There’s something strangely comforting about the messy stories of God’s saints in Scripture. We might expect the heroes of the Bible to go from one episode of obedience to the next—successive faith victories on the path to eternal glory.
But that’s not what we find in the Bible. Take Abraham, for instance. In Genesis 12, God calls him to leave everything and follow. And Abraham does it. Victory! But the next few chapters show us a decidedly mixed picture. Abraham scoffs at God’s promise. He puts his wife Sarah in danger to save his own skin—twice. He has a kid with a servant instead of with his wife. And to top it off, he then gives Sarah the green light to beat and abuse that servant.
Not doing so well, Abe.
So why is all this comforting to me? Because my life has hardly been an unbroken string of successes since becoming a Christian. In fact, it seems like each epoch of my life has been marked by wavering faith. Abraham’s up-and-down obedience tells me that God can—and does—work through broken people like you and me.
But through all of Abraham’s disappointments and failures, God was doing something behind the scenes. And in his failures, we learn something about our journey of faith.
1. God grows our faith by testing it
Immediately after Abraham followed God, Genesis 12:10 tells us that a famine forced him to Egypt, a place that he was guaranteed to be frightened. This wasn’t an accident: God was testing—and trying to grow—Abraham’s faith.
Faith, you see, isn’t just a one-time decision we make to follow God. Faith works like a muscle: it only gets stronger as it’s strained. Exercise scientists explain that the way muscles grow is that when you exercise, you’re actually producing thousands of little tears in the muscle. But when your body recovers, it builds back muscle in those gaps, and the muscle gets bigger.
That’s how faith works. God puts us in situations that tear our faith, so that it can grow back stronger. I’ve seen this happen so often that I’m inclined to say it’s God’s standard practice. You come to Jesus, and pretty soon you’ll go through an experience that tests your faith. You lose your job. Your health takes a turn for the worse. People turn on you. And in those moments, God is asking, “Do you trust and value me more than these?”
Faith is the most important muscle in the Christian life, and God is committed to strengthening it. It’s not just how you “get saved.” It’s how you live every day as a follower of Christ. Everything in the Christian life grows in the soil of faith.
2. In testing our faith, God often brings us to the very brink
God could have given Abraham a son immediately after he promised it. But instead, for reasons Abraham wasn’t told, God made him wait 30 years before keeping his promise. Abe was already in his 70s when God had made the promise, so why wait so long to fulfill it?
Think of the muscle illustration again. Workout specialists often design workouts with a goal of “muscle failure.” Instead of doing a given number of reps, you lift the weight until your muscle literally can’t do it anymore. (These workout specialists, by the way, seem a bit too delighted to watch this process in us mere mortals.) The point is that to really grow a muscle, it has to be pushed to the very brink.
That’s what God does to your faith. He pushes it to the brink, because he’s more committed to growing your faith than you are.
Had God given Abraham a son immediately, that would’ve been cause called for rejoicing, but not for faith. Abraham had to feel his total helplessness in the face of his own sterility if he was ever to cast himself utterly upon the arms of divine promises. Apparently it took God decades to bring Abraham to this point. But he got there.
Perhaps God is pushing you to the brink right now. It’s not pleasant. It’s not comfortable. Nobody likes walking through the valleys, but it is there and there alone that God can show you his capacity to provide for you. He sends you into storms so that he can demonstrate his ability to walk on water. He surrounds you with conflict so that he can show you that he provides a table for you in the midst of your enemies.
We don’t endure these tests by sheer grit. None of us has the “inner toughness” to exercise faith on our own. The strength to endure trials when we’re pushed to the very brink only comes by reflecting on the One who was pushed past the brink—pushed into death and hell itself—on our behalf. Because Jesus was tested beyond what any of us will ever experience, we can follow him in every test that comes our way.