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, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded 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 NIV
Even when I was a young girl, this story unsettled me.
I encountered it often– in the story bible my family read every day, in Sunday school, as an example in kids’ devotional literature, Bible workbooks, and of course in sermons. Usually the message ran something like this: Look at Abraham– he loved God with his whole heart! He loved God so much he was even willing to give up his only son Isaac to God! We need to be like Abraham, and make sure we don’t love anything in the world more than we love God. When I was older the message became a bit more sophisticated– what are you willing to sacrifice for God? What will you give up to follow God?
I was a kid who had early on internalized the message that the only important thing in this life is being right with God– devoting one’s entire life to serving and following and pleasing God. I longed to have that assurance that I was being who I was supposed to be and doing what I was supposed to do. I brooded over whether or not I loved God enough. I didn’t really know what it meant to love God: when I thought of someone loving someone else I thought of people like my grandma, who always made me feel so special, who delighted to talk with me and hear about what I was up to, who gave big soft hugs. I never heard God’s voice talking to me when I prayed, and we didn’t exchange hugs or kisses, and I never felt like He was particularly interested in the things I was interested in. I didn’t feel about God the way I felt about my grandma, and that worried me. How could I know if I could be like Abraham when I didn’t have those feelings for God that I had for my grandma?
When I got older, and listened to enough Adventures in Odyssey episodes and worked through enough devotionals and read more of the Bible for myself, it became more clear to me. Loving God meant obeying God’s rules. If you love me, you will keep my commandments, said Jesus, and I thought bingo! I still worried that I didn’t have feelings for God– it seemed like my faith was sub-par because I didn’t feel about God the way I felt about my friends. Even though I prayed fervently to have the desire, I still didn’t particularly want to spend “quiet time” reading the Bible and memorizing verses and praying. But at least, I told myself, what counted most was that I did it. That’s what God cared most about.
I still brooded secretly over whether my faith would be strong enough to endure the Test of Abraham. As a teenager, the most precious thing in my life to me was my writing– my hidden world of romance and adventure, the only place in my life where I could give free reign to my inner self and be exactly who I was. I pictured God telling me that I had to give up my writing. I agonized over whether writing was an “idol in my life.” After all, it made me come alive in a way that nothing else did– and certainly in a way that “quiet times” had never done. Surely that was wrong! Surely if I really loved God whole-heartedly then my writing wouldn’t mean so much to me. I wanted to believe that if God commanded me to give up writing, I would do it. But I wasn’t sure.
Meantime, the test of Abraham still lingered, unsettled, in the back of my mind. I tried to silence all my doubts and questions about the subject, tried to have more faith. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I wasn’t. As a child the explanation for the story had always been, “God needed to find out whether Abraham loved him more than he loved Isaac.” Even when I was eight years old this didn’t hold water with me. This was the God who, I had been informed, knew everything in the whole world. He could read my mind. He knew all my secrets. He knew my heart (and all the sin there) better than I did. And I was supposed to believe that God didn’t know exactly how much Abraham loved Him compared to Isaac?
When I got older, the explanation was less pat. “Well, it was more about Abraham’s heart. Abraham needed to know how much he trusted God.” Or, “The whole story is a foreshadowing of the story of Jesus. God wanted to show Abraham how He was going to provide a substitute sacrifice in God’s own Son!”
And there was the little unsettled feeling in the deep recesses of my heart that heard those explanations and whispered, That sounds very nice and lovely, but GOD STILL TOLD SOMEONE TO KILL THEIR KID.
I was a pre-teen where a couple of cases hit the news of mothers, suffering from severe psychosis, murdering their own children. In all of these cases, the mothers believed that they had heard from God or from some supernatural being that they were supposed to kill their children.
And that little unsettled dark place in my heart thought, Why is it that in the Bible God tells someone to kill his kid and we praise him for being willing to obey, but now we have nothing but condemnation for those women who obeyed what they thought was the voice of God? How do we know the difference between insanity and the voice of God? After all, in the Old Testament God commanded all kinds of killings. And the Bible says that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
But I knew instinctively that those kinds of questions were not welcomed. There were Keep Out signs in Christianity, usually in the form of a parent or teacher or authority figure saying, “Sometimes it’s just a mystery! After all, God is God– his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. We don’t get to judge God.”
I didn’t understand the concept of cognitive dissonance in my teen years, or even my young adulthood. I thought that my faith was weak because I so desperately wanted answers for those unwelcome questions. If my faith was strong, then surely my brain and heart and feelings would be satisfied with the “mystery” answer. It just showed how rebellious and wicked I was, trying to “put God in the dock.”
Now I know that that unsettled place in the back of my heart was my conscience– the part of me that knows good from evil, right from wrong. It was my own conscience, even at a very young age, recoiling in horror at the idea of a god telling anyone to kill their own child as a test of love– whether or not the killing happened. The very heart and feelings that I’d always been told were far too wicked and sinful ever to be trusted were fighting to make me hear their protest at the evil which was being labeled good. I can see now so many times where my instinct was revolting against the cognitive dissonance:
- God killing the firstborn children of the Egyptians to punish Pharaoh for not letting the Isrealites go.
- God commanding the entire family of Achan to be stoned because Achan sinned in keeping some of the Canaanite plunder.
- God punishing the Canaanites for their evil practice of child-sacrifice by commanding the Isrealites to kill everyone, including the children.
- God killing the baby conceived of David’s rape of Bathsheba as David’s punishment. So that Bathsheba is left to mourn not only her murdered husband, but her dead child.
Dead children = goodness. Dead children = justice. Dead children = the holy will of God. How dare you question the will of God?
Is it any wonder, then, that one of the foundational events of my own faith unraveling was the death of my children? Though in the first year I mourned like a model Christian, proclaiming my faith in God’s sovereignty, deep down the inner voices began to scream. And scream.
My dead children– goodness? My dead children– God’s will, God’s love!? My broken heart– negligible?
I tried to desperately to quiet the screaming. After all, God’s ways are not my ways, I tried to tell myself. I can’t understand God. It’s the mystery. I’m sure at some point I even tried to comfort myself with the old explanation, “Well, in the same way a child doesn’t understand the painful things that a parent sometimes has to do, we don’t understand the painful things that God has to do.”
Which, first of all, is a terrible parenting philosophy. I have found (contrary to typical conservative Christian parenting advice) that even at a very young age my children can connect with my reasoning behind things if I’m willing to meet them at their level and connect with them relationally. I’ve tried to be more and more intentional about offering explanations for why we do things like brush our teeth and put disinfectant on cuts and not leave the living room strewn with toys, instead of invoking the authoritarian “Because I SAID so!” And my four year old can be surprisingly reasonable when he feels that I am willing to connect with him, to let him express his dismay at the situation, and explain to him why we need to do ___ anyway. If I, a very imperfect parent, can do that, then why couldn’t God, who is supposedly the Perfect Parent?
Besides which, drawing a parallel between a child’s sulking over a time-out and a parent’s anguish at losing their child is utterly tone-deaf. A good parent does not arbitrarily torture their child by taking from them whatever it is they love most. I would never in a million years punish my son by destroying his beloved Blankie, still less take it from him forever with no more explanation than, “Well, I’m the parent, you’re the child, someday you’ll see that this was all for your own good.”
We have a name for those who threaten to destroy, do destroy, or coerce their victim into destroying the beloved of the victim’s heart, those who say they are doing it as a test of the person’s love or for that person’s good. We call those kind of people psychopaths.
Where does that leave me? Where does that leave the thousands of people like me, who in spite of all our efforts to obey, to turn off our brains and ignore our feelings, can no longer drown out the cognitive dissonance? When I was in the evangelical bubble, I was told that the reason people walk away from Christianity is because they want to be evil and sinful and because they hate Jesus. And now that I’m outside the evangelical bubble I am adding my voice to the thousands of others screaming at the top of our lungs that the reason we are leaving is because we will no longer call evil good. Dead children are the result of evil unleashed, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s in an abortion clinic, or if they are dying from lack of medical care as they are forbidden access to this country at the Mexican border, or if they are Muslim children killed in Middle Eastern air strikes carried out by the US, or if they are Canaanite children killed by the supposed command of God’s chosen people. Dead children = evil. Always. Always.
In a recent counseling session, my counselor said to me, “You love goodness. You long after goodness.”
And I half smiled, and said bitterly, “But my entire past has ground into me that the only goodness is found in the Christianity I was raised in, and to walk away from it is to walk towards evil.”
I don’t know what the answer is.
Some days I hold out hope that somewhere there is a Christianity, a Christ, where the soul screams can be quieted in peace– not the forced peace of duct-tape against the screams to silence them, turn-off-your-brain and ignore the man behind the curtain “peace”– but real peace. Love– not twisted, capricious, arbitrary throwing out of blessings and cursings and rules and lines-in the-sand you’re-out-unless-I-control-you “love”– but Real Love.
That is what the deeps of me call out for, yearn for.
You have come Home.
If you feel that same yearning, if your soul has also known the writhes and the screams of the cognitive dissonance, then hear this: you are not alone.
If you are still in the world which I’ve left, the world of evangelical Christianity, if you identify with nothing of what I’ve written, and yet you’re still here at the end, thank you. You have already given more than most are willing to.
If I can ask one more thing, I beg you, I plead with you one thing: don’t push my story, uniquely mine and yet an echo of the stories of thousands of others, away from you immediately. Do me, do all the others, this one thing, even if it’s only for five minutes: believe that we are yearning for goodness. And then if you can, ask yourself why we have not found it in your world.