What is faith? What is a miracle? And how are the themes of promise, time, and ambiguity related to all of that?
Has God truly been speaking with us? Is Reality personal? Christians believe God speaks to them and walks with them, but what we’ve explored so far still remains open to the question on whether this is merely one possible way to relate to reality, a subjective way to perceive what reality unfolds in our lives. It is only with the narratives of God’s promise and its fulfillment repeated throughout the Bible that the belief in the truly personal reality of God is established in Christianity. It is in this context, that miracles have any meaning in Christianity.
Thus, the narrative of God making a promise with people and how that promise unfolds is central to Christian account of humanity’s relationship with God. And that is the life-story of Abraham and Sarah.
This leads to the related question of faith. Faith has a dimension those of us today seldom notice, yet is probably the most important: time. Because promise implies waiting, and waiting implies time.
2:03 Ambiguity, not absence, of God that confronts us
9:40 God breaks through the ambiguity with a Promise to Abraham
16:48 What is a miracle? How people today misunderstand
24:28 Faith and personal trust
29:43 Why Time is essential to Miracles and Faith
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[ pendulum - long ]
Time erodes things.
The memories of what once moved us, and the passion that once beat in our hearts, fade with age. Our childhood innocence, our youthful dreams and goals, that vigor and strength in the prime of our lives—they erode with the march of time.
So, what still moves us to take another step? [ pendulum stops ]
Christians call Abraham the father of faith, because in the Bible, his life-story marks the start of the journey that would span thousands of years and countless generations after him, through which a people comes to know God in a personal way, step by step.
But, what is faith?
Is it about not having doubts? Or is it, as those who criticize religion claim, believing something without evidence? But, neither really describes faith as it is presented in the Bible. Because from Abraham and Sarah to the disciples of Jesus, the Bible recounts a multitude of life-stories that describe people who often had doubts, and finally believed when things unfolded before their eyes that they just could not dismiss.
There is a key dimension of faith many of us today usually miss. Faith… is about a promise; and promise requires waiting; and waiting implies the passage of time.
[ music / ]
So, let’s return to the story of Abraham and his family in this episode of…
"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our eighth episode of the third season, “Faith in ambiguity – Promise and Time.”
[ / music ]
There is a profound ambiguity to everything we’ve considered so far during this series regarding the belief in God. Many of us think the question that confronts us regarding this belief is the seeming absence of God—God seems nowhere to be found in our world today. But, what this series has been implying is that it is not the absence that confronts us, but the ambiguity. What Christianity has meant by the word, “God,” and in fact, what other developed theistic worldviews also mean, is something like “Reality”  “God” is: reality that is immediately all around us and encompasses everything real and every possibility. And we are always engaged with reality. So, it is not absence, but ambiguity that is confronting us is: is reality we are engaged with a What, or a Who?
On the one hand, Reality is like a speech. A set of principles governs or defines the entire cosmos, from its beginning to the end, and our speech can describe it. Reality also unfolds like a story; every time we try to describe it, we end up with stories—with history; or, as the poet, Muriel Rukeyser put it, “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” And in this sense, Reality seems to be a Who, speaking forth the cosmos, and unfolding its infinitely complex and varied story, rather like an author. Yet, on the other hand, this infinite story often unfolds in ways that seem indifferent to our lives and our hopes; the speech that brings forth and governs the cosmos is also seemingly an impersonal set of laws and principles. In this sense, reality seems to be a What.
And the ambiguity that confronts us in all this becomes even more pronounced when we remember that for Christianity, all of reality is God speaking, and that includes not only its personal aspects, but all its impersonal aspects. So, according to this Christian understanding of God, the seemingly impersonal laws that govern the cosmos, or how events in our lives unfold in ways that seem indifferent to our wants or needs, is God speaking forth all things in an impersonal—or more properly, impartial—way.
Then, there is how humanity has experienced and engaged with reality. Throughout our history, something has spoken to us—or so many of us believe—which we’ve regarded as the voice of God. It may have spoken in a vision or a dream, or may have come to us as an insight, or an inspiration, or an urging from our conscience, or a deeply moving life event. And this voice has spoken into our hearts with a force that changed who we are and moved us to action. And this voice, at least in biblical accounts, manifests a particular personality; it is truthful and good; it presents before us the most meaningful and profound truth we can reach, given where we are then. And the truth it has spoken the most is that we flourish together when we are loving, truthful, and just—and that love is what makes living bearable and even worthwhile. When we hear this voice, it seems like Reality as a whole does speak to us as a kind of Person that guides us.
However, not every voice we think we hear leads us to truth. And our individual lives can at times turn out badly when we are loving, truthful, and just, even if that is what can lead humanity to flourish together. More to the point, even if people have heard what they believe is the voice of God, perhaps this is just one possible way humanity subjectively experiences reality in their minds? So, we are again confronted with this question. Is reality a Who that truly speak with us? Or, is reality an impersonal and indifferent what, that we engage with as if it is some Person that speaks to us?
So, say, you sense a call from God to lead a movement to abolish the slave trade—this is what happened to the 18th century British abolitionist, William Wilberforce—and you followed the call of this voice. But, what enabled your movement to successfully abolish the slave trade were mundane historical events—existing social factors, such as the changing public opinion, or happenstances like a timely support of key political figures; there was no clear outside hand beyond these things that brought all this about. If so, were you truly called by God? Again, we are faced with that ambiguity. For Christianity, everything that happens, both the extraordinary and the mundane, is equally what God speaks forth and unfolds. So, was it God that spoke to you to abolish the slave trade, and then unfolded the seemingly mundane events in your life, rather like how an author unfolds their story? Or, was your sense of God’s calling, just your mind’s way of facing your deeply held moral responsibility, which eventually led you to end the slave trade?
The question we are confronted with regarding God is not that God is “absent.” God that speaks to us is the very reality we are engaged with, but, there is an ambiguity to this Reality that confronts us. Is the One we speak with, really is speaking to us?
And it is this ambiguity that leads to the question of faith and its relation to reason. Too many of us today have heard the claim that “faith” is about believing something without reason—that is, without evidence. But, that has never been what faith is for Christianity; philosophical reasoning and argumentation, for example, has played a significant role in the Christian belief in God throughout its entire history. But, this misunderstanding likely came about because of this ambiguity to God. There are reasons to think that Reality is a Who that speaks to us, and not a mere what. But, there are reasons to think Reality is a What. Confronted with this ambiguity, Christians continued the rest by faith.
Yet, even that isn’t a very good understanding of what faith is. It describes only one aspect. Because the Christian account of our relationship with God does not end with this sense of ambiguity. Sometimes, God breaks through. Sometimes, there is clarity in what God speaks forth and unfolds in our lives, and the questions that we have been asking earlier lose their force. But, only sometimes. And it is from here that we are led toward the deeper biblical account of what faith is.
[ pendulum ]
There is a point in the life story of Abraham and Sarah where God breaks though. And it happens in the narrative we covered in our previous episode, where God commands Abram to circumcise all the male members of his household, and his male descendants. In that conversation, God again confirms the promise He made to Abram that he will have descendants who will form a nation in some distant future.
And it is here that God presents Abram with the name, “Abraham,” and his wife, Sarai with the name, “Sarah.” Abram meant “exalted father,” but God says he is now to be called “Abraham,” which means “father of multitudes.” Sarai meant, “princess,” but now she is to be called, “Sarah,” because she will be a “mother of nations.” God then speaks, “I will bless Sarah, so that I will give you a son through her.” However, Abram laughs to himself in disbelief, and thinks, “Will I have a son when I am nearly a hundred years old, and my wife bear a child when she’s nearly ninety?” Now, as an aside, some of you may recall how hard it can be to figure out what numbers presented in Genesis means. What do the “days” mean in the Genesis creation account? What do the centuries-long lifespan of the individuals in Genesis genealogy mean? But, at the very least, the story makes it clear what the age of Abram and Sarai here means, even if some of us may have questions about the exact numbers. Sarai is long past child bearing age—and even when she was younger, she was unable to bear children.
So, what God speaks to Abram—now Abraham—that Sarah will become a mother, that she will have her own child, is something far beyond what he, or anyone, can believe. Even with the voice of God speaking to him, Abraham is incredulous. He is not merely doubtful; he does not even ask God whether what God promises will truly happen, as he did when he conversed with God after that meeting with Melchizedek. He simply laughs. And it is laughter of someone who has ceased to believe long ago. He has long since given up hope that the wound he felt then is now merely an itchy scar, so that he laughs about it. “Oh, if only Ishmael might live under your blessing,” Abraham replies.
“Yes, I have heard you,” God responds, “And I will surely bless Ishmael; I will make him great and fruitful, and he too will become a great nation. But…,” God speaks again, “Your wife, Sarah, will bear you a son by this time next year, and you will call him, Isaac. And the promise I established with you will continue with Sarah’s son, Isaac.”
God’s response to Abraham is an important example where two different kinds of things that God brings forth for His people, are presented side by side. Abraham already had a son. Hagar, the servant girl of Sarah, who was able to bear children, bore him that son, and he was named Ishmael. Ishmael was born through mundane means, and he will grow up to lead a tribe of his own, and will become an ancestor of a multitude of people. And all of this is what God brings about. But, Abraham will have another son, Isaac. His mother though will be Sarah, who was unable to bear children when she was younger, and any rate, is now long past the age when she can have children. And Isaac will also be the ancestor of a nation. This is also what God will bring about. Reality unfolds both things; both are what God speaks forth and brings about—the live of Ishmael and Isaac—that is what God quite explicitly says to Abraham. However, Ishmael and his future is something Abraham could believe, but the birth of Isaac is not. In fact, he could not even imagine it—until God declared that Sarah would have a son of her own, it didn’t even occur to Abraham as a remote possibility.
Abraham can imagine Ishmael being blessed by God, to have children of his own, and become an ancestor of many people—it is something that seems to at least be possible, even if fraught with challenges. However, Sarah bearing him a son after all these years is something Abraham cannot imagine. It’s something both Abraham and Sarah gave up on, long ago, which is why they had Hagar bear Abraham a son instead. But, that is what God says it will happen—what God will bring about.
What is the significance of this promise then? Consider the question of ambiguity we have been confronted with. Is Reality a Who that truly speaks to you, or is reality the impersonal What that you speak with as if it is a Person? The voice of God that has led Abraham to the land he resides now—was that voice truly speaking to him as a Person, or was that voice a subjective way Abraham experienced reality? Now, note the exact wording I’m using; I’m not asking if this voice is just something that Abram’s mind made up. There is something real about this voice; after all, it was this voice of God that led Abram to make a prosperous life for himself and his household, enabled him to raid an army to rescue his nephew’s family, and gave him hope that he will have descendants of his own, so that now he does have a son, Ishmael. It was by hearing this voice that Abraham faced everything around him and engaged more fully with his life. So, the question is not asking whether the voice is real; rather, it is asking, what if this voice is a way Abraham’s mind perceives something that is real—namely, all the possibilities that reality holds for his life? What if that is what God is? What if God we’re hearing from is not a Who, but a What—the impersonal Reality, from which we draw every truth we can come to know, by imagining it as a Person?
But, when God speaks to Abraham and declares that Sarah would bear him a son—it drastically undercuts that possibility. What the voice says is something far beyond what he can imagine. When God speaks to him regarding Sarah, Abraham is not “peering” into some possibility that reality holds for him; rather, a seeming impossibility is being thrust upon him. He is neither inspired nor moved; he is incredulous and cannot help but laugh. What the voice of God speaks and what Abraham is capable of believing is set against each other. It is here that the veil of ambiguity that confronted us lifts.
God breaks through the ambiguity, by promising Abraham a miracle.
[ Short pendulum ]
The physicist, Stephen Hawking, often argued that there is no need to believe that God created the world, because the universe came to exist because of the laws of physics, such as gravity. But, as I repeatedly pointed out, this is a misunderstanding of the idea of God. As we explored from the very first season, all laws of nature is what Christians call the Logos, the speech of God. So, when scientists like Hawking discover the laws that bring forth the universe, they are not discovering something other than God; they are hearing God speak. Hawking seems to vaguely grasp this point when he noted in his book, The Grand Design, that people may very well think of God as the ultimate Laws of nature. But, he insisted that the belief in God needs more: “the real crunch comes with the second question: are there miracles, exceptions to the laws?”
What Hawking was confronted with was the ambiguity about God that we’ve considered so far in this episode, which has led him, like us, to the question of “miracle.” But, as with many people today, he has a simplistic view that “miracles” are just exception to the laws of nature. But, that view only adds to the confusion. Remember, for Christianity, every law is God speaking—indeed, God speaks forth everything that happens. So, if miracles from God are exceptions to the laws, that’d mean God speaks forth things that are exceptions to what God speaks. What would that even mean?
This, by the way, is not at all to say that God does not bring forth things that defy what we know about the world and its laws; Christians firmly believe that God does things that we consider as impossible. But, that does not mean they really are impossible. Again, back in the first season, the tenth episode, I mentioned that according to our knowledge of physics, under some very specific and rare conditions, with wind blowing at some precise angle and force, on a very specific topography, a large body of water, like a lake, can part into two, so that a land bridge can form, with walls of water several meters high on either side. Which is sort of like what happened in the book of Exodus, when the waters parted so that Moses and the Israelites walked through the sea to escape the Egyptian army. If this is what happened, it would be something that we would have considered impossible, back in the time of Moses, but, it would turn out that it was not something truly impossible, an “exception” to the laws.
All of reality is God speaking, including every possibility that it holds. But, we do not know all of them, and perhaps we may never know. We have learned some of them, and will likely learn more. Miracles are God bringing forth what we did not think was possible, or at least, thought was very, very unlikely. It seems to be less about the limits of nature or reality, and more about our limits—the impossibility is about what we can believe or imagine. But, why is this important? Let’s return to how Abraham responded to what God spoke. Abraham can imagine his son, Ishmael, becoming the ancestor of a nation; he cannot imagine that Sarah would have a son of her own. Yet, that is what God declares. This is the point where what God speaks, and the horizon of what we can see, are set against each other. And when God unfolds what we could not imagine, what we thought was impossible, God breaks through. We find that the voice of God that we hear, is not the impersonal and indifferent Reality that we’ve engaging with, by imagining it as a Person that speaks to us. Reality is a Who, with purpose and power beyond us that can speak to us and accomplish things we cannot imagine.
Again, every truth is God speaking; everything we can understand or imagine, every mundane thing that happens, is also God speaking. But, when God speaks to us about something beyond our horizon, something beyond what we can believe, the ambiguity lifts, and we come face to face with God Who has been speaking to us. Miracles are, essentially, about communication, and a very specific kind of communication. In fact, in the Bible, there is no one word for “miracle.” Instead, the words that are used are “wonders,” “display of power,” and “signs,”—all of which are about communication.
Yet, as previous episode pointed out, the kind of truth that miracles can communicate to us is rather limited. It rarely can make us believe things that we can’t comprehend, if say, we lived three thousand years ago—like how a world is spherical and rapidly circling the sun, when obviously, our world looks flat, and it doesn’t feel like we are on a moving thing, and it is the sun that’s moving, or like how slavery should never exist in any form, when obviously, a complex society and its labor force requires a hierarchy of masters and slaves sometimes. Miracles really communicate just two things—that God is speaking to you, and that God is capable of bringing forth what He is promising you.
This raises a point that we’ve sort of ignored so far, which is that the way this episode has described the ambiguity that confronts us regarding God, is a very modern way of thinking about the whole thing—we’re asking our question in a way that is typical of our time. In Abraham’s time, and in fact, in every era prior to ours, people simply believed that voices that spoke to you were persons—gods, spirits, and so on. Whether our minds could be perceiving something impersonal, as some person, was not a question that they’d typically ask. However, even back then, they would still ask: “Is the voice I am hearing now, really the voice of God?” It could be a deceptive spirit, or it could be just their own imagination. There are times in the Bible when God speaks out against some people, declaring that what they believe was God speaking to them, was really just their own imagination, or a lying spirit that was misleading them. It could also be the voice of gods that are incapable of doing what they say they will do. So, for the ancient Hebrews, the question was, is the voice that spoke to them the “Living God”? Is the voice that they are hearing from, not just some unmoving, inert power, but something that speaks to them and unfolds everything that happens—that is, Reality that moves and acts and speaks like something that is “Alive?”
Either way, what answered such questions was a “miracle.”
But, too many of us today then think that faith is about believing that miracles happen, or that some specific miracles happened in the past. Again, this does not quite grasp what faith is about. Because here’s a question: Abraham is considered the father of faith. But, when God spoke to Abraham something he just could not believe, and he just laughed in response. So, in what sense did Abraham have faith?
[ pendulum ]
And it wasn’t just Abraham. A short time afterward, three men visit Abraham at his home. He somehow recognizes that they are from God that has spoken to him, and hurriedly invites them for a meal. These men turn out to be angels, the representatives of God, on their way to the city of Sodom (You can hear about what happened there in episode six, if you haven’t yet ). Abraham has Sarah prepare a meal for them, and they dine together just outside her tent. Then, one of them says these words, speaking for God, “Next time I see you, Your wife, Sarah, will have a son with her.”
Sarah is inside her tent, and when she hears this, she laughs to herself, just like her husband. She was unable to have children when she was young, and she had hit menopause quite some time ago, and is now long past child bearing age. “Now, after all this time, I’m going to have a child, when my husband and I are this old?”
She hears what she cannot believe, or even imagine, and responds just like Abraham did. But, then the angel speaks up. “Why are you laughing, Sarah? Why are you saying you are too old? Is anything too great for the LORD to do? You will have a son.” And Sarah, surprised at his unexpected words, blurts out, “I didn’t laugh!” And the angel shoots back, “Oh, yes you did!”
The odd thing is: in the Letter to the Hebrews, which is one of the books in the New Testament portion of the Bible, both Abraham and Sarah is listed as examples of those who had faith—and more to the point, that by their faith, they had a son in their old age, when they were incapable of having a child. But, in Genesis, they did not have faith.
It turns out, however, that it is more complicated than that. Neither Abraham nor Sarah could quite believe what God spoke to them about having a child at their age. Yet, there is a curious ambiguity in their faith. When God spoke to Abraham that as a sign of the promise between them, all the males in his household is to be circumcised, Abraham had everyone, including himself and his son, Ishmael, circumcised.; he cannot quite believe what God speaks, but he follows what God said. We could even say, perhaps, that he humors God. Sarah laughs about the promise, yet, she hears them out. One way to think about it is that even when they have difficulty believing the specific promise God has spoken, they trust God—they trust the One who is speaking the promise, even if not quite the content of the promise.
And it isn’t some arbitrary trust. Think back to episode 4 of this season, when the ruler of Egypt took Sarah—Sarai back then—to be part of his harem. Then, extraordinary events unfolded; a sickness struck his household, and the priests of Egyptian gods declared that it was because he took Sarai from her husband. They were then allowed to go free, with all their belongings. The voice that had spoken to Abram, the voice that led them to a new land in Canaan, and had promised that they will have descendants of their own, unfolded the events in Egypt so that they were rescued. This voice, God that their neighboring peoples worshipped as El, the creator of the world and the father of the gods, had spoken to them throughout their lives so far and guided them. There was something real about the voice that had spoken to them.
The only unresolved issue they had was: Sarai was unable to bear a child even though God promised Abram that he will have descendants. And that is why they decided to get a surrogate, Hagar—that is how Ishmael was born. It was because they trusted God that they tried to fulfill what God spoke on their own. It turned out that they were mistaken, but it was still out of “faith.” They trusted God that speaks to them.
Faith of real people is like that. They trust God, but they sometimes can’t figure out what God is really speaking, and so they try different things. They go through trials and errors, mistakes and wrong turns. And not all mistakes are meaningless, any more than the life of Ishmael was meaningless—after all, he too would be blessed by God, even though his blessing will not be one that God first promised Abram years ago.
But, all this takes time. According to Genesis, Abraham set out on his journey toward a new land when he was seventy-five years old, and even that was likely quite some time after God spoke to him for the first time and promised that he will be a blessing and that a nation would come from him. But, Abram and Sarai remained childless for another ten years until they decided to find a surrogate, and Ishmael was born. And it took another thirteen years before God spoke to Abraham and Sarah that they would have another son—and it would be Sarah who would bear a child.
And this brings us to the last aspect of faith. Time.
[ pendulum ]
Miracles are not simply something that happens that’s beyond our imagination or belief. That happens all the time. When we discovered in the 20th century, thanks to Einstein, that time and space was a thing that can stretch and contract like some fabric, that was something most people before then could not imagine, but it was hardly a miracle. Or, if we were taking a walk by the sea, and the waters part into two, that’d be a breathtaking sight, and we’d maybe start taking selfies like crazy, but it wouldn’t be a miracle.
Miracles in the Bible are, in an important sense, preannounced. God speaks to you that it will happen, and then it happens. Now, the time between may differ. Sometimes it’s quite short, like when Jesus lays his hand on the sick, and they are healed. Sometimes it takes longer like when Jesus tells his disciples that he will be crucified, but promises them that he will rise from death on the third day. And God does not always speak what exactly is going to happen beforehand, like when Jesus merely tells his disciples to bring him a small basketful of bread and fish, before proceeding to feed a crowd of five thousand people with them. And sometimes, it is us that preannounce a miracle when we pray for something. So, say, you are dying of thirst in the wilderness, and as you pray, your staff hits the rocky ground beside you, and from there a small spring of water bubbles forth. But, in every case, a miracle is preceded by some form of communication between God and those who speak with God. It’s because miracles are essentially about communication. They convey to us that we have been speaking with God.
So, if God speaks to us while we are being chased by our slavers into the sea, that we will be rescued from their hands, and then, the waters part so that we escape, it is a miracle. It is something that God unfolded for us. But, if waters parted when we were just out for a walk, it’d just be a strange and amazing event, or a scientific anomaly. It would, for Christianity, still be something that God is speaking forth, as with everything else, but it would not be what God is personally speaking to us. We’re mere bystanders.
And for miracles to truly be miracles that communicate, there needs to be time. Time between when God speaks with us and promises something, and when God finally speaks forth and brings to pass what He promised.
[ Genesis music ]
And sometimes, that time between is very long. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it took decades after God first spoke to them before Isaac was born; even when God at last declared it is Sarah who would have a child, it still took another year before it happened. And in that long passage of time, Abraham and Sarah had both long given up, so that they could not believe this was possible. Time had eroded their hopes, so they merely laughed when they heard God promise them a child between them.
However, this also meant that it was only then that what God speaks and bring about, would be something that could decisively lift the ambiguity for their future generations and establish for them that the Voice that has spoken to their ancestors, truly was the “Living God”—not the impersonal What, but a Who that speaks forth all of reality, and fulfills His promise, no matter how impossible it may seem. Their ancestor would be that impossibility—a miracle child—a mark carved into their past that God indeed speaks.
And all that time had also laid down something else. Trust. They cannot even imagine a life where they would have a child between them. But, they have also come to trust God that speaks to them. And they trusted enough that they were willing to wait. Faith in the Bible is personal trust that is extended over time. When time erodes our strength and convictions, hopes and dreams, faith is the each step we take, until the promise is kept. Their passions and hopes may have faded; even the strength of their belief regarding the specific promise may have eroded. But, something, a personal trust, established over time, forged and refined, keeps them going.
And finally, after so many years, the impossible happens. Sarah becomes pregnant. And she gives birth. Abraham and Sarah laughed in disbelief when God spoke to them that they will have a son; and now, they name their son, Isaac, meaning “laughter.” Because their laughter of disbelief has become laughter of joy.
Isaac was a miracle. A miracle that would become the foundation of those who would follow in their journey, a miracle that would lift the veil of ambiguity, a miracle that was promised, needed time, and was received in faith.
But… their faith, Abraham’s faith, was not yet complete. His journey was not yet done.
[ Music Genesis / ]
[ Music ending / ]
So, please join me next time, as we continue to explore what the Bible means by “faith,” and how this leads to one of the most perplexing story in the Bible where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son.
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