I was recently honored to be asked to preach at Ocoee Christian Church in Ocoee, FL. The following is the text of my sermon, delivered this last Sunday, July 29, 2014:
I’m afraid I haven’t been terribly fair to God in my prayers recently. In this last year since we left Edinburgh to return to the USA, things haven’t gone the way I had hoped or expected they would. Some things, in fact, have gone dramatically wrong. In my disappointment, which has at times more than bordered on despair, I must admit that I have lashed out at God, questioning his faithfulness and his interest in the well-being of my family and me. I have felt betrayed. You see, I didn’t pursue a PhD, or the field of biblical studies, purely from self-interest, even though I clearly wouldn’t have pursued this field if I didn’t have a very strong personal interest in the subject matter. No, as far as I’m concerned, the most important factor in my choice of career has been my feeling of being called by God to the academic study of the Bible, and of the Old Testament in particular, and secondarily by my desire to be of service to the Church through teaching and research. I felt called to the field, and I trusted that the God in whose hands I had placed my life was faithful and capable to open the right doors and close the right doors, to lead me to the place where I should be, regardless of how correct my understanding of God’s calling may or may not have been, and not to abandon me or lead me to ruin.
But recently, abandoned is precisely how I’ve felt, and no amount of other people saying, “Trust God,” has made that feeling any less intense. The thing is, it’s easy for me to look at someone else’s problems and say “You just have to trust God.” But, when it’s my own problems, I’m forced to confront reality rather than give it a theological category and file it away. To be honest, I’ve been asking myself, how bad do things have to get before you come to the conclusion that maybe you were just deluded all along about God. I doubt I’m alone in this line of thought. When you’ve hit what, in the context of your own life experience, is essentially rock bottom, you start to wonder whether you’ve misunderstood God’s character, and I don’t think that question is unjustified. I don’t doubt the existence of God or even the essential facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but I have found myself thinking that maybe God never actually cared about me as an individual. I mean, when circumstances are worse than they’ve ever been in your life, how do you know, I mean really know, that everything in your past that seemed to show God was faithful or personally interested in your well-being wasn’t all just illusory or wishful thinking?
Now, maybe none of you have ever been at the place I’m describing, and I would say that I hope you never do find yourself at that place, except that I’m more and more convinced that this place of despair and uncertainty is precisely where our relationship with God grows the closest and strongest. And what’s more, the growth in that relationship is not simply one-directional, meaning it is not simply our faith in God that grows. Before I take this thought any further, let’s look a little closer at today’s reading from Genesis chapter 22, because it illustrates my point perfectly.
Genesis 22 tells one of the most shocking and debated stories in the Bible. Abraham has waited a lifetime for God to give him a son through his wife Sarah. In chapter 21, when Abraham is about 100 years old and Sarah is about 90, God finally comes through. How would we have felt in Abraham and Sarah’s position? Certainly we would feel that now, at last, we had arrived at the summit of our life’s mountain. The big test had been passed, and victory had finally been won. God had delivered on his promise, and no one would ever be able to take that away.
No one, that is, except for God. In chapter 22, God gives Abraham a command that certainly merits a placement in the top 10 most shocking and offensive divine commands in the Bible. God commands Abraham to take Isaac and sacrifice him. Does this not make God seem exceedingly cruel? He has led Abraham along with a promise of an heir and has separated him from everything he knew and loved. Abraham has given everything to God, and now when God has finally delivered on his promise, he not only seems to be taking that promise back, but rather than doing this himself, say with illness or an accident or something, he actually instructs Abraham himself to do the deed. The situation is unimaginably cruel, and Abraham would have been justified to wonder whether the good and faithful God he had thought he was following had all along really been the universe’s worst prankster.
Some have noted that child sacrifice was not really unusual then as it is now. We should very likely understand Abraham to have had a category for child sacrifice that he had brought with him from his background in Ur of the Chaldees. However, we should not make the mistake of assuming that the existence of such a category in Abraham’s mental furniture in any way mitigated the tragedy or cruelty of God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. All of Abraham’s hopes and dreams have centered on Isaac. Indeed, even the way God gives his command seems to be rubbing salt in an open wound: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.” No, despite the cultural distance between us and Abraham, there is a common humanity that unites us, and whether or not child sacrifice was an accepted practice in parts of the ancient Near East, it is not an accepted practice in the Old Testament, and we are right to view God’s command to engage in it as shocking and offensive.
In fact, it is conspicuously offensive. When God gives the command, I kind of wonder whether someone like Abraham might not have thought, after the initial shock, “Wait. Something’s not quite right with all of this.” The targeted cruelty of the command leaves you with only two options: either 1) I have been wrong about God all along, or 2) this isn’t really what it appears to be. Perhaps this is why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:19) suggests that Abraham actually trusted that God would raise Isaac from the dead when no such thought is indicated in Genesis.
In any case, the command to sacrifice Isaac was the climactic test of Abraham’s entire life. This was the event that either would prove that Abraham was wise to trust in God or would reveal him to have been a fool whose life was, ultimately, a tragic waste. But his faith in God was validated when God intervened at the last minute to spare Isaac’s life. It is especially interesting to me that, in that moment when Abraham’s faith in God is put the test, it is God who says, “Now I know that you are a God-fearing man, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” God says, “Now I know.” So who has been proven to whom here? The answer appears to be: both to both.
Now, to talk about God learning or discovering something is often treated as a kind of a theological faux pas. God, we learn in theology, is all-knowing and transcendent, that is, his existence is not bounded or defined by time and space. A day is as a thousand years. He doesn’t change, so learning or discovering is ruled out by definition. Besides, he already knows everything, so what is there to learn or discover? These statements are at the core of traditional Christian teaching about God, and, more importantly, they are biblically based.
However, the Bible also routinely depicts God as existing within time and space alongside us, albeit with infinite wisdom and power and with no limits to his presence. He learns, he adapts his plans to changing circumstances (as in Genesis 18), and he even regrets his own decisions (as in Genesis 6). These two ways of looking at God, the immanent and the transcendent, appear to contradict each other, yet we know that they both accurately describe the way the writers of the Bible understood God and his relationship to his Creation. This is a mystery, the truth of which we can only begin to grasp when we accept both sides. We do not come closer to understanding God when we get rid of one to make way for the other. He is both utterly transcendent and utterly immanent.
So what this means for the interpretation of Genesis 22 is that we shouldn’t be quick to explain away God’s assertion that “Now I know.” Let’s let it sit there and ponder the mystery of it. In this one event both Abraham and God have learned something about the other’s trustworthiness. And we’ve already noted that there is something somewhat artificial about the event. God has instructed Abraham to do something which contradicts not only God’s promise to Abraham but even God’s character, since child sacrifice is elsewhere in the Bible expressly condemned and forbidden. Why would God do this? The answer appears to be because there are things that can only be made known through trials. There are some ways that a relationship can grow and become stronger that only come about through trouble and conflict.
This is, to me, a profound realization that has far-reaching implications, not just in our relationship with God, but in our relationships with each other. The more I live and the more I study not only the Bible but human nature, the more it seems to me that the ideal human relationship is not one that is devoid of conflict, but one where conflict is dealt with in a mature and loving manner. Conflict in relationships is a central part of the way we grow in those relationships and as individuals. I often learn the most about myself when I have to understand why my differences with someone have caused offense or argument. What is it about me and this other individual that created the conflict? When we approach conflict through the lens of humility and love rather than through the lens of self-interest we are forced to think outside of ourselves, to sympathize with a sentiment that is not natural to us. If I begin with the assumption that I am not perfectly wise or objective, I know that this forced-sympathy, though unpleasant, is very much of benefit to me.
The ideal Christian community is not one where we all just agree with each other and avoid conflict of any sort, but it is one where we approach conflict with a genuine concern for those with whom we have clashed. There is a lot of conflict that can and should be avoided simply through the exercise of a general selflessness on everyone’s part. But sometimes avoiding an issue isn’t best. Sometimes it needs to be brought out in the open so we can come to understand each other better, so our relationships with one another can grow stronger and more certain.
Conflict can be destructive, but it doesn’t have to be. I am more certain of my wife’s love and devotion today than I was 10 years ago in no small part because of the ways we have come into conflict and resolved that conflict. If we had simply buried that conflict, I would be significantly less close to my wife emotionally, because I wouldn’t know that I could trust her with my innermost thoughts and feelings. Or if we had approached that conflict primarily with the intent of justifying ourselves and with the option of calling it quits if our demands weren’t met, that conflict would most certainly have been destructive. However, we both have approached that conflict with one key presupposition: our love for and unqualified commitment to each other. Conflict in itself is neither good nor bad. What makes conflict either good or bad is how we deal with it. And what is true of human relationships is also true of our relationships with God.
The Apostle Paul talks about this principle in Romans chapter 5 when he talks about how, in light of our reconciliation with God and our hope in the glory of God, we rejoice in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces patience, and patience produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This chain reaction of virtues is something that only comes about through difficult situations, and every element in it relates to the mutual growth of our faith-relationship with God: we become more trusting in him, and we prove to be more trustworthy to him. So, according to Paul, affliction and trouble are not just unfortunate parts of life that for some reason God has not been able or willing to do away with, but they are in fact an important part of his overall strategy for building us up into the people he has ordained us to be.
This fact should generate in us three important realizations. First, we should expect that troubles will come, because we know that God uses these troubles to mold us into his image. Secondly, though, we know from this that we can have confidence in God’s goodness and faithfulness. Whatever troubles come our way are, in fact, tailor-made for us to prove us and to purify us in precisely the way God wants us proven and purified, just like God’s conspicuously offensive command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
The third realization is something that is not so obvious, but it is, in my opinion, the thing that makes growth in our relationship with God through conflict actually happen. That thing is bold honesty in our prayer life. What I mean is this: when troubles beset us it does no good for us to live in some sort of denial or to bottle up our feelings because we’re afraid to express them to God. Job is one of the most difficult books of the Bible, but if we learn anything from it we should see that despite Job’s brutal honesty about his feelings and his accusations against God, it is Job, not his pious friends, who are justified before God in the end. In fact, it is perhaps because of Job’s brutal honesty, rather than despite it, that God vindicates Job and expresses his disapproval for his own pious defenders. In other words, what Job shows us is that God invites brutal honesty. When we are afraid to be honest with God, it shows that we don’t really trust in God’s grace. We think we still have to say the right things and avoid saying the wrong things to stay on God’s good side. There is an emotional distance between us and God when we are afraid to be completely open and vulnerable to him. That doesn’t make everything we say in our honesty just or right. Ten of the last eleven chapters of Job are Job being reprimanded for speaking presumptuously, first by Elihu and then by God himself, and Job repeatedly apologizes for it. Nevertheless, it is Job, not Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who is declared righteous in the end. Similarly, when we have enough faith in God to be honest with him in expressing our anger, disappointment, and confusion, we will inevitably find ourselves apologizing to God. But God is a big God, slow to anger and eternally merciful and wise. He does not provoke us to anger just so that he can have an easy excuse to get rid of us. Even if we say something to him in our honesty that is ultimately unjust to him, that doesn’t automatically make us unrighteous before him.
So, while I haven’t been entirely fair to God in my prayers recently, I have no doubt of his grace towards me. I am confident that through our recent troubles I will come to know his faithfulness better, and I hope that, when this present test comes to an end, God will be able to say to me as he did to Abraham, “Now I know that your fear God.”