A Lesson About Faith From One of the Bible’s Most Bizarre Stories

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you (Genesis 22:1-2).”

The story of Abraham offering up Isaac on an altar as a potential human sacrifice is rather odd, at the least. An old man asked by God to offer his only son as a sacrifice to test his faith? Maybe it’s even weird. Disgusting, even. Bizarre. Unexpected. Lord, you want me to do what again?

But that is exactly what God asked of his son of the promise. And you know what? He acted immediately.

So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son (v. 3).

Chris Ramsey, one of the elders at our church, made some great observations about the faith of Abraham in his sermon on Sunday. It was Father’s Day, and so Chris decided to preach on a father… being told by God to kill his son. Great, eh? (Spoiler: the son lived) Here are some principles of faith that can be gleaned from this story, from both Chris’ message and from my own pondering:

  1. Positive Experience Builds Trust

Chris pointed out that Abraham had already experienced a lot of life with God guiding him — speaking to him — and blessing him. Abe had learned to listen to God’s voice and muster the courage to obey. For every step of his life after knowing God, the patriarch built trust in God as he took risk and God provided for him.

Part of this faith experience was God’s promise to provide he and his wife, Sarah, a natural-born son. Both were older than parenting age, so it took a heck of a lot of faith to believe that God would provide. Finally, after trials and incidents of various sorts, Sarah had a son, Isaac. God had promised that the entire world would be blessed through Abraham’s son and his offspring (Gen 12:1-3), making Isaac’s very life quite an important one!

Three years ago I found myself living on a high mesa west of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I never intended to end up living out in the wilderness, surviving in sub-freezing temperatures in a pop-up camper on government land. Nope, I had dreams of a nice warm adobe apartment, abundant WiFi and a hot shower. But the government shutdown and a scarcity of jobs meant rice, beans and a bed of four blankets in a 1983 Starcraft camper.

When I tell people that my faith is God was never deeper than it was at this time of my life they cannot believe it. But it was. I was living on donations and waiting for my first paycheck from Target, where I had a seasonal job doing menial tasks like re-arranging the cat food cans and putting away all those misplaced toys. My real “job” was to observe, experience and pray over the city of Santa Fe for potential church planting or missional ministry. It’s a very dark city, spiritually.

But a lack of funds meant taking risks every night on public land, listening to gunshots in the distance and having drunk men drive by my camper at high speeds at 3 am, shouting incomprehensible phrases at me and throwing things at my camper. I buried my head under the blanket and prayed to see the morning.

But I never felt more alive because I knew that God had my back. He was my loving Father in heaven and I had walked with him for 30 years. He was my High Protector and He had never let me down. I went where He asked. I never truly lacked food. My clothes were sufficient, often because a brother or sister in Christ surprised me with clothes in His Name. That happened to me the summer before. A couple in Ruidoso, outside of where I was campground hosting, said they felt Jesus wanted me to have some warm clothes for the chilly mountain autumn. So they brought me four or five sweaters from their small thrift store, a space heater, and food I could heat up. God provided. Why would He abandon me on a frozen mesa?

My experience with God bolstered my faith in Him and allowed me to continue to take “risks” to see how I might help expand His kingdom. I knew that God has provided for me before, in many circumstances, and I trusted that He would continue to do so.

2. Faith is Built Through Our Risk Met With God’s Response

Here is something that the security-minded will cringe to read: people of faith take risks and trust God with the result. Over and over again we see men and women stepping out in faith — into the uncertain — and God providing for their needs as they act. Noah built an ark. God saved him and his family. Abraham left Ur for a place he had never been. Jacob went to Egypt to escape famine. Rahab hid two spies from evil men. Ruth gleaned in the field of a stranger.

In many cases, God instructed the person to act. In those cases, the “risk” was a matter of obedience. However, other times, like when Nehemiah decided to go back to Jerusalem, the saint of old planned, prayed and proceeded to take the risk, acting in faith. Abraham’s life is filled with both examples. God told him to leave Ur and he did. But when Abraham decided on his own to go after Lot and save him from peril, God blessed that action.

In my own life, I have come to see faith-prayer-action in this light: when a child of God is following God and has a holy desire of their heart, they have God’s blessing to follow that desire and He will bless it. We too often paralyze ourselves by waiting for the voice of God to say “Go” when we already carry the blessing of God with us. Unless He said “No” or “Not yet” to you, then it is not wrong to step out in faith and trust Him with the results.

I think our Lord said it perfectly when He taught,  “What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matthew 7:9-11).”

God is a loving Father to us and, because He has accepted us as His dearly-loved children, why wouldn’t He want to bless us when we truly desire to follow Him and make an impact for His kingdom?

3. God Always Seeks Our Good, Even During Hard Times

So now God wanted that Isaac’s precious life to be given up as a sacrifice? What about the promises of blessing? One thing Abraham had learned through his life of faith was that God always sought his good. Safety, security, blessing, righteousness… this resulted from his believing God and obeying. So now…

Abraham never questioned God. He obeyed, knowing that God kept His promises and, thus, there would be some way out of this command. God would provide. Somehow, some way. But what he needed to do was simply obey and see.

There is a tendency in our Church society to see God as a strict taskmaster instead of a loving Father. Maybe a few teachers who had bad dads here on earth have poisoned the message of grace, but God wants you to enjoy His blessings in this life! Jesus promised this to those who would believe in Him: “A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10).” This abundance should not be trivialized, though I’m not talking about an abundance of material wealth or a lack of trouble like the so-called “prosperity gospel” teaches. But Jesus wants His followers to have life — LIFE — and in abundance! To have joy. To have peace. To love and be loved. To be holy and find the blessing of God in acts of holiness.

John the apostle wrote, “Indeed, we have all received grace after grace from His fullness, for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:16-17). Grace. A God who punishes His children like a taskmaster isn’t full of grace!

Cue the Good Father analogy. “…How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” The same Paul who wrote, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” also wrote, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:1, 28).”

Abraham knew that God was for him and not against him. God considered Abraham his “friend.” He considers you His “son” or “daughter.”

—–

As the story goes on in Genesis 22, Abraham takes Isaac and two male servants and goes to a hill in Judea later to be known as Mount Moriah. He goes up to the top of the rocky mount with his son carrying the sacrifice wood on his back. Where is the sacrifice lamb? Isaac wondered. God will provide, Abraham responded. Isaac climbed up on the altar, Abraham took the knife in his hand and then….

The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son (vv. 11-13).

God never intended for Isaac to die. Human sacrifice never was part of the worship of God. The pagan nations did it. Israel, as a settled nation in Canaan, cried out against it for hundreds of years. God always intended to provide a sacrificial lamb. But Abraham knew that he needed to obey God until he heard something different. This is faith at its purest: to obey the voice of God even when it seems irrational. To trust God to provide for you even when you cannot see how.

Allen P. Ross, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, wrote: “The lessons about true worship are timeless: (1) Faith obeys completely the Word of God. (2) Faith surrenders the best to God, holding nothing back. (3) Faith waits on the Lord to provide all one’s needs.

If there is one thing I want you to take away from this pondering on faith it is this: faith without action is not going to grow. In order to trust God more and obey with less hesitancy, you need to build up experience with following Him in active faith. Step out and trust God. Look for His action in your life. Listen for His voice. Like Abraham, obey His voice even when you don’t understand the details. Know that God seeks your good and that He will deliver you from any circumstance that arises as you step out in faith.

Don’t stand on the sidelines. Be God’s!

 

 

 

 

Posted in Current Events

A Not-So-Moving Experience

In the months leading up to my marriage to the lovely Mrs. Newton, many people have sincerely offered me advice on what I should expect from married life.

Communication is very important in your first few months of marriage, especially honesty.
Don’t let even small problems simmer or linger without being resolved.
On the other hand… don’t sweat the small stuff! Learn to exercise grace towards your spouse.
Be sure to budget often in order to avoid money problems.
Be sure to set a routine reading the bible or praying together.
Enjoy the bliss that comes with being newlyweds… because you never know how long it’s going to last!

People have been really caring in their… well, care for us. Friends and family are excited for us and just about everyone who has ever married likely knows how we both feel. But for all the things we have been warned about, moving never came to the fore of anyone’s thought.

Yes, moving. That age-old activity of packing up one’s possessions into wicker baskets, burlap bags, steamer trunks and Home Depot cardboard boxes in order to transport them to a new home. That exercise in patience, logistics, communication and hard physical labor that drives men to drink and women to seek the nearest dark chocolate dealer.

Last weekend, my sweet wife and I engaged in part two of my move from my house in Duson, Louisiana, to our place in Monroe, some 185 miles northward. The first big move happened in early May, when I rented a U-Haul trailer and we spent a weekend loading up boxes and furniture. I managed to get about half of my stuff in the trailer before we ran out of time and had to get back to Monroe.

On Friday, when we arrived at my house, Shannon looked at the mess of construction boards, tools, dust and paint and said to me, “We can do this! It’s not nearly as bad as I remembered.” By the time we rolled out the driveway on Sunday evening, her attitude had changed to, “Just leave everything and let’s go!” In between was a lot of sweating in 90-percent humidity, sun exhaustion and bickering over my poor logistics and bad communication, among other experiences. By the end of our Sunday, I was a bull in a china closet, desperate to do things my own stubborn way, and she was physically and emotionally worn out.

Moving isn’t fun, especially when you are used to doing it all alone and now you have another person to communicate with! For all of my life, I never had to explain the scarce logistics of my thought process to another soul. I just conquered as I saw fit. Now, my dear wife is asking me all kinds of questions and wondering what my plan is! When I kept changing my packing plans to meet the changing situation, civility started to dissolve…

We survived the move, by God’s grace, with our love intact. And, despite a blown tire on my RV that forced us to spend the night in a hotel while waiting for repair, we are still madly in love. There is one more trip to make down to Duson to empty the house, clean it, and get it ready for sale but that will wait until later next month. We’re heading to Scotland for the second part of our honeymoon next week.

I think that moving is one of the more trying experiences a couple can go through. In moving, you have the perfect storm of communication, planning, flexibility, work and emotion, and that storm can spin out of control if just one of those factors goes amok. As Shannon and I were talking through the whole event after the fact, I wondered if maybe hiring a moving company would’ve helped our stress levels (if we could afford it, that is). Our conclusion? Nah. Probably not. After all, you still have to organize the packing of boxes, sort through decades of material gain, and exercise all the elements of the aforementioned storm.

Shannon has taped a scripture passage to the wall above our bathroom sink. It was intended to be a reminder for her, but it may as well be a reminder for both of us and, perhaps, you as well. It comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, an ancient Greek city. In it, the apostle exhorts,

“Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, accepting one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. (Colossians 3:12-13).”

Moving was a great opportunity to act out compassion, patience and forgiveness. I certainly know that I could have done it a whole lot better! Patience and stress are enemies. So are humility and selfishness. Forgiveness and the desire to be right… ditto.

All of these attributes that Paul lists are things that I consider to be elements of the all-sufficient grace of God. Compassion? Overlooks a lesser circumstance. Kindness? Overlooks the desire to ignore another. Humility? Overlooks one’s own pride. At the end of grace is forgiveness. God has forgiven us. We must forgive others, showing grace in the process.

A failure to act out of grace will always leave our spirits unsatisfied. I hope that the next time we have to move, grace will reign over any and all emotion, logistics and communication. Who wouldn’t want to experience a compassionate, kind, patient, forgiving move?

 

Posted in Current Events

Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth: Seeing the Spiritual in the Day-to-Day

The merging of households continues here in North Louisiana, with the financial sector next to meet the marital welder.

US dollar in the Jeans Pocket

Yesterday, my new bride and I visited my bank to get her name on the accounts, and, while such a move may seem harmless at first glance, it was a major step for me. You see, for the last 25 years I have been financially independent. Calling my own shots. The Big Cheese. But now I’m in the midst of the biggest of life change outside of salvation itself: becoming one flesh with another person in all facets of life. To say that it is simple, easy and effortless would be like saying that loose leaf black tea is inferior to loose bean black coffee, a fact that we all know is wholly untrue. Becoming one flesh is quite trying! But it is also completely worthwhile. This week we have also started to merge auto insurance and utilities.

Lately, Shannon and I have been recognizing more spiritual parallels as we merge households and experience this exciting new life together. Yesterday, after leaving my bank… our bank… she turned to me and said, “You know, babe, I can see a spiritual aspect to what we just did.” I knew exactly where she was going, but out of courtesy I still asked, “How so, love?” She explained that when we get married and become one flesh, we give up our independent ways and give ourselves to the other person in our marriage. It’s like when we come to faith in Jesus Christ and surrender ourselves to Him. He wants us to surrender our all — especially those independent ways that don’t conform to our new relationship with Him. He asks us to take up our cross‚ surrendering our lives as we know them, as follow Him in discipleship. Well said, my dear!

j0309237The pastor who married us, Randy, talked about how marriage is the coming together of two independent bodies to create “one flesh.” In the original Hebrew language of Genesis, “one flesh” literally means, “sharing the same skin.” Two people become one person. I keep seeing this action every time something that used to be mine — books, for example — becomes ours. My couch? Ours. My truck? Ours. My dishes? Ours (but probably not for long…). Every time we merge some aspect of our lives, we become more united into one flesh.

There are other parallels, too, such as in the realm of serving. One thing I have discovered, and I think Shannon feels the same way in reverse, is that when I serve my wife I receive greater joy than when I am served by her. I truly receive pleasure from simply seeing her happy, healthy and stress-free! I never would’ve thought that could be true back when I was an individual. Back then it was all about me. Serving Shannon is like when we serve God out of the freedom of our hearts. When we serve Him, in whatever form that may take, I think we will find true joy as a result (Eph. 6:7-8). There is something pure, something sweet about serving another person with just motives. “Love one another,” our Lord repeated to His disciples. “No one should seek his own good, but the good of the other person (1 Cor. 10:24),” Paul wrote.

Coincidence? I Think Not!

Maybe it is just the result of getting old, but I see reflections between heaven and earth everywhere. Perhaps I see them because both were created by God, and because He dwells in both places.

niceceltcrossThe Celtic Christians some 1500 years ago emphasized the importance of recognizing the presence of God in simple daily activities, from farming to feasting. God is the god of the everyday, the Church leaders taught, and not some distant being too busy being distant to care. God cares about both our daily bread AND our daily activities.

“For the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” Paul reminded the Corinthians. To the Athenians, he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it — He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things (Acts 17:24-25).”

Maybe it is this relationship — of God, who made heaven and earth and dwells in both places freely, with His creation — that leads the spiritually attuned to see Him in both places.

One of my favorite movies is the 1989 comedy “Joe Versus the Volcano” (don’t ask). In it, a wealthy-but-wandering boat captain is sailing hero Joe Banks out to a remote Pacific island when she tells him, “My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.”

The aforementioned Paul put it this way, “The unbeliever does not understand the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The one who is spiritual discerns all things… [for he has] the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:14-16).”

Maybe I can be so bold as to say that when a believer in Jesus Christ is walking in His ways, that believer starts to see the things of God in the ordinary relationships here on earth. He or she sees the winds of heaven in the stuff of earth. This Christ-enabled enlightenment is what led the late Rich Mullins to declare, “Everywhere I go I see You!”

It is my prayer that as you walk with Christ in step with the Holy Spirit that you will see evermore how the things of heaven are reflected on this earth, both in events and in relationships.

 

 

Posted in Current Events, Theology

Wait… What Just Happened? Lessons from the First Week of Marriage

Well, it took more than 39 years of running wild on planet Earth but finally a woman caught me. Not unlike taming a wild stallion, she lassoed my wandering heart and I settled into holy matrimony.

IMG_4104Yes, I got married. Last Friday. Wait.. What just happened? Ha! I married the lovely Shannon Schalles in Monroe, Louisiana, and I couldn’t be happier. Shannon probably knows how to “wrastle” wild creatures like myself, having been raised in agricultural Kansas, but I think she found that capturing my heart was easier than she expected.

I gave in. Surrendered. Raised the white flag. And I fell deeply and blissfully in love. She is amazing.

After a brief two-day honeymoon to Hot Springs, Arkansas, we are now settling into married life in Monroe and constantly asking each other, “Did we just do that? Did we just get married?” We laugh at the thought that 74 years of combined singleness just bit the dust in one 15-minute ceremony. I am now hers and she is now mine. It’s really quite unreal!

Here are a few lessons I’m learning so far, five days in…

1. Love is Vulnerable.

Back when we were dating, Shannon turned to me one evening as we watched TV on my couch and said, “Love is vulnerable, you know?” I responded, “How so?” She replied to the effect of, “When you love someone so deeply, you choose to open yourself up and be exposed — to be vulnerable. It’s kind of a scary feeling but because I trust you so much it feels all right.”

Love is vulnerable. When you choose to truly love someone in a committed relationship, you place your emotions, your heart, your… deepest being… out in the open before them. You essentially say, “Here is my heart. Take it. Take care of it. I trust you.” And a heart exposed can be either nourished or wounded. Either built up or torn down by the other person.

So far in our marriage, I’m trying very hard to build Shannon’s heart and trust. It’s not easy! On the flip side, I’ve pledged to her my heart, and told her that I trust her to care for it. I’m vulnerable, too. We both are. And maybe that truth is what will bind us together as a couple in these early weeks of marriage.

2. Comfort is Built on Acceptance

There is little like being exposed, body and soul, in front of your partner for the first time. It would be totally uncomfortable if not for the presence of a strong trust between you. When there is acceptance, there is comfort. Shannon’s knowledge of my acceptance of her and my trust in her acceptance of me is essential to our comfort with each other.

I cannot help but see parallels with how we Christians should see our relationship with God. God accepts us, not on the basis of our efforts but instead by His grace, and our knowledge of that acceptance should provide us with comfort in our daily life. Do we trust God? Does He deeply love us? Does He accept us based on His grace? What is our response to His grace?

3. Yielding to My Wife’s Physical Concern Might Just Save My Life

I’m used to being a lone wolf — an army and institute of one. When it came to my health, I made the decisions and I suffered from any ignorant attitudes in regards to my well being. But knowing that I am not my own anymore — in a human sense — has changed the way I see my health. Shannon wants to see me as healthy as I can be and I owe it to her to be just as concerned as she is. She might just save my life. She won’t let me ignore my health issues, so she is making me take care of myself. It’s a Godsend!

I have a new desire to fight my disabilities and treat them better thanks to my wonderful new wife. I want to give her my best in the here in now, and that includes being healthy for her. I’m looking for a new specialist to continue treating my Meniere’s Disease and I plan to both find a chiropractor and consult with a spinal surgeon to reduce my spinal deterioration. As for the other aches and pains? She wants me to get them checked out and I shall.

She might have to remind this wolf every now and again but I’m listening to her concern and I pray that it benefits us both in the here and the then.

 

Posted in Current Events | 1 Comment