This is part 3 of the Dream Killer series. It is not for the faint of heart, but for those truly wanting their faith to grow. If you haven’t already, please read Part 1 and Part 2q before reading this.
Our “Isaacs” are the heart sacrifices we make when we choose to relinquish control and honor God with our choices even when all seems lost. We have to decide if we will let go of our control over a person, situation, or event, or if we will hang on for dear life and refuse to relinquish something we cherish. Carol Kent When I Lay My Isaac Down
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. (Genesis 12:1, 2, 4, 5 NIV)
Abraham left. He took everything he owned, packed up and moved. There was no plan, no route, no goal setting. Just a voice in the desert telling him to go. He left everything behind – his land, his people. God asked Abraham to remove himself from all comforts of normalcy and just go.
I can relate to Abraham here. When I moved to a major city in the Middle East, no one knew what I should expect. But even in that there was a plan, an organized system. There were people I checked in with regularly and set times for me to leave the country.
Abraham just left. There was no member care to help him out when things got rough. There wasn’t a face on the other side of a Skype call reminding him that things were going to be ok. He was in this. He left.
He obeyed the call of God wholeheartedly and completely.
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. (Genesis 12:10 NIV)
This continues to blow my mind every time I encounter this story. Abraham, beloved of God, the chosen one obeys the voice of God and leaves. And then there’s a famine. That’s not very reassuring. If he was looking for confirmation that he had done the right thing, this wasn’t it.
All I can ask is why? It seems so insane.
It was 1999. I was a sophomore in Bible college, prayerfully struggling to become the woman God planned for me. Over a break, I decided to stay in the dorm to work, think and pray. I remember the first night of those long few days, totally alone on my abandoned hall. Everything was so still, so silent. And I earnestly began to seek the Lord’s direction for my life. As I sat in my thrift store recliner, looking out the dingy window to the park across the street, The Lord began to answer. So, I began writing, furiously, everything my heart was hearing from God. I wrote page after page about a women’s center, a place to meet women who had never heard the Gospel. This place was to be dedicated to the work of The Lord. A place for the least reached to find Jesus. A place of respite. A place of beauty. Although the actual details were fuzzy, I could see this place with its artwork and comfortable atmosphere.
And I was a little upset. Women’s ministry wasn’t my thing. I’m a strong woman. I travel. I do things. I don’t know what to do with crying women. But I couldn’t deny what The Lord had spoken so clearly that night. So I kept it in the back of my head and kept moving forward.
I wonder if Abraham ever questioned the call he heard from God’s own mouth? I wonder if he thought, “Me, God? Are you sure?” But the call was there. The promise was to be believed.
It was a Saturday night four years later and I was preparing for our young adult service: making the coffee, putting out candles and tablecloths, deciding on the play list for the pre-service fellowship time. All the while praying for my little group. I felt so inadequate, so unworthy, to lead these precious sheep.
I was a part-time staff member at my home church and part-time residence staff member at the local university where I was finishing my TOEFL degree. It seemed like a great way to prepare for moving overseas. Everyone needs English, right?
So I diligently worked while hoping and praying that my day to move overseas would come quickly.
I remember this particular Saturday evening very vividly. That’s really saying something since I’ve preached a lot of sermons. But this night was different. This night I had a message for my fledgling flock: sacrifice.
I was preaching on Abraham and Isaac. I talked about Abraham’s dream of having a son, a dream that God said he would fulfill. I passionately shared our need to lay everything down, our hopes and dreams, on the altar to see what God would do. Would he take our dreams and give us new ones? Maybe. Would he give our dreams back knowing we put God first? Maybe. But the key to all of this is sacrifice, the kind of sacrifice that says I want nothing more than Jesus. Everything comes from him.
Prior to the service I collected rocks from a nearby creek. Then I bought a bunch of permanent markers. At the closing of the service, I ceremoniously asked everyone to write their “Isaacs,” their dreams, on the rock and then place it on the altar.
I did this myself, writing two things: marriage & family and moving overseas. Then I placed my rock in my office where I saw it every day. I reminded myself that I had laid this down. These two dreams weren’t dearest to my heart, Jesus is.
I was so young, so naive. It’s one thing to be willing to lay things down when things are hopeful and happy. It’s not really laying anything down when the dreams are just ideas floating around in my head. It’s a very different thing when reality of the cost slaps me in the face, my cheeks stinging and my heart breaking as I cry, “Lord, please! Not this! This is my heart! You gave me this dream! Why are you taking it away?”
I can only imagine the anguish in Abraham’s heart as he climbed that mountain with his son. I’m sure he was contemplating his call and asking God to take it back. I’m sure he was recalling the Lord’s words. “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir. Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them…. So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:4,5). I’m sure he was remembering that his faith and trust in God was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). I’m sure he thought on his divine name change from Abram, exalted father, to Abraham, father of many (Genesis 17:5). Just as I’m sure he thought about the name God gave his son, all because his wife laughed at the thought of having a son at the age of ninety (Genesis 17:19). And about the covenant God established through Isaac (Genesis 17:21).
And yet here they are, trudging up a mountain with some wood and fire. Father and son. It should’ve been a beautiful picture of the two going to worship God. But this time was different. This time there was an undercurrent of sorrow.
I was talking recently with a American friend of mine who put her oldest son in an Arab kindergarten. She knew this was important for his language and cultural development. I asked her how he was doing and she said that as long as she was positive about this, he would be too. She was struggling with great parental issues like the differences between what is allowed at school (hitting and name calling) versus what is permitted at home. But she was determined not to let this affect her son’s experience, so she put on a smile and talked up school and the teacher and all his good experiences. And then, when she was alone, she cried over what he was going through, laying all the bullying, all the issues over what’s permissible, all the language confusion, at the feet of Jesus.
I wonder if that’s what Abraham did. I wonder if that’s why he told their companions that he and Isaac would be returning (Genesis 22:5). I wonder if that’s why he told Isaac that God would provide the lamb for the burnt offering (Genesis 22:8). I wonder if it was a sad attempt by a loving father to show strength and hide his anguish.
I know that’s why I go to the cafe every day and smile at the ladies who work for us. Even though I wonder if this place will be open in a month. It’s why I smile and nod when they tell me they’re praying for me to have a child, when I know that it is impossible. And then I go home and weep. I weep over dying dreams. I weep over my broken heart. I weep over women who need work, who need to Jesus.
And I wonder.
I wonder if I’m like Abraham.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. (Genesis 16:1-4 NIV)
I used to read this and judge Abram and Sarai so harshly. Why didn’t they wait? Why didn’t they believe? Why didn’t they trust?
Why don’t I?
Did I, like Abram, feeling the weight of the promise on my shoulders, try to make it happen? Did I get ahead of God? Did I miss his leading? Because there are dire consequences for that. Just look at the current Middle Eastern crises and everyone can see what happens when someone tries to take God’s promises and make them happen.
There is collateral damage to not following God completely.
I question myself. I questioned myself every day as we struggled to get the cafe open. More paperwork. More fees. More issues. But still I pressed on. And now it’s empty. Just a shell of what it could be. Is this my Ishmael? And now I have four employees and tens of thousands of dollars I’m responsible for. I have team members raising funds right now to work here. What do I tell them? What do I tell the ones who gave so sacrificially to get the cafe open?
How do I move forward? How do I trust myself to hear God?
But maybe he’s asking me to lay this down. Maybe I’m trudging up that mountain, dragging the cafe behind me. Maybe I’m to stand over the cafe with my knife poised in the air ready to slay it.
Maybe that’s why I had a déjà vu moment the other day. I’d invited a group of American women to a video Bible study at the cafe. As I and one of the employees were moving tables around so everyone would be able to see the TV, I stopped, knowing I had seen this scene before. I had experienced this. Fifteen years ago in my dorm room, this was the image I saw. Tables with bright pink table coverings, centerpieces, chairs. I saw myself moving things around in preparation for a Bible study. This was the vision God had given me the night I had asked him about my future. And now, one of our ladies sits and watches the video with us. I don’t know how much she understands since it’s in English, but she’s there. Soaking in the words of the Gospel of John. And I quietly pray those words are penetrating her heart.
Am I recalling this as confirmation from a faithful God that I’m doing the right thing? Or am I recalling this because I’m slogging up this mountain and remembering the promises God made to me with just some hope that maybe I won’t have to actually sacrifice this on the altar?
But will God stop me from stabbing it right through the heart? Or will he stay his hand and I will murder the dream I’ve had for fifteen years? A dream I didn’t want. A dream I didn’t ask for. A dream God gave me in a quiet dorm room as I earnestly asked God about his plan for me. A dream that has grown into my heart’s desire. A dream that I prayed would lead to an incredible work among Muslims.
And so I sit in my little prayer room and cry out to God, “Why? Haven’t I proven enough? Is this a test? Or does the cafe have to actually die? What are you doing?”
Where is my faith?
Abraham trusted in God’s faithfulness so completely that he was willing to surrender what he deeply loved without being able to envision a specific or positive outcome. When I Lay My Isaac Down.
In other words, Abraham chose faith even though the decision, the command, made no sense.
He had already laid down his past. Now he’s having to lay down his future.
Am I really willing to sacrifice?
A number of years ago I talked with a dear friend. She, too, lived in the Middle East. And she had been forced to leave her first country. I knew this was a real possibility for me. Many others have faced that. And so I asked her for advice: how do I live and work and love a place while knowing I may be forced to leave at any moment? How do I invest everything knowing it could, and probably would, be taken away? Her response was beautiful: hold things with an open palm. Then, if God does decide to move you, he won’t have to painfully pry your hand open to make that happen.
Are my knuckles white? Are there imprints in my palms from my nails as I cling to this dream? Is this why God is taking it away?
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.” (Genesis 22:5 NIV) Emphasis mine.
Yesterday I received a message from my sister in response to telling her we can’t have kids. She sweetly told me she was praying for me and that when she looked at her “three little blessings” all she could say was that life wasn’t fair.
And I wept some more. I honestly thought there were no tears left.
Yesterday I brought a group of American women visiting our country for a missions trip to the cafe. They were thrilled to see the place they had prayed for and given to. And so we spent the morning praying over it. They called down heaven to release the women to the cafe.
And I was dying inside because I couldn’t say that this place would even be open next month. And then they handed me enough money to keep the place open for over a month. I wondered again if this is God’s provision, his way of saying that we’re doing the right thing and that he will provide. And all I want to scream is, “Then where are the local women? Why aren’t they here?”
Then this morning something stood out to me in Abraham’s test of faith. God has asked him to slay Isaac as an offering. Seemingly without pause he leaves early the next morning for this horrific event. But when speaking of it to his servants, he says they are going to worship. He saw his sacrifice as an act of worship.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1 NIV)
I’ve quoted this verse, I’ve memorized it, I’ve preached on it. And yet this morning it’s just beginning to make sense. I saw this as a sacrifice of me. That I can do. It was painful to be interrogated and forced out of a country. But that was just me. I’m strong. I can take it. I knew the risks. It’s the sacrifice I choose to make.
But when we truly sacrifice something, we no longer get to choose what happens.
When Abraham sacrificed the dream of Isaac, the dream of being the father of generations, he was no longer in control of the dream. He gave it over to God and God determined what happened in young Isaac’s life. God determined how the promise would be fulfilled.
Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. (Genesis 25:21 NIV)
I wonder if watching Isaac and Rebekah struggle through the pains of barrenness brought back the emotional pain of his past. I wonder if he held a despondent Isaac, reminding him of the covenant God made. I wonder if there moments when Abraham questioned God. I wonder if Abraham remembered the pain of being willing to sacrifice his son, his dream, on the altar and wondered why that wasn’t the end of the struggle and pain. I wonder if he saw a purpose in it all.
But Scripture doesn’t say. All it says is that Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah and that she was barren, so he cried out to God. And when Isaac was sixty years old, the promise was fulfilled yet again.
And Abraham got to hold his newborn grandsons. For fifteen years he watched the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise grew and learn and change.
But did he ever wonder? He never saw his family like the sand or the stars. He never saw the promise fulfilled. He saw one son and two grandsons. He only caught a glimpse of what was to come.
When Abraham sacrificed his dream on the altar that day, it was his act of worship. He laid Isaac down before The Lord, trusting in a God who is faithful. He knew God and knew that the covenant God had made would come to pass. He may not have understood how, but he knew it would.
Do I have that same faith? Can I trust that God gave me a dream and when he asks me to sacrifice it on the altar that he is still faithful and trustworthy? After all, wasn’t the dream his to begin with? Abraham didn’t ask to be made into a great nation. God decided that. I didn’t ask to start a women’s cafe, God asked me to do that. So who am I to say how that dream should be fulfilled? I am merely a vessel, the one chosen to give birth to the dream. If he chooses to close it, then my response should be to worship.
Because he is worthy.
The cafe isn’t the end game any more than Abraham or Isaac were the end game. There was a greater picture they couldn’t see. There’s a greater picture I can’t see.
And so the question at the end of the day is this: do I really trust God? Do I trust him with my dreams? Do I trust that he has a perfect plan that includes Muslims coming to Jesus? Do I believe he has a perfect plan for me?
No one understands the concept of offering it all to God better than Abraham…. When God commanded Abraham to lay his only son on the altar… I am sure Abraham fully expected to plunge the dagger through Isaac. It would be an end… the death of a dream. Yet, Abraham was willing to give up the son he loved to the God who loved him more, and God blessed him… Abraham walked away having experienced God in a way few ever do. God wants to know if we’re willing to give up what we love to him who loves us more. He desires for us to open our fists and trust him with absolutely everything. Lysa TerKuerst, Radically Obedient, Radically Blessed, page 37.
God loves me more. He loves me more than I love the cafe. He loves me more than I love Muslim Arabs. He loves me more than I love the dream of having a child. He loves me.
God loves more. He loves Arab Muslims more than I ever could. He loves the ladies that work at the cafe more than I do. He loves my husband infinitely more than I do. He sees the needs, the desires, and he loves enough to do what is best rather than what is easy.
Lazy parents give in to their child’s wants and desires. They overindulge, never teaching the child about compromise or figuring out what’s best. And so when they eat too much candy, they’re sick and don’t understand why. They never eat their vegetables, so they don’t feel well. There are no consequences for this child. And the parents never have to go through the pain of saying no. And yet the child doesn’t succeed, doesn’t do well in school, doesn’t do well in life.
Good parents see what’s best for their child and hold fast to that. They recognize the need to withhold things at times, for the good of the child. They know they must teach the child to do what is right so he will grow strong and healthy in mind and body. Even when it’s hard. Even when the child is pitching a royal fit on the floor. They hold fast.
God is a good parent.