When Your Life is Stuck on Pause: Delight in the Promise Giver over the Promises (Gen. 22:1-19)
We are wrapping up this series in the life of Abraham called “When your life is stuck on pause.” During this period of “being stuck,” we saw a lot of things that people’s hearts were stuck on. These things became their identity. This gave their life meaning. Lot’s heart was stuck on the world. Lot’s wife also had her heart stuck on things of the world. Sarah’s heart was stuck on having a child and ends up having her dreams come true with Ishmael. Abraham when he went down to Egypt and to Gerar showed us that his heart was stuck on fear of man more than the fear of God. His safety and security meant more to him than God at those times. What happened to each of these people when their heart was stuck on those things? Destruction and loss, pain and heartbreak. But God is gracious to show them and us these things to save us from those things destroying us.
As we pick up the story in Genesis 22, Ishmael ends up leaving with his mother Hagar. Abraham had loved him, but had to let him go. Once Isaac was born, Abraham takes a deep breath. It’s over. Life is now unstuck. He cradles his boy in arms and has deep affection for him. This was the son of promise. This was what they had been waiting for. Later, Abraham is sitting outside his tent and watch Isaac playing in front of him. He chuckles and thinks to himself, “This is my future. This is my hope. This is my security.” When Isaac plays a little too close to a cliff, Abraham, though well over 100, still musters up energy to go and usher him closer to him. Can’t lose the promise over carelessness. For many years, some of the locals had called him a fool to give up everything to trust this Yahweh and His Word. They can’t anymore. I have earned respect. Abraham and Sarah finally had an heir.
Now the question is this: Does Abraham follow and love God because of what God gave him or because of God? Was God simply a means to the end? Is Abraham’s delight going to be in the promise of God or in the God of the promise? The promise-maker or the promises? This will be the ultimate question when our lives are stuck on pause. What are you waiting for at the end of the pause? Is it a job? Is it a spouse? Is it a child? Is it marriage? Is it graduation? Is it the salvation of a loved one? Is it fruit from ministry? Is it school? All good things, but if we are not careful, they can become God’s enemies. As Piper says, “The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts.” And God will always challenge us on that soft spot in our heart.
Do we think that if we get that thing at the end of the pause, then we will truly have meaning, happiness and significance and love in our lives? Or are we seeing that through this season of pause, we are in it because God has allowed it and wants us to see the competing rivals in our heart against Him, which if left unchecked, will end up destroying us? Will we grow to believe that He is the most important thing in our lives? How will we know? Let’s look at this first thought:
I. Trials reveal our heart’s deepest emotional attachments (vv.1-8)
It will happen through trials or testing. The real test of surrender isn’t when we obey commands we like. If I say to my kids, “Eat your ice cream,” that is not a good test of how well they obey me. The true test is when I ask them to do something difficult.
If you remember Job’s story, Satan tells God, “You think that Job loves you for you. No way! He’s in this relationship with you because you give him what he really wants.” And God allows Satan to take away all of Job’s stuff to find out. God already knows Job’s heart, but in allowing suffering, Job enters into the experience of what God already knows. It wasn’t easy, but Job was able to say later, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). The same thing is going to happen here with Abraham.
Now this is a unique story. Some of us may have seen the famous painting of Rembrandt’s of this back in 1635. This is a narrative not an epistle, so we are to look at it as descriptive, not prescriptive. This is something that happened and not something that should happen with our children literally. Nevertheless, there are a lot of principles we can extract. Some have read this story and saw this as a cruel God who wants us to do violent and unimaginable things for the fun of it. We know this is not true from what we have seen of God so far in Genesis. This story is actually one of love, not cruelty.
Before we dig in here, note that there is a difference between Satan’s temptations and God’s tests or trials. Notice the narrator telling us what is going on. This is a “test.” A trial or test is to show what someone is really like, and it generally involves difficulty or hardship. Satan’s temptations, which in working together with our fleshly desires (James 1:14), is to weaken and destroy us, but trials are meant to strengthen and refine us.
I was watching Rod Blagojevich’s final speech before they took him to jail for corruption and he kept referring to his situation as “adversity,” “hard times,” “suffering,” “difficulty,” etc. That is not adversity, Rod. That’s a consequence from being tempted with power or greed. A trial is something that you had no control over, but happened to you. Consequences you repent from, trials you embrace and learn from. And sometimes you will have to repent in the trial as well when the Lord shows you your heart. The lines are not always that clear, I know, but here we are talking about God allowing a personal and painful circumstance in Abraham’s life for his benefit and not Abraham’s bonehead move like in Egypt or Gerar. Several things to note about how God reveals our deepest emotional attachments through trials:
a) Trials come in God’s perfect timing
The author here in Gen. 22:1 begins with, “after these things.” After what things? Pretty much everything in Abraham’s life thus far and in light of Ishmael leaving. He already lost one son. What does that tell you? God knew when to challenge Abraham with the trial. Sometimes we think God is randomly throwing us in the fire. He is perfect in His timing. When God throws us in the fire, His eyes are on us and His hands are on the thermostat. He is not out to burn us or pulverize us. He knows how long to keep us in the fire, but He is sitting on the throne with His feet up in complete control. Notice Abraham’s willing obedience here and the only thing he says in this section, “Here am I.” As soon as we start saying, “Why now? Why this? Why me?” we start moving away from embracing to resisting, which will make it harder for us.
b) Trials are calls of God to keep growing
This call is very similar to Abraham’s first call in Gen. 12:1. There was a command then to “go” and here to “take.” Then the command is followed by three gradually intensive terms. Each term hits a little bit deeper. Before it was: “your country, your kindred and your father’s house.” Now it’s: “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” And notice before it was “to the land that I will show you.” Now it is “to the mountain that I shall tell you.”
This tells us that God’s call is something we experience over and over again. The way to become a believer is to hear the call to come to God by faith. It is leave what is known for the unknown. And the way to grow as a believer is to hear the call again and again and surrender. Whether at 75 or 115 years of age (or however old Abraham is here), the call of God will comes. Anytime God tugs on your heart to leave something, to come closer to Him, to surrender this or that, that is a sign you are His child and His call.
c) Lean on promises more than explanations
This is not anything new to Abraham. When he first left, he asked, “Where do you want me to go God?” I’ll show you. How are we going to have a child? I’ll show you. Why are telling me to go to the mountain? I’ll tell you. By the way, Mount Moriah might have been (not sure) 50 miles away from Beersheba. 2 Chron. 3:1 says Solomon built a temple on Mt. Moriah, but we are not sure if it is the same one. Anyway, I wonder if God had told Abraham before he left Ur everything he would go through including losing a nephew, fighting a war with 300 men, having an affair with Hagar, walk in covenant relationship, see a city destroyed and when he was over 100, he would have one son and he would have to kill him, Abraham would have probably leaned over and died. He would have been overwhelmed and not able to handle it.
Trevin Wax on his blog mentions a time when his son was acting up and his father tells him that he (the son) would have to leave home one day and make his own decisions. His son suddenly started bawling, “I don’t want to leave home!” Leaving home does not make sense for a young child. Similarly, if God gave us all the specifics of our walk with Him, we would lean over and die. He is good not to share things we cannot handle. We might think it might make things a lot easier, but in the end, we will be traumatized and not do anything at all. So as we learned with Noah’s story, we cannot live by explanations, but on the promises and person of God who can take care of us better than we can.
d) The most hardest trials hit at our emotional centers
In Gen. 22:2, why does the author mention “your only son, whom you love”? By the way, ten times in this narrative the word “son” is used to indicate the enormity of this test. It is hitting at Abraham’s deepest part of his heart. Abraham’s affection has become adoration. There was a shift in Abraham’s dependence and security. It is not that Abraham shouldn’t love him, but that his love for his son and all that his son meant was turning into a functional savior for Abraham. In our individualistic cultures, an adult’s identity and sense of worth is often bound up in abilities and achievements, but in Abraham’s time, all the hopes and dreams of a man and his family rested in the firstborn son. So the call here to give up the firstborn son is equivalent to going up to a surgeon and tell him to give up the use of his hands or to tell a visual artist to lose the use of her eyes.
Some of us actually might understand that better. Our parents often sacrifice everything for us so that we might bring them honor in their social circle. And when we do not live up to those expectations, all hell breaks lose. We are their emotional center of their well-being. We are their functional saviors. It is often when we live up to their expectations that they feel they have purpose and meaning in life. And we feel guilt and shame because we have made them into our functional saviors as well. We live for their approval. And when we don’t get it, we feel like failures and worthless.
So God puts pressure on the false God in our hearts and allows pain. Do you know what happens when you put gold in the fire? Impurities on the gold start to float to the top and are skimmed off. Why does God reveal to us these things? He shows us because anything that takes God’s place in our heart or look to quench the thirst of our heart will ultimately hurt us and break our heart. It is not punishment, but an intervention.
Author Elizabeth Elliot visited a sheep farm in Wales. She saw the shepherd put the sheep into an antiseptic tank to keep them from getting parasites/worms that would kill them. The shepherd forced their head into the water, while the sheep struggled to get out. To save them, it felt as though their shepherd was trying to kill them. Sometimes when God touches our emotional centers and says, “I want that,” we feel threatened. We feel as though God is trying to kill us, when He is trying to save us.
e) Feelings must not trump faith and obedience
So God tells him to do the unthinkable in Gen. 22:2: “Offer him up as a burnt offering.” By saying burnt offering, Abraham knows this is not just a spiritual giving up. This is death of his son, but more than that, death of his future and everything he had been banking on. Give back this gift? Was there a fine print to this? If Isaac dies, there is nothing left. It would be as if Sarah never gave birth. His laughter would be turned to mourning and future up in smoke like Sodom and Gomorrah. This is a test of epic proportions. It makes no sense whatsoever. God is self-contradicting!
We are not told how Abraham is feeling through this. Did he sleep that night? Was he tossing and turning, wondering if this was all a dream? It seems like he doesn’t tell Sarah. But in Gen. 22:3, he obeys immediately. Notice he wakes up early. Not because he was eager, but probably because of torment in his soul. But he obeys. He lives by the Word of God. Notice the bargainer Abraham is silent here. There is “no debate (unlike with Ishmael [Gen. 17:18] or with Lot [18:22–33]), only movement, hurrying, saddling, taking, splitting, arising, going.”
Some scholars think there are some unusual things going on here. First of all, Abraham, instead of his servants, is doing all the work. The servants are pretty useless here in this story. They are just in the background. It makes you wonder if Abraham trying to preoccupy his mind with these activities so he doesn’t have think about what it is ultimately for? Secondly, you would typically cut the wood after you get there? Is he afraid he won’t go through with it later? It also seems like they were about to leave when Abraham decides to cut the wood. With every blow of the axe, he must have thought about the blow to his son. What is missing? The sacrifice. Well, we know it is Isaac himself, but no one makes any mention of it. Abraham saddles up though his heart is torn apart.
It makes us wonder (and we don’t know for sure) if Abraham is a train wreck inside his heart. But he doesn’t live by emotions, but by faith. It takes them three days to get there. Isaac walks beside him. Northward into the hill country they went. With every sunrise, Abraham believed and obeyed. Why three days? Three days of confusion. Three days to talk himself out of it. But in doing so, God “transforms his response from a reaction to a decision.” God doesn’t seem to wear a watch when our hearts are in turmoil. Like a good surgeon, he exposes our hearts so he can heal it. No conversation is mentioned here. If Abraham ever said, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” Scripture has not recorded it.
Finally, they get to the foot of the mountain in Gen. 22:4. The servants are told to just stay there in Gen. 22:5. Perhaps Abraham was afraid they would try to stop him or subdue him out of ignorance. We can almost feel the weight that Abraham carries here, but most importantly, he feels this weight alone. Abraham must leave everything behind. His lonely journey up that mountain symbolizes the lonely, psychological journey of faith to the place of sacrifice. All of our trials are different and multi-faceted and it is often things we carry alone.
Notice he says “boy,” which means he was a teenager, probably 14-15 years old. The verbs here literally have Abraham saying, “We are determined to go, we are determined to worship, and we are determined to return.” How can Abraham say such a thing? It was his faith. In Heb. 11:17-19, Abraham resolves the contradiction between what God has promised and what God has asked here by figuring that God can raise Isaac from the dead. This way, God’s Word is kept no matter what.
Faith kept him going. In Gen. 22:6, his faith gives him courage to take the wood off the donkey and put it on Isaac’s back. Isaac puts his arms through the ropes that held the heavy burden. In Abraham’s hand there is a smoldering torch and a knife. The dangerous stuff, with which the boy may hurt himself, Abraham must carry. He doesn’t look at Isaac. Isaac may have stopped several times. But Abraham waits, doesn’t say a word and then keeps walking. This is not a one-time perseverance. Each step is made with prayer and perseverance. The pain does not go away, but faith keeps walking even when our heart is not following.
Then it gets even harder. In Gen. 22:7, Isaac breaks the silence with a “My Father!” Why did he have to call him that?! And in a child-like way, he asks a very valid question. Where is the sacrifice? Abraham feels a lump in his throat. That question cuts through Abraham’s heart like a knife. His eyes are welling up. He cannot find it in himself to tell him and in Gen. 22:8 simply replies, “God will provide.” In other words, “I have no clue, I cannot figure this out, but God does. This is a major contradiction of epic proportions. I cannot figure it out. He’s got to fix this Himself.” There is an old English cliché that the “devil is in the details.” Not true. God is in the details.
God put Abraham in a situation where He alone can fix it. And that is the goal, to completely fall on the arms of grace when faced with contradicting circumstances. God doesn’t expect us to figure out a way out. He does not expect us to ignore our emotions. All those things are real, but this is the heart of it all: When faced between the choice of the blesser or the blessing, what will you choose? Abraham, is your trust really in God or simply in what God has promised? Before Abraham built altars and sacrificed to this God, when God renewed the promises. Is he willing now to build an altar and sacrifice the promises themselves, embodied in his son, in order to demonstrate his unswerving trust in the God who stands behind the promises?Are you willing to follow God when there is nothing in it for you? The answer is revealed by trials in our lives.
The hotter the fire, the more pure is the gold. The hotter the fire, the more valuable is the gold. The fire reveals what we really love. God draws out all the things our hearts are attaching to in our lives to the surface through trial. It reveals everything that is more precious to us than God. God is so committed to purifying us! William Gurnall says, “God would not rub so hard if it were not to fetch out the dirt that is ingrained in our natures. God loves purity so well He had rather see a hole than a spot in His child’s garments.”
II. Trials bring us to a place to experience God’s grace like never before (vv.9-19)
Finally, in Gen. 22:9, they both go together to the crest of the hill. They gather rocks and stones to build the altar. Abraham then begins to tie up his son. Notice the cooperation of his son. That’s more amazing than Abraham’s faith! Isaac does not resist or fight. He allows himself to be bound hand and foot, and laid on the wood he has carried. This hurts. In Gen. 22:10, we reach the climax of the story. Abraham raises his knife.
But just as the knife was about to be thrust into the heart of all his dreams, hopes, desires, an angel stops him and calls out his name in Gen. 22:11. Notice heaven remains silent until he actually raises the knife. Did you catch that? It took raising the knife of obedience with intent to kill (that’s commitment), and then Abraham heard from God. Many of us may be willing to lay something on the altar but when we do we take along a rubber knife. Yet, our obedience is not complete if there are some strings attached.
In Gen. 22:12, the angel says, “Now I know you fear God.” What? Doesn’t God know already what’s in our heart? Yes, informationally we may know our heart and God knows, but experientially we don’t. This is for Abraham to experience. God desires us to act out our faith and worship regardless of the fact that he knows our hearts. He tells us to pray even though he knows what we are going to say and may have already set the answer in motion. “Fear” doesn’t mean that Abraham is afraid of God, but God is saying, “Now I know I am more important to you than anything in this world.” Experience makes what we know in our head come alive to our heart.
Notice it was only after this that Abraham sees the ram in Gen. 22:13. God revealed the provision when Abraham was ready to receive it. While Abraham and Isaac are going up the mountain of trial on one side, the ram was going up the mountain of provision on the other side and meet only when God knows it is the right time. He names the mountain, “God provides—Jevohah-Jireh.” Literally, it is “God will see to it.” Notice it is not called, “Abraham was obedient.” This is to God’s glory not our faith or even our obedience. Abraham saw God bigger. He then reconfirms the covenant in Gen. 22:15-19. God has grown Abraham by His grace and transformed him from an idol worshipper into a spiritual giant.
What does Abraham learn here? God is actually merciful than cruel. Isaac was a wonderful gift, but Abraham cannot have and hold Isaac until Abraham put God first. And as long as Abraham never had to choose between his son and obeying God, he could not see how idolatrous he was becoming. God is so gracious to show this to Abraham. Cruelty was to leave Abraham white-knuckle clenching Isaac to the end instead of God. Abraham learned that Isaac was his by the miracle of grace and the miracle of the grace of redemption. If God had killed Isaac, Abraham could not say anything. Abraham could not say he deserved Isaac. It was gift, not something he worked for. God gives and can take away. And besides, who are we to argue with God? But Abraham sees again that the idea of a substitute. Someone else suffers on our behalf and we are spared by grace.
I want to close with this question. Where is your emotional center? On what do you center your life and identity? What are you holding on to so tightly you want more than life itself? What is your “Isaac”? Perhaps you are in a trial right now and you may think God is killing you, but He is saving you. What is God showing you underneath the trial? Are you centering your life and identity on your spouse or partner? If so, are you emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling? If you center your life and identity on your family and children? Do you will try to live your life through your children? Is it your work and career? Are you a driven workaholic? If your career goes poorly, do you develop deep depression? Is it motherhood? Do you envision a perfect mother or wife that is out there who always gets everything right and their kids always eat and behave and take care of their homes well?
Is it money and possessions? Are you eaten up by worry or jealousy about money? Is it on pleasure, gratification, and comfort? If so, you will find yourself getting addicted to something. You will become chained to the “escape strategies” by which you avoid the hardness of life. If you center your life and identity on relationships and approval, you will be constantly overly hurt by criticism, being furious or devastated because it is critical that that you think of yourself as a ‘good person’? 
Whatever it is, God says offer it up. Life will come and take away the things we love and value. We experience it more the older we get. Whatever we find our value, significance and worth in, will be taken away bit by bit: our health, our looks, our money, our stuff, our family and friends and eventually our life. How are we going to be able to deal with it? We have to turn to God and say, “You are my love. You are my hope. You are my approval.” But how? Do we muster up strength to go up that mountain and tell ourselves to be like Abraham?
No, it only comes when we remember why was Isaac spared. Why was Isaac spared and why are we spared? For all our idolatry, we should be placed on the altar. But centuries after Abraham, a Father and Son climbed another mountain alone. On that mountain called Calvary, the Father held the dangerous items in His hand and placed wood upon His beloved Son’s back. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, like a sheep before its shearers is silent, the Father brought the Son to the altar. It was the will of the Lord to crush Him. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. God laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
God’s beloved son, His only Son, was stretched out on the wood to die. He looked up to heaven and saw the knife in the Father’s hand poised above him. On Mount Calvary, God’s delight, Jesus Christ, cried out to His Father, “My God, My God—why have you forsaken me?” At least Isaac had his father with him all the way, but the Greater Isaac had even His Father forsake him, so we can be received. There was no voice from heaven announcing deliverance, so we can be delivered. There was no last minute reprieve. Only darkness. There was no substitute for Jesus, for he was himself the Lamb of God. What God said to Abraham, we can turn around and say to God: “Now I know… that you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from me.”
The cost to Abraham was nothing as God provided. But the cost to God was infinite. He gave everything in the gift of his beloved Son. And so now we can give up our false substitutes of God. God is not asking us to do anything He hasn’t done. He gave up His emotional center so we can have God as the center of our lives. Do you see His ultimate provision for us? If God has not spared His only Son, but gave him up us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:32). So God says, “Offer that thing up my son. Let it go. You have my approval. You have my security. You have my peace. You have my joy. And most of all, you have me.” As the hymnwriter says, “Drops of grief can never repay the debt of love I owe. Here Lord, I give myself away—‘tis all that I can do.”
Piper, J. (1997). A Hunger for God: Desiring God through fasting and prayer (14). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
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MacDonald, James (33). When Life is Hard (2010). Chicago, IL: Moody.
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Keller, T. (2009). Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters (7). New York: Riverhead Books.
Keller, T. in the sermon, “Real Faith and the Only Son,” as transcribed by Benjamin Toh http://westloop-church.org/messages/old-testament/15-genesis/177-the-lord-will-provide-gen-2214 accessed 28 March 2012.
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Walton, J (2001). The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (516). Grand Rapids,
Hamilton, V. P. (107).
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (307).
Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (301). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Krell, K. “Let go!” http://bible.org/seriespage/let-go-genesis-221-24#P55_17561 accessed 28 March 2012.
Von Rad, G. (1972). Genesis: A Commentary (240). Philadelphia, PA: Westminster.
Mann, T.W. as quoted in Walton, J. (515).
Water, M. (2000). The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (18). Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd.
Krell. K. Ibid.
Walton, J. (514).
Keller, T. Counterfeit Gods (13).