“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
When I was a child I was baffled by this idiom. I dreamed up scenarios of rock-hurling inhabitants of little forest greenhouses! (Remember that it was the pre-Google era when people actually applied their minds and imaginations to figure things out!) Eventually Webster’s dictionary clarified the idiom for me:
“People who have faults should not criticize other people for having the same faults.”
This is an apt warning against smugness as we read the story of Abram’s low point in Egypt in Genesis 12. It is easy to criticize Abram’s lapse in faith as he heads down to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan. It is natural to be shocked at his selfish schemes as he leads Sarai to become a concubine in Pharoah’s harem, all to save his own skin! What on earth happened to the bold, intrepid man of faith who followed God’s call into the unknown, the man who boldly built altars and called on the name of the Lord? How did Abram imagine things would turn out for his wife—the future mother of the great nation? Had Abram not heard that husbands should lay down their lives for their wives if the need arises? Did he forget God’s amazing promises (Gen 12:2-3)? Pity he didn’t have Matt 6 and Eph 5:25-28!
But as I hurled rocks of accusation at Abram, I noticed them boomerang right back and heard the faint tinkling of glass around me: “Have I always trusted God for my physical needs and the needs of my family? Have I never reacted prematurely when afraid? Have I never obsessed over a trial instead of praying about it? Have I never responded to danger with alarm and clever deception? Have I always remembered the promises, protection and provision of God? Have I ever been unable to feed my family?” Only when we stand in the shattered glass of our own self-righteousness can we see that the Bible is written about (and for) real people just like us. People who are prone to spiritual amnesia and self-protection. People who are by nature selfish, cowardly and unfaithful. That is why we must never focus on our ‘faith’ to get us through the great tests of life, but only on God’s faithfulness. God’s grace is the only thing that stands between our mountains and ditches of faith. Our texts today are Genesis 12:10-20 and 1 Cor 10:12-13:
10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Plans from panic
Immediately after the spiritual high of his call, Abram faced physical, down-to-earth trials and temptations. He was in Canaan– the promised land– obeying God and enjoying His blessings. But then he was faced with a serious famine, which threatened the survival of his family. When he ran to Egypt to avoid food shortages, he faced another kind of danger: Pharoah, who could perhaps covet his beautiful wife and kill Abram to have her.
Abram faced the fear of CIRCUMSTANCES and the fear of MAN, which every believer will face. Abram had a basic choice, just as we do: Trust God or trust self.
Abram chose his own ingenuity and did not exactly cover himself with glory.
Going down to Egypt
Spiritually speaking, ‘going down to Egypt’ means doubting God’s promises and running to the world for help. Isaiah describes this tendency, which I recognize in myself:
“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
that they may add sin to sin;
2 who set out to go down to Egypt,
without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! (Isa 30:1-2)
The right way is not always the easiest or most instinctive way.
Difficulties are NOT always a sign that we are outside of God’s protection, will and blessing.
We know that God tests our faith through fear, scarcity and danger, “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold… , may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). Testing produces ENDURANCE, proven CHARACTER and HOPE in those who persevere through it, because it teaches us to trust God in ways we wouldn’t in times of plenty (Romans 5:2-5; James 1:12).
When the circumstances of life are too difficult and we find ourselves in the furnace of testing, Abram’s failure teaches us to seek wisdom. It is better to remain where God has put us and trust in Jesus, rather than trust in our own hearts. Panic and fear lead to foolish and hasty decisions.
“So this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who relies on it
will never be stricken with panic” (Isa 28:16).
“Those who trust in themselves are fools,
but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe” (Prov 28:26).
Plans from self preservation
The Bible often warns us against spiritual amnesia (forgetfulness). We must not forget who we are and who God is, as Abram did in his furnace of testing. Abram did not deny God’s existence. He did not curse God for the famine. But He also did not wrestle with God’s promises. He simply forgot how great God is and went about making cunning plans to save himself.
Abram failed to ask for God’s direction or protection. He went into survival mode and then hoped that God would bless his plans and schemes.
Paul reminds us not to trust in our faith or ingenuity, but to look to God, who will provide a way of escape so that we are able to endure it (1 Cor 10:12-13). No trial is an exception to this rule. It is our stubborn and proud hearts that instinctively seek shelter in the shadow of ‘Egypt’ instead of the Almighty: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91:1).
As with Abram, fear is a terrible driver of our thoughts and behaviour. The only antidote to fear is to continually turn God-ward rather than in-ward– before we make our plans.
A web of sin
Abram’s panic led to self-made plans. His desire for self preservation led to rash foolishness. His forgetfulness of God led to selfishness, compromise, deceit and sacrifice of his wife’s chastity. When Abram made plans that were not the Lord’s, he added sin to sin (Isa 30:1). He deliberately chose a convenient lie over the truth that Sarai was his wife. He even instructed her to lie on his behalf (Gen 12:13). Abram used the same lie again in Genesis 20, and Isaac did the same to his wife, Rebekah (Gen 26:7-10). Parents are role models to their children– for good or ill. It may have seemed like a small half-truth to Abram and his culture, which viewed women as chattels, but it was a serious offence to God (Gen 12:17).
Abram wandered into sin through the gateway of fear and compromise. The consequences were dire for everyone…for generations.
At first, it may have seemed as if Abram benefited from his lies (Gen 12:16), but the sweetness of sin never lingers long. The poison of deception must have killed Abram’s soul as he saw the line of sheep, oxen, donkeys, servants and camels wafting into his yard…but no Sarai in his house. His ill-gotten gain would have brought him no satisfaction.
We need to hear God’s heart on the sanctity of marriage today:
“Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4).
There is no compromise for God. Whatever the prevailing culture says, faithlessness to the marriage covenant is always an offence against God. It was wrong even before God gave Moses the commandments: You shall not commit adultery. You shall not lie (Ex 20:14; 16). Marital faithlessness causes chaos and destroys many in its wake, including children and whole communities. Even the pagan Pharoah knew that what Abram did was wrong and deported him in disgrace (Gen 12:20).
Instead of being a blessing to the nations, Abram’s lie cursed the Egyptians and destroyed his witness there. It is likely that Hagar, (the Egyptian maidservant who bore Ishmael), was one of the gifts that came from Pharoah – payment for Abram’s marital faithlessness. Lot (Abram’s nephew) got a taste for Egypt and would later choose the plains of Sodom as his home, since the land was fertile “like the land of Egypt” (Gen 13:10). Abram’s sin affected generations to come.
Abram learned some painful lessons from Egypt: 1) Live by faith, not fear; 2) Always tell the truth; 3) The end never justifies the means, and 4) Our sins will always find us out. May the Lord help us to learn from Abram’s mistakes without having to repeat them ourselves.
But the greatest lesson Abram would have learned in Egypt is that God is faithful when we are not.
God’s grace in our unfaithfulness
In grace, God intervened and rescued Sarai from Pharoah’s harem. Yahweh had not forgotten his promises to his servant Abram (Gen 12:1-3). If God had not cursed Pharoah’s household with plagues, he may not have known anything was wrong. Pharoah did not harm Abram and sent him away with Sarai and all their goods. In mercy, God did not give Abram what his sin deserved. Despite all Abram’s wrongdoing, God worked all things together for his good and God’s glory. God never left Abram, but he did allow Abram’s sin to work itself out.
I’m sure Abram did not speak of his time in Egypt with pride. He probably lived all his life with pangs of regret and remorse—especially when he looked into the eyes of his wife, Serai, and saw those stupid animals which were a reminder of his ill-gotten lobola. But you will never find this failure mentioned in the New Testament, because God forgave Abram’s sins and kept no record of them. He chooses not to remember the faults of his repentant children, because He has judged our sin in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Despite Abram’s faithlessness, God remained faithful to his covenant with Abram. The book of Hebrews describes the covenant God has made with each and every sinner who puts our trust in Jesus:
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people…
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”(Heb 8:12).
Only Abram’s faith is remembered, not his failure. Like Abram, the only difference between our faith and failure is the grace of God. That’s encouraging but humbling also.
Father, help me to think of myself with sober judgment, knowing that even the measure of faith I have is a free gift of grace you have assigned to me (Rom 12:3). Lord, please sustain and strengthen my faith so it may stand the test of fear. Please help my unbelief! Help me to trust you during the furnace of testing so that my faith can grow deeper and stronger. Thank you for your grace, which is the only reason I am your child in the first place and the only reason my faith will endure to the end. Breathe your faithfulness into me, so that I may give you the glory in everything. Help me to fear you, rather than what circumstances and people can do to me.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.