Failures in Faith and Prayer: Calvin on Gen. 16.1-3
Sarah's problem, in Calvin's estimation, was that she believed the promise of God. Or at least, that was part of her problem -- part, that is, of what actually drove her to let those very strange words pass the threshold of her lips: "Go, sleep with my slave" (Gen. 16.2; NIV).
There's no question, Calvin concedes, that Sarah desired a child per se. But Sarah's "natural impulse" to hear the pitter patter of little feet on ancient near eastern floors hardly accounts for the desperate lengths she went to -- offering her servant to her husband as a concubine -- in order to bring a baby into their nest. Had this merely been a case of pining for a child, the Reformer reasons, "it would rather have come into her mind to do it by the adoption of a son, than by giving place to a second wife." After all, Calvin adds, "we know the vehemence of female jealousy."
It was, rather, knowledge of -- and indeed, confidence in -- God's repeated promise of a child to Abraham (Gen. 12.1-3; Gen. 15.1-4) that drove Sarah to do precisely what she did. Calvin takes it as given that Sarah was "cognizant of those promises which had been so often repeated to her husband." Indeed, the rather desperate plan she hatched in Gen. 16.2 very likely reflected specific familiarity with God's most recent statement to Abraham in Gen. 15.4 that his own biological child would be his heir. Thus far in salvation history neither Abraham nor Sarah had received, at least to our knowledge, any corresponding affirmation that Abraham's offspring would also be her biological child. One can, then, perhaps understand her reasoning: "While contemplating the promise, she becomes forgetful of her own right, and thinks of nothing but the bringing forth of children to Abram. [...] While she reflects upon her own barrenness and old age, she begins to despair of offspring" -- she begins, that is, to despair of the realization of God's promise through her -- "unless Abram should have children from some other quarter."
Calvin goes so far as to discover something "laudable" in "Sarai's wish, as regards the end, or the scope to which it tended." Her actions, in other words, reflected a genuine and proper desire to see God's promise come to fruition. Nevertheless, "she was guilty of no light sin." So what precisely was her crime?
Calvin finds fault with Sarah in two regards. First of all, she failed to realize that when God promises some end, he sovereignly supplies and/or orchestrates the means to that end (as he orchestrates all things), and so achieves that end in his own time and manner. God, Calvin thus reminds his readers, is no consequentialist. In God's estimation, the end never justifies the means. The means themselves must conform to God's holy standards, regardless of whether the particular end in view is one of man's devising or God's promising. "However desperate" Sarah considered the situation, "still she ought not to have attempted anything at variance with the will of God and the legitimate order of nature." She should not, in other words, have violated that "divine law by which two persons [are] mutually bound together," regardless of her (possibly) proper desire to see God's promise realized.
Sarah's plan and efforts, together with her husband, to help God's promise along (so to speak) were, ultimately, a failure in faith. "The faith of both of them was defective; not indeed with regard to the substance of the promise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded; since they hastened to acquire the offspring which was to be expected from God without observing the legitimate ordinance of God." In other words, faith at times looks directly to God's promises -- Abraham and Sarah had this part figured out. At other times faith looks not directly to God's promises but to God's character and commandments. After all, God has not revealed to us every detail of what he has in store for us, whether in this life or the next. It is, accordingly, an exercise of faith to conform to God's righteous standards even when we can't for the life of us figure out what God is up to, or how our present circumstances might lend themselves to the realization of his ultimate purposes for (and promises to) us. Abraham and Sarah failed in this regard. With eyes fixed on God's promise, they lost sight of God's law, and stumbled and fell.
But with characteristic insight (not to mention a slight tendency to indulge in speculation), Calvin discovers one further fault in Sarah that led her to plan and execute her crime. "What fault then shall we find in her? Surely that she did not, as she ought, cast this care into the bosom of God, without binding his power to the order of nature, or restraining it to her own sense. And then, by neglecting to infer from the past what would take place in future, she did not regard herself as in the hand of God, who could again open the womb which he had closed." Simply put, Sarah failed to pray. She failed to take her anxiety about the fulfillment of God's promise to God himself, and cast it upon him. And she failed to pray because she lost sight not only of God's power to achieve whatever he purposes, but also his tender and fatherly compassion towards her and her plight.
Calvin's claim regarding Sarah's failure to "cast [her] care into the bosom of God" is, as intimated above, speculative. But it rings true. And it provides us with an important lesson. It reminds us, which is just what Calvin intends, that prayer and faith are mutually supportive. Prayer is itself an act of faith. Prayer, in turn, sustains faith. Prayer sustains a similar, symbiotic relationship with our perception of God's tender and fatherly concern for us. Prayer is itself an acknowledgement of God's compassion. Prayer, in turn, stretches and informs our sensitivity to God's tender care.
In sum, then, we learn two valuable things from Sarah's unfortunate example in Gen. 16.3. First, we must trust God not only to deliver upon his promises, but to do so in his own time and manner. Faith sometimes leans more heavily upon God's character than upon any specific promise. And faith in who God is naturally prompts obedience to God's commandments. Second, we pray not only because we do believe, but also in order to believe. The frequency and fervor of our prayers provides some indication of the measure of our faith. But where faith proves to be weak, prayers proves to be one critical remedy -- which is, of course, good reason to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5.17), "casting all [our] anxieties on [God], because he cares for [us]" (1 Peter 5.7).