A few years ago, I was in Paris enjoying one of my favorite activities, window shopping. Strolling in a neighborhood with many small and interesting stores, one display caught my eye. In this window was a beautiful nesting doll, a symbol of fertility in Russia. Normally, I’m used to seeing these dolls with just a few pieces nesting inside –- perhaps 5 to 8. The doll in this window must have had well over 60 pieces, which is many more than I could have imagined possible.
This elaborate and intricate work of art seems to be a fitting metaphor for the promise God gave Abraham and Sarah, a promise they didn’t have the power to imagine. It’s also a way to expand our understanding of the promises God gives to us.
God had promised Abraham and Sarai not only a son, but a much bigger family. That family would be more numerous than the stars in the sky, blessed by a covenant that would cover descendants generation after generation:
God took him outside and said, “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You’re going to have a big family, Abram!” Genesis 15:5 MSG
How many of us can relate to the amazement and hope Abraham must have felt when God gave him the promise of a child? There is something so powerful and compelling about having children. In Abraham and Sarah’s time, children were tied closely to social status and security — to be childless was to be vulnerable. While the social norms are different for us, the hope and longing is familiar. Having children guarantees sleepless nights and up close and personal encounters with challenges that range from messy to heartbreaking, yet that’s not enough to dissuade generation after generation to take the plunge.
The promise of a son for Abraham and Sarah was so riveting, in fact, that they were tempted to make having children an end in itself. In their case, their longing for a child year after year turned into taking matters into their own hands. Sarah, impatient with waiting to become pregnant, had Abraham sleep with her maidservant Hagar. While we may not immediately be able to relate to that twist in the story of Abraham and Sarah, it’s not hard, for me at least, to understand their actions. I often made my children into the be all and end all. My children and their well being have, at times, become the most important thing I was living for. Perhaps others can relate to this as well. It’s common for people to feel adrift and empty at the end of child raising, as if God’s purpose for their usefulness has ended with that phase of life. It’s as if we received and opened a beautiful nesting doll from God and then closed a chapter of our story. Whatever our story, we too may be able to relate to fiercely wanting a gift from God, and then getting so wrapped up, getting exactly what we want, that we lose perspective.
Back to the 60 plus layer nesting doll I saw in that Paris shop. Imagine receiving that doll as a gift and beginning to unpack the layers — one after another after another. That’s what God’s promise of descendants to Abraham and to us, through faith, is like. Just like Abraham and Sarah, we want to focus on what’s easy to understand and expect — at least one or two, maybe three or four children. God has so much more for us. If you have never had children, if you are hoping for children who have not yet come, or have raised them and now contemplate a new season in life, God’s promise to us is so much bigger than we can grasp or imagine. He promises to bless many through our faith, and there is no limit in time or circumstance when He can work through us.
Imagine receiving a beautiful nesting doll from God and beginning to unpack the layers inside. How has God worked through you to bring a blessing to “descendants” — literal or figurative? What season are you in at the moment? Is it full of promise for children or are those days for you reaching an end? Did you hope for a season of children that has not come yet or that you were not at all able to experience? Pray for wisdom and faith to see how God can expand your vision of His promises and work through you whatever your circumstances or life stage.