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Life on the altar

Contrary to the popular saying, time does not heal all wounds. Instead, it brings perspective.

February is the month when, seven years ago, I flew to England to defend my final doctoral thesis – only to watch it vaporize in less than an hour.

Since then, for the last seven years, February has always felt dark and heavy. I thought my sadness would dissipate, little by little, with each passing year, but it hasn’t. You don’t get over loss; you come to terms with it. I’m still trying to come to terms with why God led me into that doctoral program, only to let it blow up in my face.

Many people have tried to explain this mystery. Some have suggested that maybe I didn’t hear God correctly, or maybe I didn’t even listen – maybe my prayers for guidance were only a token gesture, seeking a rubber stamp on what I had already decided to do.

I have wrestled with this possibility, and have tried to discern whether it could be even partly true.

However, to this day, despite the rotten outcome, I still believe with all my heart that God led me into that particular program, and provided the funds. (Fortunately, I didn’t go into debt to pay for it—I paid as I went along.) Yes, I have erred and even sinned in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. But the same can be said of all the students who earned their degrees before me, as well as all those who did so after.

Sometimes when we can’t understand something, we “fill in the blank” with easy answers. And “maybe you didn’t hear God” is the easiest answer. It’s similar to Job’s friends concluding that his suffering was caused by sin – a conclusion later rebutted by God (Job 38-42).

No, there’s something more to this catastrophe than the possibility that I was just unwilling or unable (too rebellious or dense) to hear and obey God’s direction for my life.

* * *

In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to go to a certain mountain and sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise – the son who, miraculously born to Sarah at age 90, God has promised to bless with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

In Genesis terms, to “sacrifice” Isaac means to kill him—that is, to ritualistically place him on an altar, slit his throat, and burn his body.

I won’t lie to you: that is a disturbing command.

Sure, we know the ending: Abraham lays Isaac on the altar to kill him, but at the last second an angel prevents the killing. God’s command turns out to be just a test of Abraham’s faith, and Abraham passes the test. At least, that’s our confident Sunday school interpretation of this story.

But the story has perhaps less to do with faith than with sheer obedience. Metaphorically speaking, the life on the altar is really Abraham’s – not Isaac’s.

titiaan_abraham_izaak_grtIn this story, Abraham cannot possibly know the ending. He only knows that God – the very God who initiated Isaac’s miraculous birth and promised Isaac’s descendants will be too numerous to count – now commands the killing of that same Isaac.

God is asking Abraham to kill his own future – his dream.

Apparently God never intended to let Abraham go through with it, because after the surreal almost-sacrifice of Isaac, a ram is provided to be sacrificed instead (v. 13).

But Abraham still lost something – something very precious. His obedience had to change the father-son dynamic.

I mean, come on – there’s Dad standing over you, holding a knife to your throat. That’ll stick with you.

The hike back down the mountain must have been filled with awkward silences and suspicious glances.

And imagine the dinner conversation that night…

Sarah: “So how was your trip?”

Isaac: “Dad tried to kill me.”

Abraham’s actions must have destroyed Isaac’s trust for a good long while, maybe even forever. Scripture doesn’t indicate whether he eventually came to understand Abraham’s shocking attack against him, so we really don’t know.

Yet like a kamikaze, Abraham went all in.

That’s life on the altar.

* * *

Like Abraham, I feel that my own life is on the altar. I still believe God led me into that doctoral program – and then chose to take it as a sacrifice when it went up in smoke, so to speak.

In relationship to God, we all are in the position of Isaac – a living sacrifice on the altar. And though God, my father, seemed to kill me – my future and my dreams – ultimately it’s about continuing to trust him, no matter what.

It appears that God’s plan for me is not a full-time career in academia, as I envisioned, but rather a kind of ministry of encouragement to others who have suffered painful, humiliating losses or failures like mine. Since the publication of my book, Losers Like Us, I have been able to share my story with others who have experienced such losses or have questioned their purpose in life, as I have. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do feel an intimate connection with their pain. That connection would not exist if my PhD effort had passed.

Time does not heal the wound. But it does widen and deepen my perspective. As painful as it was, my story—seven years of time, money, and hope, sacrificed on the altar—is not about me; it is about obeying God just because he is God.

Even when a sacrifice has to die.

You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

Published inFailureGenesisMeaningObedience

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