Difficult Decisions: Painful Obedience
Topic: Obedience Scripture: Genesis 22:6–22:19
We all face several choices every single day. From the minute we open our eyes, we have to make a choice. Do we get up and get going, or do we turn off the alarm and roll over? What do we wear? Do we have cereal for breakfast or cook up some eggs? You’ve been awake, maybe a half-hour, and you’ve likely already made about a dozen different decisions. Now, for many, these decisions aren’t that big of a deal. For my 5-year old, that’s a different story. Every weekday, after Isaac gets up, he asks me literally the same question every morning. “Daddy, should I brush my teeth or get dressed first?” Every day. You’d think this would be an easy interaction between Isaac and I. Unless you’re a parent, then you know otherwise. I usually tell him to brush his teeth. You know, so there’s no chance he can get toothpaste on his school clothes. But then, he’ll complain, “Why do you always tell me to brush my teeth first?” So, the next morning, I tell him to get dressed first. “Why can’t I brush my teeth first? I always do that.” As I said before, I may have only been awake a little while, and I’ve already had to face the decision of whether I will have any sanity left that day.
But, we all know that life is a series of choices, choices that shape and direct our story. We also know that a part of life is facing Difficult Decisions, and sometimes those decisions come with a great cost. Sometimes they force us to choose between two or more values. And sometimes, these Difficult Decisions don’t seem to have a “right” choice at all. This morning we are beginning a new three-week message series called just that, Difficult Decisions. We are going to examine three moments within Scripture where a child of God faced a seemingly impossible choice. My hopes for this series is not necessarily that we would walk away with a how-to-guide for deliberating Difficult Decisions in our lives. Instead, I want us to discover the reality that every difficult decision we face offers us an opportunity, albeit sometimes a painful one, to exercise our identity as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. We’re not searching for the right answer. We’re seeking out the answer that honors and glorifies God.
Today, we begin our series by exploring what I personally believe to be the most painful and agonizing decision we find in the ancient Jewish Scriptures. You’ve already heard the first part of this account, the account of Abraham and his son Isaac. But there is a critical element to this father-son relationship that we have to be aware of before we keep going. Abraham, we’re told chapters before in the book of Genesis, was the individual the Lord had chosen to foster a new nation of God’s people. In fact, the Lord made one of the most reaching and extraordinary covenants with Abraham in all the Bible. God promised Abraham that, through him, a great nation would be fostered. A nation that would outnumber the grains of sand on the shore and the stars in the sky. This great nation would be God’s chosen people, and through them, the entire world would be blessed. This wasn’t just a promise for Abraham; it was a promise for the whole world. But that promise had to begin somewhere, with someone, namely, Abraham’s son. Without going into all the details, the journey for Abraham and his wife, Sarah, to bring Isaac into the world was a complicated, difficult ordeal. Finally, the child of promise was born. Isaac was here, and with him, so was the beginning of God’s great promise. And then we come to this account where Abraham is faced with practicing a Painful Obedience.
We’ve heard the Lord speak and the command he has given to Abraham. And we’ve observed Abraham going through all the preparations and then beginning that terrifying journey with only his son by his side. Let’s continue. I’m going to read from verse six to nineteen.
* Read Genesis 22:6-19 *
There’s no getting around what we see here. This is hard. The contents of this account between God and Abraham is one that leaves us feeling uncomfortable. And it should. I can’t emphasize this enough. For far too long, there has been a propensity to try and force or pretend that every event we find within the Bible needs to be tied-off with a pretty bow and not have any uncomfortable edges. When we try and cover the reality we find within Scripture with our own easy answers or assumptions, we end up trying to wrap a large gift with not enough tissue paper. Our own explanations are revealed as incomplete and flimsy, and we end up covering too much of the truth being offered to us. The truth in this moment of Abraham’s story is - he is facing one of the most Difficult Decisions of his life, and that is because God has asked Abraham to surrender to an agonizingly Painful Obedience.
Where we just picked up, Abraham has left his servants behind and he and Isaac have begun their trek up the mountain for what is to come. I can’t pretend to know what that journey felt like or sounded like. What state was Abraham’s heart in as he took those steps? There are several tense, heavy moments in this event, but one that always weighed on me the most was Isaac’s question to his dad, “Father, the fire and the wood are here but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” I don’t know how Abraham didn’t collapse in tears right there. But, somehow, the father and son make it up to the place of the sacrifice. Verse nine is made up of two impossible sentences. All we know is, Abraham was able to bind his son and lay him on the altar for the sacrifice. We aren’t privy to the pain and anguish of Abraham or the confusion and fear of Isaac during those moments. And then Abraham does the unthinkable and raises the blade in his hand over his son and prepares to bring it down. Down onto an innocent life. Down onto the fulfillment of God’s promise. Down onto his beloved son.
The reprieve we gain from the angel’s voice is nothing compared to what must have swelled within Abraham’s heart. Like a dam breaking, I can only imagine the profound sense of relief and joy and exhaustion that this father experienced. And then the Lord provided another creature for the sacrifice that was to be performed. Abraham’s story is a long, rich one within the account of Scripture. Truly, the story of God’s people cannot be written without him. But this chapter, I would argue, is by far the heaviest. Because of all the things Abraham faced in his faithfulness to God (new and distant lands, enemy kings and tribes, natural dangers), nothing was likely as difficult as this act of Painful Obedience.
When we face Difficult Decisions in our lives, the reason they are difficult can vary. Sometimes, we have to choose between two things we want. Sometimes, it’s choosing to do something for the greater good even though it’s inconvenient. And sometimes, it’s choosing not to do something, even though we want to. But this case with Abraham is different than all of those. Abraham has a choice in front of him and the basis of that difficult decision should be apparent to all of us, even if we have trouble accepting it or saying it out loud. Abraham had to choose between his son's life or his faithfulness to God. We are fortunate to have been given witness to how this event ended, but the truth many of us are aware of is - we do not have the value of hindsight when we face our Difficult Decisions. That is why it can seem challenging to adhere to a Painful Obedience; it can feel impossible. That’s the way it undoubtedly felt for Abraham as well.
I have never encountered someone who faced a situation like what we observe in Genesis 22. But that doesn’t mean we don’t face critical moments in our own stories where the Lord is urging us toward a Painful Obedience. Maybe some of you are remembering your own journeys through such a calling. It could look like many things, like ending a relationship, transitioning to a new career, taking confidence in an aspect of your identity, walking away from something you love, or walking toward something uncertain. The common denominator for all of these agonizing experiences is not simply that they are difficult, but that you did or can sense the voice and urging of God behind them, just as Abraham did. I wish I could say that God’s voice made all of my own moments of Painful Obedience easier, but I would be lying. So what do we do?
I don’t answer this question as some sort of expert or as one possessing a higher knowledge. I’m answering it as one who has experienced the dizzying and excruciating effects of wrestling with God’s call amidst heart-crushing trauma and paralyzing uncertainty. And my answer is this: We should obey. Not because we have to. Not because we don’t have another option. We should enter into a Painful Obedience because of who we know God to be. Our confidence in the mercy, affection, and tenderness of our Creator might be the only lifeline we have as we struggle through the dark, but it is a lifeline that is sure. The cross of Jesus Christ can be our landmark on the horizon as we trudge through the barren desert set before us, but we can take assurance in knowing that the cross will never move or be brought low.
Friends, I said at the beginning of this message that my intention for this series is not that we would be shown how to find the right answer to any difficult decision in our lives. The truth is, we rarely know the right answer when we are pressed between the screaming urgency and back-breaking circumstances of our most troubling and confusing of moments. No, I shared that what I hoped we could discover through exploring some of the more troubling Difficult Decisions found within the Bible is a sense of direction in how to honor our God, and lean into our certainty of that divine and perfect love. For Abraham, that meant holding a blade, mere inches from the heart of his son. Recently, in my own story, it meant believing that my wife would wake up after suffering a catastrophic and deadly brain condition, even though the doctors told me not to get my hopes up. And I’m sure some of you have already reflected on moments such as those in your own stories.
We’re fooling ourselves if we think the Bible is a cheat sheet for every question and complication we might encounter. And we’re fooling ourselves if we believe being a follower of Jesus means we will never come face-to-face with bracing darkness and suffocating suffering. What we can expect, however, is a God who never leaves our side. A Creator who knows the limits of our spirit and our heart. A Savior who has gone before us into death and darkness. What we can expect is - no matter what we face or endure, our God will not leave us as we walk in Painful Obedience.