Sunday, July 2, 2017

Now Faith is Giving Up… and Not

Almost 2 ½ years ago, I took a philosophy class that I loved (partly because I love philosophy, overall, but partly because I had such great respect for the professor and was committed to absorbing as much knowledge and wisdom as possible during those weeks).  I was pretty excited by the time I turned in my first paper for the course and received a comment that stated, “This might be the best first paper I have read.”  Really?  I mean, that’s fantastic!  Cue me thinking I’m ‘all that’…

My second paper didn’t go as well, and it was, in fact, the only paper I have ever been required to re-write in my entire academic career.  I’m not sure I fully understood what this meant, and I have apparently not saved the exact words from these associated comments, but the meaning is burned in my memory.  “L… you really didn’t ‘get this’… maybe you could read it again and write something else?”

Although I don’t quite remember it this way, Phil says I was mad.  If I had to take a guess at this point, I would venture to say I was more embarrassed, but angry and ashamed both project in hot tears and loud words, with me, so I can see how it might have been confusing.  Interestingly, sadness is more like shutting down in silence lately, and I’m thinking it would be great if I could somehow swap those two reactions, but I digress…

I re-wrote the paper, got an A in the class, fell in love with Soren Kierkegaard, and have never looked at this passage of Scripture in quite the same way again:

Genesis 22:1-14

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied.

Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,  Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’

‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.

‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’

Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.  But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied.

Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’” (NIV).

So… just in case you want to read my re-write, here it is:

Faith is central to Christendom.  However, there is a wide variety of ways in which faith is defined.  In the current cultural climate of the western church it even appears that a multiplicity of religions are being practiced, all in the name of the same faith.  A misunderstanding about what faith is intended to be may be at the heart of this disunity.  I propose that the verbiage we use to describe various aspects of spiritual formation may contribute to the issue at hand.  This paper will explore the definition of faith and some ways in which we might bind it to the concepts of resignation and trust, reducing the risk of misunderstanding what faith is intended to be.

Resignation, put simply, is the act of giving up.  This is often praised in Christian circles as the ultimate act of faith, "for it is great to give up one's desire” (Kierkegaard, 1985, kindle location 723).  There are certainly passages of Scripture that would lead us to embrace lives of sacrifice.  Primary among these is the story of Abraham and his near literal sacrifice of Isaac, the child who was to fulfill the covenant that God made with Abraham.  It would be exceptionally rare to find someone who would argue that Abraham did not love God.  Although love is the key to many things, it may not be the key to faith.  Kierkegaard suggests that it is possible to love God without faith when he writes, "He who loves God without faith reflects on himself” (Kierkegaard, 1985, kindle location 967).  In an act of resignation, Abraham could have reflected on himself that day on Mount Moriah.  He could have chosen to be resigned to Isaac's death and focused on himself and on his pain as he raised the knife and brought it down upon his own son.  No one would blame him.  But, if this was the life that Abraham had chosen to live, he may have been too self absorbed to hear the angel of the Lord, and he may not have seen the ram. 

Resignation, while noble, focuses solely on what we can do, on what we are required to do, and on how much it hurts when we do not get what we want.  A life of resignation may include a love of God, even a deeply rooted love that is willing to give up everything if God calls.  It may look holy, but without faith it leaves many feeling quite dead inside.  The natural consequence is that they lose hope for this life and begin to look to eternity, as if this life is already over and there is no purpose remaining.   They often do not understand why God has seemingly left them with nothing and their efforts have not paid off.  There must be something more.   

Kierkegaard argues that the "something more" is faith.  Resignation is a pre-requisite, but faith moves a step beyond the giving up.  To put the quotation, used above, in greater context, "It is great to give up one's desire, but greater to stick to it after having given it up" (Kierkegaard, 1985, kindle location 723).  At first glance, this seems like a contradiction.  In reality, it is the point at which we move beyond what we can do into dependence on what God can do.

Abraham's story is a most excellent example, which may very well be why Abraham is considered not only the father of many nations but also the father of our faith.  To accept that God had asked him to sacrifice Isaac is no easy task.  To carry it out is seemingly impossible.  Like many biblical accounts, the story of the sacrifice on Mount Moriah has lost its edge in the retelling.  When we consider Abraham and Isaac as living, breathing, flesh and blood, as opposed to characters in a clever narrative, the horror of what is really happening begins to come back.  Abraham hears God's voice and commits to the murder of his own son.  He takes no other offering.  He binds his child and prepares to slay him at close range.  The knife is in his own hand.  The altar is built for the burnt offering.  This is the kind of story that we look at and exclaim, "This cannot end well."

And yet, we look at this narrative and laud Abraham for his faith, citing his inclusion in Hebrews chapter 11, just after this definition, "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1, NIV, 2011).  Abraham is coming from a different angle.  I think Abraham believes that the encounter on Mount Moriah will end well.  Abraham has confidence and assurance that God will keep the covenant that God has made.

This may be where trust plays a role in the question of faith.  Trust is not greater than faith, but it is an intricate part of it.  Abraham and God have a history.  Abraham has a relationship with this God who has kept promises in the past.  There is no compelling reason to doubt God anymore.  And that word, anymore, is important, because there was a time when Abraham may have wondered whether God would really keep the covenant.  There was a time when Sarah laughed.  But God's response was, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:14a, NIV, 2011).  Abraham has seen God at work in impossible circumstances, and he knows that Isaac must live in order for God to keep the covenant.  To that point God had never broken a promise.

When Abraham makes the decision to obey, he embodies the idea that, "He who loves God without faith reflects on himself, while the person who loves God in faith reflects on God" (Kierkegaard, 1985, kindle location 967).  It is in this kind of reflection that we begin to see that faith is not about what we can do, at all.  For, when we have given up, when we have resigned our desires and our dreams have become nothing but a pile of dead bones, we can still believe that they will rise up only if God does something.  Faith is believing that God will return the things that we have surrendered, even though this is utterly and completely impossible for us.

Abraham has climbed the mountain knowing that he may be required to sacrifice Isaac, probably expecting that this will be the case, since it is, after all, what God asked of him.  He does not waver, but I do not think this means that he is not in anguish.  Any loving father would be.  Abraham possesses a character, though, that is willing to relinquish everything, even his son, if that is what God demands.  This begs the question, "Why?"  The heroic action in this story would be refusal, but Abraham is not trying to be a hero.  It seems that Abraham has left this role, if there is to be a hero at all, to God.  Somehow I think that Abraham trusts God so implicitly that he expects to walk back down the mountain with Isaac, even if that requires resurrection.  He believes that God can do it.

Perhaps faith is doing impossibly hard things, knowing that God will come through.  It begins with resignation but does not end there.  There is great hope in a faith that believes that those things we have surrendered will be restored.  Faith moves us beyond resignation to a place of anticipation, rooted in trust, waiting on what God will do to make the impossible a reality.  It allows us to practice obedience, even in the midst of turmoil.  And as God gives back to us, we build the kingdom through our stories of a faithful God, one who compels us to embrace difficult things.

Works Cited
Holy Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985, Kindle Edition.

Interestingly, that line about giving up and simultaneously sticking to it is speaking rather powerfully into my life as of late… Preaching to myself, today…

And also… look for the FGT podcast which will post later this afternoon.  It is oddly related and not…


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