January 5, 2008
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be recknoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.
If you are a parent who is serious about your faith in Christ you relate to this story, for we often ask ourselves, What will my commitment to Christ cost my child? If you are not a parent the story still strikes home, for it raises the issue, How will my obedience to the will of God impact others around me?
The central theme in the story found in Genesis 22:1-19 is that God calls us to costly obedience, and this type of obedience results in surprising provisions and blessings for us and others. It is not just about a parent and child, but because it uses this most precious relationship it speaks to us about all of our life and touches us on several levels. Against the backdrop of Abraham’s experience is the message of God our Provider, that foreshadows the sacrificial death of Christ for our sins – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – but the central theme of the story is about the costliness of obedience.
As the story unfolds in Genesis 22, we see that God spoke to Abraham and commanded him to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice upon a certain mountain. We need to understand that this was not a vague impression in Abraham’s mind, nor presumption on his part, nor a vague impulse, rather it was a command from God. How it was communicated from God to Abraham we are not told, but Abraham became convinced that this matter came from outside of himself, from a Source beyond his imagination, and that it was a command from God, one that he must obey.
Isaac for him was more than just the son of his beloved wife Sarah, more than just the beloved son of his old age – both of which would bring him emotional reasons not to obey the command – but he was also the son of the promise of God. In this way God raised the issue not merely whether Abraham loved God more than his son, but whether he was willing to let God fulfill his promises to Abraham his own way. God had promised to establish his covenant with Isaac, so to harm Isaac would naturally go against the plan of God.
From the beginning of the story we understand that this was a test for Abraham. God does not tempt us with evil but he does test us, that is, he allows us to be placed in situations, or he places us there himself, where we are tested, in order for us to see how sincere we are in our faith, but God does not place evil thoughts or doubts within our hearts (James 1:13-15). In fact, he makes sure that the temptations are never too great for us, that we will not be tempted beyond what we are able to resist, but he will, instead, prepare an escape for us from the temptation, to avoid the sin (1 Cor. 10:13).
Derek Kidner wrote that the trial caused Abraham’s faith “to be weighed in the balance against common sense, human affection, and lifelong ambition.” Up until this point his faith had been shown through leaving Ur of the Chaldees and traveling to Canaan, through compassion toward his nephew Lot, the generosity to share with him the best land, the courage to rescue him from danger, and the love to intercede for him before God for deliverance. As a childless man, he exercised fatherly affection toward Lot. We believe that in these areas of his life he was acting out his faith, he was responding to what he understood to be the will of God. So the command to sacrifice Isaac was a contrary command to what he had previously experienced.
We parents have specific commands from God for the benefit of our children that we must obey. We are to love and care for them: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). We are to bring them up in the nurture and encouragement of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). God desires that our hearts be turned toward them, caring and personally connecting with them (Malachi 4:5-6). And our faith will be revealed by how we treat our children.
Yet there is also a point that we parents must grasp: our obedience to Christ, if it is real and sincere, will be costly to that child. It will also be costly to our hearts, as we may be called to endure distance and absence from one another for the sake of Christ. Yet as Abraham believed in God’s ability to raise the dead, so we also have promises to fall back upon, one of the most precious being found in Isaiah 40:11: “He gently leads those that have young.” (See the devotional on December 29.) It is not the will of the heart of our Lord and Savior to push us along at such a fast rate that we do irreparable harm to our children. He is a gentle shepherd who tenderly leads his sheep.
To a certain degree, Abraham’s experience of testing belongs to an earlier dispensation, before the written word of God was available to believers. Much of this experience we must leave there, for we already have the written word that commands us to love and to care for our children, that also condemns and forbids child sacrifice that the Canaanite people’s practiced (Deuteronomy 12:30-32). But in another sense the experience is relevant for us, for God will lead us every day down the path of costly obedience.
Our third child was born in the Philippines when we were missionaries, and contracted amebic dysentery as a newborn. For years she has suffered with the after effects of that disease and treatment, and she will probably have some remnant of its legacy the rest of her life. We have asked ourselves the question whether we were sure we were doing the right thing when we placed her in that situation, and the answer has been, Yes. We were following the will of God and knew the risks. But I have known of other missionaries who lost children due to the physical dangers they faced in a foreign land.
Yet before we get it out of perspective, let’s remind ourselves that there is danger down every path of life, and if you are looking for that perfectly secluded, safe setting for your family, you will not find it. Amos wrote about a man fleeing from a bear only to meet a lion, of getting inside his house and resting his hand on the wall only to have that hand bitten by a snake (Amos 5:19). While on our first furlough we had our daughter vaccinated against measles in the USA. On our second furlough she contracted measles and almost died from spinal meningitis and encephalitis due to the disease – all in the USA.
An old Chinese man in my church named Anthony was godly and wise. At his funeral one of his adult children told the story that when he was young growing up in Malaysia, they had a maid who had made him afraid of devils. He told his father than he wanted to move away and get away from the devils. Anthony told his son that there was no place else they could go, because wherever they went there would be devils there as well. The problem is that from our limited perspective, we don’t know what the other choice would have brought. We only see the danger of the moment, but had we taken another path we would have found danger present there as well.
But we also find the help and protection of God everywhere. If every place has dangers, we can be comforted by knowing that God can rescue us from danger any place as well. Through our obedience to Christ we never take our loved ones outside the providential care of God, nor do we put ourselves in a place where God cannot comfort us in our loneliness. I have known of people who have lost the affections of their children though they live very close to one another. And I have known those who have been separated by great distances to remain close because the love of Christ had so richly indwelt the family.
This is the genius of Abraham’s faith, that he did not become apathetic toward Isaac or love him less, that he did not think that God had changed his mind, nor had he forgotten the promise of God to make his covenant through Isaac, rather he believed that God could and would provide whatever was necessary to fulfill his promises and accomplish his plan, even if it meant raising Isaac from the dead. Mt Moriah, where Abraham was commanded to go, is the vicinity of Jerusalem and it was there that the temple was built on another mount, and that Christ was crucified on Mt Calvary. Though Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son only as a test, God did sacrifice his Son. Does the relationship with Abraham and Isaac completely equal the relationship between God the Father and God the Son? No, of course not. There is something infinitely more profound and deep in the Godhead. Yet neither is it entirely dissimilar, and we cannot miss the connection, that God so loved the world that he gave, as a sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the world, his one and only Son.
So, what is the faith we are called to emulate here? It is the same as faith everywhere: that stands upon the promises of God, that fleshes them out in the heart even when they are unseen to the eye, that follows Christ, not in presumptuous extremism, but in costly obedience trusting that God will never lead us somewhere where he cannot watch over us. Yet the blessings of God’s provision are also part of this experience, and just as miraculous and as surprising as was Abraham’s discovery of the ram (that foreshadowed the cross) so we find that as we are obedient surprising things happen, things that can only be described in terms of God’s work done in God’s way. A child on the mission field develops cross-cultural skills. A mother far from a child at university discovers a depth of relationship with God that she would not have had otherwise. People’s lives are touched, doors to the gospel are opened, love for God increases, and often love within a family deepens even when they are spread out across the globe. Obedience to God’s will is always intended to touch someone with his love, and our costly obedience needs to be compared to the greater cost of disobedience.
There may be times that we are led by the Spirit to avoid the dangers. We are not to put the Lord to the test, and that word may come to us deep within our hearts where no one but us and God know what is being communicated. But we are wise if we remember that no path taken in obedience to the will of God leads us or our loved ones beyond the strength of God’s hand to love, to care, and to touch.
Lord, we pray for strength and courage as we take the path of obedience. We taste a bit of the cost of our obedience, but we know that there is a greater cost to disobedience. You prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” and that is true of us as well, that our disobedience is done often in a blinded state, where we cannot see beyond our lusts, fears, and pride. Let us have a vision of faith, that sees your promises and stands upon them, that listens to the Spirit share the dreams He has for our lives, and that looks past the fears of dangers and the dread of circumstances.
Christian Parenting, Evening Devotionals