Imagine: Abraham, deeply wrinkled from 120 years of trials, now seeking rest. Instead, in a vision, he’s called to kill, then burn, his son. Like a Nazi.
Imagine: He had forsaken his kinsmen, his home, and wandered unwelcomed in a strange land. At the command of an angel, he had to banish his son Ishmael, whom he loved. And before that, waiting decade after decade for the promise “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son” (Genesis 17:19, RSV), though nothing came from her womb, not even blood.
Imagine: Sarah bears Isaac, and, when the child fringes on manhood, Abraham, who with his loins brought Isaac out from the ground, must with his hands place him back.
The night of the vision, Abraham leaves the tent and eyes the stars. He remembers that a half-century earlier the Lord had pointed him upward and promised: “‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . . So shall your descendants be’” (chap. 15:5). He bows upon the earth in prayer, pleading for answers. Nothing comes, only the echo: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (chap. 22:2).
Abraham returns to the tent, to his son, and trembles. He approaches Sarah, also asleep, and longs to mingle his tears with hers. But he leaves his wife unburdened, awakens Isaac, and they depart for a distant mountain.
“So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him” (verse 3).
The boy and the servants journey in peaceful ease, unaware of the quiet riot inside the old man, who thinks of the mother, of when he returns and she runs, her arms wide to embrace the boy, only nothing’s left, except ashes in Abraham’s hair, and the smell of smoke in his beard.
The first day’s journey ends and, while his companions sleep, Abraham fills heaven with prayers, hoping that divine messengers, perhaps those who first gave him the promise of Isaac, will appear, saying that the boy may return unharmed to his mother. But heaven appears Godless, and the next night, after another painful day, Abraham’s prayers again seem to crowd a vacant sky. On the morning of the third day, Abraham, looking northward, sees the promised sign: a cloud of glory hovering over Mount Moriah. Now, certain that God is leading, he knows his boy must die.
“‘Stay here with the ass,’” Abraham tells his servants. “‘I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you’” (verse 5).
Isaac carries the wood— Abraham, the fire and knife. As they ascend to the summit, Isaac says, “‘My father!’”
“‘Here am I, my son.’”
“‘Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’”
“‘God will provide himself the lamb, . . . my son’” (verses 7, 8).
At the appointed place, they build: Isaac a sacrificial altar, Abraham a funeral pyre. Then, trembling, Abraham tells Isaac that God has called him to be the slain lamb. Amazed, terrified, he does not flee. Instead, Isaac, a sharer in Abraham’s faith, tries to ease his father’s tears and encour- ages him to bind his body on top of the wood on the altar.
Imagine: Abraham looks at Isaac bound. They cry, he bends and embraces his son. He swings the blade—
To obey God, despite the pain, despite every nerve rebelling—this is faith that hurts.
Not the kamikaze, not the sui- cide bomber, not the Nazis who died for the honor of the Third Reich. The world reeks from the flesh of those who have shed their lives for lies. This is not faith that hurts.
There’s a Hebrew story: Abraham’s father, Terah, was an idolmaker. One day when Abraham stood alone in his father’s idol shop, he smashed the gods of wood and stone. When Terah returned he asked, “What happened?”
Abraham replied, “The idols attacked each other.”
“But that’s impossible,” Terah retorted. “They are only wood and stone.”
“Then why do you worship them?” Abraham asked.
Abraham smashed his father’s idols, broke free from lies as inher- ited as his looks, and at the com- mand of God he left the security of his home, only to encounter Canaanites, Egyptians, and fam- ine. But Abraham determined to obey God, no matter what he suf- fered, no matter where it brought him, even to his son’s throat. Faith that hurts.
Who has courage to smash his father’s idols, to admit he might have inherited lies, and to seek the truth of God even if, like Abraham, he is alienated from family and friends and becomes a stranger in a famished land? And who, once he’s found the truth, will, like Abraham, follow it to Mount Moriah?
Faith that hurts. It makes angels sing and demons shudder.