Friday, January 11, 2008

Costs, Benefits and Obedience

I've been away from my blog for a few days whilst taking time to procrastinate over thoughts about life in general.

I have noticed lately that people I care about seem to be being challenged to go forward into a situation... and then have all the things that made their choices "easier" stripped away, either prior to or just following them making a commitment to press on in their lives. I guess you could include me in that assessment too.

That's just it though... isn't it? It's easy to pursue a course of action when everything is going your way, when things are looking up. The real test of a person's character comes when everything comes crashing down around you and you find yourself knocked to the ground; when the only two choices available to you are to stay on the floor... give in and go back home, or get right back up on your feet and press on ahead anyway... win or lose, live or die.

I want to look at two instances in scripture where characters from the Bible are faced with this exact choice:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"

"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."
Genesis 22:1-18

I should point out before continuing, that God does not approve of infant sacrifice (he spent a lot of time sending out Israel to clobber people who did), so before you jump to a conclusion and think God's being malicious, think again... that is not what the passage is about. The second passage I want to look at comes from the New Testament:

After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying good-by to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.

We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the believers and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.

After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, "The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.' "

When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, "Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, "The Lord's will be done."
Acts 21:3-14
Two very different stories, but both contain a a binding theme.

One has a happy ending (Isaac lives and is given back to Abraham), the other not so happy (Paul goes on to Jerusalem and receives exactly the treatment that was prophesied).

What links these stories is that in both instances, Abraham and Paul did not withhold what was being asked of them. Abraham is asked to surrender his son, the son who he received by grace from God (when by rights and by human convention it should not have been possible). This son - Isaac who has brought so much joy to Abraham (his very name means "laughter"), has been given by God, is now apparently wanted back by God. Imagine yourself there... Abraham must have been tearing himself apart, yet still he obeyed.

In the other passage, Paul is faced with the flip side of the coin. God is actually warning him in advance what will happen if he chooses to obey him. Paul is wise. While others saw this as God trying to protect him from harm, Paul instead, acknowledges that this is his destiny; the path that God has chosen for him. He is being tested, in the face of what is to come... and if he had not taken that path, a substantial chunk of his letters would be missing (he wrote a lot of them whilst incarcerated by the Romans).

These stories are both about obedience. The outcome does not matter, the challenge is the same:

"Will you follow me?"

God may call us along a certain path and none of us knows what we will meet along the way - triumph... disaster... unspeakable tragedy... indescribable happiness, they may all await us along the road. God has often spoken to me through the life of Gideon. At the moment I am reminded of how Gideon (after dithering for so long whether to do what God asked of him), started out with a fairly impressive army of 32,000 soldiers... but had to look on as God sent all but 300 home. It looked to be suicide to carry on.

Nonetheless, Gideon went anyway.

When we face difficulty, hardship or adversity, it confronts us with regard to where our conviction lies. Are we walking with God purely because of what we may get out of him (be they temporal blessings or eternal ones)? Or are we serving him because of who he is and what he means to us?

Last week, I discovered an old bookmark - I considered it a timely word:

"The path you walk on may be dark indeed, but trust in the Lord, rely on your God."

It's based on a verse from Isaiah, but it's been a good reminder to me that however uncertain our world may seem, we can always be certain of our God's love for us. You may be robed in riches or stripped of all you have... but God will always be with you.

My friends who are struggling know this, and I am proud to know them and pray for them as they carry their burdens - knowing that they share the same love and resolve for me.


  1. This pondering really hit home Nick. It is totally what I am going through now and its such a blessing to know that I am not the first and I am not the last. I pray every day that God will continue to strengthen me through these tough times and I pray that He will continue to strengthen you too. Lets keep looking to Him for guidance and peace

  2. Hey Nick,

    It's been a while but I saw you had left comments on a few posts of late.

    Ah, tough times. Yes, they are a bummer to be sure. You might remember from my blog that 2006 certainly had its challenges for me and I was relieved when that year passed. I got through it, a little wiser, grateful for the things I did have and through it all God held me up.

    So I can sympathise alot. I pray that God continues to reach out to you through his word and encourages you as you wade your way through the muck.

    Oh yes, I am on facebook but thinking of giving it up.

  3. I've been praying for you yesterday and today.

    May the Lord continue to strengthen you and to use you with wisdom like you've written in this post.

  4. I was just reading the story of Abraham and Isaac to my children last night. I love how that story is a similitude of our Savior, Jesus Christ's obedience to willingly submit to His Father and lay down His life as a sacrifice for us... and also the great love our Father in Heaven has for us to give His only begotten Son as ransom. There are so many paralells to draw from this story and I like how you applied it to your own life.

    After reading your blog, I thought you might like this quote:

    "Obedience [is not] a mindless shifting of our personal responsibility. Instead, it is tying ourselves to a living God who will introduce us - as soon as we are ready to new and heavier responsibilities involving situations of high adventure. Obedience, therefore, is not evasion; it is an invasion - one that takes us deep into the realm of our possibilites." - Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles

    God bless you in your life and for your faithful heart to seek His will for you. - Alicia Rawlins


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