The men got up from there and looked out over Sodom, and Abraham was walking with them to see them off. Then the Lord said, “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham? Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him so that he will command his children and his house after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. This is how the Lord will fulfill to Abraham what he promised him.” Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious. I will go down to see if what they have done justifies the cry that has come up to me. If not, I will find out.” The men turned from there and went toward Sodom while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Abraham stepped forward and said, “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that! Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?” The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Then Abraham answered, “Since I have ventured to speak to my lord—even though I am dust and ashes—suppose the fifty righteous lack five. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” He replied, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Then he spoke to him again, “Suppose forty are found there?” He answered, “I will not do it on account of forty.” Then he said, “Let my lord not be angry, and I will speak further. Suppose thirty are found there?” He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” Then he said, “Since I have ventured to speak to my lord, suppose twenty are found there?” He replied, “I will not destroy it on account of twenty.” Then he said, “Let my lord not be angry, and I will speak one more time. Suppose ten are found there?” He answered, “I will not destroy it on account of ten.” When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he departed, and Abraham returned to his place.Genesis 18:16-33
In C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there’s a conversation with Susan and Mr. Beaver that goes like this: “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” In the Narnia chronicles, Aslan the lion is the figure of Jesus.
Sometimes we want a safe, comfortable God, one who fits within our assumptions and expectations. And sometimes, without realizing it, we end up putting God in a bit of a box. In our passage from Genesis, we discover that God seeks to stretch our expectations, our understanding, and in doing so seeks to enlarge our vision of who he is—and therefore to enlarge and deepen our relationship with him.
Abraham had just welcomed three strangers, showing them typical middle-eastern hospitality. At first who these visitors are is something of a mystery, but according to 19:1 they are two angels and a manifestation of the Lord. It’s on this occasion that Abraham and Sarah are told that they will have a son in a year’s time—the fulfillment of God’s promise from several years before. We come into the story when God reveals his judgment on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family reside.
As we pick up the story, God is the first one who speaks. The Lord’s words here are astonishing. We get an inside look at God’s inner thoughts. Listen to the question he asks himself: Then the Lord said, “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham?” He’s referring to what he’s going to do about Sodom and Gomorrah and whether he should share this with Abraham. So what does this question tell us about God and his relationship with Abraham?
Look at how God describes Abraham: Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him . . . The word chosen can also be translated known.
You see, God has established a personal relationship with this Abraham. He has called Abraham. He has tested Abraham. He has walked with Abraham. And for this reason God chooses to involve Abraham in something he is about to do. Because of that, we hear the question: “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham?”God reveals his plans to Abraham—and all because Abraham has become, as James 2:23 says, a friend of God.
So before we even think about what Abraham prays or whether or not his prayer makes any difference, it looks like God includes Abraham in what he is about to do precisely because of the relationship he has with him. What’s amazing about this conversation is not so much the specifics of the conversation but the fact that the conversation takes place at all. Because, here’s the thing, usually we put people like Abraham in a special category of spiritual heroes. And if we do that, it’s almost like we’re saying we can’t also have a close relationship with God that includes a prayer like Abraham’s. Such intimacy with God is reserved for special people—or for another time and place. But is this true?
In John 15:15, Jesus says this to his disciples: I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father. Do you realize that this can also apply to you and I? I have called you friends, Jesus says. We even sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus”!
Theologian Karl Barth once wrote, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” And because of the relationship—the friendship—we can have with God through Jesus Christ we are invited to play a part in what God is doing in the world.
We are invited into a life of prayer that is like Abraham’s. But we need to remember this is a friendship formed after years of obedience and growing in faith, of learning to trust God. So let’s ask ourselves: Are we friends of God? Why or why not? What do you make of God’s inner-monologue? What does it say about God?What does it mean for our relationship with God to grow over time?
But I wonder: do we want the same life of prayer that Abraham enters here? Consider again the question God asks, “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham?” I don’t know about you, but the first question that comes to my mind is this: why would God hide what he’s about to do? It’s like God is saying, “What I’m going to reveal to Abraham will stretch and challenge him. It will make him uncomfortable, even with me.” Now this is why it’s important that Abraham has been walking with God and growing in faith for a long time. The prayer we see here is only possible for someone who already has a close relationship with God. In fact, the first words of Abraham’s prayer are a barrage of questions verging on accusations. Remember, it’s about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that!
Notice all the assumptions at work in Abraham’s words. At this moment all Abraham thinks that he has come to know about God is being called into question. Isn’t God good, merciful, and just? We might think, “A God who is loving would never do such a thing.” Why would God destroy a city if not everyone in the city is wicked? Is that just? And then the final question, which sums up all of the others: Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?
Here’s the thing: we come in prayer to a God whose ways, thoughts, and purposes we will not always understand and which may even make us uncomfortable. As John White writes in his book Daring to Draw Near: “If we close our minds to everything about God that makes us uncomfortable, we are going through empty motions when we pray. We pray to a god we ourselves fashioned for our comfort and not to God as he is. True prayer is to respond to the true God.”
For you and I this might happen when we read a passage from the Bible. There is lots there that can rub us the wrong way or that raises more questions than provides answers. We might read something that challenges our assumptions about God. The truth is: God doesn’t conform toour expectations nor is he obliged to do so.
What about Abraham? Doesn’t he still pray? He engages God. He wrestles with God. Suppose forty are found there? Suppose twenty are found there? There’s a boldness in his prayer. Do you hear the boldness in his prayer? Would any of us dare to pray like this? Why not? And what’s the source of this boldness? It’s his relationship with God—and what he has come to know of God over the past several years. In other words, his boldness emerges from his growing trust in the very character of God.
But we see more than boldness in his prayer. Listen to some of his other words: Since I have ventured to speak to my Lord—even though I am dust and ashes . . . Let not my Lord be angry . . . I will speak one more time. Abraham is also profoundly aware of who he is addressing and who he is. There is a profound humility here. This is what we mean by the fear of the Lord. And both his boldness and humility come from his relationship with and knowledge of God. Indeed, that’s why he asks: Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?
Abraham presses God for answers but does so in a way that acknowledges who God has revealed himself to be. And, indeed, wasn’t it God himself who invited Abraham into this conversation?
So, what about us? Does anything about God and what he has revealed about himself make you uncomfortable? Why or why not? What does praying boldly and humbly at the same time mean? Can you imagine your prayers ever resembling Abraham’s? Why does God invite Abraham to intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah? What is he trying to teach or show Abraham?
So let’s ask the big question, the one that’s nagging at us: Does Abraham’s prayer have an effect on the outcome? Now, honestly, I think this is actually the least interesting (important?) question we can ask when reading this passage. But if you keep reading, you will see that Sodom and Gomorrah are still destroyed except for Lot and his family. Is their escape God’s answer to Abraham’s prayer?
How our prayers make a difference within God’s sovereign will may not be something we ever know or understand this side of eternity. I know God somehow fits our prayers into his plan, even if I can’t understand exactly how.
Perhaps even more importantly, through this experience Abraham grows even closer to God. His faith is stretched. His view of God’s character is both challenged but also affirmed. What we see here is not so much about the mechanics of prayer as the posture of prayer.
Skye Jethani puts it this way: “Prayer, therefore, is much more than asking God for this or that outcome. It is drawing into communion with him and then taking up our privileged role as his people. In prayer, we are invited to join him in directing the course of his world.”
I would add that through our prayers we are called to trust God even if we don’t understand him completely or if something about him makes us uncomfortable—because that might be the very point at which he is inviting us into an even deeper relationship.
Think of it this way: the very degree to which we find ourselves uncomfortable with the God of the Bible may very well be the degree to which he’s calling us—like he did Abraham—to press even further, to go even deeper, into relationship. Where we find ourselves the most uncomfortable might be the very place where God is challenging us to grow in our understanding of and our trust in him.
Now, someone might say, “But this story is from the OT. Jesus is different. He would never make us uncomfortable!” But remember what Jesus says? I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father. And here’s the thing: not everything Jesus made known to his disciples and makes known to us consists of happy, safe ideas. Jesus let his disciples know that he would suffer and die. He let them know that they will have to die to themselves. This is how we receive life. This is how we become who he is calling us to be. Coming into the company of the God revealed ultimately in Jesus is not always a comfortable experience. Because while God might not be safe, he is good.