Abraham teaches us that there really are two kinds of people from God's perspective: the faithful and the futile.

At a Glance

Pundits in all times and circumstances have occasionally suggested that "There are two kinds of people ...," a statement which is then followed by a pithy description of the human race that divides everyone into two categories. In the Genesis text, it would seem that Scripture is, in this story at least, also suggesting that there are two kinds of people on the earth. And Abraham is one of them.

Early 20th century humorist Robert Benchley once proposed what he called "The Law of Distinction," which goes something like this: "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don't." We love how Benchley pokes fun at our human tendency to perceive the world in dichotomous, Manichean terms of black versus white, good versus evil, Republican versus Democrat, Beatles lovers versus Elvis lovers .... Well, you get the picture.

We're really good at putting ourselves and others into categories, often with disastrous results. We all know how "us versus them" thinking based on false assumptions and stereotypes, can drive a wedge between people that can lead to anything from ridicule to outright warfare. We humans aren't very good at this kind of categorizing because our knowledge and perception are so limited.

But God has no such limitations, and the story of Scripture is the story about how God is distinct from humans, but also a story about how God makes distinctions between those humans based on their responses to God. God warns us about making judgments about others (à la Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5), but it's clear that God judges us based on the criteria of faithfulness to God and God's way in the world. So you could say that from God's perspective, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have faith, and those who don't.

The poster boy for faithfulness to God in the early part of the Bible is Abram/Abraham. Well, poster boy may be pushing it. Abram's more like poster patriarch, an old geezer so old that, as Paul said, he was "as good as dead" (Roman 4:19). In fact it's because of his advanced age, his barren wife and his nomadic life that Abraham becomes the prototype of those who would be God's kind of people -- people who follow God in faith as opposed to the other kind of people who would rather sit still in fear and put their faith in safety, security and self-serving ways of life. Other famous people have picked up on this kind of distinction between the faithful and the futile, and we'll use some of their quotes to track the story of Abram as the kind of person God puts in his category of distinction.

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"There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "All right, have it your way" (C.S. Lewis).

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When we pick up the story of Abram in Genesis 15, the patriarch and his wife have already been tested along the journey. God called Abram in Genesis 12 to pick up everything and start walking west to the land that God would show him (12:1). You have to wonder if there were others that God had approached with this deal to start following God and receive an immense blessing that would be passed on to the rest of the world. How many nomadic patriarchs in Ur may have been offered this deal and turned it down in favor of dying fat and happy in their tents surrounded by fat and happy sheep, willing for this to sum up their lives?

One of the most important verses in the whole Bible is found there in Genesis 12:4, where it says, "So Abram went as the LORD had told him ...." Without questioning God, without needing to have the itinerary all set in advance, with no guarantees other than God's future blessing, "Abram went" as a member of the "Thy will be done" category of people.

That doesn't mean that Abram still didn't hedge his bets some, however. His fear of death, in spite of God's promise, gets him in trouble in Egypt (12:10-20). He questions God's promise of a son (15:1-3) and when God tells Abraham and Sarah that they are going to finally have the son promised by God in their old age, they both respond by laughing incredulously (17:17; 18:12). Yet when God tells Abraham to offer up that long-awaited son on Mount Moriah, Abraham responds by faithfully carrying out God's command (22:1-19). Abraham appears to be alternately shaky and strong in his early walk with God and yet because he chose to follow God he is blessed (12:1-3; 14:19-20; 22:15-18).

Abraham is a "Thy will be done" kind of person but shows us that being in that category isn't always easy. Indeed, God makes these same kinds of offers throughout Scripture to people who would much rather have minded their own business because it was easier to do so (Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, just to name a few). Jesus called his disciples with the simple invitation, "Follow me," but there were those who chose not to do so, like the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27). In that case, as in many others, God in Christ simply said to him, "All right, have it your way."

In a "Have it your way" world, following God isn't popular or easy. Where in your life do you need to surrender yourself to God and say, "Thy will be done"?

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"There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there" (Indira Gandhi).

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Those who are in the "Have it your way" category of life are likely to always seek credit for their accomplishments or take credit for the accomplishments of others in their charge. Their theme song is Frank Sinatra's My Way and their lives are bound up in the rewards of money, titles and possessions.

"Thy will be done" people, on the other hand, are those who recognize that in God's eyes their self-made accomplishments and titles add up to nothing. They know that the only thing that matters to God is their faithfulness, and the work that matters to God always follows that faithfulness. Abraham received credit from God not because he had done so many great things (as we've already seen) but because Abraham believed in God's promise and, despite his anxiety and doubt, stuck to that belief. Abraham "believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness" (15:6).

The only credit we can ever get from God comes in the form of the gift of God's grace in response to our faith. We then respond to God's grace by shifting the focus of our work from getting credit for ourselves to working out God's grace through us to others. That's the whole idea of the Abraham story: We are blessed so that, through us, that blessing can be shared with the whole world. To put it another way, God's grace always comes to us on its way to someone else. We can never simply hold on to it ourselves like a credit or a title. "Christian" is less a status than it is a vocation!

What have you done with the amazing credit of grace God has offered you in faith? Are you sharing it or hoarding it?             

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"When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened" (John M. Richardson Jr.).

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It's interesting that the lectionary skips verses 13-16 in Genesis 15, preferring instead to simply focus on the promise of God rather than God's warning about the difficulties that will come on Abraham's descendants. Abraham's offspring will be "aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years" (15:13). Faithfulness to God is no guarantee that life will be without hardship, nor is it a panacea for suffering and pain. Abraham's people would undergo generations of pain, not only as slaves in Egypt, but also as a result of their own apostasy and sin that would lead them into exile in Babylon many years after their arrival in the promised land. We could say, along with John Richardson, that they let those things happen, made them happen and then wondered what happened!

Yet here, right in the beginning of the story, God reminds Abraham that despite all that hardship and wandering, God would not back off on his promise. God was still going to bless the world through Abraham's offspring, even when those offspring weren't as faithful as their patriarch. Our sin is always debilitating but God's grace is always liberating. Even in the midst of the worst of our brokenness, God comes with an offer to come home, to receive forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, and then to walk again in faith. While we don't know what the future holds, what we do know is that God's constant promise to Abraham and his descendants, including his spiritual offspring, is always in force: "I will be with you" (Genesis 26:3).

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"There are two kinds of people: those who think they can and those who think they can't, and they're both right" (Henry Ford).

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Faith requires that we be willing to surrender ourselves to God and his will, trusting that God will keep his promises. Abraham's story tells us that faith is less of a leap than it is a single step in a God-ordained direction. If we think we can take that step, then we need to recognize that it won't be easy. If we think we can't take the step of faith, then we need to lean in and listen to God even more closely.

We won't know for sure, however, until we take the first step!