God wants us to speak to Him. We are told to “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and encouraged by Paul to go to God in prayer about everything in life. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). If God does not want us speaking to Him, He never would have had such things written. And the very fact that He desires our prayers shows that He cares about us. He wants to know what is bothering us. He wants us to come to Him for all of our needs, spiritual and physical. But we also know that there are times that we do not know how to talk to God as we should (Romans 8:26), and even in our Lord’s time people were asking Him how to pray properly. The disciples came to Christ and said, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1).
There is a proper way to talk to God, and an improper way. If this is not true, then what would be wrong with talking to God in the same flippant, casual manner used between two men? Indeed, God is not interested in hearing us discuss our Super Bowl picks, or the latest gossip, or our frustration over cleaning the gutters. Consider Ecclesiastes 5:2, in which we are especially told, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.”
To help us think about speaking to God, I want to consider a story from the Old Testament. While this is not necessarily an account of prayer, specifically, the concepts that we can learn easily apply to our prayer life today. The primary text for this lesson is Genesis 18:1-15, in which Abraham is met by three individuals. One of them is God, the other two are angels, presumably. By carefully reading about how Abraham spoke to God, I think there are many things we can apply to our own conversations with the Father. First, there are times when words are not even necessary –our actions can speak much louder than our words. Second, we must be careful when we choose our words, because God does not forget when we speak foolishly or lie to Him. Finally, we must be aware of trying to bargain with God in our prayers.
When Our Actions Speak Louder Than Words
“Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day” (18:1). The heat of the day is literally the hottest time of the day, often a name given to the noon time. Another common name for this time of day was ‘double or greatest light,’ because the sun was at its highest point of the day. Traditionally, this would be the time of day for resting or napping, as it would be too hot for comfortable working conditions. It is interesting that Abraham is not sleeping, as many of his peers were probably doing. Instead, he is at the opening of his tent, the flap wide open, carefully watching the world around him. We must also note that this extremely hot period of the day would be the most inconvenient to prepare food for guests. Often, the opportunity to do good comes at an inconvenient time – on the way to work, on the way to worship, too busy with the kids, bad weather – but we must consider what Paul says about doing good in Galatians 6:9-10 and 2 Thessalonians 3:13. There are times when simply speaking is not enough, when praying to God is not what is required of us. Abraham could have considered the heat of the day, looked at the three weary travelers, and prayed to God for good things to come upon them. Does this sound a little bit like James 2:15-16? Our actions can most definitely speak louder than our words at times like this!
“And when he lifted his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth” (18:2). This account is telling of the kind of humility that Abraham had – whenever possible, he jumped at the opportunity to serve and aid these three men. He did not merely greet them with a simple gesture, nor did he slowly saunter up to them as they approached his camp. Rather, he ran to them and bowed his face to the ground. “The expression denotes the complete prostration of the body by first falling on the knees, and then inclining the head forwards till it touches the ground. As this was a mode of salutation. . . towards superiors, generally, such as kings and princes” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. I, Thomas Whitelaw, 240). This kind of bowing was indicative of reverence for deity, or at least creatures higher than man, as the case would be with an angel. Perhaps Abraham knew these men were angels and wanted to give them all the credit they deserved. This is very much like what is written in Hebrews 13:2. One lesson that we can learn from this account is that we do not always know who we are helping – Abraham had no idea, at first, who these three men were, but bowed before them anyway!
“‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by” (18:3). Abraham was so humbled by the presence of these three visitors that he felt undeserving of their company. Like Abraham, we should always see our own homes in the same way. We do not deserve to have the Lord protect our homes, or bless our families, or in any way interact with us (Ephesians 2:8-9). When we can truly learn how little we deserve the blessings of God, it makes us appreciate His gift of grace that much more!
“Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves” (18:4-5). The washing of feet was a necessary custom of the time (Whitelaw, 241). Notice how Abraham does not promise great things for these visitors, which is another sign of his humility. “[This is] a modest description of what proved to be a sumptuous repast” (Whitelaw, 241). In the next few verses, he would go above and beyond what is expected of a host, killing a lamb, preparing fresh bread and serving curds of milk. But he did not view these actions as anything more than the least of what was expected of him. Consider the words of our Lord in Luke 17:7-10. God expects great things from us, but when we accomplish those things, we should never be so presumptuous to think that God owes us gratitude!
“So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes” (18:6). Notice first of all that Abraham hurried to get all of these chores accomplished. Do we show the same kind of attitude when we are doing good things for other people? Next, he rushes to one of his fields to pick the best calf, “a tender and choice calf” as the text puts it. His servant “hurried to prepare” it (18:7). Both Sarah and the servant were also moving swiftly to get these things accomplished, which means the studious and hard-working nature of Abraham rubbed-off on the people around him. Finally, once all things had been prepared for the three visitors, the text tells us in 18:8 that “he was standing by them under the tree as they ate.” This is an extremely humble gesture on his part; he was unwilling to sit while they ate for fear that they would have a need and he would fail to meet it. Like an honorable host, he waited on his guests hand and foot without one word of complaint! One writer comments, “He stood by them under the tree – a custom still observed among the Arabs, who honor their guests by not sitting to eat with, but by standing to wait upon, them” (Whitelaw, 241). Everything Abraham does for his guests is simply a result of his humility and understanding of proper manners. Like Abraham, we should always strive to make ourselves as cordial and kind as possible – it can be as simple as holding the door for people, giving up a seat on the bus or train, or keeping our speech clean and polite.
Abraham actually spoke very few words throughout this entire transaction, but his actions spoke much louder than any verbiage that he could have employed. He did not waste his breath with blubbering or vain promises (as so many people do in their prayers – “O, Lord, I will move mountains for You! I will convert everybody in the world! I will give everything I have to feed the poor!”). Instead, he acted – he leapt from his seat, eased the suffering of people around him, and stood like a humble servant. Let us speak to God with our obedience, because we can say a lot more in our silent activity than in vain repetition.
God Remembers Our Words
The next section of this scripture teaches us that God remembers all of our words (Ezekiel 21:23), even the ones that we regret. It is a hard-learned by some people – we must watch our words because they can come back to bite us! After eating, the three visitors proceed to give a promise to Abraham about his future son, through whose line the blessings of Genesis 12:1-3, 15:18, 17:1-8 would be fulfilled. “Then they said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And he said, ‘Behold, in the tent’” (18:9). Surely Abraham must have known by now that these were not mere men. Though complete strangers, they knew the name of Abraham’s wife to be Sarah. This should make us see that we cannot hide anything from God.
“And he said, ‘Surely I will return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the door, which was behind him” (18:10). Sarah and Abraham had tried having a son their way, through Hagar in the form of Ishmael. That turned out quite miserably, proving how awful situations can become when we use our judgment to find an answer to life’s problems. Now it is God’s turn to fulfill the promise, and He will do it in a way that only He can; miraculously. It would certainly take a miracle, because we learn in Hebrews 11:11 that “Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life.” And this is confirmed by our test, which states clearly, “Now Abraham and Sarah were advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing” (18:11). But God is not confined to physical limits, as He is the One who created the human body. If He can create it from the dust of the ground, then surely He can manipulate its natural functions without difficulty. God promised that Abraham would have a son, and He is going to give Abraham a son!
“And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’” (18:12). Behind this laugh must have been a mix of emotions – a cross between true joy and utter disbelief. It is the same kind of laugh we make when we truly want something to happen, but do not want to get our hopes up. Instead of simply believing, Sarah resorts to sarcasm to cover up her true feelings. Even when she is discovered and rebuked for her laughter, she denies it in 18:15. But we can commend Sarah for her apparent reverence toward Abraham. She calls him lord, an attitude that is lauded by Peter in 1 Peter 3:6.
Because God knows all things, and a tent flap cannot hide the disbelief of Abraham’s wife, the Lord questions him about her laugh. “Why did Sarah laugh. . .” (18:13) It is the same question that God must ask of our unbelievers. Why do so many choose to laugh at the promises of God? Who do so many reject the wonderful precepts of a gospel which offers nothing but life eternal for its adherents? Unfortunately, we are surrounded by folks who laugh at the creation account, complaining that it is too fantastic to be real. Others will laugh our desire to be like the New Testament church of the first century, saying that we are being old-fashioned. Still others laugh at the logic behind the many moral laws of the Bible. To them, it is funny to think about Heaven and Hell, punishment and Life, salvation and condemnation. Perhaps all of this laughter is meant to hide the real feelings of fear and inflexibility. While there is laughter on the outside, tears of anxiety may be on the inside. I like what is written in Proverbs 14:13, “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief.” He goes on to say, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (18:14). Indeed! Is anything too hard for the God of this universe to accomplish? If there is any doubt, one ought to read the words of Psalm 148:5-6, or just about all of Job 38. “Is a child from a dead womb too marvelous for the One who called all things into existence? It is no laughing matter” (Bible Knowledge Commentary, 59).
Finally, Sarah tries to cover for herself by saying, “I did not laugh” (18:15). God, in His infinite wisdom, simply responds, “No, but you did laugh.” We can say whatever we want in our defense, deny any allegation, use lies to prove our innocence, but when we go before God non of it stands. He knows. He remembers. It makes me fear the Lord, knowing that I will have nothing to say when I stand before His throne, if I have not obeyed. When asked why I did not obey, I will have no response. When asked why I never taught anybody the Gospel, I will be silent. When asked why the way of the world seemed more appealingly than the Way of Righteousness, I will be tacit.
Using Our Words To Bargain With God
The final section of text covers Genesis 18:16-33, in which God and Abraham discuss the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom. Some people turn to this chapter in defense of God’s willingness to bargain with man, but I believe that if we study the text, we will find that there is no bargain or compromise. God is not giving Abraham the authority to decide if or when the Sodomites are destroyed.
It must first be noted that God planned on bringing judgment to the city, with or without Abraham’s approval. He asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about do?” (18:17) God never needs our thumbs up when He wants to enact a plan. It is not as if He hires advisors or counselors to help Him decide how best to judge and bless the world! We must always remember that God needs nothing from us (Acts 17:25), especially in grave matters such as this. Is there any amount of wisdom or advice that Abraham can give to God that He has not already considered?
“The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know” (18:20-21). We can take comfort in the fact that God does not act until He has fully investigated a situation, although there is really nothing new that He can learn by literally going to Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps God does this to comfort Abraham, to let him know that the Lord only acts when truly compelled to do so by hard evidence. An analogy for this situation would be, in some ways, like a parent checking a child’s closet for “monsters.” The parent knows exactly what he will find – nothing – but promises the small child that he will check anyway, for the child’s sake. In the same way, God knows what He will find in these cities, but wants all of us to be comforted by His investigation of the matter.
When the two angels left, heading toward the cities, Abraham and God are left alone (18:22). It is at this point that Abraham proceeds to discuss the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah with the Lord. There is a possibility that Abraham, like so many people, does not fully understand why God has to destroy these cities. A lot of people today do not want to believe in a God who would do such cruel deeds. Abraham begins by asking God, “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Of course, this shows a lack of understanding on Abraham’s part. There are times that we do not understand why God chooses to do something. We may question God, or even doubt Him, but none of this benefits us! Why does God allow good people to suffer and die right next to evil people? Instead of being preoccupied with this question, though, we must accept that God knows what He is doing, and that even if good people should die in natural disasters, or wars, or in a judgment like the one on Sodom and Gomorrah, they will be rewarded in the afterlife for their faithfulness.
Abraham first pleads with God to spare the city if fifty righteous people are found in its walls. Then, he asks if the city will be spared if fewer righteous people are found, going all the way down to ten. At that point, the Lord says, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten” (18:32). Again, some will turn to this chapter to argue that we have the right to argue with the Lord, and that God actually needs our help in holding back His wrath. If not for the self-control and mercy of Abraham, all those people would have been destroyed, right? That argument assumes too much, though. It assumes, first of all, that God needs our help, and that we understand mercy better than He. Second, it assumes that God was still undecided about His judgment. In reality, He knew about the evil of those cities, and He already knew how many righteous people were there. Is God so weak and unknowledgeable that He does not know the whereabouts of His righteous ones?
In the end, not even ten righteous people lived in the city of Sodom, and God destroyed it with fire from the heavens. There are times when we just need to trust God and not try to reason with Him. Standing before God, no man is justified, and no person has enough knowledge, wisdom, or grace to convince God that He made a mistake.
Abraham helps us understand communication with God because He maintained a very close and meaningful relationship with the Lord Almighty. They even spoke face to face, conversing with each other about many things. When we look at these conversations, we can learn how to communicate with God today in a more meaningful way. We must always remember that our actions can speak louder than words, and that standing up and doing something fulfills the will of God much more than simply sitting and praying vain and repetitious words. We must also be aware of our words all the time, because words may slip out that we end up regretting. We cannot take back our slip ups or mistakes! Finally, we cannot bargain with God. Perhaps instead of questioning the wisdom and will of God, we should learn to accept it and take comfort in the fact that God knows what He is doing, and that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).