We tend to see faith as a thing, a commodity, a substance; something like money to be invested and allowed to grow so that when you need it, it can be drawn upon and spent. But we know from the story of Abel that faith is not a magic elixir available to get us out of any given trouble in life. Indeed, as we saw from that story, faith cost Abel his life.
We are looking at Abraham and the window to his faith; specifically, what does the story of the sacrificial binding of Isaac teach us about faith, and (from Romans 4) what does it mean to have righteousness by faith? Abraham’s faith is chronicled in Hebrews 11:8-19.
It was faith that made Abraham obey. When God called him to go out into a country which God had promised to give him, he left his own country without knowing where he was going. By faith, he lived as a foreigner in the country that God had promised him. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who received the same promise from God. For Abraham was waiting for the city which God had designated and built—a city with permanent foundations.
It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father even though he was too old. And Sarah herself could not have children. He trusted God to keep his promise though Abraham was practically dead. From this one man came as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, as many as the numberless grains of sand on the seashore.
It was in faith that all these people died. They did not receive the things God had promised, but from a long way off they saw them and welcomed them and admitted openly that they were foreigners and refugees on Earth. Those who say such things make it clear that they’re looking for a country of their own. They did not keep thinking about the country they had left; if they had they would have had a chance to return. Instead, it was a better country that they longed for—a heavenly country—so God was not ashamed for them to call him their God because He had prepared a city for them.
It was faith that made Abraham offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God put Abraham to the test. Abraham was the one to whom God had made the promise. Yet he was ready to offer his only son as a sacrifice. God had said “It is through Isaac that you will have descendants as I promised.” Abraham reckoned that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead. And, in a manner of speaking, Abraham did receive Isaac back from the dead.
The parallel passage in Romans 4 speaks of the faith of Abraham in this context of righteousness by faith:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, (Romans 4:1-5)
In the Book of Hebrews, as in the original story of Abraham in Genesis, we see a faith that waxes and wanes. By faith Abraham sets out to go to an unknown land for an unknown future with unknown consequences. While this initial display of faith is a worthy faith, later we see faith faltering in Egypt, when Pharaoh lays his eyes on his wife Sarah, and later when he takes matters into his own hand to bring about an heir. And then it is by faith that Abraham becomes a father, through this alliance with Hagar—a strange kind of faith, indeed.
The central question of Abraham’s faith is: Will he allow God to provide? Will he allow God to provide a secure future in the foreign land? Will he allow God to provide protection for his wife? Will he allow God to provide the promised heir? This brings us back to the story of Isaac, where again, the central issue for Abraham is: Will his faith allow God to provide?
This seems to be the existential question for us all. Will our faith allow us to let God provide—for our future, for our families, for our heritage, even for our fortune?
The story of the binding of Isaac might better be called the testing of Abraham. That this was a test of Abraham and his faith is clear for three reasons. First, it says just that in scripture:
Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Genesis 22:1)
In the Book of Hebrews the same thing is mentioned in verse 17. Second, it was faith that made Abraham offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God put Abraham to the test. And finally, Moriah, the mountain where this takes place, in Hebrew means “a place of teaching.” This is Abraham being taken to school. Maybe this should be called the story of the schooling of Abraham.
When you read this story, I think it’s important to say over and over: “This is a test. This is only a test. This is a test. This is only a test.” I’m not schooled in educational science, but a large and growing body of studies indicates that assessment tests help students to learn. More and better testing can help teachers teach more effectively. If they are well designed, tests have been proven to help students achieve mastery in subject material, and not just evaluate progress in the subject. The feedback from a test, to be maximally beneficial for learning, should be clear and timely. The best tests are repetitious and open-ended.
So if tests actually help students to learn, then we see in Abraham’s life a series of learning or teaching moments for his faith. One might say that the binding of Isaac was a final exam. We see that this testing of Abraham is open ended, it is repetitive, and is associated with instant feedback. God immediately grades Abraham. “Now,” he says, “I know what you know.” It occurs in school, at the mountain of teaching—the mountain of Moriah. Above all, this testing is not for God to learn something that he didn’t know about Abraham, as much as it is for Abraham to learn something about himself.
What he has learned is that God will provide. He says exactly that to Isaac in Genesis 22:8, when Isaac asks: “Where is the sacrifice? We’ve got the wood, we’ve got everything else, but where is the sacrifice?” and Abraham replies: “God will provide.” And he does so by memorializing the place in verse 14, when he names the place “The LORD Will Provide.” What God really was saying to Abraham was: “Your faith is mature. Now you know that what you know is that God will provide.”
In the story, Isaac is the representation of everything precious to Abraham. What God is testing is the question: “Will you lay everything on the altar for me and trust God to provide?” Abraham had come to the point in his faith where he was confident that God would provide for the promise of his heritage. He was confident, I believe, that God would spare the heir. God would do it by methods that he wasn’t sure of, but he was sure that God would somehow provide, would even raise him from the dead if necessary (Hebrews 11).
It seems Abraham was confident that Isaac and he both would come back from the mountain of worship. In Genesis 22:5 he says to the lads who are with him: “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad [Isaac] will go yonder, and we will worship and we will return to you.” So it’s clear that he believes that God would provide something, somehow, some way, so the both of them would come down from the mountain.
This demonstration of faith is unlike the other stories where Abraham’s faith is weak, and requires him to bargain with God for the saving of Sodom and Gomorrah, or where his faith requires him to lie about his relationship to his wife, Sarah, or requires him to take things into his own hand with his handmaiden, Hagar, in order to have an heir. All these illustrations of faith in God are faith coupled with human effort. The central teaching point of the binding of Isaac is that faith—mature faith—lets God provide. Nothing we have to offer on the altar of sacrifice—not even everything we have, everything that’s most precious to us—is ever enough. The call to sacrifice Isaac is a call to leave it all on the altar and then to recognize that for God, even that is not enough. We must, in faith, let God provide the sacrifice.
What is at stake, of course, is not whether Abraham would simply murder his son, but whether or not he would give his all to God, and then recognize that even giving his all is not enough and that faith demands that you accept the notion that God will provide. “God will provide” needs to be the mantra for life. Scripture says:
Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,… (Romans 4:4-5)
The early faith of Abraham was based upon his doing. Here we see Abraham helping God to do God’s work in verse 4. In the later faith of Abraham, we see him letting God do God’s own work, without his assistance, God provided this as the lesson of Abraham, and is the method by which we understand righteousness by faith.
So the question is, taking this story of Abraham altogether, what do we understand about faith? Does faith grow? Is faith something that matures? Are there in fact stages of faith? What application does this story teach us about faith and teach us about how Abraham was tested?
We have limited knowledge of what faith is and how or (maybe better said) if we can go about it. I definitely think it’s a gift. But we want God to make sense and we want to be the judge of what is sensible. I think that’s why we struggle so much; why faith is a process.
Donald: The operative term is “sensible.” It just doesn’t seem that the story of Isaac was sensible—it just doesn’t match up. It doesn’t align. And to think that it’s a test of one’s faith! If any one of us were asked to kill a loved one because God suggested that we should do that, I think we would all elect for the government to step in and stop that action. It just doesn’t seem like a God thing at all, this story.
Faith and risk are kind of combined. So if I step out in faith, I’m saying: “I know this is risky. It’s kind of like you guys going back to church. But you know God will see you through it.” So there’s many churches in America that have decided that, independent of what anybody says or what science says, God will step in, and we all know that that didn’t necessarily happen with all faith groups.
I’m going to stick with the New Testament here because the story will not draw me closer to God.
Carolyn: It is given to us, this idea of faith being a progressive thing. If we go right back to the time when it was offered to us, if we have the faith of a mustard seed, how much we can do. And therefore, God realizes some have such a little bit of faith, and there’s room for growth and faith. My question is whether or not faith is a gift. Does our faith grow because we do something, we nurture something? Does each step we take give us more faith? When you’re a new baby Christian, are you at the minimum of faith? And is this why the Lord gives challenges—so our faith will grow?
I think there’s a bigger circle of meaning to the whole business of faith than just Abraham. I don’t get Isaac and Abraham. It’s hard for me to swallow so many things in the Old Testament that would be against the law. The Lord said: “Do not murder! Do not take life!” I do think our faith does grow but I’m not sure how, and I’m not sure if it’s something we work for or if it is something the Lord gives us just when we need it.
David: Does faith grow or simply flicker on and off, and we mistake that as growing? I had a little bit of an epiphany when I re-read Romans 4:4-5, which I am sure I had read several times before but had misunderstood. It now seems to me to be saying that you don’t need faith! You can either, like Abraham, have faith and be righteous and rewarded by God, or you can do works and be rewarded by God. Either way, you get God’s blessing.
If you don’t have faith but you do good works, then God owes you a debt for the good work you do. That’s what the passage actually says. God will cover the debt. You will get your reward by doing works. So it can be “either/or:” You can either do works or you can just believe in God. Either way, you will be rewarded. There’s no reason of course why it couldn’t be “both/and,” but if it’s purely faith, you either have it or you don’t.
Paul said that we each are given a measure of faith. So that’s it. You’ve got your measure, I’ve got my measure. Mine might be more or less than yours. But faith isn’t going to increase. We have the measure that we were given to work with, but it can come and go—we can we can cover it up and we can uncover it. I just don’t see that faith has to be a process.
As a process theologian I also believe that works are an expression of faith. Humanists might never admit to it, but they do believe in God because they believe in goodness, they believe in doing good things for their neighbor. God owes them a debt for doing that because by doing good things they’re helping God to become, whether they know it or admit it or not.
Robin: Perhaps the Lord wanted Abraham to have faith by proving his obedience. We tend to forget the Lord knew how it was going to end. He knew he was going to provide the lamb. And it’s a very shocking and unforgettable test of faith. I don’t think we need to see this repeated in this day and age. I don’t even know if it has been repeated since. But it’s there to show us to what level God can be trusted. If we just have faith, God is not going to murder someone to try to prove anything. So the test was obedience when it doesn’t make any sense to us at all. It was an extreme. Jonah is an extreme. Job is an extreme. It doesn’t mean that it’s meant to happen over and over and over again. But it’s there for us to learn from.
Donald: Putting together the two stories of Jonah and Abraham as the context in which our spiritual journey is rooted is hard to believe. We go through the story of Jonah as if we believe it, we understand it, it happened. But in our heart of hearts, we tend to think “Did it really?” As for Abraham and Isaac: If Isaac was an adult, who’s really got the faith here? He’s the one going to be murdered.
In both Jonah’s story and Abraham’s story, you have God speaking directly to them. We don’t have that going on, it seems, in this day and age. The Old Testament has much more “God asked this, this happened, then God did this.” He played a much more direct role in the lives of the people. We’re on more of a faith journey, it seems to me. We talk about God, but I’m not sure any of us have heard God. So I think that’s part of this conversation as well. If I say “I’ve heard God” somebody’s bound to ask: “Well, what did he say?” And then if I say something bizarre, I’m not sure I will be believed. The linkage between the people and God seemed to be quite different then. And that’s important because if it’s a direct line, I’m responding to a conversation not to a concept.
Robin: In the Old Testament stories does God not tend to speak aloud, so that in many cases, all the people can hear but in extreme circumstances, when we’re not hearing the promptings of the Spirit, maybe sometimes he needs to speak aloud. But just because that’s not his usual mode of communication, I don’t think we need to doubt that he speaks.
Carolyn: There’s one thing I just know, something I have heard from so many people, that when they’re being tested, and their faith is being tested, and they read about Jesus prompting the disciples: “Where’s your faith?” they asked: “Why can’t we do this?” and God promptly said: “Where is your faith?” If you have a loved one who is dying and you look within yourself and say: “Why are my prayers not being answered in the way I want them to be? Why don’t I see the results of my faith as God prompted us?” There’s a difference between presumption and faith.
There are just questions in my mind about degrees of faith. We know that it isn’t a candy counter where you just ask—that can become presumption. But it’s hard to know the difference with faith. We can always have the faith that God will provide. But that’s not the prayer on our lips.
Donald: I’m with Carolyn. We have a family member we pray for every day, who has serious medical issues. We’d like to see that change and we’d like to see progress made. Probably the faith is that we can continue to believe that God has our best interests, even though there hasn’t been much change positively on a daily basis. You could actually walk away from God and say: “Well, I prayed for this and my prayers weren’t answered.” So in some ways your faith is being tested, to see if you can maintain your faith independent of your prayers not being met. Maybe it’s not a faith thing, but an action thing.
Carolyn: Even the rain that we are praying for to douse the California forest fires, or the pandemic.
Robin: Do we want to worship a God who can be easily swayed by what we think is right in our human minds? God is omniscient as well as omnipotent. So he knows the right answer. And I firmly believe that when we see him, and we question him: “Why did this happen or why did this not happen?” and He explains it to us, it will make perfect sense because God as God could not make a wrong decision, whether our minds can comprehend it or not.
Donald: I feel like we live in a war zone and that God doesn’t step in every time and change the battle. And so when he explains why the fires in California or the pandemic, the answer might be that we live in a war zone. “It’s not something that I chose not to step in.” He’s capable of stepping in, I’ll grant you that. But I can’t imagine that he will be able to explain why a fire was able to consume someone’s home but not another person’s.
David: What you can do though is find God in the fires, you can find God in the pandemic, you can find God in this horrendous story of Isaac. Or you can find God in this ridiculous story of Jonah. To me, as a process theologist, God the being who is eternal, is there in those stories—in the Old Testament and in the New. It is kind of radical for me to say (I am no great fan of the Old Testament) but as a process theologist I think we can also see God in these instances as God becoming.
You see God in the Old Testament talking directly to people. He doesn’t do that anymore. The becoming God changes over time. But the being God has not changed one iota—he is still there in the story of Isaac as much as he is in the stories of Jesus. He’s there throughout. So I take heart now from this. Of course I share the abhorrence of the story of Isaac and the notion of murdering people—even murdering the poor lamb—I’m dead against that too! But I don’t think that’s relevant to us anymore today. It’s not the point. The point is that it is talking about faith in the being of God. And I think those stories do help to bring that out.
Reinhard: I think we all agree in the Old Testament time when God directly interferes with the life of an individual or even a nation, the Israelites, because they are God’s chosen people, even to the extent of destroying entire cities or nations, to teach his people to obey by showing the action, physical action that the consequences are really terrible.
God the Father allowed his son to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. Maybe since then until now we have more orderly message compared to what we see in the Old Testament. Faith plays a big, big role for us, based on the experience of people in the old times, and the New Testament, although God still interferes, with miraculous events still happening, but maybe not so much as in the time of Abraham.
Now, of course, God maybe allows bad things to happen to good people, such as a terrible disease. But the bottom line is that we are all believers in God so we have to use faith—it is something we live and we breathe. Because in every action in our life if it comes to some controversial decision we have to pray to God to show us which way to go. So with faith, it’s very dynamic. It grows, I believe. God mentioned faith as small as a mustard seed, and the apostle asked him about increasing our faith. So there is room for faith to increase.
Some people maybe have small faith, but I think God accepts that. Even people like us who have had faith for a long time have to grow. We need to strengthen our faith in God. All things happen and as we age, of course, we can see the hands of God that have guided us or have been with us in the past. So all these things prepare us that as God’s people we have to always be ready and faith is our weapon to go through all these things in life.
Robin: It’s always amusing to me how we as people want to blame somebody else, or not take any responsibility for ourselves, and everything is so politically charged right now. It’s amusing to me how the Republicans will say: “Oh, all those states are Democratic. That must be God’s judgment.” And then those with more liberal leanings are saying: “Well, the Republicans don’t believe in climate change. Here’s proof of climate change!” It’s just sad, how we have deteriorated as a society so much that we can do nothing but finger point at each other.
Donald: Don has told us about his patient Elizabeth and her faith journey in regards to her health. The people around her thought that her faith wasn’t strong enough. It consumed her life as it was taken from her. What a horrible thing for all involved to think that “My faith was weak. And so I was taken. And then to have a community that loved me considers something wrong in my life, and that’s why I was taken.” A long time ago I came very, very close to death. That was a long journey—half a year’s worth of time. Right in the middle of it, I was incoherent. My family had to understand what was going on. But progress was made. It was an amazing thing.
A cardiologist led me to believe that there was no reason that should have transpired, and I should have every thought that it could transpire again. A cardiologist with a different level of faith said that it was a “one off” and it was likely that my life would be spared. Put that on the back of God? I just don’t get this. I really don’t. I think we live in a war zone. And some of these things are just because of sin, period. And we want God to change sin. Actually cancer is sin. It’s decay. And we’re saying that cancer could be cured! That’s an interesting concept. Certainly, they have made great progress in some forms of cancer, but other forms of cancer have a ways to go. That’s because we’re in a sinful world? What about all these patients in the hospital? Some walk out feeling like God provided, while some stay behind as their grieving family walks out.
Don: People of little faith often find faith in illness, and people who are of strong faith or who are faithful people sometimes or often lose faith in illness. So it’s an interesting dilemma that you raise.
Kiran: Is it faith, if I have to define it? It has nothing to do with what I want God to do. Rather, it’s being okay with whatever God does, whether it is a good or a bad thing. If we define it that way, I don’t think anybody wants to come to church!. But It kind of makes sense because Abraham, even though he had a child by a maid, when God told him to send her away, it must have been heartbreaking for him to see that little kid go away. It must also have been hard for him to see that his brother’s family was going to go through this whole thing. Same thing with his son too, but he was okay whatever God did with him. So that’s not appealing at all, but I think faith doesn’t mean that you have you have this magical power that you can make God do whatever you want to do. But whatever he does, you just be okay with it, and then go along with it.
John the Baptist is the weirdest of all. Jesus was right there but he didn’t rescue him. He just let him die a horrible death, having his head cut off after all the things he did for Jesus. Was the faith of John the Baptist affected? It doesn’t make sense.
Robin: He was faithful unto death, for sure. He was faithful when it didn’t make sense. Do we have faith in a God we can control? Or do we have faith in a God who’s smarter than us? Who has an appointed time for us both to be born and a time to die? Eleven of the 12 disciples were murdered for their faith. That doesn’t make sense either, yet God allowed it to happen. I’m sure we’re going to want answers to that someday. “Why? Why did they have to? Why did you allow this?” Is your faith in a God who is smarter than you or a God who can be controlled by you?
Kiran: Is it advantageous to have faith whatever God does? If I have faith that God will do whatever I ask him because I have enough muscle then I would worry what happens to any family member who doesn’t have enough muscle. But if I believe in the second version of God, then it’s okay because he will take care of them in the end. That brings peace of mind.
Donald: A phrase in a beautiful song is “When all’s said and done, will God find me faithful?” God will have to be the one to sort that out. And I pray to God that in my doings he will find me faithful—he’ll understand my heart. Let’s go the other direction. God is a lot bigger than me. So it’s not me trying to figure God out. It’s God trying to figure me out, and when all’s said and done will God find me faithful?
Reinhard: That’s the consequence of Adam and Eve’s transgression against God’s law. Of course it’s a mystery that God heals some people and lets others die. That’s mystery. It’s God’s prerogative to decide. If natural events happen like a pandemic or a tsunami killing hundreds of thousands of people, God could stop it if he wants, but there are times when he allows that to happen. Maybe someday we can ask God why it happened.
Kiran: I don’t know if God will ever answer. He never answered Job. So I don’t think he owes us an explanation.
David: Were looking for God in these calamities—a personal illness or some pandemic or some catastrophe somewhere—and we know when Elijah was trying to hide from God in a cave God was not in the storm. He wasn’t in this. He wasn’t in that. He wasn’t in any of those things. So, if you put your faith in a God who is in the business of healing you from an illness or coming through a violent storm while your neighbor dies of cancer and another neighbor’s house is wrecked, it may be a false faith, one based upon something that isn’t so: A God who isn’t really there, who doesn’t exist—a God who you think saved you from some catastrophe. That’s not what God does.*
Don: With Elijah, God wasn’t in the thunder, he wasn’t in the whirlwind: He was in the still small voice.
Carolyn: But also he saw the sparrow that fell. He knows that. He does the little things.
Don: Next week, we’ll look at the subject of the faith of Jacob. It’s a very familiar story. It’s brought up in the “hall of faith.” By examining these stories, we’ll see what emerges.
Donald: Would it not be interesting in the age of pandemics if churches were protected? What would that say about God and about faith communities? God doesn’t intervene like that. He isn’t going to take a faith community and say: “I’ll protect you from this.” Because if he did, then it really isn’t faith, because there’s no faith needed. Faith is needed only because of the uncertainty. That takes us back to risk. The mustard seed metaphor implies something that should grow, not something that is either on or off, either is or isn’t.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
- My remarks are contradictory—I say first that the being of God is to be found in the storms and catastrophes, then that he is not. I think the contradiction can be reconciled. — David