July 14, 2014

Heart and Soul: Devotional

I’ve been reading the well-rehearsed interaction between God and Abraham in Genesis 18 from the diplomat’s perspective.

At the age of 99, Abraham, perhaps still recovering from circumcision, sits outside his tent one sunny day on the plains of Mamre. He suddenly realizes three men are standing nearby. Two are angels. The third is the preincarnate God the Son.

In keeping with custom, Sarah is soon baking bread while Abraham chooses a good and tender calf to prepare a proper dish for his visitors.

The visitors gratefully and graciously consume the meal. They tell Abraham and Sarah when the couple’s promised son will be born. Then the angels leave on a mission of justice to Sodom, about 40 miles away.

Diplomatic Intervention

The Lord stays behind. He tells Abraham He’s conducting an investigative judgment and may have to destroy Sodom. So Sodom is in trouble, and Abraham is in distress.

Lot his nephew, and his family with him, live amidst the bright sinfulness of Sodom. Against this background, and because he knows the heart of his God (they are close friends—James 2:23), Abraham recognizes and accepts God’s invitation to “reason together.” They don their diplomatic hats, and negotiations begin.

Abraham’s opening gambit is a strong response to the inside information he has just received: “Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous? Far be it from You to do such a thing. . . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:24, 25).* Notice that he does not say ‘if half of the thousands living there are righteous, then save everybody.’ He just gives a number—50!

I can see him counting fingers and toes, figuring out that with Lot and his wife, their children and the in-laws and out-laws, plus a few others, maybe that would be 50. Doable. But would God accept those terms?

Yes, He does. According to verse 26, God says, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.”

Perhaps God is thinking that He could shake up the place with a 7.0 earthquake or a nasty windstorm. Then the 50 righteous ones would use their influence to help bring the others to their senses. Or, more credibly, God already knows that there are not 50 righteous people in Sodom.

Raising the Stakes

Meanwhile, on the other side of the negotiating table, Abraham is second-guessing himself. This happens a lot in negotiations. You ask for something; you get it. Then you wonder if you should have sought a better deal.

What, asks Abraham, if “there were five less than the fifty righteous?” Again God proves Himself an accommodating negotiating partner: “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it” (verse 28).

Abraham continues to occupy the negotiating table: “Suppose there should be forty found there,” he thinks aloud. Again God says, in effect, “I can work with that.” Or as the New King James Version puts it: “So He said, ‘I will not do it for the sake of forty’ ” (verse 29).

This is where negotiators perspire, even in air-conditioned rooms. In the open on that day of desert sun, Abraham must be sweating cupfuls.

The more successful he is in his negotiation, the more he must be thinking: Clearly there are things the Lord knows that I don’t. It’s hard enough negotiating with fellow humans. Imagine having to read the thoughts of a negotiating partner who is “past finding out” (Job 9:10; Rom. 11:33).

Still, Abraham bargains God all the way down to 10. And God assures Father Abraham, “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten” (Gen. 18:32).

Sequel to Negotiations

The Lord leaves. Abraham reenters his tent. Negotiations are over. Despite God’s generosity, Abraham knows he has lost. As the midday sun contemplates its westward descent in Mamre, he knows it will soon set, literally and figuratively, on Sodom and the surrounding cities.

As we reflect on this case study on negotiations between a man and his God, we just know that he should have gone further; that God would have said yes if Abraham had bargained Him down to one righteous person.

Why? Because “the Lord is . . . not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The God who negotiated with his friend Abraham under the sweltering sun in Mamre was a “not willing” kind of God.

Around sunset the two angels reach Sodom. Sadly, they cannot save Sodom’s people.

The men of Sodom, young and old, are beating down Lot’s door, determined to humiliate his two male visitors. They do not know, and likely would neither understand nor care, that the men are angels.

To create space to extricate Lot, his wife, and the two daughters still living with them, the angels have to strike those men blind. Still, they try clawing their way to Lot’s door.

Concluding Reflections

In the end the angels could not even save Mrs. Lot. She looked back on the city she loved too much, and became a pillar of salt.

None escaped that day on the basis of their righteousness. The scriptural testimony could hardly be more bald: a faithless Lot had just offered the marauding men of Sodom uninhibited access to his two virgin daughters in exchange for safe passage for his two male guests. Once outside Sodom, the women returned the favor to avoid, so they said, the frustration of expired biological clocks. They accomplished their self-justifying incest with drunkenness.

Nothing but the mercies of a gracious God and the intercession of a faithful and compassionate friend stood between the three and their destruction: as Genesis 19:29 says, “God remembered Abraham.” The goodness of a good God and His care for the feelings of His friend were together enough to preserve the lives of Lot and his daughters on the day of Sodom’s destruction.

The God who traded negotiating positions with His friend under Mamre’s noonday sun was, and still is, an unwilling God. He was unwilling that any of the unquestionably and incorrigibly wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah should perish. He did all He could to save them. Those He did save were hauled out bearing the markings of their flawed society. But Abraham’s prayers made a difference, and confirmed the unwillingness in the heart of an unwilling God.

Sodom and Me

Sodom may have been destroyed millennia ago. But God is still unwilling to destroy sinners today, and is still responding to the intercession of His faithful friends. When my mother went to her rest after spending years on her knees and shedding buckets of tears, only two of the 13 children she had introduced to the Lord remained faithful. I wasn’t even one of those two.

But God, unwilling that I should perish, visited me in the valley of dry bones where I had made my spiritual home, to remind me, in the words of Ronald Michael Payne and Ronald Hinson, that “when He was on the cross, I was on His mind.” He willed for my dry bones to live (see Eze. 37).

I believe that when my mother awakes to God’s glorious call, she will find most of her children among the saved. By His grace I shall be one who will be there to attest to the value of human intercession that appeals to the heart of an unwilling God.

I love it that God is unwilling. It gives me good reasons to serve Him. What about you? Can you think of a few of your own?

* Texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.