October 7, 1984
Personal, continual communion with God is a sure stronghold against worry. Abram demonstrated spiritual failure because he did not trust God with the daily details of his life. Alistair Begg urges us to consider the dangerous and damaging implications of lying, ceasing to pray, and failing to do as God’s word commands. When we walk the path of faith, we can avoid the pitfalls of fear and sin.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Please take your Bibles, and let’s turn together to Genesis chapter 12. And we’ll look this morning at the second half of this chapter.
We began three weeks ago a series in the life of Abraham, to which we gave the title Venturing in Faith. And last Sunday morning, we left Abraham, as it were, at Genesis 12:9, and this morning, we pick him up in verse 10. We might say it variously that last Sunday morning, we left Abraham on the plain of faith, and this morning, we pick him up on the path of fear. And we might well ask the question: What happened to him? And the answer was—and we have this as the title to our study this morning, and an outline for that is provided for you in the bulletin—the answer was that Abraham experienced a failure of nerve. “What? Abraham, the friend of God? Abraham, the father of all who have faith? Abraham, one man who stands out even amongst men in the heroes of faith described in Hebrews 11? Abraham blew it?” Yes. It seems a very short, small step from verse 9 to verse 10. And in a sense, it is. But the dramatic, radical effect that it had upon his life, his wife’s, his family, his friends, the Egyptian culture of his day is quite incredible.
Now, we need to remind ourselves this morning that what James said of Elijah in James 5, where he said of Elijah, he “was a man just like us,” might also be said of Abraham: he was a man just like us. And in that there is a measure of encouragement: to remind ourselves this morning that since he was made of the same stuff, we then may be encouraged by realizing that if he knew what it was to have a failure of nerve, it’s going to be no great surprise for us to do the same. But while we may be encouraged by that, we ought also to be challenged by it, realizing what we might achieve since our weaknesses, like Abraham’s weakness, is no obstacle to God’s power.
And so, this morning, we identify with an incident in Abraham’s life with which all of us are able to find a direct illustration, probably, in our own lives. And perhaps we don’t need to go too far back to find the last time we had a failure of nerve. When was your last failure of nerve? Maybe you’d like to ask yourself that question. When you got up in the morning and you said, “Today I will do this.” As you drove off in the car, you were still convinced that you were going to do it. You began, partially, to make an attempt at it, and suddenly, your determination dissolved, your courage failed, and you never did what you set out to do. And lives were affected by it. It may be a big thing, a small thing, may be a humorous thing.
This summer, at an amusement park, as they’re called, not far from here, as the evening shadows fell across what had been a lovely day amongst friends, a few of us made our assault on the water slides. We very quickly championed the curvy, twisting ones that begin high up, and you spin on your back all around, and then they spit you into a mucky pool at the bottom, into which myriads of people have been dumped over a great number of days. There’s no great achievement in that. Children do it with gladness and with great whoops of delight. Unseen, you can hear them coming, and then, suddenly, they’re buried in this little pond. Well, having been successful there, we moved on towards a different kind. If you’ve been to this place, you’ll know to what I refer. These are very steep slides. You mount stairs to them, carrying on your back a large, yellow plastic raft which you then place on a platform which drops away from you dramatically and suddenly—like making the sound of the platform upon which people were hanged in ancient Western movies. And it’s that same sound. It goes kerchunk! and you’re gone, hurtling on this yellow plastic towards your destiny.
“Now,” you say, “he obviously speaks with great experience.” No. What I now share with you is theoretical, not experiential. I made my way up those stairs, carrying my plastic raft. There was no way I would allow my brother-in-law to do what I couldn’t do—someone ten years younger than me to show me up. And I stood on the top and made a dreadful mistake: I looked down the slide. And I looked at that for so long that eventually, I came back down the stairs, leaving my plastic raft there as a silent testimony to what was a quite dramatic failure of nerve. In fact, to refer to it as a failure of nerve is not even fair, because I never really had any nerve in the first place to fail. It was hard to walk down those stairs listening to the encouraging words of family and friends as they called out, “You big chicken!” supported only by one tiny member of the group, who is my greatest supporter. I’m going back there, and I’m going to do it. And you can come and watch me if you like.
But you know, maybe there’s some other places that I need to go back to. And maybe there are some places that God wants to take you back to this morning—back to that place where you had a failure of nerve, back to that point along the pathway of faith when things seemed to be going so well, and then, with a sudden drop of the platform, you were plunged from the path of faith to the pit of fear. And your friends and your family know it, and your spiritual life today testifies to it, because you’ve never been back. Abraham found himself in this exact situation.
And so, this morning, as we look at the incident, I’d like us to ask and answer three simple questions, which are outlined for you in your bulletin.
First: What prompted his failure of nerve? And there are two things that we might point to, one briefly and the other in more length.
First of all, we might notice the geographical factors. Verse 9 describes Abraham’s movements in the southern area of Palestine, in a region of approximately 4,250 square miles—about half the size of the modern state of Israel. And it was in that region that Abraham was now moving, along with his family. And it was in that place that he encountered a factor which anyone who has ever studied geography at all, even at high-school level, knows contributes to population movement. And to that we’re introduced in the tenth verse: “Now there was a famine in the land.” And just in the same way as people say today, “I need to go where the work is,” Abraham was saying, “We need to go where the food is.” And so we find him: the man who is prepared to commit his future to God suddenly is buffeted by a fear about his food. And he is saying, “God, you may take care of my future, but I need to move to take care of my food.” Now, that reveals to us the fact that the real influence prompting him to this failure of nerve was not geographical, but rather, it was spiritual. There are spiritual factors involved in a failure of nerve. Let me detail them for you if I may.
First of all, I want to suggest that Abraham hadn’t learned to trust God for the daily details. He was prepared to give to God the big show, but when it came right down to the “What am I going to do? What am I going eat? Where are we going to live? How is this baby going to be born?” suddenly, he was moving in different terrain. Now, we might argue that Abraham did the only natural thing for a man to do in these circumstances. Here was a man with family and friends—a retinue to take care of. Famine appears, so the natural thing to do is move out. But Abraham failed to appreciate the limitations of human wisdom. Human wisdom is never to be despised; God gives to us wisdom. But human wisdom is to be set aside, is to be disregarded, whenever we find it prompting us to activity which means us moving on the path of sight rather than faith, on the path of disobedience rather than on the pathway of obedience. And it was just that which Abraham encounters here. He should have realized that God’s purposes for him could not be thwarted by famine. I mean, if God told him, “Get up and go; I will take care of you, I will bless you, I will provide for you, I will make you promise after promise,” surely he would have realized that a famine could not prevent the fulfillment of what God desired for him.
“Well,” we say, “surely.” And then we think of ourselves, and we remind ourselves of how frequently we face this same issue. We fail because we are unable or unprepared to trust God with the details of our everyday lives. Jesus taught on this in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6: gathers his disciples and a wider group around them, and he says to them, “Why do you worry about what you wear? Why are you so preoccupied with your clothes? Why do you spend so much time thinking about food? Why are you so tied up in all these intricate details? Why don’t you look around? Look at the lilies. They grow. Who looks after them? God does. Look at the birds! They seem to get everything. They never sow or reap or store away in barns. Who looks after them? God does. Which of you,” said Jesus, “by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” And everyone looks around and says, “None of us.” Jesus said to them, “Everything that you might think of in the everyday detail of your life, your heavenly Father knows that you need it.” And if he hasn’t given it to you, it’s because you don’t need it, or you don’t need it yet. And the failure that Abraham faced is a recurring failure in many of our lives.
You know that to worry is ultimately sin. Because when I worry, I am saying, “God doesn’t know,” and God does know. When I worry, I’m saying, “God surely doesn’t care,” and God does care. When I worry, I’m saying, “Surely God can’t provide,” and God has pledged himself to provide. So his failure of nerve may be attributed, first of all, to the fact that he wasn’t trusting God for the everyday details.
Secondly, he failed in the realm of prayer. Maybe it was that he was relying on the altar that he had already built. And the details of that we noted last time in verse 7, where “he built an altar … to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” My friends, some of us are looking back to altars we’ve built in the past—things we did before, the glory days. “Oh, those were the times! Remember when we did that? Remember when we had that great experience?” Thank God for it! Thank God for church history! But we are to go out now and make church history.
And some of us are stuck on altars in the past, chained to them—special times. God never intended to leave us there. And no matter the size nor the significance of the altar, nothing will take the place of personal daily communion with God—my daily walk with him. I don’t talk to my wife on a Monday morning and then leave her for the rest week, unless there is some extraneous circumstances. But in the run of everyday life, I talk to her at every chance. I phone her in the day: “How are you?” What do we talk about? Nothing, really. Just “Hi.” “Hello.” “Did you spill your coffee?” All these kind of things. Why? Because of the union I enjoy with her.
Now, when we talk with God, when we come to him in prayer, there’s no detail of our lives that we can’t bring before him; there’s no insurmountable problem that he is unable for. Yet, my dear friends, some of us are shot on a Monday morning. And if we happen to remember, we may somehow bring God back into the conversation, but it will usually be when the billows are up, and the boat is rocking, and we’re about to go right under the water. God isn’t blessed by that—no more than a father would love his child just to speak to him spasmodically throughout the week. The main reason why people don’t get answers to their prayers is because people don’t pray.
If Abraham had prayed about this situation, what would he have prayed for? He could have prayed for the safety of his wife. He could have prayed for strength to be honest. He could have prayed for bread to eat. And if he’d done so, the Bible would have recorded it, because it records very carefully the times of Abraham’s commitment, and it comes with silence to us in times of failure. You see, trusting and praying go hand in hand.
So if we were to ask ourselves the question this morning “What am I trusting God for in my life?” we could answer that by looking at our prayer diary. Do you have a prayer diary? Do you have a place in your diary, men, that you can turn to—it’s in the back, somewhere, of your calendar, and you can turn to it—and as soon as you turn to Monday morning, you’ll see names there? And you know that on a Monday, you pray for those people, and if ever you write them a letter, you can tell them, “I pray for you on Mondays.” Why? Because you’ve built it as a habit into your life. And when you come to Tuesday, there’ll be others on the list. Ladies, do you have one? Somewhere in that cookery recipe book that you turn to, you’ve got your place with God, that daily commitment of communion and prayer and intercession? No? No? So how is God going to move, and bless, and touch, and change, and transform, and drive forward, and provide resources, and build buildings, and build lives, and save people, and renew by his Spirit? How is he going to do it all?
When we don’t pray, we say by our lives that we consider prayer to be supplemental and not fundamental. “God’s work, done God’s way, will never lack God’s suppl[y].” And God’s way to do it is to move men’s hearts by prayer. I don’t understand that mystery. But when we fail there, we fail. And that’s exactly what happened to Abraham.
He failed, then, because he didn’t trust God with the details of his life. He failed because he failed in the realm of prayer. He failed thirdly—and these are the spiritual factors that led to this failure—because he didn’t wear his belt. You say to me, “I’ve read the portion. I don’t see anything about clothes in there.” I’m referring now to “the belt of truth”—Ephesians 6:14—which in the Christian’s armor is fundamental to every other part of the armor. The belt of truth comes around my waist, to which “the sword of the Spirit” hangs, “the breastplate of righteousness”—everything is there, linked by the belt of truth. Once leave off the belt, and the rest will eventually disintegrate.
And that’s exactly what happened to Abraham: he didn’t tell the truth. And he failed to say what was true; therefore, he said what was untrue. And when truth is neglected, right actions fall by the wayside. When truth is neglected, all kinds of situations will be tolerated and may even be justified. People today, they say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. I leave my wife, leave my husband. I’m fed up with her anyway. I’ll go and live with so-and-so. I mean, that doesn’t matter. God doesn’t expect me to be miserable like this every Monday morning.” No, he doesn’t expect you to be like that, but there’s no direct link between that and what you’re now saying. They say, “Well, I don’t care. There’s no guideline.” Yes, there is. What is it? It’s truth. And as soon as we lay aside truth, then all kinds of situations will be tolerated, and then all kinds of situations will be justified. But once wear the belt of truth, and then our actions come into line with our principles. And God’s people are to be committed to this truth.
Fourthly, his failure of nerve was due to the fact that he forgot that God is able to intervene on our behalf when we seek to do what is right. So when we face dilemmas, as Abraham did… He had a family; there was a famine. What was he going to do? Well, he should do what is right: trust God; say what is true, not what is untrue; and then watch God work it out. That’s what to do. The fundamental question in every situation is this: What is the right thing? Not “What is the expedient thing?” not “What works?” but “What is right?”
And again, you see, society today says it might be right for you and wrong for him, etc. Listen: the standard of rightness is the Word of God. That’s what tells us what is right. What is true needs to be said, and then we will trust God to intervene. Abraham did none of that and went ahead on his own—hence the failure of nerve. The psalmist says, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,” to do what? To deliver him. But some of us haven’t stood on the precipice of faith long enough to allow the angels to come around and deliver us.
Now, look secondly with me, and more quickly this time, at the consequences of the failure, and answer the question: What resulted from this failure of nerve? Three things.
First of all, we notice the deception that he planned. You’ll notice that it was deliberate. He conjured it up, and then he instructed his wife to implement it. That was nice of him, wasn’t it? Verse 13: “Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” There’s a kind of selfish strain coming through that somewhere, isn’t there? “Eh, Sarai? I’ve got a really good idea here this morning. You are a beautiful woman, you know.” “Thank you, Abram!” “Yes, and what I want you to do this morning is, when we get in down around the pharaoh’s area, I want you to start putting the news around that you’re my sister.” She said, “Well, I’m not really your sister.” He said, “Yeah, I know you’re not really, really my sister, but you’re kind of a little bit my sister.” Why? Because she was his half-sister. Genesis 20:12. She was his half-sister. So the terrific subtly of nontruth is here. The best lies are the lies that are closest to the truth, not the blatant ones—the ones where there is a grain in it that we can justify them to ourselves and pass them over on others so that they’ll swallow them. Isn’t that right? And so he comes to them.
Now, we might argue that Abraham was consumed by the fact that he needed to stay alive and that God’s promise to him might be fulfilled. That makes sense. He was a rational man. God says, “You’ll be the father of many nations.” Suddenly, he thinks he’s going to get his head chopped off. He realizes he hasn’t even got started on the project, so how is he going to be the father of many nations? I mean, he realized, “I’m going to have stay around if this thing’s to work.” Now, that is the best complexity we can put on it. But what is the underlying factor? God knew that! God knew that! God didn’t need Abraham to dream up a plan! How many churches are dreaming up plans? God says we are to pray down his principles—not dream up our bright ideas but pray down his power.
And so he conjures up this deception, and he takes one half of the truth, and he conceals the other half of the truth—and that’s a lie. And there are no such things as “white” lies. Half-truths uncorrected and misused are lies. In business, they are lies. In family life, they are lies. In our interpersonal relationships, they are lies. And dishonesty creates its own chain reaction. It may yield apparent benefits for a time, but the benefits will never be able to be fully enjoyed.
Look at verse 16. The result of his little plan was pretty good, because when he got down to Egypt, exactly what he thought would happen happened. They saw she was a beautiful woman. Pharaoh’s officials were going around saying, “Hey, you seen this Sarai lately?” Pharaoh said, “No!” And so she was taken into the palace, because the word went out that she wasn’t this man’s wife; she was his sister. So Abraham got a good deal out of it, didn’t he?
Did he? Do you think this is a good deal? I tell you, I wouldn’t trade my wife for this motley pile of junk—sheep, cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants, maidservants, and camels. And every time another camel came in through the front door, it must have gripped his heart in agony, because he knew how much the camel cost. It wasn’t free! No donkey came for nothing. No servant arrived because of a bright idea. It was all because his wife was no longer in his bed with him. She was gone, sacrificed on the altar of situation ethics: “There is no absolute. It changes with shifting shadows. We’ll make it work. After all, you’re really my sister when you look at it this way.”
Let me say this to you, my friends, this morning: possessions without God will never bring satisfaction. And possessions dishonestly gained will inevitably and eventually rot our bones. They’ll kill us. Did you ever steal apples as a wee boy? They never, ever tasted—supposing you ate a hundredweight of them—they never, ever tasted as sweet as one apple given to you by your father and received in honesty and enjoyed in love. Why? Because the product of deception will destroy us. And is that a word our society needs to hear?
The deception that he created. The danger that he caused for his wife. In a phrase, in his desire to stay alive, he placed his wife’s chastity at stake. That’s the story. And the Bible makes it clear that adultery is wrong. It’s always wrong. It’s never, ever right. The Egyptian culture of the day had a high regard for marriage; otherwise, the pharaoh would not have responded in this way. If they had been [laissez-faire] in relation to these things, there would have been no surprise in the pharaoh’s voice, no chastisement offered to God’s servant. Adultery is an offense against the divine institution of marriage, and it will be judged before the bar of God’s judgment—Hebrews 13:4. And is that a word that our society needs to hear? The very word chastity is almost a joke. It’s a joke! It’s no joke in God’s Word, and it will be no joke before God’s throne.
Thirdly, the deception caused danger and caused damage. And verse 17 introduces us to what happened in the palace: God came and intervened—brought serious affliction upon the household of Pharaoh “because of Abram’s wife.” However it happened we’re not told. It happened in such a way as to make it clear to these people that somehow, the problem lay in this relationship. We don’t even know whether it came in time to preserve the very chastity of his wife or whether it was too late, but it came. And God intervened, and chaos and damage were there which God had to rectify. Because none of us lives to ourselves. You see, we can’t cherish the illusion that what we do in private, what we do on our business trip, what we do when we’re away and nobody sees us, what we do when we’re not amongst our friends is just our deal. It’s never our deal, for God sees, and our sins will find us out.
What a tragedy it is, as you look at these verses, that Abraham was rebuked by a pharaoh who never knew his God. What a tragedy it is when in our workplace, we are rebuked by our friends who do not share our faith but rebuke us for our defective morality. And you’ll notice no response from Abraham. The chapter ends with him walking, not talking. He has nothing to say, because his life has confused people about God.
Finally, and even more quickly: What does this failure teach us? What are some of the practical implications for us?
What about in the realm of truth? We dare not and cannot leave off the belt of truth in our dealings with one another. That is fundamental. Why do we spend so much time instilling in our children the value of honesty? Because we know that no matter how bright they may become, how prosperous they may be as a result of what we might pass on to them, unless they learn to tell the truth, they will wreak havoc and chaos wherever they go. They will destroy the relationships within the family, and then, beyond that, they will destroy other things, because they’ve learned to tell lies. Truth is more important than our personal safety. It’s more important than our security.
And our children learn to be truthful not by a lecture but by a lifestyle. So they learn the acts and actions of duplicity if they observe us putting our hands over the telephone receiver, contriving what we regard as a reason, when we are about to go back over the phone, which is in fact a blatant excuse shredded with truth and half-truth. We go on the phone. We make the response. We put the phone down. We think we’ve covered it. We haven’t covered it! We just opened it up. For our children will learn, by our lifestyle, our commitment to truth. And our lives will speak so loudly that they will silence our words.
Secondly, that we learn lessons in the realm of love, in the realm of marriage; that we need to learn to be prepared to sacrifice even our most precious possessions so that we might live in purity and in honor in our marriages. And for some of us, that is a phenomenal challenge this morning. Neither myself nor the Scriptures nor God himself would diminish what that means as we seek to wrestle with it in our lives today. But nevertheless, the same question remains: “What is the right thing to do? What is right in these circumstances? How may I honor and glorify the God who made me?” In a world, you see, that knows nothing of sacrifice, that knows only about benefit, then we find it hard to apply a principle like this.
We’re going to be looking at this in relation to husbands tonight, but let me just say this in passing: that part of the problem here was compounded by the fact that Abraham had a super-looking wife. By the culture of his day, she was dynamite. When he walked the streets, people said, “Look at her!” That’s a problem. [Even Stevens] wrote a song in the last two [sic] years called “If You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman,” then certain things follow. I remember the song. What he said was, “You’d better watch other people’s eyes. You better watch her eyes. You better watch the way you care for her and guard her.” And he was dead right! And as husbands, we need to learn to frame our relationship with our wives in such way—especially if God has given to us a Sarai—so that we don’t ask them to dress in a way that titillates the minds and eyes of other men; we don’t ask them to conduct themselves in such a way that attracts the attention of others, which is a great boost to our ego. So you have husbands saying, “I bought you this and I bought you that so that you’ll look like this, so that he will look like that, so that we can just begin breaking the Ten Commandments all over the place.” My friends, nothing, nothing, nothing is worth it.
Chastity is to be not only in our actions but in our eyes. How many of you know Job 31:1? Let me read it to you: “I made a covenant with my eyes,” said Job, “not to look lustfully at a girl.” See, some of us are patting ourselves on the back because by some strange means we managed to escape it. God says, “You didn’t escape it.” Look at Job 31:1. Look at Proverbs 6:25, and you’ll find that it relates to our hearts. Look at Ephesians 4:27, and you’ll find that it relates to our words.
And finally, because our time is gone, this portion of Scripture this morning teaches us lessons not only about truth and about love but about faith. You see, the failure of Abraham is a solemn warning to us against being preoccupied with circumstances instead of our minds and our vision being filled with God. The Word of God is saying to us this morning that we need to learn to look at our difficulties through God rather than to look at God through our difficulties—that we need not to stand and ponder the circumstances so much as we need to look up into the eyes of the almighty God who said, “I understand all your circumstances, and I know everything you need, and I know every problem you face, and I know about your wife, and I know about your son. I know about your boss, your next-door neighbor, your mother, your mother-in-law. I know all of that. And I’m asking you one question, son: Will you trust me?” Last week, Abraham says, “Of course I will! Let’s build an altar! Let’s get it going!” This week, look at him! He gets the order of the boot out of Pharaoh’s palace and in silence trudges off and trudges back instead of forward.
And the final thing I’d like you to note is the unerring faithfulness of God and his infinite patience to us when we are wayward, and when we are ungrateful, and when we do have failure of nerve, and when we do find ourselves in the wrong place rather than the right place. What does he do? He comes along and intervenes and sets us back where we should be to take us forward to where he wants us to be. So let’s trust God for the everyday things. Let’s trust his promises more than our wisdom. Let’s be sure of his intervention on our behalf. And let’s go out, as it were, singing the chorus in our minds,
He cannot fail, for he is God.
He cannot fail; he pledged his word.
He cannot fail; he’ll see me through.
He cannot fail; he died for you.
Let’s bow together:
Father, as surely as Abraham had this failure of nerve, we look into our hearts and lives and see our own. And we pray that by the Holy Spirit, we may be rightly encouraged by realizing it—that your heroes were men just like us—but also that we may be challenged and stimulated by realizing that since that is true, our weaknesses, just as theirs, are no impediment to your purposes. Remind us this morning, O God, that what is true is what is right; that love and marriage are your idea, and by your power we may meet them; that faith is not our ability to muster it up but our enjoyment of your provision as we walk in trust and in obedience. Come to our homes, O God, we pray. Come to our hearts, and come to our fellowship, and teach us your way, so that even in our doubts and in our fears we may hear your still, small voice saying, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 James 5:17 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 5:1.
 Matthew 6:26–28 (paraphrased)
 Matthew 6:32 (paraphrased).
 J. Hudson Taylor, quoted in M. Geraldine Guinness, The Story of the China Inland Mission (London: Morgan and Scott, 1893), 1:238.
 Ephesians 6:14, 17 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 34:7 (NIV 1984).
 See Romans 14:7.
 Even Stevens, “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman” (1978). Paraphrased.
 See Ephesians 4:25–27.
 Charles E. Mason, “He Cannot Fail” (1941). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Isaiah 30:21 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.