Carol Kent wrote a book years ago, “When I Lay My Isaac Down.” Although Isaac was promised and given by God, there came a time when God required Abraham to lay Isaac down, to sacrifice him. Or, as it turned out in that case, at the very least, to be willing to sacrifice him. It was a test of obedience for Abraham. God calls us regularly to lay down “Isaacs”…things that have been gifts and blessings in our lives. Not because God is mean-spirited or is retracting his promises, but because he wants us to keep things in perspective…..to worship the Giver, not the gift. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, Isaac was the Child of Promise. Abraham knew that and had great faith in trusting that somehow God was going to honor that promise……he told the servants, “We will return.” He didn’t know how, but it seems he’d seen enough of the power of God and God’s faithfulness to know that God could even raise Isaac from the dead, if that’s what it took to honor the promise.
I have been called to sacrifice “Isaacs” before…things that God himself had given. At one point in my life, I had to be willing to give my marriage to him completely, to trust him in something even if it meant loss of it. In that case, it was returned better than it had been before. There have been other “Isaacs” God has called me to lay down. Some were indeed removed. Others were returned, usually with an improved perspective about the role they were to serve in my life. In each case, one has to look at what was the purpose of the “Isaac.” Was it actually necessary to God’s fulfillment of his purpose in my life, a part of his promise? Or was it something that I was to have for a season to accomplish God’s equipping in my life?
For Carol Kent, she came to realize that her love and expectations of her only child, her son, her pride and joy, had bordered on being an idol in her life. He was an adult. He made poor choices. But those choices, although they greatly changed his life, they didn’t in the long run interfere with God’s will for Carol’s life and calling. She had to learn the lesson of surrender, of sacrifice, of laying down her “Isaac.” It was a long and painful journey. She still has her son, though it is only through visitation at the prison where he is spending the rest of his life.
Whether it is a relationship, a job, an ambition, security, or any other person place, or thing in our lives….If we are seeking to love and follow God, there will likely come a time when God will test our hearts. Is our commitment to the Giver or to our attachment to the gifts, the blessings, what we have believed are the “promises” in our lives? Will we trust God and God alone? If he returns the blessing after the testing of our obedience, well and good. If he accepts the sacrifice of our obedience and removes the blessing, it is because it has served its purpose in God’s plan. Something else may or may not replace it. It may well be that it was only a part of God’s equipping and its purpose was never intended to be permanent. Or, in some cases, other people are involved and God allows choices to be made that, while they affect the temporary circumstances of people involved, those choices do not ultimately affect God’s will for those involved. Nevertheless, our challenge is to come to trust in God, his innate goodness, his love for us, his sovereignty over our lives, and his purpose and plan.
I have a friend who is a retired pastor. She was ordained and served for 10 years, then had to make a choice. She had married a man who chose military chaplaincy. Their ministry vocations came into conflict with one another. Her choice to support her husband’s military career and move with him wherever it took them required her to sacrifice her role as an active pastor in her denomination. She is still in ministry, but in a different, more individual and autonomous way. And she does some extraordinary things for the kingdom. She isn’t in the same role, but she is as faithful as ever in service to God and God has given her some unique opportunities and blessings that she would never have known otherwise, including being a special part of her husband’s support in a successful ministry career.
Abraham was familiar with sacrifice and the necessity of trusting God. He sacrificed the familiar home in Ur for the uncertain future in an unknown place where God called him to go. He built altars and made animal sacrifices to God at key points of God’s work in his life. He sacrificed the presence in his life of his firstborn, Ishmael, a child born of his and Sarah’s own devices but not the Child of Promise, because of the conflict Ishmael and Hagar’s presence raised in his household. He was willing to sacrifice Isaac, too, in obedience to God’s call. Sometimes willingness is sufficient. Sometimes the actual sacrifice is required. If it wasn’t something God had given and something that was valued as a blessing, would it really be a sacrifice? Or would it merely be something unvalued that one has cast aside without a second thought?
There are lots of prescribed sacrifices using animals in the Old Testament. Each serves a special purpose and is part of the life in community for dealing with the needs of the people in sustaining the covenantal relationship with God. In the New Testament, the ultimate sacrifice through the death of a Lamb provided by God for our salvation and reconciliation with God was accomplished through Christ. For us, sacrifice is a much more individual thing between God and a person, following the example of Christ in obediently laying down his own will for the sake of the will of the Father. The “sacrifice of thanksgiving”, the “sacrifice of praise” and “a living sacrifice” of our lives replaced the animal sacrifices of earlier eras in the relationship between God and man.
In Matthew 9: 11-13, we read: “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Christ is directing his disciples to Hosea 6:6: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice.” In other words, I am better pleased with true goodness than with the most exact observance of the external duties of religion. This theme is also observed in Micah 6:6-8. Mercy here includes piety toward God, as well as benevolence to man; or the performance of all the duties of the moral law. ……This is infinitely more pleasing to God, and more essential to true religion, than any ceremonial observances whatever; yea, than all sacrifices and burnt-offerings. (Benson Commentary on Hosea 6:6) Jesus is telling them that the spirit of the law (mercy) is a higher moral value and honors and fulfills the desire of God more completely than the letter of the law (sacrifice). In Jesus teaching of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, the descending blessings of poverty of spirit, grieving, and meekness are followed by the ascending blessings of pursuit of righteousness (piety), mercy, purity, peace, and perseverance. These are the things that develop the character and please God. There is no reference in this description by Jesus of the life lived in grace and blessedness of ritual, religiosity, or sacrifices. Elliott’s Commentary for English Readers says, “according to even Old Testament teaching, the moral ranks above the ceremonial, that ritual is valueless apart from spiritual conformity with Divine will.”
Such interpretations by Jesus of the Old Testament…..from the perspective of spirit instead of letter of the law….enraged the Pharisees. Interpreting and enforcing the letter of the law was a significant part of their sense of their purpose. Even the word “pharisaical” has come to mean association with practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical. Whenever style trumps substance in our service to God, whenever our desires and will supersede God’s, whenever the letter of the law is chosen over the spirit of mercy and compassion, whenever we offer lip service without selflessness in action one is living out of motivations that God has rejected.
The call to lay down one’s Isaacs, regardless of the form, living or inanimate, in which they exist, lasers right in on the motives of the heart. No one knows the truth of the heart but God. Even we ourselves cannot discern it without God’s Holy Spirit guiding us into that knowledge.
One way that Christ calls us to practice sacrifice is in his teaching is in this passage from Matthew 5:38-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” In each of these comparisons, the first action represents an aspect of the letter of the law (“you have heard it said”) followed by Christ’s call to live a higher standard, the spirit of the law. Each of the letter of law examples entails rights, duty, obligation, requirement, or someone compelling one to do something. The second part of each example is a voluntary surrender of rights, duty, obligation, requirement, or compulsion to obedience. God wants us to act out of a free and cheerful obedience to our recognition of his presence with us in the midst of any circumstance and his call to transcend them by walking humbly with him, not simply enduring the inconvenience, self-denial, or suffering that may accompany the circumstances. Such a high call to living can only be accomplished through complete surrender in love to God, following the example of Jesus Christ and will bring the blessings of piety, mercy, purity, peace, and perseverance.
through complete surrender in love to God, following the example of Jesus Christ and will bring the blessings of piety, mercy, purity, peace, and perseverance.
I have observed a particular individual through the years who has seemed sensitive about issues of respect to himself. The more I’ve observed him, the more I am aware of how much his expressed values and actions are defined by his sense of the respect due to him because of education, age and experience, knowledge, position, authority, and personal accomplishments. At one point his perception of an action by me as disloyalty and disrespect to him led to a fierce tongue lashing, even a direct threat to destroy my ministry, in the presence of another co-worker. He did not know the details of why I did what I did and when I had to ask him to leave so that I might talk to the other person privately, a supervisor, my actions were seen for what they were and while he agreed that my actions were understandable and even justified by the circumstances, the supervisor was able to offer me wisdom on how to avoid future risk of such perceptions by our fellow worker. We were able to eventually work through his anger and hurt at his perception of my disloyalty and disrespect. I apologized for my actions that did not take into account his desire to be informed in advance of developing circumstances and decisions that were being made. He apologized for the harshness of his response. It forever changed some of the ways in which we relate to one another, but not our love for another. And I believe there is more mutual respect for one another because of what we went through. Our respective commitment to lay down Isaacs, to sacrifice our rights to act out of our own understanding and desires and to consider the value we have for one another and our shared service to the kingdom of God restored peace.
Each of has our Isaacs- desires of the heart, emotional needs, blind spots, entitlements based on expectations or promises, sense of personal privilege due to accomplishments, etc. When God is refining us, he will put a finger on our Isaacs and test our willingness to lay them down. Those things we hold in open hands, which we willingly lay before the Lord, can never be compelled, taken from us or denied us. We lay them down in obedient love for God and trusting fully in God’s goodness.
Christ’s teaching of the authority one has to make the choice of surrender or not, the free will of each of us, and one’s knowledge that because of the power of that choice to surrender, anyone may come to the Father through Christ, even those who offend the religious elite, is what got Christ crucified. It offended them when he said it in the synagogue in Nazareth after his baptism and it offended them here at the end of him ministry, described in John 10:13-19
“I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, 15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. 18 No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” 19 A division occurred again among the Jews because of these words.
Matters of motive, authority, sacrifice, surrender, free will, and who gets in and who doesn’t…….Such things divide those who pursue the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit of the law. .