This past Sunday we kicked off a brand-new teaching series called, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm. If you are the kind of person who believes the Scriptures should have some kind of a place of authority in your life, you are left with a thorny problem: There are some stories in there that are just downright uncomfortable. If they are there on purpose and for our benefit, what are we supposed to do with them? In this series, we’ll explore several of these hard stories and begin to see that all Scripture really is for our benefit. Even the hard stuff.
You Want Me to Do What?
Have you ever watched or read something that just wasn’t good? It’s not necessarily that it was bad, it just wasn’t good. You just didn’t enjoy it. I remember watching Adam Sandler’s Punch Drunk Love when I was in college. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re better off for that. It’s a dark comedy about a socially awkward guy falling in love. It was awful. The credits rolled and all of us gathered in my friend’s living room watching it looked around at each other and as almost the same time said, “We can’t have that two hours of life back.” I remember reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court when I was growing up. A book combining science fiction and medieval adventure should have been an easy winner. It was all I could do to not put it down and find something better to read. If I wasn’t such a perfectionist about finishing books I probably would have. The thing about reading a book or watching a movie that isn’t good is that you can always just walk out. There are some stories, though, that are harder to ignore.
For folks who would acknowledge some kind of an allegiance to Jesus, the source of a number of these harder-to-ignore stories are the Scriptures. For followers of Jesus, when it comes to stories found in the Bible, casting them aside when they get uncomfortable gets a bit more difficult because there are some doozies in there.
If you are going to give the Scriptures some kind of a place of authority in your life, the best approach is to take seriously what Paul said in his second letter to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Of course, this is also the hardest approach when it comes to the hard stories contained within its pages. I mean, you could try and work out a system by which some of it is true and some of it isn’t, but as soon as you start down that path, you find yourself on a slippery slope that really doesn’t stop very easily until you’ve gone all the way to the end of rejecting all of it. But if all of it is true—and the arguments for that are pretty sound—then we have to deal with all of it; even the ugly stuff. And the fact is: There is some ugly stuff in there. I know you, because you’re like me in this. There are some stories in the Scriptures that you have read and immediately thought, “What on earth is that doing in here?”
For the next few weeks with a few breaks here and there both to let us catch our breath, but also to celebrate some important events, we are going to spend some time working through some of these hard stories in the Scriptures—these Bible Stories to Make You Squirm, as we’ll call it. These are stories that make us uncomfortable for one reason or another. Usually it’s because God is recorded as either doing or allowing something that doesn’t fit our normal mold of what we should expect from Him. But, they’re in there and on purpose if Paul is right, so we need to be able to deal with them.
But how do we do that? Well, there are four things we need to make sure we’re bringing to the table with us so that we don’t start off on the wrong foot from the get-go. First, what we think about the text as a whole matters. You need to clarify right out the gate what you actually believe about the Bible. If you don’t really believe it has any place or authority in your life, then you don’t need to be bothered by anything that’s in there. It’s just all made-up nonsense and the fact that you’re letting it get to you suggests that you may think more of it than you want to let on. No, the only reason you need to bother wrestling with any particular story is because it’s true.
The second thing you’ve got to do ahead of time is to make sure you get the character of God right. If God is just and loving and holy and true, then all of the stories we encounter in the Scriptures—but particularly the ones when God seems to be acting out of character—have to be filtered through that lens. If God really does always do the right thing, and if He always tempers the right thing with generous amounts of love, then any time it seems God isn’t doing the right thing in the Scriptures, the problem is with our understanding of what we’re reading, not with God. If you don’t get the character of God right, you won’t be able to make positive sense out of most of what you read.
The third must when it comes to dealing with hard passages of Scripture is to be sure you understand the context as fully as possible. Context is king when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. Consider this: Just a second ago, when talking about the Bible, I said that “it’s just all made-up nonsense…” Now, of course, you knew what I was talking about and so didn’t immediately start to wonder about my theological commitments and whether or not I needed to keep standing up here and preaching to you any longer. But, if someone took that one statement and tweeted out or posted on Facebook, “My pastor said the Bible is just all made-up nonsense,” after the service, that would probably set some people to talking.
Sometimes we do that same kind of thing with the various ancient documents that make up the Bible. We get all bothered by a snippet of Scripture and forget all about the fact that it didn’t just pop into existence out of nowhere. If you want to understand what we are to do with a particular story, read the stories on either side of it. Then, read the stories on either side of those. Read the whole book in which the story is found. What was the author doing? What was he trying to say with the whole work? How might that story fit in this larger picture? Consider the broader picture of the whole Bible. Where does this story fit in with the whole Bible? What impact does the resurrection of Jesus from the dead have on the story? All of these are questions we need to ask…and answer…before we let a particular story bother us too much.
One last thing here: Sometimes, we go through all that work and still don’t understand what we’re supposed to do with a particular story. Hear this well: That’s okay. At some point, it’s okay to wave the mystery flag. We don’t want to wave it too early and give up before we search hard for an answer. And we don’t want to wave it too late and claim understanding we don’t really have. But sometimes, we have to finally wave it, trusting that God’s character isn’t changed by that and Jesus’ resurrection isn’t undone by that. Perhaps it will be that the Holy Spirit will give us greater clarity and application on it at later date.
Enough background; let’s get to putting this all into practice with an actual story to make you squirm. I thought I’d start us off today with a softball. This morning I want us to wrestle with the idea that sometimes God tests our faith by calling us to do things that don’t make any sense at all. When we get into the thick of following Jesus, He’s going to lead us through some pretty scary territory on occasion. For one particular man named Abraham, it probably felt like his whole life was like this. Abraham’s introduction comes when this God he had never met calls him to leave behind everything he’d ever known as familiar and set out to some yet-to-be-named place. That sounds like a romantic and exciting idea today. In his time it did not. Going out on your own was as sure a way as you could find to guarantee your life ended much sooner than it otherwise would. Later, this same God told him he and his wife were going to have a child together…when they were already in their 70s. They just needed to trust Him and keep following Him. So they did. Then, after this child, Isaac, was miraculously born, God asked him to do something with his son that immediately appears to any reasonable observer to be wildly unreasonable.
Here’s how the story went down in Genesis 22. Isaac’s birth was a milestone in Abraham and Sarah’s life together. Their inability to conceive had haunted them their entire lives. That kind of a place is painful tragedy today. It was worse then. It meant you were cursed by God for something. But then, Abraham got this message from God that they were in fact going to have a son. So they waited. And waited. And waited. For 25 years. Imagine that. Twenty-five years of waiting on a promise. Could you sustain your hope that long when it was for something you wanted this badly? It’s no wonder they ran off the rails a few times along the way. But then Isaac was born. The miracle child. Some of you know what that would have been like.
Isaac would have gotten everything he wanted. He would have been spoiled rotten. They would have treated him like he was made of glass. They didn’t want anything to happen to him. He was the fulfillment of a century of hoping. And then comes chapter 22: “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he answered.” Now, anytime you see the phrase “God tested _______” in the Scriptures, you know things are about to get hard for someone. This was no exception. Verse 2: “‘Take your son,’ he said, ‘your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’”
Wait, what? That sounds like child sacrifice. What on earth is child sacrifice doing being sanctioned by God in the Scriptures? Now, we can say all the holy-sounding things we want here to try to make this easier, but can we be honest enough to say that’s a pretty futile gesture. Here are some of the most common efforts: This was late in Abraham’s life and his faith was really strong. Okay. The last time God called him to go off in a general direction with the promise of more specific instructions later on it turned out pretty good for him, so maybe he was just counting on the same thing happening again. Maybe. The writer of Hebrews credits Abraham with just believing that God was going to raise Isaac from the dead after his killing him in order to fulfill His promise to create a nation from Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. We’ve got to give at least that one some credence since it’s actually in the Bible, but come on, this was Abraham’s only son with his wife Sarah. Worldview differences between him and us aside, there’s just no way around the fact that this would have been excruciatingly difficult for Abraham to say yes to this. Think about it: Would you have said yes? What was God doing?
We’re not told anything more than that He was testing Abraham. For his part, Abraham gets up the next morning, packs everything up he would need, and heads for the land of Moriah. Notice that he doesn’t tell Sarah where he’s going. This is in all likelihood because she would have offered him up as a burnt offering if she knew. Abraham doesn’t even tell the servants he brings along to help carry everything, though. When they arrive at the place for the sacrifice, Abraham loads up the supplies he and Isaac will need, and merely tells them to “stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.” Notice the “we” there. Abraham was still hoping against hope that there would be a “we” to come back to them.
The next sequence of things happens really quickly. They arrive at the mountaintop, Abraham prepares the altar, hogties Isaac, lays him on the pile of wood, and raises his knife to kill his son. Listen: Trying to explain all of this away won’t do. God really did ask Abraham to do this. Abraham up to this point really does appear to intend to follow through on it. If this doesn’t make you squirm a bit, you aren’t reading closely enough. Now, yes, God intervenes at the last moment and Abraham receives his son back unharmed with some high praise from God to boot, but that doesn’t change the likely fallout from this. It doesn’t change how uncomfortable of a story it is. It doesn’t change the fact that we are left with this insistently begging question: What are we supposed to do with this?
We start by making sure we understand everything how Moses, who first wrote it down, would have understood it. Contextually speaking, this story follows after the story of Isaac’s birth, the sending away of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, and his mom, Hagar, at the insistence of Sarah (we can talk about what a messed up family dynamic that was another time), and a story about how great Abraham was becoming in the region. It precedes the story of the death of Sarah. Okay…but that doesn’t seem to help us all that much.
Well, this might. Come back with me to v. 1 here. Moses writes that “after these things God tested Abraham.” What things? The most likely answer to that is the events described in chapter 21. Think about the three events I just described. First, Abraham and Sarah finally deliver their precious baby boy. Again, they had been waiting for this moment for a long time. If you’ve been or know someone who has been in anything like this kind of a situation, you know the tendency is to hold pretty tightly to this kid. This child would become extraordinarily important to you. He was important enough to Sarah that when a bit of conflict began to arise between Isaac and Ishmael a few years later—conflict that seems to have been provoked by Ishmael—rather than trying to sort it out, she demands that Abraham send his other son away. Weird family dynamics aside, kicking one child out of the house for the sake of another isn’t easy. But Abraham goes along with it because both he and Sarah are of like mind on the importance of Isaac. Finally, there’s this interesting little episode between Abraham and Abimelech, a local tribal leader, who essentially wants to make a land-use deal with Abraham because Abimelech recognizes that Abraham is so powerful that, if he wanted to, he could make life very difficult for him and his tribe.
Think about the combined impact of these three events, even spaced out over several years, on the mindset of Abraham. It would have been so easy for him to begin to develop the idea that now that God had fulfilled His promise for a son, he could handle the rest. He didn’t really need God anymore. This plus a linguistic and a cultural note give us a bit better clue as to what might be going on here; as to why this story got included and what we should do with it. First, on the linguistic note, the word translated “test” here carries the sense of proving the quality of something. God wasn’t trying to draw Abraham into a sin of some kind. Rather, He was giving Abraham the chance to demonstrate the depth and worth of his faith. He was also reminding Abraham (again) that trusting fully in Him will be the way to see His promises fulfilled.
The way He does it, though, is really interesting. If God had tested Abraham in some other way, we wouldn’t be talking about this story at all. God challenges and tests people all the time in the Scriptures and almost none of them bother us in the slightest. What makes this one different is the whole child sacrifice thing. Child sacrifice seems like some ancient, barbaric, pagan practice to us today. Well, Abraham was living in an ancient, barbaric, pagan time. The ugly historical truth is that the pagan peoples of Canaan practiced child sacrifice regularly from the time of Abraham all the way through the monarchial period of Israel’s later history. Their twisted religious worldview led them to believe that by offering this thing most precious to them to the gods, the gods would in turn grant them favor of some kind, or at least not smite them. Now, in their religious worldview the practice made perfect sense, but that just goes to remind us that not all worldviews are created equal. Some are better than others. A worldview that allows a place for parents to intentionally kill their own children (or anybody else’s for that matter) to appease some made up deity isn’t a good worldview.
So…why did God ask Abraham to do it? Think about it like this: Have you ever known someone who was committed to a different religious worldview than you have, and who, even though they didn’t believe the same things you do, was nonetheless inspiring to you because of their commitment to what they professed to believe? In Jeremiah 35 the prophet writes about the Rechabites. God holds them up as an example of incredible faithfulness to the people of Israel not because of their great devotion to Him, but because of their persistent devotion to their ancestors’ commitment to drink no alcohol. God’s point in context was that if they could be so faithful to a promise their ancestor had made, why couldn’t the people of Israel be faithful to Him? The fact is, there are a lot of Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs and Jews, who are more committed to their faith traditions than we are to ours. They demonstrate this commitment in part by the physical and lifestyle lengths they’ll go to in order to back up their confession.
In this sense, then, God was asking Abraham: Are you as committed to Me as the pagan peoples around you are to their gods? Would you do for Me what they do for their gods if I asked you? The truth is that God never had any intention of Abraham following all the way through on killing his son. But He did want to give him the opportunity to demonstrate in a tangible way that made sense at the time the depth and worth of his faith commitment. He wanted Abraham to wrestle with the question of whether or not there was anything in his life more precious to him than the Lord Himself. Was there anything he was leaning on for support more than God? His refusal to trust wholly in God in his own past had brought nothing but trouble and needless complication to his life. Now, his son, Isaac, and his image as a tribal leader were two things that were potentially on the list. God was merely taking them away.
What are some of the things you lean on? If you were going to be brutally honest, what are some of the things you count as more precious to you than the Lord Himself? This isn’t the time to be all holy since we’re in church. Be honest. What is it that you wouldn’t give up if the Lord asked you to do just that? Who is it?
Because, here’s the truth Abraham had to learn if he was going to continue down the path of becoming fully who God intended for him to be; it’s the truth we have the opportunity to learn through him if we’ll pay attention here: If we lean on anything other than God to get by, that thing will become a crutch for us. It will become the thing on which we depend. And when this happens, we will become very protective of and jealous for it. But here’s the bigger deal: If we are leaning on this other thing to get by, then we are necessarily not leaning on God to get by. And if we are not leaning on God to get by, then we are not being shaped to become more fully who He made us to be, we are instead being shaped in the image of whatever this other thing is. Here’s the real challenge for us, though: Sometimes we don’t know what our crutches are until God kicks them out from under us. Claiming faith in God is fine, but until we are given these kinds of opportunities to put it into practice, it’s like saying we think a chair will hold us without ever sitting down on it.
Abraham had faith. There was no doubt about that. He had been on a long-term faith-development plan and this was kind of like his final exam. God was essentially saying to him: “I want you to trust Me more than your pagan neighbors trust in their gods, because when you do, there’s no limit to what I can do through you.” And so God tested him. And his tested faith proved genuine. And we were able to be presented with this truth: A tested faith is a genuine faith.
Now, the particular nature of this test is indeed pretty uncomfortable for us. It makes us squirm because it is so culturally foreign from what we know and how we think today. It wasn’t for Abraham and we can’t use our cultural lens to be the means by which we judge his circumstances. This story is worthwhile and included for us in the Scriptures, because worldview differences aside, the lesson is timeless: A tested faith is a genuine faith. Jesus’ brother James would later put it like this: Faith without works is dead. Until and unless we are willing to put into practice the faith we claim, to put the rubber of our words to the road of actual living, our faith won’t do us much good. Our primary foundation for life will be something else. A tested faith is a genuine faith.
And when we learn to lean on God as our only foundation? Then comes blessing. It is those with a genuine faith who come to know the real blessings of faith. Listen to what God said to Abraham: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son…” That is, because you have been willing to trust me with that which is most precious to you, “I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the city gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed my command.” The apostle Paul would later make the grammatical observation that the Hebrew word translated “offspring” there is singular, not plural. It wouldn’t be all of Abraham’s offspring who would bring a blessing to the world. It would be one particular offspring. You may have heard of Him: Jesus the Christ.
A tested faith is a genuine faith, and a genuine faith receives a blessing…it becomes a blessing. Now, your blessing won’t be Abraham’s blessing because you’re not Abraham and God doesn’t intend to do in your life what He intended to do in Abraham’s. All that is to say: don’t try to draw out some kind of a correspondence between what God said to him and what you might experience for putting your faith into practice. God has plans for you that He didn’t have for Abraham. Know this well, though: The tests that get you there won’t be fun. No test is. But as you learn to lean more wholly on the Savior who died to give you life, you will know the blessings of life and become part of that life blessing for the world around you. A tested faith is a genuine faith.
Here’s the question you need to be asking: Where is God testing my faith? Where am I in danger of or in fact already am leaning on something other than God for my support? Where are some places in my life where things seem to be spinning out of control, where God is moving me forward in ways that don’t make any sense? Those may very well be places He is kicking out some supports so that you can lean more wholly on Him. Those may be places where He is giving you the opportunity to both prove and experience the genuineness of your commitment to Him. A tested faith is a genuine faith. If in those places, like Abraham did, you will trust Him with the thing most precious to you, He will redeem that thing and in turn grant you the thing most precious to Him. In fact, He already has in Christ. It simply takes faith; a tested faith; a genuine faith, in order to receive it. A tested faith is a genuine faith. If you will trust Him in the testing, the blessings of obedience will be yours.
Would you stand with me? In a minute I’m going to ask you to pray. When I do, I want you to take just a minute before the Lord to ask where He is testing you right now. Ask where He’s letting you prove your faith to be genuine. Ask for the courage to trust Him with what is most precious to you so that you can have more of Him. I want you to say to Jesus: I’d rather have you than anything. A tested faith is a genuine faith. Let’s pray together.