There is one story in the Bible that has terrified me more than any other. It’s not found in Revelation, though that book contains plenty of frightening stuff. It’s not a story about any the first Christians, even though their lives certainly make me wonder about the cost of following Christ. Instead, it is a little story that is tucked in the middle of Genesis – the book that first introduces us to a God who is simultaneously good and terrifying. It is a story about a God who asks us to give Him everything we hold dear and to hold nothing back. It is a tale about a God who says to His servant Abraham “take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering…”
Have you ever spent some time really pondering this story? Out of context, it sounds like something out of Greek mythology. Without looking at the bigger picture, it makes God seem like a terrible, selfish, violent God – certainly not a God who loves His people because who would ask someone they love to sacrifice their only son?
I first started to wonder about this story during college. I was taking a class on the Old Testament and was spending my Saturday morning catching up on homework and reading through the book of Genesis. I remember wondering what God was thinking when He asked Abraham to sacrifice His only son. I also remember wondering what Abraham must have thought. Up until this time, God had been pretty good to Abraham. He had promised him an incredible inheritance and descendants who outnumbered the stars. The Bible even tells us that Abraham was God’s friend. Then, suddenly God came to Abraham and commanded him to offer his son as a burnt offering. Abraham’s head must have been reeling.
There’s something else about this story that has always puzzled me, though, and that is why his wife Sarah let Abraham take her son up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. When I first reflected on this story during college, I remember thinking that Abraham must not have told Sarah his plans because, if he had, she never would have let him do what God had asked of him. As time went on, I became even more confident that Sarah did not know Abraham’s plans because I saw more and more how, if I had been Sarah, I would have kicked and screamed and done anything I could to keep Abraham from ascending that mountain. In my own life, I was asked to sacrifice some of the people I loved and I was increasingly wary of a God who asks His people to willingly sacrifice loved ones. I was hesitant to pray “Thy will be done” because life had taught me that His will was often very painful. I also avoided reading Genesis 22 because it reminded me of two things. First, that God might ask me to sacrifice again. Second, that I didn’t have Abraham’s willingness to make any more sacrifices in my life.
Consequently, I was perturbed when our nightly Bible study involved the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac one night during my 34th week of pregnancy. I even dared to voice my own inadequate faith and told my husband, “I could never kill one of my children for God.” We went to sleep soon after that and, while I was sleeping, my water broke. I never went into labor but I was admitted to the hospital the next day due to an infection that had spread to my unborn baby. By the following morning, my baby had been born and died.
A month later, when we received my daughter’s autopsy results, we discovered that if the doctors had been able to resuscitate her, her damaged lungs would have required us to make the heart rending decision to stop medical interventions and to allow her to die. It felt as if God was saying, “I heard you when you said that you could not sacrifice your child for Me, so I did not ask you to make that sacrifice at the time. I spared you from that decision because I love you, even when your faith is weak.”However, while God was merciful enough to spare me from physically handing my child over to Him, He continued to push me to grow my faith by sacrificing her to Him spiritually and by embracing His decision to take her from me.
That is when God reminded me that more happened on Mount Moriah than Abraham building an altar and binding his son to it: God saved Abraham’s son and provided a substitute sacrifice Himself. Apparently, this wasn’t much of a surprise to Abraham since, the Bible tells us that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because he “reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again.”(Hebrews 11:19) Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to think that, for a few moments, Abraham might have thought that God seemed like a terrible, capricious foreign god. But Abraham knew that there was more to the story. He knew that, unlike the pagan gods, his God was good. He knew that his God loved him. He knew that God was powerful enough to work good out of a seemingly hopeless situation. And he was right: God did exactly what Abraham expected and saved his son because He really was good and He really did love His friend Abraham.
Abraham knew all of this even though he did not have the privilege of knowing about Jesus’s life and resurrection. Knowing what I know about Jesus, shouldn’t I be even more willing than Abraham to believe that God can bring my daughter back to life? Abraham had to offer his child through blind faith, I have the gift of eye-witness accounts of a resurrected savior!
I am no longer afraid of the God who asked his friend to sacrifice his beloved son as a burnt offering, because I know that there is more to the story. Even when the things God asks us to do don’t make sense, even when He demands those things we hold most dear, even when we are tempted to ask with the rest of the world, “Where was God?” I know that there is more. I know that God is good, I know that He loves His people, and I know that He can work good out of seemingly hopeless situations.
I also know that when God’s children willingly offer Him the sacrifices He demands, He offers them an amazing gift: He reveals Himself to them and to those around them. Scholars have suggested that the story of Abraham and Isaac offers a foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice of His son Jesus. It is perhaps for this reason that the story of Abraham’s faith is particularly encouraging to Christians. Additionally, Abraham certainly knew his Friend’s heart more intimately as a result of this story. He had tasted the pain that God would feel as he looked down on the cross so he could understand his Friend in a new way. Surely Abraham also had a better understanding of the abundance of God’s merciful provision. Perhaps he even began to comprehend the idea that there could be a substitute who took on Himself the weight of human sins.
Our own sacrifices can teach us similar lessons about God’s unfathomable love, his deep mercy and His great sacrifice. Therefore, as we journey through Lent, a time of penance and sacrifice, I pray that we will reflect on all of the things that God has asked us to give up for His sake (the little things, the monumental things, and all things in between) and that God will reveal Himself to us so that we can become better friends to God.