I was invited to join an act of tough love.
The behaviors were pervasive. The very real hurt was undeniable; family, friends, children all in pain. It had all of the moments you would expect, hurt, crying, yelling, blaming, bitterness, resolve.
The act of tough love itself was not the end all, but a part of a long series of acts of love both before and afterwards. It was uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. Seen from outside of the situation and knowledge of what had been happening it would have seemed unnecessarily extreme, but what it was doing was confronting an extreme (this person will die soon) lifestyle with extreme love. It brought the person to the breaking point so they could begin to be broken of their hurtful beliefs and actions and learn a better way of living.
It left a mark on all involved.
Father Abraham tried to sacrifice his son. Not Isaac but Ishmael his first son. Ishmael was conceived and born out of a desire to take control and grab destiny by the horns. God wasn’t moving fast enough with His promise to the barren Sarah and her elderly husband Abraham, that they would conceive and bear a son and through this son’s family line all the world would be blessed. So convinced they needed to be in control Abraham “knew” the housekeeper Hagar and she conceived and gave birth to Ishmael (Genesis 16). Then when the barren Sarah became pregnant with Isaac as promised by God, that same desire to be in control, to run the ship, to play God, they sacrificed Ishmael and his mother Hagar to the wilderness, exiled, no support, no protection, no help, all alone and on their own, sent out to die (Genesis 21).
Just sacrificing one son on the altar of selfish control, God called Abraham to another altar where Isaac his second son would lay. This would all seem normal to Abraham. He came from a culture where child sacrifice was the norm to try to ensure prosperity and health for the future family line. Because infant mortality was so prevalent it was a common practice in the Canaanite culture to sacrifice the first-born, a way of being in control and preempting health and well being for the future descendants. A sort of, give the gods the first one and that’ll guarantee health for the others, kind of idea. It was all about trying to gain control over the gods and nature, be in control of my destiny.
What would it take to get through to Abraham? He took the coward’s choice and tried to sacrifice his first son in absentee, out in the wilderness, like letting a ten year old into the frozen tundra and saying here’s a blanket and some crusty bread, you’re on your own and by the way, God bless. But now God is forcing Abraham to look at the reality of his actions up close and personal, with a real altar and a real blade.
It was almost as if God was saying, is this really what you want Abraham? . This isn’t who I am, God was saying, this is not what the life I am calling you to is about! It would be only during that act of tough love that seems so unnecessarily extreme from the outside but in reality was confronting an extreme and hurtful lifestyle with God’s extreme love, that God could break through to Abraham and show Him what real love is all about. Stubborn Abraham had to be brought to the breaking point, broken of his own desire for selfish and hurtful control before He could really begin to see the good and loving life God had planned for him and his family.
What will it take to get through to us? Let me suggest that there is the hard way and the better way. (I know you were expecting the hard way and the easy way, those words parents have been saying to their children since there were parents and children, but in this case even the right way isn’t easy but it is hard in a different kind of way.) We have seen the hard way with Father Abraham, we have experienced the hard way in our lives, I am famous for admitting that God more times than not must use a 2×4 right across the back of my head to get my attention.
We see the hard way when we see our savior upon the cross, there hanging for all the world to see is the innocent son of God who died for my and our heard-headed, hard-hearted, stubborn, selfish sin and with that act our God delivers a death blow to the power of sin. But look what it took to get our attention. Look at the God who spared Abraham from sacrificing two children even though he was hell-bent on doing so but would not spare His own son our savior so we could be redeemed! Look at God meeting us head on confronting our selfish sin on the cross, just like He confronted Abraham, so somehow, some way, we could be saved! What more will it take for you and me to hear God and believe!
But there is a better way. This better way comes from the words spoken to our Lord at His baptism, “you are my beloved child.” When we are found in Jesus in faith those words are spoken to us, God himself says, “you are my beloved child, yes you!” What a difference that kind of unconditional love makes in the heart and actions of a human life. Actions and intentions now shaped by that core of undeserved love and builds a human life around that love, a life that responds to that kind of amazing love by learning to love in all that it says and does. Is that kind of life easy? By no means! But is it better? Yes it is, by far!
Now of course, we can spit upon that love that the Father gives to us and throw it away, be like disobedient and selfish children who would rather cut the nose off their own face just for spite. But let me remind you of a truth, God will not ever give up on His people, never give up on you. That means there is a hard way and there is a better way we will travel, which way would you like to go?
The wisdom of Psalm 32 NLT sums this up clearly:
The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life.
I will advise you and watch over you.
Do not be like a senseless horse or mule
that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
Many sorrows come to the wicked,
but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the Lord.
So rejoice in the Lord and be glad, all you who obey him!
Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!