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Abraham’s Failure and the Peril of Inconsistency


The late professional golfer Tommy Armour observed, “It is not solely the capacity to make great shots that make champions, but the essential quality of making very few bad shots.”1 In other words, good golfers make consistent shots. What is true in the sport is true for all of life: consistency is the key to doing anything well, while inconsistency brings with it great peril.

In Genesis 20, we read of a time when Abraham faced the peril of inconsistency. The chapter chronicles the failure of a spiritual man—a man set apart by God. Seemingly out of fear and a desire for self-preservation, Abraham told Abimelech, king of Gerar, that his wife Sarah was his sister. Importantly, he wasn’t at this point a novice in the faith, having walked the pathway of godliness for some time. This is the man who made it into the portrait gallery of God’s kingdom, remembered as one of the greats in the faith (Heb. 11:8–12). He’s held up as an Old Testament ideal for true faith and faithfulness (Gal. 3:6). And yet, he wasn’t without his failures.

Old Testament stories often point out both principles to apply and perils to avoid. While we can learn a great deal from Abraham’s triumphs elsewhere in Genesis, we can also glean wisdom from his negative example in Genesis 20:1–18.

The Environment of Abraham’s Inconsistency

As the opening verse of Genesis 20 indicates, Abraham was used to moving from place to place: “Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.” In this ancient Judean city—a new place with new opportunities—Abraham’s faith was tested. In this new chapter of life, would Abraham walk the path of faith or of fear?

Changes in circumstances often present us with a similar test. Most of us lead fairly routine lives. By and large, our frameworks change little. There isn’t much to batter us on the one hand or lift us to the mountaintop on the other—until a new set of circumstances arrive. Perhaps it’s a diagnosis, news of a job loss, or the complexities of parenting a wayward child. These things place us in a new environment and present new challenges. Like Abraham, we’re pressed to make a decision on how we’ll respond.

Old Testament stories often point out both principles to apply and perils to avoid.


Abraham failed on account of looking to old schemes in new circumstances. He told his wife, “This is the kindness you must do to me: at every place to which we come, say of me, ‘He is my brother’” (Gen. 20:13). He had employed the same tactic in Genesis 12:13 to no avail. Despite the patriarch’s desire to go forward with God, he moved constantly between the paths of faith and fear. Inconsistency bedeviled him. It’s a reminder to us that the best of men are men at best.

Abraham’s new environment, together with his stressful circumstances, revealed what was in his heart in that instance. It’s comparatively easy to trust God when all is well. But times of uncertainty reveal the contents of our hearts.

The Effect of Abraham’s Inconsistency

Inconsistency is never isolated. It always affects others. The apostle Paul captured this truth well when he reminded the church in Rome, “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Rom. 14:7). Whatever we do, for good or for ill, will help or hinder someone on the pathway of faith. Like a pebble tossed in a pond, Abraham’s inconsistency had ripples that extended further than he realized.

His failure affected first his wife. He was prepared to jeopardize Sarah’s chastity to preserve his own skin (Gen. 20:2). It’s often the case that when a husband’s affections for Christ cool off, it will affect his wife. Whether the husband is taking seriously his role to love and guard his family can easily be seen in whether his wife is flourishing under his care. Abraham’s failure serves to warn us against dismissing our inconsistencies as trivial or minor. They are no such thing!


Like many of us, Abraham moved constantly between the paths of faith and fear.

His inconsistency also impacted Abimelech. Although the pagan king was safe from adultery because of God’s intervention (v. 6), his family suffered. Verse 18 tells us that God had closed the wombs of Abimelech’s house because of Abraham’s deceit. Standing in judgment over Abraham, Abimelech calls out to him, “What have you done to us? … You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (v. 9). Although Abimelech didn’t share in Abraham’s godly convictions, he nonetheless knew what ought to mark Abraham’s activity.

It’s a tragedy when the non-Christian world seemingly can define our ethics better than we can. In truth, many professing believers have grown comfortable with certain inconsistencies, happy to live in an ungodly way. Contemporary believers must avoid a kind of “chameleon” Christianity, changing our convictions based on our environments. In truth, the Bible knows nothing of a secret disciple. Either our secrecy will destroy our discipleship, or our discipleship will destroy our secrecy. There’s no middle ground. We cannot love Christ with any authenticity and keep it hidden. 

The Explanation for Abraham’s Inconsistency

After Abimelech confronted him, Abraham responded with his explanation (Gen. 20:11–13). Rather than consult guidance from a multitude of counselors, in which there is wisdom (Prov. 11:14), Abraham instead consulted with himself (v. 12). Whenever we set ourselves up as an authority, dialoguing only internally, we’re at a disadvantage.

We cannot love Christ with any authenticity and keep it hidden.

Perceiving that there was “no fear of God” in Abimelech’s kingdom, he determined to deceive the king and put Sarah in danger (vv. 12–13). Abraham was guilty of wrong thoughts. Faulty thinking leads to faulty doing. He was guilty at the same time of an error in judgment. It’s a tragic irony that Abraham should say, “There is no fear of God at all in this place,” in that to some extent, Abimelech at the time showed a greater fear of God than did Abraham!

His explanation no doubt lacked substance. At the heart of Abraham’s failure of nerve was a lack of faith. It didn’t occur to him that God might had intervened on his behalf if he would have done the right thing. Instead, taking matters into his own hands, Abraham fell to inconsistency.

Abraham’s Inconsistency and Our Own

If we’re humble enough to see it, we can relate to Abraham’s failure. How often have we said, “I’m never going to do that again,” and then went on to do the very thing we foreswore? Or in what senses have we settled with our sins, living as though God grades on a curve and doesn’t have the power to deliver us from our inconsistencies?

God requires consistent, full obedience to His commands (1 Peter 1:16). That’s the standard. And the only way a person—whether Abraham in the Old Testament or the contemporary Christian—can meet that divine standard is by faith in and conformity to God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He was in no way inconsistent. No fault or failure was in Him. When we place our faith in Him, we are counted as righteous. And thanks be to God that as we are conformed to His image, we will grow to share in His consistency too!

This article was adapted from the sermon “The Peril of Inconsistency” by Alistair Begg.


  1. Tommy Armour, How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), 12. ↩︎

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