God’s Restraining Grace

“Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.  But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, ‘Behold you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.’  Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, will you slay a nation, even though blameless?  Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”?  And she herself said, “He is my brother.”  In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.’  Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her'” (Gen 20.2-6).

Though credited with righteousness for his great faith, Abraham did not always live up to the hype.  He was frankly a sneaky man with a trophy wife (Gen 12.11).  Having received the promise of a great heritage despite Sarah’s infertility (Gen 12.1-3), Abraham meandered down to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.  He knew that Pharaoh would take a shine to (then) Sarai because men always did.  And what Pharaoh wanted Pharaoh got.  So, Abraham was resigned that he would lose his wife to Pharaoh.  However, if he could convince Pharaoh she was his sister then he could at least save his own head (Gen 12.12).  He sold out his wife to Pharaoh’s harem “so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen 12.13).  Mighty Abraham and his great faith didn’t believe God would keep him alive.  He thought he would live on account of “Sister” Sarai rather than Yahweh.

God proved himself able to manage Abraham’s well-being all the same.  He plagued Pharaoh’s house until he returned Sarai to her rightful place (Gen 12.17-20).  God has a habit of punishing those who try to own what is given only to his people (cf. Exod 7-12; 1 Sam 4-5).  Oh, to be a fly on Abraham’s donkey on that long journey back to Bethel (Gen 13)!  “So, honey, how was your stay at Pharaoh’s place?  Were the other gals in the harem nice?  You know I did what I did for us.”

Abraham hauls his estate into Gerar, where he was sure King Abimelech would take a shine to (now) Sarah (Gen 20).  By this time, Abraham had received further revelation that he would have a son by Sarah (Gen 17-18).  Therefore, he could not die until he and Sarah had a son together.  Nevertheless, Abraham invoked Operation She’s-My-Sister again (something that v13 indicates was a regular scheme).  Abimelech fell for it and Abraham slept alone; alive, but alone.

God did not visit Abimelech via plagues this time but a fearful dream.  Return Sarah or else you’re a dead man.  (Oh, how we need men in churches who will declare the same to one another who flirt with disastrous sin!)  Abimelech pled ignorance.  He did, of course, take her on good faith she was Abraham’s sister and there was not DNA test available.  God conceded the point but didn’t let Abimelech assume he was taking the high road.  The only reason Abimelech didn’t touch Sarah was because God restrained him.

Even when Abraham’s scheme was uncovered he still tried to weasel his way out of a loophole.  Instead of owning up to and repenting from his selfish deception, he admitted that Sarah was actually his half-sister and was therefore not technically lying (Gen 20.12-13).  Uh-huh.  And Abraham even had the gall to justify his deception by assuming there was no fear of God in Gerar (v11) and therefore no decorum or respect for a wife’s husband.  Doesn’t sound like there was much fear of God in Abraham!  Abimelech was the one who feared God enough to make it right.

Yet, God struck all Abimelech’s women barren for his “innocent” treachery until Abraham prayed for God’s mercy (vv17-18).  Seems like just the opposite would’ve been more just.  Yet, God will have his man often despite that man!  He is carrying out a sovereign plan that goes through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, no matter what.  Thankfully, come Genesis 22 Abraham would not try to weasel out of any more impossible situations but would trust God to make good on his promise.

But enough about rascally Abraham.

What would we do were it not for God restraining our sin?  Were God to visit us in our dreams, every night he could say, “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”  How can we deny that God often “overrules” our free will to restrain us from doing what we freely want to do?  Abimelech took Sarah because he wanted to have sex with her, but he didn’t.  Was it because Abimelech was an upstanding citizen who wanted only to protect Sarah?  No!  God orchestrated whatever means in order to keep her from touching her.  In so doing, he protected the one-flesh union with Abraham (though Abraham hadn’t!) and the promise of her first son being the promised son.

We should readily confess our sin and thank God for his forgiveness freely given in Christ to all those who believe.  But, oh, how must we thank him for keeping us from sinning against him!  Let us not assume that we avoided sin because we’re that strong or spiritually-minded.  We sin because we want to and we would sin far more were it not for God’s restraining grace.  So listen to your dreams tonight to see if God says:

  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I disconnected your modem before you could click on that blinking site.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I ordained that last-minute phone call so that you did not hear what was said about you in the breakroom.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I had you shop in the same aisle as your enemy so that you would be forced to consider love and make peace.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I delayed your tax refund so that you would not blow it on a silly gadget that was only on sale this week.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I afflicted your daughter with an illness so that you would not assume you could live prayerlessly.”
  • “I also kept you from sinning against me; therefore I zapped your satellite so you wouldn’t be tempted to stay home from another Sunday gathering.”

We glory in what Abraham teaches us about justifying faith.  Let us not forget Abimelech, who is a case study in God’s restraining grace.  Sweet dreams.

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