Sunday, April 6, 2014

God, Abraham, and Isaac

I've been chewing on Genesis 22 for a few weeks.  It tells of God's command to Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering to Him.  As the story goes, or at least from what we can tell from the text, Abraham obeys without question and proceeds to take Isaac up the mountain where he will sacrifice him to God.  He even has Isaac carry the wood!  When Isaac questions his father about where the lamb is for the burnt offering, Abraham tells him that "God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." (v.8)  Abraham builds the altar, lays the wood down, and binds Isaac.  And just as he is about to go through with it, an angel of the Lord stops him and God provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead.

This has long been one of the most disturbing passages of scripture for me.  I've never been comfortable with it.  I think we're supposed to marvel at Abraham's faith.  And I think we're supposed to understand it as a foreshadowing of how God ultimately sacrifices his own son, Jesus, and actually goes through with it for our sake.  But I've been trying to imagine what was going on for Abraham.  And what is the big picture universal message for us that we need to hear and understand?

From previous chapters, we know that Abraham and his wife Sarah were unable to conceive a child.  But God promises to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son who will be their heir.  And not only that, but that Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations.  Abraham is 99 years old and Sarah is super post-menopausal when God does the impossible and Sarah gets pregnant.  So Isaac, the promised one who very clearly is a miraculous gift from God, is born when Abraham is 100!

That's the context.  Absolutely nuts!  But we don't get too much else between the moment of birth to the moment of this sacrifice story.  So I've tried to imagine what life is like for Abraham.  I imagine a father who loves his son with all his heart.  But who maybe is so afraid to lose him or not raise him well that he places crazy restrictions on him.  I imagine an overprotective father who is afraid of losing his precious gift of a son in a time of high infant mortality, and no modern medicine, while sojourning in unknown lands.  I imagine a father who freaks out if his son is climbing a dangerous looking tree, or standing too close to a ledge, or hanging around potentially bad influences.  I imagine a father who tries hard to make every little mistake that Isaac makes into a teachable moment.  And the more I thought of how Abraham may have viewed Isaac, the more I felt I could relate.  I'm like that with Lucas sometimes, especially after Nathan died.  Understandable.  I think I've gotten better.  I used to be worse.

So what are we supposed to take away from this crazy story?  Ultimately, I believe that this story is about the necessity for people who have a relationship with God to trust him radically.  No.  We need to trust him extremely.  And part of being able to do that is to understand in a really deep way that everything good in our lives is a gift from God.  And then to be able to sacrifice, or lay at the altar, even the people in our lives that we don't think we could live without because we trust him to provide the lamb for the sacrifice.  He's already done it!

In the early days after the accident, I was consumed with fear and worry about how Lucas would turn out.  I imagined my son having two holes in his heart that would never be filled and would leave him crippled for life.  I stressed over every meal I prepared for him, agonizing over my inadequacies in the kitchen.  I sat him behind me whenever we were in the car together so that if something tragic should happen, it'd be more likely that we'd either both survive or we'd die together.  To this day, he sits behind me 95% of the time, more out of habit than fear.  I'm a work in progress.  I trust Lucas in God's hands a little more with each passing season.  I frequently lay him at the altar before God (figuratively, of course!) and pray a prayer that declares my trust in God to provide everything Lucas needs and everything I need as a parent.  It's a prayer that exhorts my own heart to trust more.

One of the great challenges of faith is acknowledging that we are limited in our ability to control our lives.  Then after acknowledging our limitations, we have to relinquish that sense of control and trust in our sovereign God.  In this light, I think the role parents play in the lives of their children provides the most difficult context in which we are called to trust God radically.  Why?  Because it is the role in which a person is most likely to feel that they can have total control over someone else's life - even more than their own.  It is the role that carries the biggest responsibility for discipleship.  And it is the role that provides the greatest temptation and easiest access to trespass inappropriately in another soul's very being.  When things with your kid seem to be spinning out of your control, or they make some bad decisions, it is extremely easy for a parent to freak out, punish disproportionately, pass on their fears to their child, and ultimately distrust and dishonor God.  I think the challenge to radically trust God is especially hard for single parents like me who feel 100% of the weight of responsibility for their child's development and well-being.

Aside from my experience as a single parent, as a teacher I also see the effects of overbearing parents who try to exert too much control over their kids.  So many kids are stressed out of their minds and look so miserable.  So many kids push back hard (understandably in some cases) and rebel because they are being trespassed against so badly by their parents.  And I see the effects of the opposite, too; parents who are not involved enough.  So many kids who do not know their own value because their parents are too busy to care.  So many kids who try to find their value and affirmation from all the wrong places and who are obsessed with being cool.  Being a parent is such a difficult balancing act.  And what makes it even harder is that you have to continuously recalibrate where that balancing point is because your children are continuously growing and becoming more independent.  It is hard to trust God with your kids.  But it is so very important and life-changing, for you and your kids, if you do.

So back to the why question of this story.  I think it's the ultimate lesson of submitting to God, relinquishing control, seeing the special people God has placed in your life as gifts, and proclaiming radical/extreme trust in the God who actually went through with the sacrifice of his only son.  It doesn't make the story any less difficult to digest.  I still don't like it and there are aspects of it that nauseate me.  But I get why it's important.  And I hope and pray that God continues to help me with the special role he's given me as Lucas' dad.

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