that otherness, but also treasuring it. That includes the otherness of God, the otherness of your neighbour, the otherness of your wife, friend, child, parent. Everyone on this planet is other to me.

There’s a great quote in the movie Inception that illustrates this well: “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, with all your perfection, all your imperfection.” The lead character played by Leonardo DiCaprio is arguing for emotional engagement, dialogue, as the only way to get a glimpse of the other in all their complexity. Believe it or not, most of the time we don’t think about other people like this. We reduce them down to simple equations, digestible bits of knowledge about who they are, what they want, how they feel – in a way, it’s a type of control, a lack of submission, a barrier to vulnerability. Imagine if we lived all the moments of every day acutely aware of the complexity – and beauty and wonder – of the other. Well, LOVE takes us there (which is why we strive so hard to avoid it, stay distant from it, kill it, etc, much of the time).

How do we see this playing out in the Abraham story?

In many ways, what we see in the Abraham story is an example of someone who actually isn’t doing this very well at all. Can we say Abraham fully treasures the otherness of God when he takes matters into his own hands over the promise of a child? Does he fully understand God at that point? For that matter, does he also treasure the otherness of Sarah’s barrenness at that point? Because that’s what love is, treasuring also that which might disappoint or elude or confuse us. God called Abraham to trust him, which actually meant treasuring the inability of Sarah to have children — which would result in God proving himself faithful. It actually had nothing to do with Abraham needing to step in and save the day. We should also add here that Abraham also neglected the otherness of Hagar. As a slave, she is an example of otherness which is utilised for the sake of someone else. Her otherness is of no consequence to Abraham — she becomes a tool to bring about the promise as Abraham understands it. The practice of slavery as an idea, in terms of how the Bible deals with it, won’t fully be challenged until Philemon in the NT. But here in the Abraham story, in the context of the culture of the day, Hagar isn’t an other at all. She is no more than an object in Abraham’s world.

Abraham seems to grow in love, however. He matures in his ability to see and understand the other, and also to submit to what he discovers there. He makes provision for Hagar and sets her up in a state of otherness, it could be argued. He finally submits to God’s solution to the barrenness of Sarah. And, the ultimate act of obedience or trust or faith, he accompanies Isaac to the mountain to carry out what he believes to be a sacrifice, only to truly discover God’s provision (God’s otherness). All of these acts can be said to be acts of “love” — encounters in which Abraham is called to engage with the other in new and surprising ways. And in each case, the way forward is only possible when an encounter of mutuality is allowed to transpire. In each, it’s the foundational promise of God that is the element of disruption, growth, and challenge. And this leads to the final element, that of hope. Ultimately, the Abraham story is a classic one of hope — of new things being brought about where the alternative story could never have achieved such results.

We see throughout the story of scripture that “hope” is not something envisioned that might one day happen, it’s the tangible bringing into being of new things that foreshadow the ultimate new creation. The Bible characters don’t always recognise this, of course, because this knowledge takes shape over many hundreds of years. What they do recognise though is that it is a characteristic of God to be able to bring about new things from nothing, life from death, possibility from hopelessness.

Nowhere do we see this play out more in the Abraham story than in the birth of Isaac. A woman’s inability to bear children, plus the age of Sarah, is a classic motif of the human inability to bring life from nothingness. It speaks of the presence of the living God like nothing else — think of Hannah in the Samuel story, and Mary in the NT, where it is made explicit that this is an indicator of God’s favour.

In the Abraham story, the birth of Isaac is the first fulfilment of the promise, in other words the INNOVATION that arises because of the STORY. It’s a clear marker that the story is and always was trustworthy. It’s also a living, breathing picture of what the promise implicit in the story was always about. In other words, hope isn’t theoretical, it’s actual. PROMISE = BLESSING = CHILDREN. That’s what it actually meant — new life from nothing. Innovation doesn’t look better than this.

This “hope” didn’t come directly from the story, however. It came via the LOVE, the actual lived experience of the characters, God, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar etc. What I’m saying here is that new life doesn’t just appear, as if from a magician’s hat. It emerges from the actual encounters of the characters of that story. This is important to note because sometimes we get the impression that people wait for God’s promises to just materialise, as in winning the Lotto or getting an out-of-this-world job. But hope emerges from encounters of love, and I believe there are complex reasons for this that we will explore in more depth later. Here we’ll just note that the promise of God to Abraham still involved Abraham and Sarah (and also Hagar, indirectly). In other words, STORY requires that we live out that story in ENCOUNTERS, and those encounters produce the INNOVATION that reaffirms the STORY. It’s what I call a dynamic equilibrium, the three elements continually working in conjunction with each. No element stands alone, and should one element drop off the balance of the whole suffers. STORY undergirds ENCOUNTER, ENCOUNTER produces INNOVATION, INNOVATION affirms STORY and so on. Faith gives shape to love, just as love gives purpose and actuality to story. Love produces hope, just as hope gives love an outward impetus and a purpose beyond itself. Hope affirms and retells the story, which keeps faith dynamically alive.

So the story in which Abraham discovered his understanding of himself in relation to God — the story of the promise – gave shape and purpose to the lived experience of Abraham and Sarah in what then transpired. It also could have saved them a lot of grief had Abraham fully treasured the God of the promise. That lived experience produced the fruit of the promise, the child, and ultimately the land and wealth and status that came with it. This not only affirmed the promise, it kept the promise alive for a new generation, then another generation after that. We see this promise continue through the stories of Jacob and Esau, Joseph, through Moses, even all the way through to the Exile, and then on into the New Testament. Where, finally, Paul speaks of faith, hope and love as ways of knowing that derive from the cross and resurrection.

Along the way the story continues to disrupt its principal characters, as it calls them to engage with others in brand new ways, ways that are often disruptive to the culture of the time, but always in ways that bring about new life.

Key points

• The story is that God promises and fulfils his promises.

• This requires a radical new understanding of otherness in the light of such promises, including the treasuring of a woman’s barrenness, but also the treasuring of Hagar’s otherness (God did not intend for her to be used the way that she was). This is the disruptive nature of encounter shaped by this particular story.

• In this strange new world, barrenness is not an end but a beginning, the opportunity for new life based not on human engineering, but on the actual promise that drives the story – this is the high point of innovation (new life) in the Abraham stories.