by Bob Lupton
Sarah could not believe it. It made absolutely no sense. Why would Yahweh require the human sacrifice of their only child? Their miracle child, the promised child of their old age! And yet her husband was unbending. Abraham had heard the voice of Yahweh, he said. And Yahweh told him to offer up his much-loved son Isaac as a sacrifice, had even specified the location where it was to take place – on mount Moriah (Zion).
How could her husband be so sure? Sarah questioned. What kind of a God would demand such a thing? Other gods perhaps. But not Yahweh! Wasn’t it His miraculous intervention that had enabled them to conceive the child long past their childbearing years? What if Abraham had it wrong!?
But Abraham showed not a hint of uncertainty as he loaded their donkey with food for the journey and enough wood for a sacrificial fire. If he had doubts, he did not express them to Sarah. Perhaps his confidence would somehow reassure her that Yahweh was good and could be trusted. But there was no peace in her soul – only unspeakable grief – as she watched her husband and their precious, innocent child disappear in the distance. “How could you do this?!” she screamed after them.
We know how the story ends. Yahweh comes through with an alternative sacrifice, Isaac is spared, Abraham is rewarded for his unwavering faith, and Sarah has the joy of seeing her son grow into a fine man. All’s well that ends well, right?
But does it always end well? This is the soul-searching question parents agonize over when they consider a call to move their family into a risky situation. Is this a call to sacrifice my children on the altar of my ministry?
Any parent who has faced the difficult decision of relocating their family into an unsafe environment has experienced the same kind of tension and uncertainty that Sarah and Abraham faced. Is this really a call from God? Will God protect us? What if my children get lured into drugs? Or worse.
The positive outcome of the Sarah-Abraham-Isaac story makes for inspiring sermon material, but in reality, there are no guarantees. The “God-will-protect-you-if-you-obey-and-have-faith” theology has a spotty history. There are far too many tragedies to naively embrace it as a divine pledge.
When nervous parents have questioned me about this security issue, I have often responded: “There is no safer place than to be in the center of God’s will.” I believed this 35 years ago when I moved my family into a high crime neighborhood in inner-city Atlanta, and I believe it to this day. But devastating personal tragedies have caused me to alter my definition of “safety.” There is a difference between physical safety and spiritual safety.
Physical safety is obviously placed at greater risk on the front lines, where the forces of good and evil are in daily, visible conflict. In such places, there is additional need for protective measures – alarm systems, avoiding the “wrong” streets and “wrong” people, walking with a companion, a big dog. But all of the caution and precaution does not guarantee physical safety. There are still random drive-by shootings and unpredictable break-ins by desperate addicts.
But being “safe in the hands of God” is something altogether different. Immanuel (God with us) safety is the knowledge that no matter what happens, God is with us. Intimately. Inseparably. Immanuel safety is present in the darkest hour, when danger looms, when paralyzing fear seizes the heart, and even when tragedy strikes.
Immanuel safety goes deeper than physical safety. Physical safety can be shattered in an instant by one violent act. Immanuel safety cannot. Immanuel safety is revealed in calamity. Once experienced, it imbeds in the soul a deep confidence that nothing - no tragedy - can separate us from the presence of God.
But this is not what parents hope to hear. They want assurances of protection. They want a safety theology that promises “a hedge of protection” around their precious ones. I wish such a guarantee were available. The lives of the saints down through history, however, portray a very different reality.
Many of those giants of the faith endured unspeakable hardship, torture, and martyrdom. And their families paid an awful price for their obedience. In our day, even the thought of subjecting our children to danger or pain violates every instinct of responsible parenting. It is understandable, innate. That is why it is so important to rightly discern the calling of God when placing our children at risk.
We may not be promised physical safety when we follow a call into places of peril. What we are assured of, however, is that in such obedience we position ourselves and our family to witness the miraculous, unpredictable movement of God actively shaping history.
It is here, stepping out on the thin ice of faith, we learn to listen to the promptings of God and discern our unique role in the divine drama. Here, like no other place, we will encounter personally, intimately the living God. In mysterious ways, our struggle and pain are sanctified, transformed into an unshakeable faith, a deep knowing that God is and will always be present with us. And that He is good. In the final analysis, that is enough.