We all develop a bit of mental numbness over time to the more over-the-top moments in scripture, don’t we? We hear stories like that of Abraham and Isaac and we seem to shake our heads at God and go, “Oh you.” We scramble our brains as we try to place a loving God at the center of this frightening story, and when we can’t, we erect inner walls that separate us from this God that would ask a faithful servant to slaughter a son.
At least, that’s what I do. When the lector began reading that chapter of Genesis, I could sense something in me immediately tense. “Oh, this story,” I thought. “Buckle up.”
And it was in that knee-jerk negative response to the passage that God invited me into a deeper reflection. So, I accepted. “Fine, God,” I replied in challenge, “Teach me a lesson about obeying your law.” That’s what I assumed the passage would illuminate for me. After all, it’s pretty hard to wiggle out of God’s commandments — “But God probably meant… I don’t think God will mind… I mean, just this once…” — when God leaves Abraham such a small amount of wiggle room.
So, I left Mass with the promise to God that I would sit on that passage, bring it to prayer and see what happened. God and I both knew I could use a little direction in the “obeying my commandment” realm.
If I’d offer any piece of takeaway advice, it would be this: Never enter prayer assuming you already know what God is saying to you.
Because when I sat with the passage, it wasn’t the law of God that rose up in me. It wasn’t that fateful moment when Abraham raised the knife, when the angels swept down to reward the good and faithful servant. It wasn’t even the opening scene, where God gives a seemingly unintelligible command with nothing more than the expectation that it be done.
No—my journey into that passage took me somewhere else entirely. I found myself walking with Abraham, accompanying an old man and his son up a mountain. A long walk, to be sure, tiring in ways both physical and mental. And I found myself wondering this: What does a man think to himself on a journey such as this? What emotions rise up, and what emotions must be suppressed? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what does this man think of God?
Because we know, surely, that Abraham didn’t just say, “Okay, God, let me grab my knife,” and then appear suddenly on the mountain top.
Like each of us, Abraham certainly doubted God, wrestled with the angel, made his logical — and perhaps illogical — arguments. He fought down his desire to prove God wrong, to make a good show in front of his son, to be the strong, powerful father. He battled the side of himself that said, “Just walk the other way;” the side that said, “Don’t walk anywhere at all.”
This was no simple journey — put on your sandals and go. This was a moment of turmoil, of chaos, of anger and frustration and abandonment. And Abraham kept going. He recognized God as God; he recognized himself as limited. And he kept going.
We know how the story ends, as we always do. We know God rewards the faithful servant because we’re told so at the tale’s end.
But we don’t always know that to be true in real life — at least, not in the ways we’d like to see. We wrestle with God, with those around us, with ourselves. We grapple with circumstance, unfairness, injustice and anger. We don’t just strap on our sandals and skip to the mountain top—we go there sometimes on our knees, bloody, sweaty and irritable.
And God welcomes us into that struggle and meets us there. At least, that’s what God said in my prayer this week. I don’t feel any better about anything — but I do feel God near. And, of course, a need to keep trudging forward.