The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church and expressed his fear that they might be drifting away from the simplicity of their faith in Christ. The same threat faces you, your church, and every Christian on a daily basis. If we allow human philosophy to muddy the waters of truth, nothing will be clear.
I once had a discussion with someone about faith. In our talk, it was stated that faith was too complicated to understand. Books on theology and Christian philosophy clouded the issue and made things seem too hard to grasp by anyone other than learned scholars. Once again, I pointed back to the simplicity of the gospel. The Bible says, “Abraham believed God, and his faith was accounted to him for righteousness.”
Faith = believing God.
Could it be any simpler than this? What was the evidence that Abraham believed God? When God commanded, Abraham believed the promise and then obeyed the command. I can’t say, “I believe God,” and then act in disobedience. If I truly believe, my life will show it. Disobedience is rooted in unbelief, but obedience is born from faith. Let’s look at an example.
Look back in history to the time of Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament. Esau was the firstborn son. In that culture, the firstborn received a double portion of the family inheritance and received the family blessing. What’s more, these were descendants of Abraham; therefore, the one who held the birthright was rightfully the carrier of the promise that would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ. As we read through the New Testament, we see that God’s promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his descendants was the promise of our redeemer – Jesus Christ.
Esau despised his birthright and willingly forfeited his right to the promise by trading it to Jacob for a pot of stew. He considered satisfying the cravings of his flesh as more valuable than the promise of God. For this reason, he sold his birthright to Jacob for food. When he rejected the promise given through his birthright as the firstborn son, God rejected Esau from the future blessing that carried the promises of God.
In the course of time, Jacob’s mother came up with a plan to obtain the blessing for her son. Jacob and Esau’s father was the son of Abraham, and God established him as a prophet. His blessing was the promise of God. Isaac planned to bless his firstborn, Esau. Knowing the end of his life was near, Isaac called Esau and sent him into the field to hunt for venison. He loved the venison stew Esau made, so the plan was to have a nice meal and then bless his son.
When Jacob’s mother heard the command, she prepared the stew for Isaac while Esau was gone, and sent Jacob into the room to be blessed. Isaac was nearly blind, so he was deceived into believing he was blessing Esau. When Esau returned, he discovered what Jacob had done, and made plans to murder Jacob. To avoid being killed by his brother, Jacob fled the country to live with a relative.
All this background has little direct application to faith, but it sets the stage for one of the best examples of faith in the Bible. God shaped Jacob’s life for twenty years, and then sent him back home knowing he would have to face his brother. Just before Jacob encountered his brother, God changed his name from Jacob to Israel.
As is often the case in the Old Testament, God embeds the gospel into the events of scripture. Jacob had once looked for blessings in the efforts of his own hands. He took what he wanted and hoped he could get enough. He supplanted – or chased after things, trying to take what he wanted. Life was fleeting away, and Jacob struggled to fulfill a desire that could not be fulfilled outside of God.
Previously, Jacob’s goal had been to get what he wanted and life was nothing more than grappling for things he hoped would make him happy. Then the time came when God redeemed him out of his old life, and gave him the promise. No longer was he called Jacob – which means ‘the supplanter’, but now he was called Israel – which means ‘God prevails’. No longer was he dependent upon his own efforts to find fulfillment, but now he would trust in God, who would prevail and cause him to inherit all that had been promised through is forefather, Abraham.
This is a picture of prevailing through the Christian life. Before coming to Christ, we grapple for satisfaction, and the only fulfillment we find is in what we take by the heel and claim for our own. As satisfaction eludes us, we keep wrestling against God and man, looking for the things we think will make us happy. History proves that the one who possesses the most is rarely happy or satisfied, yet because it’s the only way we know, we pursue life just as the rest of the world does. Then the Lord calls us out of that lifestyle, gives us His name, and we become inheritors of the promise.
Now, we too live by the promise that God prevails. Many Christians don’t understand this and still grapple for the world, but the truth is, the promise is ours and all we must do is trust in our God who prevails, and go where He leads.
When the nation of Israel turned from the promise and lived like supplanters, God always referred to them as ‘the house of Jacob’. Yet when blessing them or revealing the promise, God called the nation, ‘the house of Israel.’ We, like Israel, either walk in the failing world system and live like those pursuing something that can’t be obtained in the flesh, or we live like conquerors and walk in the promise of ‘God prevails.’ To walk in the promise, we have to step out of human effort and into faith.
This is the trial Jacob / Israel faced. God visited Jacob while he lived with his uncle and commanded him to go back to his homeland – the very place where his brother waited to take vengeance upon him. God said for him to return, and the Lord would be with him, bless him, and make him a great nation. It’s the call of faith. Go, and God will bless. Step out in faith, and trust in the promise.
Jacob arose, gathered his family and possessions together, and headed toward home. Not knowing how his brother would respond, Jacob sent a messenger ahead of him to greet his brother. The messenger returned and said, “Your brother gathered together four-hundred men and is coming this way toward you.”
That wasn’t a good thing to hear. Shouldn’t God have given him a sign of peace? No one arms four-hundred men and rushes to meet someone just to say, ‘hello’. Clearly, war was in Esau’s heart. Jacob had no army, no defense, and no plan of escape. The normal human reaction would be to turn around and run. No one would blame him if he did. This was the moment of truth.
The command of God was, “Go back to your home,” which was the Promised Land God gave to Abraham. The promise was, “I will be with you to bless and prosper you.” Circumstances seemed to testify against God’s promise, but Jacob chose to believe God over his human instinct.
Let me stop for a moment and point out an important truth. Fear and doubt aren’t necessarily a lack of faith. It’s often said that faith and fear can’t coexist, but this is not true. People are made to feel guilty because they feel fear when in danger or facing a circumstance that seems impossible. The truth is that faith is of the Spirit, and fear is of the flesh. The Bible tells us that the flesh and the Spirit of God are at war against each other. We’ll explore this in greater detail later on, but keep this truth in mind. Jacob didn’t pretend his fear did not exist. Nor did he try to muster up a false faith. He acknowledged his fear before God and prayed for the Lord to guide him.
Jacob divided his family into two groups so one could escape if the other was attacked, and then stopped and took in the dire situation that surrounded him. He had obeyed God, and instead of protection, he was now helpless as an army rushed toward him. He then approached God with a request, and a declaration of obedience. Look at Genesis 32:9-12
9 Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’:
10 “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.
11 “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children.
12 “For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’ “
What a wonderful example of prayer founded upon faith! The two companies were his wives and children. They were divided so they could not be attacked together.
Notice, he didn’t deny his fears, he confessed them. He didn’t bargain with God, he testified that he was acting in obedience. He didn’t say, “I obeyed; therefore, you owe me.” No, Jacob acknowledged that he was not worthy of any of God’s mercies. And then he claimed the promise that God gave him. God wants us to trust in His promises. And live by them.
Jacob did not put himself into this position, God did. It was to test Jacob’s faith so he would choose to either trust in God, or turn back to the perceived safety of the old life outside of God’s will.
It’s equally important that we understand the difference between acting in faith, and tempting God. The Bible forbids us to tempt God – or put God to the test. To put God to the test is to take it upon ourselves to put our lives or safety in a position where God must intervene to save us. God has the right to put Himself to the test so we must choose to trust His word or our fears, but we have no right to manipulate God by our will.
When the word commands us to obey and we must face persecution or suffering in order to obey, that is an act of faith. When we decide to place ourselves into harm’s way, that’s an act of the flesh. I can’t jump in front of a bus and pray, God save me. I can’t overspend and then give the last of my money to charity and say that God has to miraculously pay my bills. I’ve even seen people provoke persecution and then wonder why God allowed them to suffer. There is reward in obedience, but not in foolishness masquerading as faith.
In Jacob’s case, he crossed the river separating himself from his brother. He was afraid and was in fear for his life, but his prayer was, “You commanded me to do it. I’m afraid. I know I’m unworthy of your deliverance, but I stand upon your promises.”
Then a crazy idea struck Jacob. He made several bands of goats and sheep, then sent them in droves toward his brother. Messengers were sent with each band to tell Esau that these were a present from his servant Jacob.
In my mind’s eye, I picture Esau scoffing at the idea. “Does he think a worthless flock of sheep is going to stop my revenge?” Then he encountered another. And another. And another. At some point, Esau probably shook his head at the absurdity, and eventually it struck him as funny. By the time he reached Esau, his anger had been pushed aside and he could do nothing but greet his brother and ask about the droves of sheep he kept passing.
The method God uses isn’t relevant. What is relevant is God’s faithfulness. He commands our obedience, and then puts us into a position to either believe his promises, or believe our fears. Sometimes Esau comes into our lives as a sinful desire for what opposes God, or as a fear that calls us to flee from God. Neither are sin unless we choose them over believing God. Faith isn’t the absence of fear and doubt – faith overcomes fear and doubt. Faith is how we overcome. Look at 1 John 5:
4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.
Faith can’t be overcome; but it can be neglected. Even in fear, we have the power to believe God. We also have the power to disbelieve God and put our trust in fear.
There will be times when God will put you to the test, for it proves whether you are trusting in Him, or yourself, circumstances, or feelings.
Faith is not complicated, but it is something our lives must be built upon. There are many misconceptions of faith, so in the following section, we’ll dig deeper into what the Bible teaches about faith and how it applies to our individual lives.
Excerpt from Simple Faith: How every person can experience intimacy with God.