My intellectual theology is in pretty good shape. I have a good grasp of most of the doctrines. I believe them. I know the arguments and the proofs. But that kind of theology can’t save me from my demons. Just putting more correct information in my head does not give me more courage or fortitude or strength to counteract the pull of the dark side of my life. If my theology is going to be any good to me, it must address my emotions. That’s where the really difficult parts of living occur. I need someone who can redeem me from the torments that haunt my soul. Unless I have a fully functioning emotional theology, I will be left a compartmentalized, fragmented, discouraged individual. More than anything else, I need a God who comforts me.
Emotional theology has to address the common struggles that often overwhelm me. I’m not like Paul. I fail – miserably. I don’t seem to have that inner resolve to keep running the good race. I get tired. I want relief. I know discouragement and rejection and inadequacy. I want someone to care about me no matter how terrible I am.
Of course, my formal theology tells me that God loves me. God is compassionate, long-suffering, slow to anger and anxious to show His love. But I need a god who can hold me when I cry. I need a god who can fix things when I am really hurting. Yes, I know that life is a test, but that isn’t much consolation when I feel the emotional pangs of abandonment and insignificance. Some tests seem just too hard for me. I don’t have the stamina to keep going day after day without rest for my soul, even if I know that after I die God will welcome me. I’m sorry to admit this, but the eternal reward is sometimes not quite enough to help me overcome the temporal despair.
I am reminded of Abraham. Abraham spent a long time with God. He bravely responded to God’s call. He patiently endured for years without hearing from his Lord. Many times he tried to take charge of his circumstances by giving God a hand. He made some very stupid mistakes, but he sought and found forgiveness. Nevertheless, toward the end of his life, things still reached a crisis point. Now he had a son – the son of promise. And God gently asked him to sacrifice that gift – to give up the one thing he waited to receive all of his days. Abraham had to face the same question that I face – “Do I really trust Him?”
We’ve read the story so many time that we fail to feel the impact of this request. We know how it turns out, so we tend not to put ourselves in the emotional circumstances of the moments of this story. I am beginning to see something in Abraham’s circumstances that makes this occasion much more difficult. Abraham did not know how the story would end. That’s the part that I need to keep in mind, because that’s the part that explains my own fear.
Forgive a bit of personal history, but it seems necessary. Some years ago I was a millionaire. It took nearly all of my life to amass the fortune. A good part of my identity was tied to that wealth. I’m not proud of the way I lived in order to get the fortune nor am I proud of all the things that I did with it. So, I wasn’t really surprised when one day, through no fault of my own, it was gone. Stolen. Disappeared. God knows who all the responsible parties are, but no one else seems to. And no one really cares. It’s just another white collar crime that will be swept away because there are much bigger issues to deal with. In spite of the fact that I see God’s hand in this action, and that I probably needed this to happen, it was still an incredible shock. Life was radically altered. Suddenly, I was no longer the person I thought I had become. My dream was gone and along with it went a lot of my personal value and all of my confidence and security. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the symbol of success, something I had been chasing all my life. It was about the fact that with millions in the bank people could no longer say, “You just aren’t good enough.” So, when it all disappeared, I faced more than a financial crisis. I faced a demon that I thought had been exorcised long ago. Now there was a new reason for the verdict, “not good enough.” Now I lost what most people can only dream about having. I was a real failure. I should have done a better job.
Lots of things changed immediately. No money forces lifestyle corrections. We made them. Slowly the process of seeing things stripped away turned into a long road back. Just finding work was excruciating, but God (the God of my formal theology) was faithful and we survived. I thought that I was on the road to recovery. Perhaps I would never again have the things that I used to prize so highly, but we were not going to live on the street. God was not only faithful, He was good. The financial needs were slowly being meet.
Something else began. It was actually quite subtle. Only now do I recognize the bits and pieces of evidence. I began to unravel. I got through the crisis of loss of capital and loss of lifestyle, but I never got through the crisis of identity. I began to feel inadequate. It wasn’t a new feeling. Most of my life has been a fight against the comment “You just aren’t good enough.” My accomplishments have often been reactions to that verdict. But, of course, no accomplishment can actually overcome the emotional corruption that feeling inadequate actually spawns. I used to think that God was after my sinful preoccupation with self-sufficiency. He chastised me on that score by removing my fortune. Now I think that there is something much more fundamental going on. Money means nothing to God. Consequently, it should certainly not determine my worth. It is simply another commodity in His kingdom, to be used, hopefully, for His purposes. I can accept that. Not easily, but truthfully. Money doesn’t seem to be the issue anymore. If God wants to provide it, through direct or indirect means, He seems perfectly capable of doing so. I have had to learn that what I possess is pure gift, not reward. God does what He wants with it. He just asks me to be a steward of His treasure while it passes through my hands. I might have learned some of this lesson. But there are other lessons that are much more difficult for me.
I am much closer to Abraham on that fateful day when God said, “Please, take your son.”
What was the son to Abraham? We are quick to say, “He was the fulfillment of the promise, the pathway to Abraham’s destiny.” True. Of course, he was also loved and singularly special, as is any first-born son. But he was more than all this. He was Abraham’s true identity. In other words, Isaac was the living acknowledgement that Abraham mattered. Abraham’s life had purpose, meaning and significance – all represented in this son. It wasn’t just a long journey through the desert, waiting to die.
Now God was asking Abraham to take all of that and throw it aside. Even worse, to destroy it by his own hand. That’s exactly where I seem to be. God is asking, “Do you trust me? If you do, I want you to take all that you think really makes you who you are and destroy it by your own hand. Put it on my altar and sacrifice it.”
Now I know for certain that it is not about the money. It is about my life-long pursuit of being someone. My greatest fear is to be a nobody, just another human animal slogging through life, just one more person trying to survive long enough to die. I don’t want to become one of those millions and millions who fade immediately into insignificance. I want to feel as though I mattered. I want someone to say, “You really are good enough,” and mean it. I want someone to say, “I love you,” and not follow up with a list of things I need to change about myself in order to keep being loved.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t need to be famous. I don’t want to be on the evening news or have my face commemorated on a postage stamp. I don’t care about that kind of importance. I just want to feel like my life made a difference while I am alive. I want to know that there is a purpose to all this, and I don’t want to have to wait until I am dead to find out what it was. My identity is woven into the idea that I am doing something that matters and that others recognize this. But God seems to have something else in mind. The sovereign Lord seems to be stripping away all of my attachments to symbols of importance, including the ones that I use to bolster my injured ego when I start to feel as though I just don’t count. It looks like God wants to reduce me to nothing, and that is very frightening indeed. I know a little about the emotions of Abraham because, just like Abraham on the day of the hill climb, I don’t know the end of the story.
Abraham put Isaac on the altar. I can hardly imagine that! He took the last thing that told him that he mattered, the last thing that give him purpose and meaning, and raised the slaughtering knife. In the end, Abraham held nothing back. He was ready to give away what was left of his soul in order to obey. In the end, Abraham’s action is even more significant than Job’s cry, “Though He slay me, yet I will worship Him.” Abraham did more than utter words. He was sacrificing himself – his deepest hope and identity. God was slaying him, right there on that pile of stones. But it was a death far worse than the one Job proclaimed, for if Abraham kills Isaac, Abraham remains alive while all of his purpose and meaning dies. Abraham didn’t know what would happen. He only knew that God was asking. That’s exactly where I am.
So, what do I do? Do I really trust Him? I feel as though during these last years I have been stripped of significance. I have survived (God is good) but I have lost who I am. In order to compensate, I have recreated a character that attempts to find meaning and value in places isolated from hurt and pain. But I am not a fantasy or a dream. Every day, I still have to wake up in the world where I don’t seem to matter much. And God is gently prodding, “Please, take your self, your only self, an offer it in a place I will show you.”
I’m afraid. I don’t want to die – not like this, anyway. I wouldn’t mind dying, physically. I am so tired of fighting that physical death would be a welcome relief. But I am still here, so obviously (since God is sovereign), I am still being asked to climb up that mountain and build an altar. That’s a death I do not want. What will happen to me if I really do sacrifice all that I have left of my own symbols of purpose and value? (“Do you trust me?”) Will God reduce me to a nobody, good for nothing, just to clear away this craving for significance? My future is just as dark as it was for Abraham. There is nothing on the other side of this grave. Abraham knew that the moment his knife entered the heart of Isaac, he would spend the rest of his days alone in ways he had never experienced emptiness before. He knew that at that very instant his life would count for nothing. Everything he hoped for would be undone. That’s exactly where I am. The second I plunge the blade into what little I have been holding on to in order to have some value, in that very second, my life will be reduced to nothing. My hope will be dashed on the stones. If I hold just this one little thing back, there is a place where I can run away from the growing specter of insignificance. But if I let it go, if I cut it to pieces, then I have nothing left. All of my escape routes will be gone. No one will care because there will be nothing in me to care for. I will have to face the hard reality. I really don’t matter after all.
My nice, neat intellectual theology tells me that God loves me and has a plan for my life. It all sounds good, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. If God has a plan, it certainly isn’t obvious. Maybe it would be more correct to say that if He has a plan, it seems to be filled with all kinds of sorrow, stress and pain. I can’t live in those neat, clean theological categories. I need a place to cry about what has happened – and know that God actually cares that I am crying.
In the end, Abraham’s life came down to one simple requirement: obedience. Would Abraham obey, even if it meant throwing away who he believed himself to be? Abraham was, thankfully, a man of principle. He looked out on the horizon of empty life, on the plains of meaninglessness, and he raised the blade. Better to be true to the principle than sacrifice integrity for a hold-back hope.
Wait! I don’t know if I can do this. Abraham was one in a trillion. Maybe that’s why God called him. I don’t know if I can truly deny myself, sacrifice my ego, my hope, my worth and my identity. I know I can give up my body but I am not sure if I can give up my emotions. If I pick up the knife, then everything else must be up to God. I will have nothing left. If I am going to be rescued, He will have to do it because I can’t. And what if He doesn’t? Do I really trust Him?
Now I need to pay very close attention. You see, it would be very easy for me to conclude that Abraham was a man of principle, that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac on the basis of the principle of obedience. But that would be a terrible mistake. When I convert relationship to principle, I covert love to legalism. Abraham was not willing to sacrifice Isaac on the basis of the principle of obedience. The principle of obedience had nothing to do with it. Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac because Abraham loved God more than he loved himself. It was the relationship of love between Abraham and God that allowed Abraham to slaughter his hopes and dreams. Abraham loved God – and as a result of that love, he was willing to obey.
I have to be rescued from obedience as a principle of life. Obedience is not what I love. I love the person God. Obedience is how I show my love for Him. I can sacrifice who I am only because I love Him more than I love me. And that is precisely what Jesus asks me to do – to love Him more than I love myself. Unless I am first and foremost committed to a primary love relationship with Jesus, I can never raise the knife. I can’t sacrifice myself out of principle. That leaves me with nothing at all. But I can sacrifice myself out of love, for that leaves me with the honor of showing Him that He is first.
What I know is this: The entire biblical record attempts to show us that God is faithful. Every page communicates that God is reliable. The living Word is there so that we can know that God has a vital interest in us and longs to have us surrender ourselves to His care. The Bible certainly tells me that God has my best interests in mind, even when the pathway He chooses is dreadfully difficult. The Bible also says that He will listen to the hearts of those who sincerely seek Him and that He promises to comfort those who face personal extinction in pursuit of the Kingdom.
But it’s all just words until you raise the knife. When the blade goes up, you are betting your life on the promise of God. Abraham did that without having a single word of Scripture to read. I have all the words, and I am still afraid. Why? It comes down to a simple issue. I am afraid to let go of the life I know because I have no confidence that God will really take care of these emotional needs I feel. I am afraid that He will let me cast away my protection and then leave me. The Book says He won’t, but it’s just words. How do I know that the Book is true? Everything in me wants assurances, which is just another way of saying that I want to know the end of the story before I plunge the knife. And, of course, sacrifice doesn’t work that way. Even Jesus had to rely on the words when he took the cross. God did not rush in to rescue Him. He died – with only the words to bring Him back.
So, the corollary of my question, “Do I really trust Him?” is this: Am I willing to stake who I am on the words alone? Will I really believe – which means to act upon – those words that claim to be from the mouth of God? Am I ready to actually throw away the self that I know and protect in order to be obedient – not in order to gain something else because I do not know what else there is? All I know is that in front of me is an altar and on it is the person who represents what I think I am. I have a knife in my hand.
Obedience is the effect, not the cause. The cause is love. My question, “Do I really trust Him?” is really a deeper question: Do I love Him? If I love Him more than I love me, I will raise the knife to demonstrate how much He matters. If I cannot raise the knife, then I have not yet settled the matter of first love.
PS – I wrote this article several years ago. When I read it now, I see that God has been secretly moving in my life all the time. I realize that I didn’t see His hand while He was moving it, but only afterward. Maybe that’s why perseverance is so important. We are blind to the moment. Our eyes only work after the fact. If you read this and find that there are similarities in your life, remember that hindsight is the way of spiritual insight. And be blessed. You can trust Him.