Creating Ishmaels


There was a time when I began to see in the light the difference between Christ and Adam, between the old man and the new man, between flesh and Spirit. I mean I really saw it clearly, in the light of the Lord, and it shocked me and changed everything I understood about the gospel. I loved to talk about it, to preach and write about it. I saw the difference between Adam, the first birth, who cannot please God, and Christ, with His new birth in the soul, that always produces fruits pleasing to His Father. I saw and felt something of the enormous division or gulf between these two natures, or kinds. The Lord allowed me to see it in His great mercy to me, because I was desperate and hungry and longing to see something real. He had pity on me and opened my eyes. 

Nevertheless, I must tell you that I preached and spoke and wrote about this for years, WITHOUT truly allowing the Lord to work this division in my own heart; or you could say, without my obeying all that was implied and required by it. I saw it, I knew it was real, but I didn’t then see or understand the need for Him to strike my own heart with this great sword, to judge everything in me by it, every thought, word, and deed. I preached and wrote much about how Adam cannot please God, how His worship is the worship of Cain, how he is the wrong nature, the wrong birth, how he walks in a false light, and is by nature enmity with God, unable to know the things of God, etc. I preached and wrote about how only the nature and life of Christ can please the Father, and how Christ’s light must shine in our hearts, and His life be formed in us. But for several years as I was teaching these things, I (unknowingly) did not allow the Lord to show me the measure to which this first birth, this adamic nature, was still working and reigning in me. I often said that Adam was spiritually dead, but he wasn’t yet dead to me. I loved and embraced the light when it came to teach me true things, deep things, but I neither loved nor embraced it when it secretly manifested that the mind, desires, pride, and selfishness of Adam were still quite alive in me, still prevailing and reigning in my own heart.

I knew how to make many helpful diagrams that illustrated the difference between the natural man and spiritual man. I drew these things on the white board almost every time I taught, showing and declaring that the cross was like a great division between the first and the second birth, between the fallen nature of man and a new life that is gained in Christ, and that these two lives or natures are typified by Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. I always said that the first birth is rejected and the second birth is accepted, and that there is no treaty or peace or mixture between these two seeds. I spoke continually about these things, because, in the mercy of God, I had seen them to be true in that light that never lies. 

But then there was another day, several years after this initial spiritual awakening, when the Lord began to take my diagrams off the whiteboard (so to speak), and to draw them on my heart. I mean, it was like the Lord took my own diagrams, and compared them with the reality that was actually living, and moving, and motivating all of my thoughts, words, desires, and actions. And this, my friend, is when I discovered (with painful clarity) that I had seen much more than I had actually lived. That I had confused vision with possession. That I had climbed mount Pisgah with Moses, and looked out over the Promised Land from afar, and rejoiced at the view. But I had not yet crossed the Jordan River, I had not walked in, lived in, and possessed what I had seen. 

And then, suddenly, I began to find and feel in myself the presence of that fallen nature that I had preached against for years. For years I had boldly declared the wicked nature of fallen man, and had attempted to prove from Scriptures, from diagrams, and from types and shadows in the Old Testament, that he was fallen from God, rejected by God, unable to please Him, enmity with Him, and that the cross was his only appointed end. And I very easily could have continued talking and writing about these things for the rest of my life. Many people do that. Many Christian leaders catch real glimpses of spiritual things, and never cease to speak of them, share them, and rejoice at the sight of them. Twenty, thirty, fifty years of ministry, repeating and re-describing a few glimpses that they have (in mercy) received of something that is indeed true, but that is still far from being their experience. I mean they preach what they have seen to be true of Christ, even while a contrary nature remains predominant in their hearts.

Now there are many severe warnings about this very thing in Scripture, which (of course) I assumed applied to other people, and not to myself. There are warnings about doing great things in Christ’s name, even miraculous things, and not ever truly knowing Him. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me,’” (Mat. 7:21-23). There are strong warnings from Paul about understanding all mysteries, having faith to move mountains, even giving your body to be burned, but still not POSSESSING love, which is the nature of God, and therefore truly possessing “nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) These are strong warnings, serious warnings, and we all assume they don’t apply to our particular case. But the Lord made me understand that seeing love and having love, are not the same thing. Believing in Christ, and knowing Christ are not the same thing. 

What does it mean to truly know God? What does it mean to really possess what we profess to be true? It means experiencing the life, nature, and government of God to reign in the heart of man. Knowing the Lord is a sharing of His life, feeling His life reign in us, being moved and motivated, taught, changed, and constrained by His resurrected life, light, and love. Knowing the Lord means we live in His Spirit of love, and are driven by it in the same way that a sailboat is driven by the wind.

Now this of course begins in man like a tiny grain of mustard seed, or like a new and living law that we find in our inward man that is contrary to the law of sin and death in our members. It begins small, but it is pure, good, and alive, and it is meant to grow. But too often (and this was my case), though we continue to believe in those first glimpses of truth, in those first convictions, discoveries, and manifestations of the Spirit of Truth, we do not stay low and small enough in our own eyes for the Lord to continue the work that He began. We don’t truly allow the talent to increase. We don’t truly allow the heavenly leaven to fill all three loaves. We don’t bow low, and stay low in humility and resignation, while the light works in judgment against every hidden thing of Esau’s mountain. And for this reason, we never truly know the first birth slain, nor the new birth raised to reign in us. 

Again I say, the true knowledge of God is the sharing and experiencing of His life in the soul. It is the kingdom of God reigning in the heart of man. It is a participation in His life as it lives and moves in us. It is the eye of God becoming our light, the love of God becoming the reason behind everything we do, the truth of God becoming a line that we would not cross to save our life. Paul says, “For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth” (2 Cor 13:8) Knowing God is living as a branch on His vine, or as a member of His body that only moves in and by the will of the Head. 

And if this has not become our true experience, we must be very honest with ourselves. There is nothing more important than being honest and humble about the true state of our hearts. But I know very well that this is difficult, especially for those who consider themselves leaders or teachers in the church. I mean people who have already created a ministry, without knowing the kingdom of God reigning in their hearts. People who have planted a new church, without experiencing a new nature. People who have gained great knowledge of the Scriptures, but are without that life and power that wrote them. Yes this is hard, this is exceptionally difficult, and I can tell you that it was very hard for me. It’s painful to see that something we gave birth to is not the right seed. That something we made has grown big and strong apart from the strength of the Lord. And after perhaps many years of creating, and building, and investing in our creation, the Lord appears to expose our Ishmael, and aims his axe at the root of our tree. 

It’s like Abraham, who for thirteen years thought he had seen the promise of the Lord fulfilled in his son Ishmael. The Lord had promised him a son, a seed of blessing to all nations; and Abraham, in his own strength, and from his own resources, ways, and wisdom, had at last brought a son into this world. For thirteen years this son grew up in his house, and Abraham loved him, and assumed that he was the son of the promise. But then the Lord appeared to Abraham again and said, “Abraham, you will have a son, and you shall name Him Isaac, and in his seed all the nations will be blessed.” And Abraham cried out, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (Gen 17:18) In other words, “I already have a son! Why can’t Ishmael be the birth that you accept?”

This is what we do. We give birth to our own ideas, our own dreams, our own ministries, plans, and desires. We use our own resources, our own natural gifts, and our own comprehension of Scripture to birth something that we call Christianity, or ministry, or God’s work in the world. And then we love what we have created, cherish it, raise it as our own, and want to call it the work of God, the blessing of the Lord, the fulfillment of His promise. But then the Lord appears and says, “I’m looking for another Son, a different Son, and I don’t see Him in anything you’ve built. Nothing you have built has His nature, His fragrance, His life, power, truth, and righteousness.” And this is when our heart cries out with Abraham, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” And the Lord’s answer is always the same, if we can bear to listen: “Who is Ishmael? The son of promise is named Isaac. Ishmael is something that YOU have made, with your abilities, and your mind, and your resources, by uniting yourself with an Egyptian.”

When the Lord told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, He said to him, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.” Wait, what about Ishmael? He was certainly still alive on the earth. “I said, take Isaac, your only son, to the land of Moriah.”

Do you see what I’m saying? It is so easy to create Ishmaels, and to call them the work of God, the miracle of God, the son of God, the blessing of God, the ministry of God, the promise of God. But if what we build is not built by God, if it is not the increase of His chosen Seed in us and through us, then we will sooner or later have to face the fact that we have labored in vain. If what we have created and loved and dedicated ourselves to did not spring up from the very life of the promised Son, then we have taken a true promise and applied it to the wrong birth. We have mistaken vision for possession, we have run ahead of the light, we have perhaps seen something from a distance, but have not yet known its life and growth and reign in us.

God is always looking for the presence and life of the one promised Son. And we as Christians, and especially those who are ministers and leaders, can certainly learn a lot, build a lot, preach a lot, and even see a lot in the light that comes from God; but there is still only one Seed, one life, one Son, that fulfills the Father’s expectation. And it often happens that, when the Lord appears, we proudly hold up our Ishmael before Him, and then are shocked to find that he is not the right birth. 

God isn’t looking for what man can do for God, but what God can do in man. He looks in us to find His Son, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I don’t mean a mere belief in His Son, but to find the very life, nature, light, power, love, meekness, and righteousness of Christ formed and governing the heart of man. Not just spiritual knowledge and spiritual sight. Not big ministries that came out of the wrong womb. No, God is looking in you for a very particular birth, a very specific kingdom, a very distinct nature to be the source and life of all that works in you. And until He finds Isaac, He has no choice but to show you that everything else is Ishmael.