THE PRODUCE (ISHMAEL) BY THE EFFORT OF THE FLESH WITH THE LAW
Without exception, every Christian is like Abraham. After we were saved, we came to realize that God wants us to live a Christ-like life, a heavenly life, a victorious life, a life that constantly pleases God and glorifies Him. Yes, God does want us to live such a life, but He will work Christ into us to live for us a heavenly life to please Him and glorify Him. However, all of us focus on the intention and neglect the grace. The intention is that we live a heavenly life for the glory of God, and the grace is that God will work Christ into us for the fulfillment of His purpose. So firstly we rely upon our Lot, that which we brought with us from our natural background, trying to use him to fulfill God’s purpose in living a heavenly life for the glory of God. When God does not allow us to rely upon Lot, then we turn to Eliezer, expecting that he will enable us to live a heavenly life for God’s glory. Eventually God tells us, “I don’t want that. I don’t want anything objective but something subjective from within your own being.” Once we realize that God wants this, then we begin to exercise our own energy, our natural strength, to fulfill God’s purpose. We all have a Hagar, a maid who is always willing to cooperate with us. We may not have the law given by Moses, but we do have many self-made laws. We all are lawgivers and make laws for ourselves.
Let us consider some examples of these self-made laws. Perhaps you say that never again will you lose your temper with your husband or have a negative attitude towards him. This is your first commandment. The second commandment is that, as a Christian lady and a Christian wife, you need to be nice, sweet, and humble. Your third commandment is never to criticize others, and the fourth is to always love people and never to hate them. These self-made laws are our Hagars. Whether we succeed or not in keeping our laws makes no difference in the eyes of God because in His eyes even our successes do not count. In the past years some sisters nearly succeeded in fulfilling their self-made laws. They had a strong character, a strong will, and a strong intention, and all day long they tried their best to control their temper and to be nice, sweet, and humble. Although such sisters might have been successful at this, what they produced was just an Ishmael. These sisters were happy with their Ishmael and, in a sense, they were proud of him. The principle is exactly the same with the brothers.
Although we may gain an Ishmael who is good in our eyes, we have the deep sensation that we are missing something. We have lost God’s presence. Moreover, this Ishmael will always mock the spiritual things (21:9). On the one hand, we do not like this mocking element, but, on the other hand, we still feel that since Ishmael was produced by us, he is not that bad. But, having lost God’s presence, we find ourselves in trouble. Just as the descendants of Ishmael are a problem to Israel today, so the Ishmael that we have produced remains a problem to us. Once we are clear about this, we would pray, “Lord, keep me in Your grace. Keep me in the promise. Whether Your promise will be fulfilled today or many years from now does not matter. I only want to care for Your promise.” Although it is easy to say this, it is not easy to live it.
What is true in our Christian life is also true in our Christian work. The New Testament tells us that after we are saved we need to preach the gospel and bear fruit. But how much natural effort and strength are exercised in the matter of so-called soul winning! Many kinds of Hagars, all of whom were acquired in Egypt, are used to win souls. Every worldly means of soul-winning is a Hagar. Yes, you may use Hagar to win souls, but what kind of souls will you win? They will not be Isaac but Ishmael. According to the New Testament, the proper fruit-bearing and gospel preaching are by the overflow of the inner life, by God working Christ into, through, and out of us. This means that the proper gospel preaching is by Christ as grace to us.
There are a great many Hagars in the Christian world today. Do you want to live a Christian life by yourself? It is better for you to stop. Do you want to preach the gospel with worldly means? It is better that you stop this as well. Stop living the Christian life by yourself and stop working for the Lord with worldly means. Then you may say, “If I stop, I’ll be finished.” That is right. That is exactly what God expects. Although Abraham fully answered God’s call when he was seventy-five, God did not do anything with him until he was ninety-nine because until then he still had his natural strength. He had Lot and Eliezer to rely upon and Hagar to match his natural strength. Eventually God was forced to stay away from him. Likewise, as long as we have a Lot and an Eliezer to rely upon, or a Hagar to endeavor with, God cannot do anything. As long as we still have the strength to produce an Ishmael, God cannot do anything. After the producing of that Ishmael, He will stay away for a period of time. When Abraham was ninety-nine years of age, according to his figuration, he was a dead person. Romans 4:19 says that “he considered his own body already become dead, being about a hundred years old.” Romans 4 also indicates that Sarah was out of function. Both Abraham and Sarah were fully convinced that they were finished and could do nothing themselves. At that point God came in.
All of the revival preachers stir up people, telling them to live for Christ and to work for Him. But in our ministry we are saying that you have to stop living a Christian life by yourselves and doing a Christian work with worldly means. Do not be bothered at our saying this, for regardless how much we tell people to stop, hardly anyone will stop. If anyone will stop trying to live a Christian life by himself or to work for the Lord by worldly means, blessed is he. It is not easy to stop your self-effort in the Christian life and your natural zeal in Christian work. Although it is easy to be called by God, it is most difficult to stop your natural zeal. If the Lord would come in to stop you, you might say, “No, Lord. Look at today’s situation. Hardly anyone works for You in what I am burdened to do. I’m nearly the only one. How could I stop my work for You?” But blessed is the one who will stop, for when you stop, God comes in. The end of humanity is the beginning of divinity. When our human life ends, the divine life begins.
When Abraham was eighty-six years of age, he still had too much of his own strength, causing God to wait for another thirteen years. Perhaps God, sitting in the heavens and looking at Abraham, said, “Abraham, you are now eighty-six, but I still have to wait for another thirteen years.” While you are praying that God will do something, God is praying that you will stop. While you are saying, “O Lord, help me to do something,” God is saying, “It would really be good for you to stop.” While Abraham was so busy on earth, God might have looked at him and said, “Poor Abraham, you don’t need to be that busy. Won’t you stop and let Me come in? Please stop and let Me do it. Since you won’t stop, I have to wait until you are ninety-nine years old.” God waited until Abraham was a dying person out of function. Then He came in and could say, “Now is My start. Now is My time to begin something.”
The produce of the effort of the flesh was Ishmael, but Ishmael was rejected by God (17:18-19; 21:10-12a; Gal. 4:30). Not only was Ishmael rejected by God, but he also frustrated God’s appearing. Our experience today tells us the same thing, for our Ishmael breaks our fellowship with God and keeps us from God’s appearing. We see by this that it is not a matter of what we do or of what we are; it is altogether a matter of whether or not we have God’s presence. Do you have God’s appearance all the time? We must forget our doing and our working and take care of God’s appearing. When God’s appearing is with us, we are in the grace, in the covenant of grace. But most Christians today only care for their doing and work, not for God’s appearing and presence. Although they may produce many Ishmaels, they do not have God’s presence. What we need is God’s presence. What we need is not the outward fruit of our outward work but the inward appearing of our God. Do you have the presence of God within you? This is a most crucial test.
THE PRODUCE (ISAAC) BY THE PROMISE OF GRACE
The produce of the promise of grace, which is Isaac, is the seed for the fulfillment of God’s purpose (17:19; 21:12b). The seed for the fulfillment of God’s purpose is nothing less than Christ Himself wrought by God into, through, and out of us. What God has wrought into us brings in Christ as the seed (Gal. 3:16). This seed will eventually become our land. Now we have the seed as our life and the land as our living. Within we have Christ as the seed by whom we live, and without we have Christ as the land in whom we live. This is the church life with Christ as our life. This is the only way for us to fulfill God’s purpose.
No longer should we consider this story in Genesis merely as a kind of prediction but as an allegory of today’s situation. Grace, law, and our natural strength are all here, and we are always being tempted to exercise our natural strength to coordinate Hagar to produce an Ishmael to fulfill God’s purpose. But we have a safeguard—to check whether or not we have God’s presence in our daily life and in our Christian work. The safeguard is not how much fruit we have; it is God’s presence. Do you have the assurance, the confidence, that day after day Christ is being wrought into your being to be the inner life by whom you live? Do you have the assurance that this Christ is even becoming the realm in which you live? This realm is the church life. We need to have the seed and the land, the proper Christian life plus the church life. We need to live by Christ within and we need to live in Christ without. This is the proper way for us to fulfill God’s purpose. We need to see this not for others but for ourselves. Abraham’s biography is our autobiography, and the allegory of the two women is a portrait of our life. As we live today, we need Christ as the seed and as the land.
(Abraham—Called by God, Chapter 10, by Witness Lee)