It’s easy to miss the fact that Isaac strove with God for twenty years over his wife’s infertility before seeing a positive answer. His son, Jacob, showed similar persistence when he wrestled with the angel at Peniel. This is not to be confused with stubbornness; rather, this striving is synonymous with brokenness. Jacob’s long night of wrestling is described by the prophet Hosea as follows: “He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor” (12:4). In other words, He threw himself upon the mercy and grace of the one, true God upon whom the blessing to Abraham rested in its entirety. It would have been the same for Isaac, which leads us to see his twenty-year prayer as an extraordinary act of faith during a time that is one of the most difficult trials a married couple will ever face. They had known the promise of God, and they, like Abraham and Sarah, were brushing up against old age without that promise fulfilled. So their challenge wasn’t solely infertility; it was: Will God be true to His word? Has it failed?
We know He was, and we know His word didn’t fail. But during those twenty years, their distress must have been great. No doctors, no advanced medicine, no other alternatives – only waiting. Yet just because there are so many more medical options today with respect to infertility doesn’t make facing infertility any easier for us. It may in fact make it harder, since the first assumption we moderns make is that we can fix any situation – given the proper treatment. But God’s arm is no more twisted now than it was back then. Isaac and Rebekah’s challenge was great, and their story, especially that of Isaac’s twenty-year prayer, serves to instruct us (see 1 Cor. 10:11). In what way? In faithfulness, particularly in prayer.
Not a few Christian couples, potentially great parents, ever experience the blessing of children. It is a sad reality in this fallen world. Faced with what feels like the inexplicable judgment of God, the infertile couple might move from anger to depression to practical atheism – just giving up, as if God won’t hear the plea because He doesn’t care; or worse, that He can’t, because He doesn’t seem to exist. What if Isaac had played the atheist during this trial? It is safe to assume that God’s plan would not be thwarted, but it is also safe to assume that Isaac would have grieved and displeased his covenant Lord. Some folks shy away from such talk, that one of God’s people might not keep himself in His love. But Jude warns us clearly: “Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (v. 21). Hard times are no excuse to play the atheist or to grumble against the living God.
Those who argue that God doesn’t get angry at His children might treat such portions of Scripture as purely hypothetical: “Keep yourselves in the love of God (you can’t help but do otherwise)….” But this won’t do, for it not only ignores the plain sense of the many texts on this subject, it cheapens the grace of God to the point of making Him unable to sanctify or chasten His people (Rom. 8:18-25; James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 4:12-13). It also may lead to a church’s exalting preference and lawlessness under the guise of “freedom in Christ.”
But that freedom has obligations. Consider: “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…” (John 15:9b-10a). Even the ancients were not unfamiliar with such conditions: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God…showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5-6).The Psalmist agrees: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (103:17-18). While we may understand the motivation behind easing these demands – eschewing anything that smacks of legalism – we ignore these Scriptures at our peril. Yet they can also be misused, and indeed they are, even within Reformed circles.
If the love of God is tied entirely to our obedience, or to our faithfulness to the covenant, we will find ourselves in an anxious tailspin. It’s one thing to combat lawless “freedom” with these injunctions, it’s quite another to make God’s covenant love conditioned solely upon them. Such notions would drive us away from the Gospel and back to the vicious angst that characterized us before the Spirit’s gracious call and the freeing forgiveness of the cross of Christ.
The answer to this is: the “love” that Jude wrote about, for example, is different from the efficacious, electing love of God; it is the love that distinguishes our every-day relationship with Him. This we can mess up. Badly. But in no way can we remove ourselves from God’s foreordaining love.
In John 6:37-40 we see that if Jesus were to lose one whom the Father has given Him, then He would either be deliberately disobeying His Father’s will or finding Himself unable to enact it. Denying this, then, does real violence to the doctrine of God and the Trinity. In short, God’s electing love is unconditional, steadfast, and gripping.
Yet we may still find ourselves under the displeasure of God insofar as disobedience defines our faithfulness, much like my dog, which has a propensity to run from my side in fits of frenetic activity, receives the pinch collar. I love the thing, and don’t want it to get hit by a car. And I assure you, that pinch collar feels like anything but love.