“Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
All right, show of hands—Who likes being put to the test?
Why is your hand not up? Why is my hand not up? Whether it’s a college entrance exam or a pop quiz about last night’s assignment, we don’t like tests.
Here’s another kind of test. In the eighteenth century, American businessman Timothy Dexter wondered about his wife’s love. At his wake, having faked his own death, he surprised the crowd by being very much alive and directing a tirade at his wife, who shed no tears at losing him. He left her.
We get anxious over the regular sort of test, but I’d venture to say we might get livid about Dexter’s sort of test. It’s not fair. It’s a trick. There’s no warning that the test is coming, like a photo-enforced sign at a stop light.
Is God’s test of Abraham a Dexter kind of test? God knew what He was up to. He gave Abraham no warning. Like Julian Russell said in Sunday’s sermon, it seems heartless.
God had been talking to Abraham for years about giving the land of Canaan to his offspring, even though he was childless. At one point, Abraham started to wonder, and he finally questioned God directly, saying, “You have given me no offspring” (Gen. 15:3). God’s reply is a wonderful promise—that his offspring would number as the stars. It prompts the famous verse, “[Abraham] believed the LORD, and [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
We like promises people make to give us things, especially when it’s God making the promises. At christianbook.com, a book search for “God’s promises” returns 1,180 results, including God’s Promises for Your Every Need. In Psalms, “He promises peace to his people” (Ps. 85:8). It is indeed a great Christian comfort to have and to remember God’s promises in times of need.
Day by day, we pray for our troubles and turmoil to be resolved and removed so that we might have peace. We pray for our finances. We pray for our children’s safety and health. When we have such things, we have peace and contentment. When our requests are granted, our anxiousness is relieved, and we say aloud that God is good. We hold on tightly to God’s promises.
Perhaps too tightly. Holding tightly to a blanket, a child is comforted. The blanket is a truly good thing, yet the mother who gave the blanket—and may one day take it away—is the truer and deeper comfort.
God tested Abraham by telling him to actively and literally kill the promise. It’s like something Jesus said: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). Abraham chose to lose God’s promise. He “reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son” (Genesis 22:10). Just before he did so, God stopped him and reaffirmed the promise: “Because you have done this. . .I will surely multiply your offspring” (Gen. 22:16-17). Had he held tightly to Isaac, choosing to “save” the promise, it sounds like Abraham would have lost the promise.
What do we do when our earnest prayers go unanswered? It feels like a test. How do we see His promises when, despite our prayers, the circumstances of life continue to turn against us?
When Paul says, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” he says nothing about God granting our requests. He simply says that we will be guarded by “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:6-7). Somehow, gratitude factors into this mysterious peace. I think it has something to do with Paul saying, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). When we choose to lose a view of peace that requires comfortable circumstances, and instead we begin to view everything as a gift for which to thank God, we gain back His promise of peace on a much deeper level. Having lost our life, we find it.
Was it heartless of God to test Abraham this way? Is it heartless of Him to make promises that turn out to be true, but in a different way than we want to believe? We’re dense and stiff-necked. It takes a lot to get us to understand how to live and love. I’m glad that He’s patient and kind to soften us, teach us, and guide us however He chooses. Even if it feels like a test.