Welcome to the fourth installment of our worship series, the third recorded sacrifice in the Bible, and the first one our Father ever actually asked for. I’ve had a lot of difficulty writing this one because every time I’ve reached the conclusion I’ve been unable to find the words to end with, so I’m starting this section with the end.
The first sacrifice the Creator ever asked for was a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of a promised son. Abraham regarded this sacrifice as an act of worship, which is why I haven’t been able to find a good way to finish. You see, today we’re taught that worshipping during tragedy or extreme difficulty is “an act of sacrifice”. People experience tragedy and go to church and sing praises to God and are told they are offering “a sacrifice of praise” as the tears stream down their faces and they ask through those tears, “Why, God? Why?”
The phrase, “sacrifice of praise” comes from Hebrews 13:14, but the context of that verse has nothing to do with tragedy. The writer of Hebrews is talking about our joining Jesus in his suffering when we are persecuted for following him. The writer goes on to say that doing good and sharing what we have when we don’t have much – and may actually be in need – is the sacrifice that is pleasing to God (Heb 13:16). Nowhere does the writer indicate that overcoming our feelings of loss and anger is any kind of sacrifice.
I know parents who lost their child to suicide or illness, and I have personally been in a situation where I lost very nearly everything. I want to be sensitive to the legitimate feelings of loss, anger, sadness, and the myriad other emotions that these situations cause, but if sacrifice costs us something, should we really be told that releasing these feelings in praise is “sacrificing” something? Is there a true cost to releasing painful emotions that will eventually damage our relationships with ourselves, other people, even with our Father himself? Shouldn’t we view releasing painful feelings through worship as the first step to healing?
These are the questions I ask myself as I read, study, and think about what Yehovah asked Abraham for, the literal blood sacrifice of his son by his own hand, and Abraham’s response to the request. The request itself boggles my mind since it’s a human sacrifice. We discover in Leviticus that child sacrifice is one of the things that got the Canaanites into trouble with Yehovah in the first place, so my first reaction is confusion and revulsion in no particular order, and I always imagine that Abraham’s reaction wasn’t much different. However, Abraham’s behavior is significantly different from my own; Abraham obeyed, and I can tell you that my faith is not strong enough to obey that request. And not only did he obey, he called it “worship”.
We all know the story, so let’s slow down and fully experience the conversation. As they approached the place of the sacrifice, Abraham told his servants to wait while he and Isaac go to worship Yehovah (Gen 22:5). As Abraham and Isaac continued on, Isaac asked about the sacrificial victim, to which Abraham gave the cryptic answer, “Yehovah himself will provide.” I sometimes wonder about that answer; after all Isaac was a miracle and the requested sacrifice, so perhaps Abraham meant that Yehovah had already provided the sacrifice. Either way, I can’t imagine that the answer brought much comfort to Isaac. He probably knew about child sacrifice in the area they lived, and then his father bound him as the sacrificial victim and grabbed the sacrificial knife! Abraham was there to worship the God who had kept his promise, and if a sacrifice to show his gratitude was what was required as an act of worship, then that was the worship Abraham would give.
I know Abraham was there to give honor and glory to Yehovah, that things were different back then and this kind of thing was “normal”, but it couldn’t have been as easy on Abraham or Isaac as Moses made this sound. Yehovah himself acknowledged that Abraham loved his son (Gen 22:2) (sacrifice costs something) and slaughtering something (someone) you love is never this easy (hence the term “sacrifice”).
Once again, I’ve reached the point where I must conclude this section, and it’s still hard. As always, reading about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the precious life of Isaac as worship makes me question the logic of calling the act of worship during tragedy or difficulty a “sacrifice” unless we are counting our healing as our sacrifice.
Yet some may read the words I just wrote and experience them as cruel. Some may feel as if the pain is their only connection to a lost loved one and so giving it up is a sacrifice of that connection, while others may feel they have a right to be angry over the loss of a job and therefore giving up the anger is the sacrifice of the right. I don’t want to minimize these legitimate feelings, but I do want us to understand sacrifice as worship, and I believe that taking the words “sacrifice of praise” out of context has contributed to our misunderstanding of sacrifice, and therefore our minimization of it. I also think it limits our ability to experience the Father’s comfort and healing if we think giving up painful emotions is “sacrifice”. Sacrificing Isaac would cost Abraham dearly both emotionally and physically. Each of us needs to carefully consider if giving up our painful emotions is truly costing us something and is therefore an acceptable sacrifice, or if releasing those emotions is our positive response to our Father’s invitation of comfort and healing, meaning that letting them go is not a sacrifice, but a deliverance.
In the end, Abraham didn’t have to slaughter Isaac and the sacrifice only cost him the time and effort it took to unravel the goat from the bushes, which I’m fairly certain he did with great relief. When he and Isaac slaughtered that animal, they did it with thanksgiving for delivering Isaac. In my imagination I see them singing and dancing just like so many of us do when we worship, but in their case the scent of a burning goat would have accompanied their songs. Those songs and a pleasing aroma went up to Yehovah, probably putting a smile on his face. I know that when we release our painful emotions “with great relief” and worship in thanksgiving (in our case, without the burning flesh) for our deliverance from that pain, we, too put a smile our Father’s face.