Leading churches

When the Journey Gets Tough

A lesson from Abram’s mistakes and repentance in Genesis 12.

Originally published in The Movement magazine for EFCA One 2023. 

In early 1993, a friend named Bill—who worked in management for Ameritech (now AT&T)—gave me my first portable cell phone, a Motorola bag phone. In 1996, I upgraded to a Motorola Star Tac flip phone. Now, I use a Samsung Galaxy. 

Something has changed over the 30 years that I have used a cell phone: I could not take photos with my first two phones. Now, I can use my phone not only to take photos, but edit and make major alterations to my photos too. They almost look better than real life.     

A drought will always reveal your true character.

Unlike modern technology and the filters we see on social media, the Bible offers us unedited versions of people. No special major alterations. No photo manipulation. We see major characters like King David, King Solomon, Peter, Paul and Abram (Abraham) just as they are. They are not perfect, and we can always learn from their successes as well as their failures.  

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and asks, “Will you trust me and leave your country, your people and your father’s household and travel to the land I will show you? Will you leave comfort and move into discomfort? Will you leave the known for the unknown?” 

Abram begins the journey of learning to trust God. But Abram’s trust is about to get tested, and—spoiler alert—he is not going to do well in this test. We will see that with a raw, unedited look at him.  

The story in Genesis 12 has four scenes, and I believe all of us church and ministry leaders can learn a lot from this part of Abram’s story.   

Scene one: the famine  

“Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.” Genesis 12:10 

Droughts happen in many forms. We have relationship droughts—a good friend moves away, or you move to a new city and you experience a season of loneliness.   

We have financial droughts—because work dries up, sales leads evaporate, layoffs happen, enrollment drops, people stop generously supporting the church, inflation skyrockets, a car needs to be repaired or an unexpected medical expense comes your way.  

We have emotional droughts. Perhaps as you read this, you are crawling through the dry valley of depression or loneliness.  

We even have spiritual droughts—God feels distant or irrelevant, and you feel spiritually stuck. Our hearts become lukewarm about our relationship with Him. 

A drought will always reveal your true character. This drought in verse 10 exposes Abram’s character, and he does what any independent, self-sufficient, fearful person would do: he devises a plan. 

Scene two: the plan 

“As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” Genesis 12:11-13 

Abram knows that his wife is beautiful and that the powerful Egyptians are notorious for wanting to marry the most beautiful women. If there is a husband in the way, it is okay to murder that husband. So what does Abram say to his beautiful wife in verse 13?  

“Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”  

Abram develops a plan to protect himself. He says, “We will pretend that we are not married. Instead of being the husband that someone wants to kill, let’s pretend that I’m your brother because brothers carry the privilege of negotiating marriage proposals for their sisters. Someone from the Egyptians will want to negotiate with me as your brother in order to marry you.”

Abram chose to lie, but he cannot choose the consequences for his lie.

Welcome to the raw, unedited look at Abram without any special effects or alterations: in this moment, he doesn’t trust God to look out for him and his wife. He plans to lie, and ask his wife to lie, in order to protect them. Though she is his half-sister, it is deceptive to frame their relationship like this—because she is his wife, and that is the most important aspect of his relationship with her. 

When Abram faces this challenging situation of a famine and the border crossing into Egypt, he reflexively turns to his default setting. Not prayer, or humble trust, or obedience to God—his default setting is a self-protective lie.   

From the outside, it’s easy to see that Abram needs to trade self-help for God-help.  

But what happens when you face a drought or a trial? What is the default setting that you turn to? Whether it’s deception, work, entertainment, food or anything else, we could all learn from Abram to abandon our default settings in exchange for running to God. Because our default settings inevitably lead to messy situations. 

Scene three: the mess 

“When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. ‘What have you done to me?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!’ Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.” Genesis 12:14-20 

Abram is in a jam. He is getting royal treatment and all kinds of wedding gifts from Pharaoh, but I imagine he wants to return them and get his wife back. 

Abram chose to lie, but he cannot choose the consequences for his lie.  

How will Abram get out of this mess and solve this problem? He won’t. But God steps in and inflicts “serious diseases” on Pharoah’s house (Genesis 12:17). 

And somehow Pharaoh figures out that it’s Sarai. He calls Abram into the palace, and I imagine that he chews Abram out like a drill instructor at boot camp before kicking him out of Egypt (Gen 12:18-20).  

Abram is kicked out of Egypt with everything he had—including all the wedding presents.

Yet God was faithful to restore him and bring him back.

God does not bless Abram because of Abram. God blesses Abram despite Abram. The “sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels” are not because of Abram’s behavior or choices, but because of God’s mercy. 

Instead of punishing Abram, God steps into this chaos and gives something to Abram that is undeserved. He rescues Abram’s wife and generously gives Abram a lot of wealth as well.  

There is a connection between Abram’s journey and ours. Though our sins are great, God’s mercy is greater. God cleanses our sin by removing it from us as far as the east is from the west, and He lavishes us in His grace and mercy. 

Scene four: the empty space 

Before the drought and the Egypt excursion, Abram built an altar to God in the hills east of Bethel and he called on the name of the Lord. In Genesis 13, we get a glimpse of what happened to Abram and Sarai after they left Egypt: 

“So, Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord.” Genesis 13:1-4 

Abram returned to Bethel, calling on the name of the Lord.  

Today, you may be on a difficult journey. You may be in a drought, or in your own version of Egypt. You may be feeling discouraged in your life and ministry, unsure of what to do next, feeling like you have messed up in an irreversible way.  

Abram faltered, reverting to his default setting of deceit instead of trusting God. Yet God was faithful to restore him and bring him back. 

If you are faltering on the journey—leave Egypt and come home. Come now, even while things are messed up. Just humble yourself and come, completely unedited. Call on the name of the Lord and trust Him with every circumstance in your life. Our heavenly Father loves you and promises to meet you wherever you are.

Carlton P. Harris

Acting President, EFCA

Carlton started ministry in 1981 as a pastoral intern at First Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, Kansas, and has spent 40 years in church leadership. He began his role at the EFCA national office leading the ReachNational division in September 2021 and was named acting president of the EFCA in April 2024. He and his wife, Carol, are members at New Hope Church in New Hope, Minnesota.

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