In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18-21 (ESV)
I once met a man who had no love for Abraham. That was a strange pastoral visit. I was visiting an older couple that had been in my church on Sunday morning. Let’s just say he did not see Abraham as a pillar of faith. I’m not sure this man had much room to judge, but if you have any human conception of faith, then this passage by Paul begins to make little sense.
We want our pillars of faith to be role models of virtue. We want the Bible to be Aesop’s fables. We want Sunday School to be about fabricating moral fortitude. In short we are silly. And the Bible just won’t let us do it, no matter how hard we try to cut out the scandal. I don’t know why we should do that anyway. Abraham our pillar of faith. Lets see. The first coming to mind, he tries to move along God’s promise by taking Hagar as a second wife, tries to have the promised heir by her, at least in this way it would still be Sarah’s gift to him, as she belonged to her. Not really faithful. Then he divorces Hagar. To be fair though, he only does so at the command of God. May have been more faith in that action even by human understanding then one can comprehend. Yet, that is one that is hard to get a person’s mind around, and as common as divorce is today, it still tends not to speak to character. Believe me, I know. It testifies to an all too sinful world in which we live, where high school lovers rarely grow old together, and that brings about a fear that many would keep at bay. Of course, then you have him pimping out Sarah twice, out of fear for his own life. Where was the faith there? How can Paul say he did not weaken in faith?
But faith is a fighting faith in this sinful world. In this world of trials and temptations it falters from time to time. That his faith does not weaken, is not to say that he always managed to do the right thing as we often imagine it to mean. It shouldn’t be associated with worldly success and strength. People can be quite virtuous without God, at least in a humanly speaking manner. The world’s standards are after all the world’s standards and not Gods, children of the world will naturally try live up to the standards of their father, and will often even confuse them with God’s standards. But then the trials and tribulations in this world have a way of stripping a person of faith in themselves. That is really where Abraham’s failings fall. We all have a lot of faith in ourselves from time to time, and pride cometh before the fall, God destroys the haughty, he upholds the humble. And that is often the way for the Christian life. We fail, and constantly find ourselves humbled, but at the bottom of moral failure God redeems. We lose faith in ourselves as our sin and weakness is exposed, but our faith in God is not weakened by such experience but rather grows stronger as his grace is bestowed upon us more and more.
This is what Luther gets at with his idea that the three things that make a theologian are Prayer, Meditation, and Torture (anfechtung). Not that we should be searching for the tentatio, the torture, or anfechtung. Plenty enough will find us on its own. And there will be plenty of mornings in which our shame will be well enough deserved, but we ought not for these reasons fear to turn to God, to plead his grace. No, all the more we should remember that it was to save sinners for which God came. It is for this reason, that he knew the weakness of our flesh that he gave us baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the forgiveness of sins.