Edited and supplied by the Golden Candlestick Trust.
"By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out unto a
place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out,
not knowing whither he went" (Heb. 11:8).
"He went out, not knowing whither..." Those three words
are a very apt description of the Christian life, in all its
phases: its beginning, its progress and development, and in its
consummation - not knowing whither.
We have, at the beginning of the Christian life, our own ideas as
to what it is going to be, what it is going to mean; perhaps some
ideas as to the way that we are going to take, and where it will
lead us. We do not go on very far or very long before we begin to
discover that we have been launched upon a mighty sea that we have
never crossed before and for which there has not been put into our
hands any answer to the questions: Whither? and What? and Why?
It is as though the Captain of a ship had just called to us and
asked us if we are coming. Will we come?
We answer, "Where are you going?"
He says, "That is my business, not yours."
"What shall we meet on the way?"
"Nothing to tell you about that."
"How long will it take?"
"Sorry, I can give you no information; you must put yourself
confidently into my hands, and leave all those questions for me to
answer and to be answered as we go along."
The Christian life is like that; it is like that at the
beginning. It has to be like that. What we have read about faith,
and Abraham's faith in particular, is just like that. Someone has
spoken of Abraham's call and venture as being with 'sealed
orders'. We know what that means. Either the Captain of a ship, or
the leader of an expedition, is just handed an envelope; he is
told not to open this or read it for so long, or until he reaches
such and such a point. All he is told to do is to go, and to go in
a certain direction. He does not know what for, he does not know
what the destination is; he knows nothing but this, that he has to
start out in a certain direction, under command, and leave the
rest for the time being.
It is like that in the Christian life from the beginning. All the
way along, again and again, we are tempted to ask, if we do not
actually ask, "Where is this leading? What is the meaning of this?
Why this?" And no answer comes back. All we have is this: there
has been born in us a sense of call, a sense of urge, a
compelling, a sense of destiny. Paul called it 'being
apprehended', and that is a policeman's word; perhaps none of you
know anything about that, but you may have seen it happen. And you
know that when that hand of the law comes upon a shoulder or an
arm, there is nothing to do but to yield to that urge. You are
apprehended, and more than the power of a single human hand has
got hold of you; all the authority and the power of the State is
in that hand, and you have just got to yield; it is an
Peter and John and the rest would have put it in another way,
they would have said: "I heard the call, 'Come, follow!' And the
call carried with it something irresistible; I just had to go."
However it is, whatever we may call it, it is like that: an inborn
sense that we no longer have our lives in our own hands. Someone
has taken that prerogative out of our hands into His hands, but it
is something inward. It is like the migratory instinct in birds:
it wakens and there is no rest, there is no staying, it is urging,
forcing on. And it is realised that to resist that urge is to
frustrate destiny, and to curtail something that is more than
human ambition, for this was not the way of our choice; this was
not the will, the way that we would have taken, indeed, we would
Naturalists tell us of certain birds, at the migratory season,
who go so far; they go down to Cornwall where they feel there is
some kind of an answer to that inward craving for warmth, the
warmer climate. A fear has come into them of the long journey,
crossing the sea, and all that is involved. They think that they
have found the answer nearer at hand and so they just go so far
and settle down, and perish in the winter. I think it is a
parable. There is a lot in this letter to the Hebrews about that,
is there not: its urge, "Let us go on..." let us go on; and the
warning, "Accept nothing less than what the urge foreshadows".
That was Abraham.
Abraham was mastered by this right through. He did come into the
land it was quite true, what the Bible calls Canaan, the Land of
Promise; but you notice he was a very old man when Isaac was
born, and a much older man when Isaac's son Jacob was born, but he
had never ceased to live in a tent up to that time; and he died
living in a tent. "He looked for a city...". There were plenty of
cities in Canaan, but it says, 'he looked for a city whose
architect was God'; these were not God's cities. The thing was
still going on, this strange something that you and I ought to
know something about, that we cannot ever force ourselves to
settle short of that to which we have been called. It is like
that, but what a lot it involves.
What a lot it involved for Abraham - the letting go - which is
the great problem and difficulty of our lives, is it not? To let
go. To let go the temporal for the spiritual. To let go the
earthly for the heavenly. To let go the immediate for the eternal
- that is to enter another world from the one with which we are
familiar. That is to submit to new, unaccustomed principles of
life, to obey new motives; it is another world. Oh, the conflicts
that rage around this migration, round this going "knowing not
whither". And the conflict begins and has its real basis in our
own souls, what the New Testament calls, our 'flesh'. Is it not
true that this natural life (which means the soul, the flesh)
craves for security? And the suggestion of 'knowing not' just runs
counter to all our instincts for security.
Look at Abraham. In Chaldea there were two thousand deities: that
was his natural life, and every one of those deities was dedicated
to the sentient life in some form. It was the life that you could
see, that you could handle, that you could have immediately for
your gratification. So many are the aspects of this natural life
that it all is this: "No, do not ask us to venture into the
unknown; we must have the known. We must have what we can handle,
what we can see, and what is here and now". That is the natural
soul, is it not? We are like that. And when we are called out into
a life and a realm knowing not whither, the battle rises in our
very being between heaven and earth, eternity and time, the
temporal and the spiritual.
It was a marvellous thing that this urge was such in Abraham that
his two thousand deities lost all their power, although they
offered him immediate, earthly, temporal gratification. "He
obeyed... and went, not knowing..." - what a tremendous thing for
a man in such a setting and such an upbringing. No wonder his
father Terah could not go through with it! There is that of Adam
in every one of us that cannot go through with it, unless we know
in our hearts this tremendous something that we cannot describe or
define, but it is there. When the day of the great ordeal and
trial comes, and everything seems to be testing, as it did
Abraham, and apparently contradicting the call, and everything
seems to cry that a mistake had been made, that it was all an
illusion, and we allow these thoughts, ideas and suggestions to
influence us, then we begin to decline, and we find ourselves in a
cul-de-sac, in a back-water, off the main road. Then something
touches us again of the old call. We touch something in the Word
of God which was our very life before and that thing in us revives
again, and comes up, and says, "We must go on! It is no use, we
must get out of this and go on!" Do you know that? It is there.
And it is not an 'it'; it is the Spirit of God, striving, urging
I was saying that the conflict is in our very constitution: we
crave security, we crave sight, we crave solidity, we crave the
present; and all this says, "No, no, you are launched out" and
still it is not knowing whither, in a very real sense.
Not only do we find the conflict in our own make-up, especially
if we are of the more practical turn. The world also helps us a
lot; the world will help us to stay with it. If we will go its
way, it will befriend us; if we can be found to have in us any
hankering for this world in position, in prosperity, in the
satisfying of an ambition, in security, the world will help us, it
will prosper us. We will get on if we go that way - the world will
minister to us. Doors will be open: facilities will be granted; we
shall be thought to be getting on, but, stay! Take a cross-section
of life, and ask, over a given period: How much really of the
Lord, and for the Lord, has filled that period and how much of
this life, and how much of this world and its affairs? How much?
What is the percentage of my spending and being spent for that
which will not appear again in glory? And what is the proportion
of that which answers to my essential call? I know this may raise
practical problems and questions. But fundamentally there is this:
this world is no friend whatever to those going out not
knowing whither; it will be very friendly to us if we will
take its way, but it will keep us back.
Our sense of destiny, not only in life but in vocation, should be
more powerful than any other motive and interest. So much so that
all that this world can offer of its pretended securities is as
nothing - "that I may know Him... that I may press on
toward the mark, to the on-high calling of God".
There are other things to come in the way. There are, as we have
said, those seeming contradictions that are so testing. He came
into the land, whither the urge had led him. When he was there,
what did he find? Not what he naturally would have expected;
indeed it was not long before he found a famine. A contradiction
in circumstances, apparently. Or, a Terah - the cautious element
in life. I imagine that Terah was always cautioning his son:
"Don't be an extremist! Don't be unusual, don't be different from
the majority. Don't go too far! Be careful!" Do you know, while
there is wisdom and discretion in the spiritual life, this way
with the Lord is a tremendously bold venture that throws quite a
lot of caution to the winds, which is justified. Think of all
those servants of God who have launched out on this sea, not
knowing whither, that have put home, wife, family, and worldly
prospects on one side and simply the urge of destiny on the other,
and have chosen this, and gone. And God has vindicated, taken
responsibility there. It has been like that with very, very many.
There is a kind of caution that can rob us of our eternal calling.
Terah may impede our progress by that, and cause us to stay in
Haran, until that is finally out of the way, and we can go on.
Or, it might be that feature represented by Lot, ever
accompanying us. As John Bunyan would put it, that 'divided
heart'. Yes, he will have the good, but not the other; he will
have the advantages of this way, but not the disadvantages; he has
got his eye upon how this will serve him. He has a sense of right
and righteousness, but you know, it is possible, if the word about
Lot means anything, to have a very intense sense of righteousness,
and to be in the wrong place. "Vexed with the wicked..." - "his
righteous soul vexed with the wickedness". Yes, every day. This
was because he was out of the place of the will of God. He ought
never to have been there. We can be very righteous, and not be
where the Lord would have us, in the way. A divided heart is
always very near at hand and can be accompanying a fellow of the
way! Well, so it was with Abraham, but he went on.
He encountered many other difficulties: the deadness of his own
body; the deadness of Sarah's womb - that is made much of in the
letter to the Romans. There were great difficulties to the
realisation of the purpose and the reaching of the end. And every
one of them, you notice, was in this realm of the senses! "You
see, I can't because of... and then this and that and that... it
just cannot be." If you argue humanly, it never can be. You and I
will never start on this road, we will never take the new step and
stages of committal in this way, and we will never reach the end
if we argue like that about human possibilities. We have started
on a humanly impossible road! The sooner we settle that the
Well, you see, these things beset the beginning of the Christian
life. Be made aware at once that it is like this, it is a
committal in utter faith to One who calls you. And that committal
includes and involves the confidence that He who has called you
will do it and can do it.
The same arises along the way in the different stages of the
Christian life. We come right up against a new crisis, a new
demand, something that we have never met before, and all these
things arise; it is a battle. "Not knowing whither" is still the
law and it is going to be; it is answering the Divine urge within.
And when we come to the end it will be like that: Not knowing
whither. John says, 'We know not what we shall be'; "We know
not what we shall be, except that when He is manifested we shall
be like Him, and see Him as He is". And this holds good of our
vocation, our calling. We have more than once met with men of
years; men whose life has been well-nigh spent and they said to
me: "I once felt that I ought to take the way you have taken; that
I ought to give my life to the service of God, but I weighed up
the whole thing, as to what it involved, and I said, 'No'. Today,
my life has missed the way! I am a disappointed man." Oh, here is
a warning: did you ever have that sense of call and destiny, that
you knew came from God? It was not what you desired, it was not in
line with some ambition of yours, but you knew the Lord called
you. Are you following it through? Where are you today? The Lord
may be speaking a real word of recall, of warning. We are going to
find this true in our vocation. It is quite impossible to man; we
don't know what it means, and where it is leading, and what is
going to be the outcome of it all; but we do know one thing: that
there is that in us which is still not dead, it is still alive -
it is our original sense of vocation. Listen to it, and respond.
And yet, having said all that under those three words, "not
knowing whither..." - don't we know? Oh yes, we do. On the
way, all that I have said may be true, and we may be in that
quandary many times, not knowing, and having to move in sheer
faith - not in something unreal, but because of that which has
happened to us and in us, and is still there. That may all be
true, and yet, what is the end? Stephen said about Abraham, "The
God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham...". That could be
paraphrased: 'The God out of glory and unto glory appeared unto
Abraham' - the God who is in the beginning, with all His
movements, the God of glory, and has at the end glory as His
object. Glory compasses the beginning and the end: the God of
Does that sound remote or abstract? Well, listen again to words
with which you are so familiar. Perhaps they have lost their
charm. It is clearly stated that we were ordained to be unto the
glory of His grace, and unto the praise of His glory; that is the
end. 'The glory of His grace' - that, then, comes right into this
present mysterious experience that we cannot explain, and we know
not why, whither, or what. Grace - the glory of His grace! The
praise of His glory!
What is your greatest fear? I tell you what it ought to be. It
ought to be that in the end you should have come short of the
glory of God, that glory bound up with your calling, that you
should finish up having missed the way, having chosen some
alternative. The Lord help us. Forgive this if it sounds too
serious and too solemn a word, but I cannot help it. I just have
to say what the Lord tells me to say. And we all need, do we not,
from time to time, to be made to listen to the fundamental call: