Sacrificing the Natural
Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. Gal. 4:22.
Paul is not dealing with sin in this chapter of Galatians, but with the relation of the natural to the spiritual. The natural must be turned into the spiritual by sacrifice, otherwise a tremendous divorce will be produced in the actual life. Why should God ordain the natural to be sacrificed? God did not. It is not God’s order, but His permissive will. God’s order was that the natural should be transformed into the spiritual by obedience; it is sin that made it necessary for the natural to be sacrificed.
Abraham had to offer up Ishmael before he offered up Isaac. Some of us are trying to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God before we have sacrificed the natural. The only way in which we can offer a spiritual sacrifice to God is by presenting our bodies a living sacrifice. Sanctification means more than deliverance from sin, it means the deliberate commitment of myself whom God has saved, to God, and I do not care what it costs.
If we do not sacrifice the natural to the spiritual, the natural life will mock at the life of the Son of God in us and produce a continual swither. This is always the result of an undisciplined spiritual nature. We go wrong because we stubbornly refuse to discipline ourselves, physically, morally or mentally. ‘I wasn’t disciplined when I was a child.’ You must discipline yourself now. If you do not, you will ruin the whole of your personal life for God.
God is not with our natural life while we pamper it; but when we put it out in the desert and resolutely keep it under, then God will be with it; and He will open up wells and oases, and fulfill all His promises for the natural.1
Today's message really catches my attention in a new way. I want to spend some time contemplating and unpacking the implications I am beginning to see here.
Abraham had a history of struggling with trusting God implicitly, not unlike most of us who are seeking to know God and trust Him more fully. That is why his story has been given to us, as an encouragement in our own journey to know and trust God more implicitly. But there is much more in this story that many of us have not yet taken time to consider seriously and apply to our own lives. And that is what I want to do for myself right now.
When God first began announcing to Abram that He would make Abram great and a father of many families and that all nations would be blessed through him, Abram was very excited and was content to simply rest in God's promises to him. But as we all know, over time as nothing materialized to implement those promises, Abram and his wife began to entertain serious questions as to just how God intended to carry out His word. And at last they decided that maybe God intended for them to be more actively involved than they had been and was waiting for them to take more initiative on their part.
This has always been a serious mistake on the part of Christians in all ages. A subtle lie of the enemy has been that we are supposed to somehow supplement God's promises with our human devisings and efforts. 'God helps those who help themselves' has long been an accepted axiom for many, but it was never spoken by God but is rather one of the cleverest delusions of the enemy. It is actually a pious coverup for unbelief, and the example of Abram and Sarai is a prime example of trying to follow this option. The titanic struggles for power we presently witness throughout the Middle East are testimony as to the outcome of such a tragic mistake, for it is the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac that are still causing the contentions that underlie nearly every intractable problem we see in Middle East politics.
But that is not the point that I want to explore here. One of the real lessons that needs to be learned from this story of two half brothers is far more personal and intimate for our own pursuit of knowing the heart of the Father. For it was not only Abraham who came to learn important lessons about the inner depth required for living faith to govern every aspect of life, it also involved both of his sons. And it is in this part of the story that I find vital lessons that are often overlooked when we only rehearse the traditional explanations of these most familiar stories.
As Chambers points out here, Abraham had to counter the effects of his choices of unbelief that led to the tragic consequences the world has experienced ever since he and his wife thought they had to take things into their own hands. I believe it would be faithful to the text to say that Sarai was in the lead of pushing this option of making a child through a surrogate mother by having Abram sleep with a servant girl. This was not something Abram thought up, but it was also something which he did not choose to resist which in turn made him just as liable for the resulting problems, if not more so. I think it would be as accurate to apply the censuring words delivered to Adam in Abram's situation, for God could have just as easily said to Abram as He had to Adam, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife...”
While I don't want to spend a lot of time on this aspect, it cannot be ignored that there is a pattern here that shows up at various times throughout Scripture. Not only did Adam and Abram's wives offer them suggestions they shouldn't have listened to seriously, Job's wife likewise gave him very unwise advice. Fortunately in his case his reaction was just the opposite, for Job gently rebuked his wife and did not follow her advice and the outcome was dramatically different. This is not to suggest in the least that men should never listen to their wives suggestions; not in the least. Rather, it is a warning that men are especially vulnerable to allowing a weakness they have, that wives have special access to, to sway them from keeping their deepest affections for God as first. In other words, both Adam and Abram made the mistake of turning their beautiful wives into a competing god for them and then allowed them to come between them and God. The outcomes resulted in tragedy as it always will be. But the same can equally apply to women as well, for they are in just as much danger of placing more trust in their husbands than they are in God, for protecting or counsel or support; and they too must learn to make God first and best and highest in priority in everything. Only by making God supreme in our affections can we then be empowered and enlightened as to how to best relate to others around us.
But what about the sons of Abraham? What important lessons might we find in their experiences and how they related to all these mistaken choices? Face it, they had no say in how they came to be or the relationships they found themselves surrounded by when they were born. Yet their lives can provide vital lessons that we should take seriously if we want to grow in understanding of how to both relate to God and to our own parents and to others around us caught up in the mess we all find ourselves in now.
Ishmael had predictable attitude problems, partly from the inherited tendencies from his birth and partly due to the atmosphere of the politics of family dynamics while growing up. In reality he was conceived out of wedlock which in itself creates certain tendencies and propensities that cannot be avoided. Secondly, he was likely pampered excessively when very young and yet also lived under a shadow of jealousy on the part of the god-mother he had been assigned to by previous arrangement. Then when another son arrived miraculously brought about as fulfillment of the promise of God, he became caught up in the intense jealousy and fears of his real mother as well as experiencing the open hostility of his god-mother who now had suddenly changed her disposition towards him.
I think I would be amiss to ignore the cultural dynamics of the differences between the mindset of Abram's family and that of the Egyptian heritage of Ishmael's mother. I am no expert in this field, but I strongly suspect that there was a great deal of difference between Sarai and this servant girl that maybe made her such an attractive choice as a surrogate mother. She may have been especially appealing in many respects as a woman that would be compellingly alluring to Abram, and this may be why Sarai chose her, to add extra impetus for convincing Abram to go along with her scheme to 'help God out' a little. But what can make a woman highly seductive for a man can also become the greatest liability in the long run, and as things turned sour after Isaac's birth, things started to unravel very quickly. Yet the amazing part is the gracious treatment for all involved on the part of God, even though stern measures at times had to be put into place because of bad choices that were made.
A main point that shows up in this meditation by Oswald Chambers however, involves the issue of sacrifice, both of Ishmael and of Isaac. The sacrifices of these two sons were obviously of a different nature, but both involved a requirement on the part of Abraham to let go of what had become too valuable to him. His first child had to be let go because he had become a representative of how Abram had made an idol out of trying to accomplish God's promises through human meddling. As long as Ishmael and his mother remained as a functioning part of their family, there would be always be jealousy, strife and ongoing conflict that would undermine God's purposes for the family of Abraham.
This did not mean that Ishmael and his mother would be abandoned altogether. God assumed the role of father and provider for both of them and also promised to provide for them a great number of descendants as well. But they were not to interfere in the incubation of the plans that God had originally promised to provide to Abram directly through his own wife. And in this separation Abram was forced to trust God to take care of his first-born son without his continued direct involvement.
The second sacrifice was far more painful and traumatic for Abraham, but it also required the involvement of his second son, the son provided as a miracle of the promise, to submit willingly and engage in full trust in God along with his father. Isaac being a strong young man and the sole object of both of his parents full affections at this point, was more than a match for the ability of his father to force him into becoming a sacrifice on an altar if he had been inclined to resist. But by involving both the father and the son in the offering up of Isaac as a sacrifice, God was demonstrating important insights about not only His own future sacrifice involving His own Son many centuries later, but was intended to redeem the mistakes of Abraham in taking things into his own hands previously. It was time for all involved to make God their highest emotional investment.
I rather suspect that the reason God did not involve Sarah in the call to sacrifice Isaac was because He knew that she likely still did not have the level of submissive faith in God to let go of her protective instincts and willingly allow Abraham to obey God in this matter. She was was prevented from again becoming a stumbling-block to prevent Abraham from facing his own crisis of trust. This time God confronted Abraham alone and made a request that would shake him to the deepest parts of his being and challenge him to choose between loyalty to God and his intense affections that were deeply invested in his only remaining son. This was not about an issue of the validity of child sacrifice as many get distracted into arguing about; rather it was an issue of facing most intense affections that were in danger of eclipsing the loyalty that Abraham needed to have for his God that needed to be firmly secured above any other loyalties or affections.
It was really a similar test that Abraham had been forced to face when he was told to let Ismael and his mother leave as Sarai had demanded earlier. A separation had to take place from the bad choices of the past so that God's promises could unfold without undo interference. Because Abraham had emotional and sexual bonds intertwined with these two people, it was necessary to make a painful sacrifice to rupture those bonds so that purer bonds with God could further grow and strengthen.
Now with Isaac the test of faith had to go much deeper yet, for this time the bonds that had to be challenged involved the legitimate son of promise, not the illegitimate son of human devising. Abraham's and Sarah's affections for even their son of promise must not be allowed to become an idol which would endanger them in a most subtle way from maintaining their affections for God above any other affections. And this is a point that Oswald is seeking to highlight in this devotional.
I want to especially focus on a sentence that is very important in this reading. God’s order was that the natural should be transformed into the spiritual by obedience; it is sin that made it necessary for the natural to be sacrificed. For me this highlights the difference between Abraham and Isaac in contrast to the life of Jesus. In Abraham's case, because he had made choices of unbelief throughout the time of God's promises to him that seemed delayed, it was necessary that he let go fully of all his emotional investments in his physical relationship with his two sons. His first son had to be sent away and Abraham had to trust God to take over the care and protection that Abraham was supposed to provide. With Isaac Abraham had to go even further and let go of all authority and emotional protection that might prevent him from trusting God fully to keep His promises to Abraham without any help from him. We are told that Abraham this time passed the test by concluding that God could handle any problem no matter how great, even raising Isaac from the dead if necessary (Hebrews 11:19), so that Abraham was ready to believe God fully and stop interfering in any way with trying to assist Him.
What is interesting is Isaac's part of this arrangement, for as formerly noted, Isaac could have easily thwarted the whole scenario for fear that his father's bizarre ideas would cost him his life. Isaac's choice to willingly trust his father and his father's God so implicitly reveals that both of them had come to learn the lessons God had been seeking to teach Abraham for so long. Both of them had come to the point where they were willing to trust God implicitly to the extreme no matter how confusing or inexplicable things might appear naturally; God's ways could be trusted as best without having to know just how it was all supposed to work out. This is a lesson that most of us have yet to learn.
Because Abraham had distrusted God so many times in the past before this test, it was necessary that he be required to face the ultimate test of letting go of all physical and emotional control so that God could work out His plans and receive all the credit for accomplishing His promises without any 'help from His friends.' As I said, by this time both Abraham and Isaac were ready to pass this test, and the result was that much of the rest of Isaac's life was marked by this attitude of rest in God's plans for him that revealed remarkable peace and lack of meddling, that is until his own sons were born and then he had his own issues of trying to be in control that caused different problems. But that is another story, very fascinating but too much to explore here. I will simply mention however, that the contrast between Jacob's constant striving to earn everything and Isaac's consistent resting in the promises of God for providing him a wife are in stark contrast to each other.
On the other hand, the first part of this sentence by Chambers reveals the model followed by Jesus during His life here on earth. Since Jesus never failed to trust God at any point throughout His life, He took the other path that Abraham could have chosen had he not taken the detours that he did. Jesus is the only human that followed God's original plan for every human – transforming the natural into the spiritual through the path of persistent obedience.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7-9 NRSV)
I find these passages compellingly parallel, for both Jesus along with Abraham and Isaac all faced the same enemy – the fear of death. This is the most powerful method the devil uses to enslave all of us, fear of pain, suffering, shame and everything else associated with death including death itself. It is by this means that Satan entices us into sin – distrusting God. Since God is the source of all life, whenever we attempt to take things into our own hands instead of trusting God fully, we are making something or someone else a god ahead of keeping God at the top of our priorities. Sin always involves allowing something else to displace God from the top of our priorities and affections, so salvation can be observed as God's process of restoring us to trusting God fully in every circumstance just as Abraham did when he offered up his son for death instead of resorting to following his own feelings again.
Jesus shows us the path that Abraham could have followed if he had chosen to trust and obey God each time he was tempted instead of taking things into his own hands. Jesus likewise faced may opportunities to take things into His own hands to provide for His own protection or provision, but in each case He chose rather to rest fully in His Father's care for Him, for provision and protection all the way to the point of His own death. As a result He was fully matured in character (the original meaning of perfect) and was able to create a way by which each one of us can be redeemed, salvaged and restored into right relationship with God because of the fact that Jesus replaced Adam as our representative human ancestor. We now inherit inner access to the divine nature needed to obey.
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
There is one more aspect of Oswald's thoughts I want to visit. He speaks of our need for discipline which is something very few are inclined to consider as much important today. Yet it is a vital part of God's process for restoring us into right relationship to Him and we need to take it very seriously if we want to grow deeper in our relationship with God.
We go wrong because we stubbornly refuse to discipline ourselves, physically, morally or mentally. ‘I wasn’t disciplined when I was a child.’ You must discipline yourself now. If you do not, you will ruin the whole of your personal life for God.
Discipline is what Abraham needed to learn through the years of the testing of his trust in God. The result of all those years of discipline by God in his life was seen when he was at last willing to let go of doing things through following his own schemes or impulses and trusting fully that God could always work out things best His own way.
The same applies in each one of our own lives. Our problems almost always arise when we believe that God needs our help and we try to assist His plans in our life through some human ingenuity. God never needs human wisdom to supplement His divine plans for us; and the sooner we learn this the sooner we can begin to mature. Discipline is the choice to resist following our own feelings, our own wisdom, our own impulses and cravings just as Jesus demonstrated throughout His life here on earth. That is not to say that we should view everything human as sinful, that is not the point. Rather, we must come to recognize that our first reactions are predictably motivated by our fallen nature and our skewed perceptions about reality and God, and they must not be trusted over God's words and counsel. The more we distrust our own opinions and feelings and reactions in deference to bringing everything to God's light in every situation, the quicker we can grow in grace and truth and intimacy with God.
Anyone who has raised children to become responsible, happy, productive adults knows the centrality of the importance of self-discipline. Today our world is filled with millions of adults who have never learned discipline at all and have little use for it. They follow whatever whim or desire comes to their mind and the resulting dysfunction, conflict and misery is filling with world with violence issuing from the pervasiveness of rampant selfishness. This is Satan's way of destroying and effacing the image of God in humanity. But for those who choose to embrace the salvation provided by the Messiah, discipline is an integral part of that restoration process and cannot be ignored at the risk of making a farce out of the plan of salvation.
What Christ wants to restore into each one of us that are willing to cooperate with His salvaging process is the liberating activity of discipline to govern every aspect of our lives. As we regain the upper hand over our emotional life, our affections, our cravings and physical desires and bring them all firmly under control of our higher mental capacities, governed in turn by the Spirit of God, then we will be able to live again in the joyful freedom of the children of God and find real fulfillment for all that those desires were originally designed to attract us to discover and experience. After we have chosen to sacrifice our desires, just like Isaac they are still there and now need to be continually entrusted in full submission to God, not just one time but for the rest of our life.
With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity. (Romans 12:1-2 Phillips)
1 Chambers, O. (1986). My utmost for his highest: Selections for the year. Grand Rapids, MI: Oswald Chambers Publications. Reading for 12-9