THE discipline which is necessary and suited to the life of faith is what we shall find pre-eminently exemplified in Abraham's history. Man, at Babel, had disclosed the secret purpose of his heart. He built a city and a tower, whose top was to reach to heaven. He said, " Let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth." He sought to accomplish it by his own works, and independently of God. God confounded him in his attempt, and the whole human family is made to feel that it is debarred from intelligent combination by the loss of a common medium of communication, so that man became estranged from his fellow-man; whatever might be his sense of common kindred his thoughts were checked or became incommunicable. When God had thus confounded the independence of man, He, ever true to the purpose of His love, as soon as the evil is checked, unfolds (and by a man too) how that desire which man had aimed at, in independence of God, can be attained in a supreme degree of dependence on God. And this, I may remark in passing, is always His way with us; we feel our need, and attempt to supply it by our own means; the Lord must confound us in the attempt ; but having done so, He leads our souls to find and acquire an inconceivably greater answer to our wishes than even that which we had described for ourselves. The prodigal only sought " sustenance " from the citizen in the " far country," but in his father's house he found not bread merely, but abounding welcome and a fatted calf.
But to resume. The confusion of tongues being a fact, God now enters the scene and calls out from it a man even Abram-to be the witness of faith and of dependence on Him, and to look, not for a " Babel," but " for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." And we are graciously given the history of this witness and servant of God, in order to instruct us as to what our nature is in its action under the call of God, and how God deals with it under its many phases of self-will and independence ; how He corrects, subdues and leads it into His own ways, which is for our blessing.
The word of God to Abram is, " Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land which I will shew thee," and the word becomes the discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. We never know the real intent of our own wills until we demand them to submit implicitly to the expressed will of God, which His word unfolds. We may not see any very great divergence in our course from the mind of God until we measure it with the exact requirements of the word of God; and mark, not the requirements of a part of that word, but the whole of it. In fulfilling it partially we alter or qualify His mind as revealed; in departing from the spirit of it we lose the instruction; but it is in adopting it, and adhering to it as a whole, that the soul is delivered from self-will, and led into the blessing which its instruction proposes. But then it is here that comes in all the trial and exercise, for exercise and conflict there must be, from the continual effort of the natural mind to evade or qualify the word of God, and the inflexibility of God's purpose (because of His love) to confine us strictly to His own mind. And this conflict necessitates discipline, and thus explains incidents in our history which would otherwise be inexplicable to us. The call of Abraham was clear and definite. It required him to relinquish locality and all kindred associations, and to enter on a scene prepared of God. The accuracy of his obedience tests the measure of his strength; he begins to obey the call; he went forth from Ur of the Chaldees to go into the land of Canaan; he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt at Charran. He received the word and undertook to obey it, and yet we find he did so imperfectly ; he only relinquished his country, and not his kindred associations! he remained at Charran till his father was dead. Nature had come in to check full obedience to the call of God, and this is a great warning to us. We approve of, and adopt the call, but it is only as we walk in accordance with it that we discover the demands it makes on our nature. Nothing so proves our want of true energy as inability to accomplish what we readily undertake. How many enter on the life of faith eagerly and cheerfully who find ere long that they cannot " let the dead bury their dead," and though they are ready in heart to seek " another country," they are detained and turned aside by some link to nature. Nothing is so difficult to man as to relinquish the ties of nature without compensation, because such relinquishment must produce isolation, unless he has found some other absolute association; and this is just what the Lord proposed when He added, " Follow thou me." But if a relinquishment of these ties be an isolation from the nearest communication with natural existence, so must the maintenance of them be the maintenance of the most direct avenues to the human heart, and hence it is written, a " man's foes shall be they of his own household." There is no escaping nature outside grace. When Barnabas chose his kinsman Mark, he also chose Cyprus, his native country. His failure was not only in nature, but unto nature.
Abram, then, failed at first in performing the second part of God's call ; he did not leave his " father's house," and consequently is detained till his father is dead. This is the first stage in the life of faith, and though he entered on it readily and heartily, as it is written, " he went out, not knowing whither he went," he found that he could not perform it until death had severed the bond which still attached or connected him with nature. Faith is dependence on God, and independence of everything human to sustain it. The path proposed to Abram accordingly demanded the distinctest expression of dependence on God alone. It could not be without sacrifice, neither was it meant to be, and besides the exercises which his own heart must have passed through in treading this path of faith, he is taught that death must practically sever the tie which detains him on his way. The first stage is not traversed without the heart tasting of sorrow through death, but death which brings its own deliverance. If Abram had not been detained by his father, but had pursued the unknown path without halting till he reached the place to which God had called him he would have escaped the sorrow which death entailed ; but having allowed himself to be detained, nothing could relieve him but death; and therefore under that discipline he passes. Thus it is in mercy with many of us ; our dependence on God is not simple and distinct ; we halt in the path of faith, and are detained by some link to nature until it dies, for die it must, if we are to pursue our course with God, unless we die to it.
Death, then, having dissolved Abram's tie to nature and freed him from it, he must renew his course, disciplined, no doubt, by that which had removed the weight which impeded him: a discipline which he might have escaped had he walked in more energy of faith, but by which he was nevertheless a learner; and how wholesome the lesson-that faith does not sway the natural desire in the recesses of the heart, that, though the blessings be great, if it submits to the dictation of God without exposure, yet it rarely does, and even if it does for a while, will ever be contending for an open expression of itself ; and, if openly acting, it must be openly subdued. If I allow my natural will to lead me, and thus turn me aside from the path of faith which is God's line, I must, when God in His mercy restores me to the right line, know in myself the setting aside of my will. This is self-mortification, and this is discipline.
To young believers, to all, it is important how we undertake and accomplish this first stage of the life of faith : failure and vacillation here may entail sorrow and indecision throughout our course, for we never diverge from the path of faith without picking up " a thorn " from that nature which we are called to repudiate. It will be either nature mortified, or nature exhausted, or nature bereaved : and though we may be freed, as was Abram, by the death of his father, the failure though amended may not be eradicated in its effect, and if so, the discipline which it demanded must be continued. Lot went with Abram, but not only was he ever a trial to him personally, but his descendants were the greatest scourge to Abram's descendants ; and their malignant enticements at the instigation of Balaam are set down in Scripture as a type of the worst machinations against the church of God; Rev. 2: 13. Wherever we fail once, like a horse that stumbles, we are likely to fail again, consequently there must be, through God's care of us, a continual reminder to warn us of our tendency, though grace, when acting in us, always is most seen when most wanted.
Abram now enters on the second stage of the life of faith--a stranger in a strange land, depending on God, and he builds an altar; for the strangership into which faith leads us fixes our souls on God, and worship follows. But when the consequences or circumstances of our strangership occupy us, we lose the rest which faith supplies, and seek relief elsewhere. Thus Abram, when he found that there was a famine in the land, turned aside from the path of faith on which he had entered, and went down into Egypt.
How humbling it is to find how vacillating we are in that path, and however happily and firmly we seem to be walking in it, how needful to say " Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall " 1 Although Abram is graciously restored to the path from which he had departed, and even returns to the place where he had the altar at the beginning, we find that the thorns which he picked up in his wanderings pierce him in his restoration. The cattle, the gains of Egypt, provoke a collision between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot; but restoration always advances us in moral power, for true restoration sets us above that from which we are restored; and now truly restored, he looks not to consequences, but, depending on God, maintains the path of faith in high moral power. My first difficulty in a walk of faith is to get clear of nature, place and kindred, and, being delivered therefrom, and in felt strangership, my next is the tendency to advance, or exalt myself, or to find rest in this new position, even as an emigrant in a wild and distant land seeks to make a home for himself as speedily as possible. This desire to advance, so strong a passion in the human soul, and the moving principle of all the great efforts of Babylon, may be designated ambition, but must be overcome by the man of faith, as God's witness in this evil world. Thus Abram's ambition is now tested; but discipline has done its work, and his restoration is complete. Does he seek any acknowledgment or advancement in this new country? No! he is walking by faith, and resigns all present superiority to Lot, who, gratifying his ambition, chooses the well-watered plain, while Abram is blessed with a fuller revelation as a reward for his faith. But even this is not to be enjoyed without suffering, for the moment I am on the path with Christ, I am on the path of one sent of God to minister to His people down here ; and Abram, the dependent man, pursuing his unseen and separate path, has now to come forward and render the very service which Christ fulfilled, and rescue his brother Lot, who, on the contrary, had gratified the ambition of his nature by mixing himself with the course of this world, and had been consequently embroiled in its sorrows. And if, in the dangers and exercises of this service, Abram was made to feel what he had to suffer from this natural tie which he had brought from Ur of the Chaldees, his soul was at the same time confirmed in the path of dependence on God, and as his faith had on the former occasion been rewarded by a fuller revelation of the promised inheritance, his conflict and service are now rewarded by the refreshment and blessing of Melchisedec in the name of the Lord God, possessor of heaven and earth, surely more than enough to compensate for the renouncement of the ambition of mere nature!
Here let me add, that though we separate from home and kindred, and still further take heavenly standing, yet if the tendencies of our nature be unsubdued, and we seek in any wise to distinguish or advance ourselves in our new position, we shall be as Lot; while, on the other hand, though we may - often need discipline and be taught to renew our course after failure, yet, if we really seek to maintain the path of dependence and separation, our faith will be strengthened by increased revelations, and our service will be invigorated by association with Him who is our Forerunner within the veil, " even Jesus, an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec."
We now enter on the third stage of Abram's history in the path of faith, and one in which he is brought under an entirely new line of instruction, even in the exercise of his affections. The ambition of his nature has been tested before; now his affections are to be put under discipline and this is brought about in the first instance by the promise of a son, which is the subject of chapter 15. Let me say, in passing, that in tracing the history of this servant of God, I confine myself to the one subject, even discipline. I pass over many episodes on which others have dwelt largely, such as his communion with God, intercession, etc., most interesting as it all is, but which has already been entered into fully.
It appears to me that the true state of Abram's heart is exposed in his reply to God's most gracious appeal to him in the commencement of this chapter. True, it was quite right for him to wish for a son; it was a wish responding to the counsels of God respecting him, and the lack of which would not have been according to the mind of God. But still his reply, " What wilt thou give me? " does not rise to the elevation in which God sought to establish him, even in perfect contentment and satisfaction with Himself, for what could He " give " him greater than the assurance of being Himself his " exceeding great reward "? Nevertheless, God in His grace meets him on his own level and promises that which He had before counselled to give; but a long course of discipline lies between him and the fulfilment of the promise, and as Abraham must learn in his own home a preparation for that trial to his affections which awaited him so many years afterwards, and which it was necessary for him to pass through in order to perfect him in the life of faith. It was not at all that he undervalued the fulness and nearness in which God had revealed Himself to him, but he disclosed the secret feebleness of the human soul to rest in God apart from any human link. God knows this, and offers graciously to supply it ; but if He promises and gives Isaac, Abraham must hold him from God.
Abraham believed God, but his heart needed preparation and discipline, as we see by the impatience of nature which he evinces while waiting for the fulfilment of the promise, and this he is subjected to in his own private circle. Perhaps there is no greater cause of delay to the accomplishment of what God purposes to confer on us than the natural mind (if I may say so) getting a hint of it; for as it is a point with Satan to spoil what he cannot defeat, so is it with the willfulness of our nature which would fain adopt and accomplish what originated entirely outside itself and with God; just as Eve, interpreting a spiritual truth by a natural mind, takes Cain for the promised seed. It does not and cannot enter the heart of man the extent and nature of what God prepares for them that love Him. An Ishmael was Abraham's measure, an Isaac was God's. In the meantime Abraham must learn, through contention, strife and sorrow what is the fruit of his impatience, and in the end he must do what was very " grievous in his sight," even to banish his son. Thus our inventions do but postpone our real blessings, for it is necessary that we should see the end of them. It must have been a period of nearly twenty years from the time of the promise to the birth of Isaac, and many were the exercises he had to pass through during that time, as well as many and great communications made to him by the Lord.
We are now come to the fourth stage of Abraham's path of discipline; chapter 21. His cup seems to be full - Isaac is given-the bondwoman and her son cast out-the Gentile powers typified by Abimelech come forward to acknowledge that God is with him in all that he does, and he plants a grove and he calls on the name of the everlasting God. But more discipline was necessary to ensure to his soul that the filling of that cup was entirely from God, that He could fill, empty, and fill it again, and that He alone was the filler of it. Abraham had given up expectation from the world--can he now surrender the object of his affections and hopes? and not only so, but will he be the actual perpetrator of the wrench himself? It was " very grievous in his sight " to cast out Ishmael; what must it be now to hear the word, " Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah ; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of ! " The surrender is not like Jephthah's, namely, of his own proposing, but is distinctly required of him by God; and required not only that he should assent to it, but that he should execute it himself! Abraham obeys. He treads the path of dependence on God, high and elevated, above every influence either of ambition or affection. But what discipline! what denial of long-cherished hopes and affections! The object to be surrendered was not like Jonah's gourd, which grew up in a night and withered in a night, but the fruit of many years of patience, trial and interest, and now he was to be himself the agent in dashing the full cup from his lips. Where was nature?-where its demand? Was he, like Jephthah, " very low " that day; or, like Jonah, " very angry "? No! the man of faith, in that moment terrible to nature, rose up early in the morn and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt-offering, and went to the place of which God had told him. What a continuance of calmness and dignity does faith impart! There was nothing sudden or hurried here: the period for reflection was lengthened, for after the third day the place was still " afar off." Who can traverse in the spirit of his mind such exercises as those in a soul which faith held true in obedience to the word of God and not wonder at the transcendent vigour which that faith confers? The surrender is complete! Abraham with his own hand takes the knife to slay his son, but he reckons on God, " accounting that he was able to raise him up, even from the dead." Dependence on God has triumphed over the demands of nature, and now follows the reward. " The ram caught in the thicket "--Christ, the true burnt-offering, who places us in an excellency before God, which none of our own offerings ever could He is the compensation to us after all surrender, and also the true, real, entire satisfaction of our hearts. And thus the place is called Jehovah-jireh ; it is the " mount of the Lord," because here the Lord provides what fully meets our need, and in addition, there also Abraham receives the largest and fullest revelation of blessing ever communicated to him. Nature was so silenced, and dependence on God so true and practical that the Lord can unfold to him the deepest counsels of His love. He was so perfect and full grown that he has an ear to hear, and a heart to understand wisdom. God's discipline had effected all this; and this, according to the measure of His grace, is what He is leading each of us into. May we indeed have grace and wisdom to discern the path of faith, and so abide in it that our walk may be to the praise and glory of Him, who, in all His education of our souls, seeks our blessing and our joy.