Some people do very well in negotiations. Lawyers, car salespeople, toddlers … these types of people are gifted in the give-and-take, quid pro quo world of negotiating. My husband is an expert negotiator. My daughter and I accompanied him a few years ago when he negotiated the price of a new car. He was so good at it that she and I got up and found the free popcorn and coffee bar at the other side of the dealership and spent the rest of the time cringing in the corner. Neither of us like to barter, so the entire exchange made us very uncomfortable. Kudos to him, though! He got the price he wanted.
Can we ever negotiate with God?
We have been taught since birth to pray for God’s will to be done. This idea is so important, it is even part of the Lord’s Prayer, telling us that Jesus thought it was a seminal part of our relationship with God. Indeed, it is what he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. Yielding to God’s will is what is best for us, knowing that only God knows the right and righteous path we should take.
So, what is happening here between Abraham and God?
Genesis 18 (Common English Bible)
16 The men got up from there and went over to look down on Sodom. Abraham was walking along with them to send them off 17 when the Lord said, “Will I keep from Abraham what I’m about to do? 18 Abraham will certainly become a great populous nation, and all the earth’s nations will be blessed because of him. 19 I have formed a relationship with him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him. And they will keep to the Lord’s path, being moral and just so that the Lord can do for Abraham everything he said he would.” 20 Then the Lord said, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious! 21 I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know.”
Notice that verse 19 gives us a clue about what is about to transpire. “I have formed a relationship with him” lets us know that God’s love and concern for Abraham is grounded in mutual respect and trust. God had chosen Abraham to be the patriarch of many nations. Abraham is about to become the founder of the people of God. It was a big ask. With big asks come big rewards. In this case, the reward was the relationship that God offered Abraham.
22 The men turned away and walked toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing in front of the Lord. 23 Abraham approached and said, “Will you really sweep away the innocent with the guilty?24 What if there are fifty innocent people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not save the place for the sake of the fifty innocent people in it? 25 It’s not like you to do this, killing the innocent with the guilty as if there were no difference. It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?”
And so, Abraham began the negotiation process, pleading for the innocent people. Notice how he framed his “ask” each time:
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will save it because of them.”
27 Abraham responded, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, even though I’m just soil and ash, 28 what if there are five fewer innocent people than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city over just five?”
The Lord said, “If I find forty-five there, I won’t destroy it.”
29 Once again Abraham spoke, “What if forty are there?”
The Lord said, “For the sake of forty, I will do nothing.”
30 He said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak. What if thirty are there?”
The Lord said, “I won’t do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, what if twenty are there?”
The Lord said, “I won’t do it, for the sake of twenty.”
32 Abraham said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak just once more. What if there are ten?”
And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it because of those ten.” 33 When the Lord finished speaking with Abraham, he left; but Abraham stayed there in that place.
Abraham reminded God of just how much he revered God. His voice took on a pleading tone: “Don’t be angry with me” and “Even though I’m just soil and ash” etc. He prefaced each request with a statement that let God know that he felt unworthy of God’s consideration but trusted that God loved him enough that asking again is permissible in the context of their relationship.
This is how we feel when our three-year-old keeps asking for a cookie or our teenage daughter persists in making a case for why she should be allowed to go to the party we have already forbidden. Their understanding of our love for them emboldens them to keep asking. As annoying as that can be, it is also a good thing.
How is your relationship with God? Do you trust him? Do you speak to him often enough that when you need to ask for something, you feel comfortable knowing that he will hear you?
God taught Abraham about intercessory prayer in this exchange. He also taught him about having compassion for others. This story reminds us that effective prayer reminds both us and God that we know who God is, and we understand how God works in a situation. Effective prayer doesn’t position us as passive observers in what God does. Indeed, effective prayer proceeds as if it might actually remind God of his saving nature and perhaps affect an outcome.
As it turns out, there weren’t even ten innocent people in Sodom, and so the city was destroyed. But Abraham learned how to effectively love and pray for others, which was an important lesson for the father of all nations.
May our prayers of intercession for others be filled with such wisdom and compassion as well.