How To Respond To Unforeseen Circumstances

Genesis 26:1-14 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. 2 And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’ ” 10 Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

12 And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The LORD blessed him, 13 and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. 14 He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him.


INTRODUCTION

The story of the chosen family continues in this section. As we work our way through this second part of Genesis (the first part, chapters 1-11, tells the story of the beginning of the whole world, while the second part, chapters 12-50, tells the story of the beginning of one particular family), we are following Abraham’s family and the unfolding of the promises of God to them. To this point we’ve encountered some remarkable stories, haven’t we? With Holy Spirit inspired commentary, we’ve seen that Abraham and his offspring acted in ways that have ranged from sacrificially faithful and godly to selfishly treacherous and diabolical. And yet, while the people of the promise have come in and out of obedience, the God of the promise has remained perfectly steadfast, preserving this often wayward family through all kinds of situations.

So far we’ve moved through the story from Abraham to his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, to Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, and now back to Isaac. In this scene Isaac encountered a situation that was out of his control. It was a situation so significant that it forced him to alter his course. Thus, as we look in on the events of this passage and the unforeseen circumstances it presented Isaac with, we’re forced to ask (again) one of life’s big questions—the question of how we ought to respond when we come up against something significant and unexpected.

And to that end, the main things I hope to help you see concerning this passage and that question are: (1) while our circumstances often, necessarily determine our actions, they are not meant to determine our hearts, (2) God gives sufficient instructions to His people to navigate any circumstances in a manner pleasing to Him, and (3) God ultimately responds to His people according to His promises, not our actions. Let’s pray for God’s help now.

CIRCUMSTANCES OUGHT TO SHAPE OUR ACTIONS, NOT OUR HEARTS (1)

So how do you respond when unforeseen, difficult circumstances come your way? What happens when your job unexpectedly gets taken away or one of your kids gets sick or a really good friend moves or your favorite college unexpectedly stinks in both football and basketball while having an office next to a guy whose school’s teams are both doing really well? How do you respond to these kinds of unforeseen, challenging circumstances?

Well, again, that’s the situation Isaac found himself in. Life had been rolling along. He got married. His twin sons were born. There had been some bumps for sure, but so far, so good. Life was fairly predictable even while awaiting the fullness of God’s promised blessings. And then…1 …there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham…

The food ran out in the land. What was Isaac to do? He had to do something. The famine necessitated it. His circumstances dictated that he couldn’t simply go about life as usual. What would he do? What would you do?

Seemingly, as the first step in a larger plan, Isaac went to a Philistine held city called Gerar. This led to another unforeseen circumstance. In Gerar, as we’ll see in just a bit, Isaac was confronted with the reality that his wife, Rebekah, could be mistreated by Abimelech or another of the Philistines. Again, his circumstances forced him to act. He couldn’t not. But what would he do here?

We’ll see in a minute what he did, but first I want to offer a simple, straight-forward principle that ought to have guided Isaac in each of these circumstances, and all of God’s people in all of ours. The principle is this: while unexpected circumstances—especially difficult ones—may alter the course of our lives, our hearts must hold steadfast to the LORD.

Perhaps the most important (and haunting) passage I read last year to this effect was Psalm 112:6-7. It reads, “…the righteous will never be moved… 7 He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.”

This passage was haunting because as my circumstances were unexpectedly changed (over and over) I felt moved and afraid at times. And that meant, according to this passage, that I lacked righteousness in some significant way(s). The more moved and afraid I felt, the greater my lack of righteousness it would seem. Therefore it was important because it called me to repentance; to seek out the ways I was failing to trust in the LORD and turn from them.

How does that work? In simplest terms, to be righteous is to trust in, and therefore act on, the promises of God. Righteousness at its most basic level is about believing God in the deepest parts of our heart. Therefore, when hard things come our way, instead of feeling afraid and vulnerable and doing everything in our power to end (or get away from) the challenging circumstances, the righteous will remember God’s promises. Instead of being flooded with plans, we are flooded with promises. Instead of taking matters into our own hands or heading for the hills, we take up God’s Word and head to our knees.

God’s general promises are to work all things for our good (Romans 8:28), to make us more like Jesus through every trial (James 1:2-4), and to protect us from everything we need protecting from (1 Corinthians 10:13). What’s more, there are specific promises for every circumstance we might encounter. For instance, should we find ourselves in Isaac’s position, we will either be tempted to fear or we will remember the words of our Lord (Matthew 6:25–34),

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Genuine belief in God’s promises cancels out the fear. In other words, when we truly believe the promises of God for His people (when we are truly righteous), how can we be moved? How can we be afraid? How can we do anything but rest in the LORD? We might not know how He will fulfill His promises in any given moment, but we can be sure that He will.

In that way, Isaac had no idea how God would provide for him in the famine, but he needn’t have worried about whether or not he would have. Likewise, he had no idea how God might have protected both he and Rebekah from the evil schemes of the Philistines, but he needn’t have worried about whether or not God would have.

While our circumstances are often out of our control, they are never out of God’s. They are—every one of them—His instruments of grace for His people; and therein we find great glory and peace.

GOD GIVES SUFFICIENT INSTRUCTIONS CONCERNING HOW WE ARE TO HANDLE OUR CIRCUMSTANCES (2-5)

Because we know we live in a broken, fallen world, God’s people must not be surprised when we encounter difficult circumstances that are out of our control. Likewise, we should not be surprised that those circumstances will necessarily shape our actions at times. And because of God’s great promises to us we should not be surprised to hear that we must not let our surprising circumstances control our hearts.

But what does that mean practically? What are we supposed to do when life throws us a curveball? Should Isaac have just waited around for God to drop food from the sky? Was there any place for using his own wisdom and ingenuity? And that leads to the second main point I’d like you to see from this text.

The main thing for us to understand concerning these questions is that God always gives sufficient instructions concerning how we are to handle our changing circumstances. We see that clearly in this passage, and then more fully throughout the rest of the bible. I invite you to notice a few things.

First, God Told Isaac Exactly what to Do (and Not to Do) (2-3)

2 And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 Sojourn in this land

When famine hit the Promised Land, the temptation for everyone was to head to Egypt where things were better. We saw Isaac’s father, Abraham, do exactly that back in 12:10. This time, however, God directly instructed Isaac to stay in the land that would be his one day. “Do not look to Egypt to provide. Trust in Me. Stay in the land of the promise.

Second, God promised Isaac that He Would Be with Him (3)

More importantly than specific instructions, though, God promised to be with Isaac. What more would he want?!

2 And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 Sojourn in this land and I will be with you…

I’ll never forget a story I heard concerning this (although I forgot where I heard it from, some of the details, and whether or not it’s true). One time a farmer who lived out in the country invited his pastor over for dinner. He gave the pastor directions. The directions were fine, but the pastor got lost. He ended up missing the dinner entirely. When the pastor eventually found his way home, he called the farmer, apologized, and the two made plans for the next night. This time the farmer drove into town and got in the car with the pastor. The farmer didn’t give the pastor a new set of directions; he simply told him when the next turn was coming up. Directions are fine, but the presence of a guide is immeasurably better.

Being without food and water would be scary for anyone. These are not enviable circumstances. And yet God made the most precious promise possible to Isaac in the famine. He promised to be with Isaac. Ordinarily, a famine would mean uncertainty and a sense of accompanying vulnerability, but not with God. O, Grace, have you ever known the sweetness of the experience of the presence of God in trial? God is always with us, but sometimes He helps us to experience it in a more significant way. How precious that grace is. That was the constant cry of David in the Psalms when he faced hardship. May it be ours as well in the full knowledge that God will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5-6).

When God is pleased to make His presence known in times of trial, God’s people will find rest regardless of their circumstances. Isaac didn’t even need to ask for it. God simply gave it.

Third, God promised Isaac that He Would Bless Him (3-5)

3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

Not only did God promise to be with Isaac for provision, He also promised to be with him for blessing. God reiterated the promise He’d made to Isaac’s father, Abraham, promised that it would continue on through Isaac, and even expanded on it. Isaac would receive “lands” (plural), God would be with him (which we saw earlier, but was not specifically promised to Abraham), and Isaac would receive all of this because of God’s choice and Abraham’s faithfulness, not anything in him. How sweet is this mercy and grace of God?!

God gave sufficient instructions to Isaac concerning how he was to handle his circumstances. What about for us? We see the kind of sufficient guidance that God gave to His people throughout the OT and even up to the time of Jesus in Hebrews 1:1-2, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”.

What a great blessing it is for God to have made His will known to His people. Believe it or not, though, there’s an even greater promise as the New Covenant people of God found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Do you grasp the significance of that passage, Grace? It is a promise from God that He has given us all that we need to know to honor Him in every situation. The Bible, the completed Scripture, is an entirely sufficient guide for the people of God to know how to honor God no matter what kind of foreseen or unforeseen circumstances come our way. That’s awesome. God met directly with Isaac and gave him instructions on how to live. In much the same way, God meets with us and gives us instructions through the bible; the living and active (Hebrews 4:12), breathed out Word of God!

What do we do when something unforeseen comes our way (a sickness or layoff or relational difficulty or tanking sports team) and we don’t know what to do? We invite our brothers and sisters in Christ to go with us to the Word of God and with us in prayer and in full assurance that it is our sufficient guide.

GOD ULTIMATELY RESPONDS TO HIS PEOPLE ACCORDING TO HIS PROMISES, NOT OUR ACTIONS (6-14)

Our changing circumstances might alter our course, but they are not meant to alter our hearts. God gives sufficient instructions concerning how we ought to handle ourselves in every changing circumstance. And, finally, God ultimately responds to His people according to His promises, not our actions. Again, we see this clearly in Isaac in this passage. That is, this passage provides for us a lesson in how and how not to handle our circumstances as well as a lesson on how God responds to our handling.

A Lesson in How and How Not to Handle Your Circumstances (6-11)

I mentioned earlier that we’d see how Isaac would respond to his changing circumstances; specifically to the famine and the Philistines. To the famine God told Isaac to stay in the Promised Land and not go to Egypt. In Isaac’s response we find an example of how to honor God.

In v.2 we read God’s charge, “And the Lord appeared to [Isaac] and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you.” And then in v.6 we find his response, “So Isaac settled in Gerar.” Simply put, Isaac’s circumstances changed for the worse, he was tempted to trust in Egypt rather than God to provide, God commanded otherwise, promising to be with Isaac and bless him through the famine, and Isaac obeyed. He stayed in the Promised Land as he was told. Grace, it ought to be as simple as that. When we find ourselves in a difficult spot, we ought to believe and obey the commands and promises of God, knowing that God will be with us and bless us as we do. Herein, then, we find an example of how to handle our unforeseen circumstances.

But what would become of the second of Isaac’s unforeseen circumstance; the one with the Philistines?

7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’ ” 10 Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

Had Isaac heard of his father’s exploits? Did he know he was following in Abraham’s footsteps? Why do the pagans act with greater integrity than the man of God? We don’t really know the answers to these questions, but we do know that on the heels of his obedience, Isaac disobeyed. He did not love his wife well, he acted in fear rather than faith, he lied rather than tell the truth, and he trusted in himself rather than God to provide. And this, then, is a lesson in how not to handle unforeseen circumstances.

In both we’re confronted once again with the question of how we respond when our circumstances change unexpectedly. Where do you look? To what do you turn? In what do you seek provision, protection, and peace?

A Lesson in How God Responds to Our Handling of Our Circumstances (12-14)

Well, with all of that we would be right to wonder what God would do in response? How would He handle this mixed bag of obedience? In conclusion, I want to highlight the simple fact that God ultimately responds to His people in light of His promises, not our actions. O, what good news that is. As a people much like Isaac—a people who come so easily in and out of obedience—what other hope would we have?

Isaac obeyed some and disobeyed some, but God responded, not according to either, but according to His promise, with staggering blessing.

12 And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The LORD blessed him, 13 and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. 14 He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him.

100 fold! That’s amazing. More amazing still, however, is that fact that once again we have here a visible picture of the invisible reality of the gospel.

“So then [our salvation/favor with God] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

God does make promises concerning how He will respond to our actions, but ultimately it is His promises, not our actions that determine God’s response. That is the heart of the good news that Jesus won for us in His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Because Jesus perfectly obeyed in our place, God saves us to obey, not because we obeyed. All glory be to Christ!

As your circumstances swirl, then, remember this passage. Remember God’s promises and remember God’s gospel. Remember Jesus and the fact that His obedience is our hope, not our own. Remember that we are saved for good works, not by good works. And remember that because of this all glory belongs to God. Amen.