On Discerning our Ishmael and Isaac.
It’s interesting how often our language betrays our understanding of how life works. We’re all for free will when it comes to us doing what we want; but when it comes to the things we need or are difficult or are asked of us, we place all the responsibility[blame] on God, excusing ourselves from the part we have to play as His partner in our own lives and in the world. When it comes to changing our situation, spiritual breakthrough, miraculous intervention, you name it, our first implication is, “well, it’s up to God to make this happen.” So we sit back to wait for Him to do it for us. And nothing happens. And we get angry at God. And we trust in His providence a little less because He didn’t “pull through” for us.
What’s at the heart of this dichotomy in our “practical theology”, so-to-speak? The usual culprits are all there: egoism, blaming ourselves last, misunderstanding of God’s character, so on and so on. Yet I believe the reality is that there is a deeper, more visceral question buried in the depths of this tension; one typified by the story of Abraham and his sons. From Genesis 12 on, we read of God’s gradual revelation of His promise to Abraham as a two-part, eternal covenant: that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars/sand, and that they would bring about the redemption of the whole world. The fascinating thing about this dialogue between a man and his diety is that there is a painfully long period of silence as the promise is unveiled. What a curious reading of what it means to be attentive to the Voice of God! In his desperation to maintain or strive for the promises of God, Abraham and his wife Sarah consent to bringing about the child by another means, that of Sarah’s bondservant Hagar. The product of this union is his first son Ishmael, the father of the Arab people (16). After God intervenes to protect and bless this child, he reiterates that it is indeed through Sarah that He will fulfill the covenant; Isaac is given to her several years later (21).
God tests Abraham “some time later” (22) by commanding him to sacrifice this covenantal child on Mount Moriah. Abraham is obedient to the point that the knife was in his hand to slay Isaac on the altar; and angel stops him, saying, “now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son” (v.12). This story is beguiling not in the least for the fact that it seems completely anathema to the relationship we have watched blossom between this man and his god in the previous ten chapters. Yet the implications it has for Abraham’s faith is incredible: he was willing to sacrifice the Promises of God for the sake of being attentive to the Voice of God. Or more succinctly, he was willing to let go of his understanding of how God works in order to remain faithful to the relationship (in Hebrews 11:19, the Writer reasons that Abraham believed God could raise Isaac from the dead if He so chose, but that isn’t inherent in the story).
Abraham received Isaac all the more gladly the second time. Isaac stands in the dual position of being both the prophetic fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and the redemption of Abraham’s disobedience with Ishmael as its incarnation. The past is made right, the future is announced, and the process of God is found in its proper understanding beneath the light of God Himself. In the same way, I think, Paul reimagines this story as the difference between those of us under the New Covenant (freedom) and those still under the Old (bondage) in Galatians 4:21-31. Ishmael was born “according to the flesh”, for Abraham sought a fleshly answer to make the promise of God come to fruition on his own timing. Isaac, however, was the child “born by the power of the Spirit”, one who came a result of careful attentiveness to the Voice. Abraham, once seeking his identity and destiny in what God said, now found both in relationship and humility, submission to his Father.
We do the same. In our pursuit of love, protection, and security, we hold so tightly to what [we think] God has promised us, what He owes us, that we neglect our relation to and our relationship with God as the source of our identity and destiny. We forget to be attentive to His voice in the moment, rather than recklessly stampeding through life after our misplaced desires and attempts at bargaining. Either we end up missing what He is doing around us, or we refuse to participate with Him in relationship to take on the difficult things of life, leaving the brunt of the work on Him.
But perhaps Father is saying, “Child, I never asked you to do this.” Perhaps He is saying, “Child, why didn’t you play your part in this story?” Friends, I’ve I’ve come to realize anything, it’s that God works very slowly. Take the longview with Him, and work hard to realize His will in your life. Nothing much matters beyond this.
How do we hold the promises/characteristics of God over and above true relationship with God, in such a way as they become idols? How can we discern the difference between these options in light of our identity and destiny?