Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
– Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
“If you really loved me…”
As a kid in San Antonio, my grandmother was visiting and told me that she had been thinking about me, so she brought me some fried chicken livers, being pretty sure that I loved them. As a child with a horrifying gag reflex, I summoned up all my courage to take a bite. Right before I closed my teeth on that vile organ, she stopped me with a laugh: she was just seeing if I would really eat one just to avoid hurting her feelings. It was a test, and you could see how happy she was that I loved her enough to eat liver.
I also remember someone I dated years ago, who would regularly preface/follow a request with, “If you really loved me, you would….” The reaction I had on the inside – as I obliged, of course – told me all I needed to know about the future of the relationship. I never once got angry when I thought about how I had been tested by my grandmother, but the contempt I felt in response to *Veronica (probably not her real name) each and every time was not particularly camouflaged. But she was testing me, too.
There are two reasons for the different response to what was ostensibly the same situation: love and trust. I loved my grandmother, and truly wanted to make her happy, to bring her joy. I would eat livers to make her smile. I also trusted her, and knew that she wouldn’t ask something that wasn’t in my best interest (and in this case, she had no intention of letting me take a bite of something she already knew I despised). She knew – and I came to realize – how much I loved her. *Veronica – by all accounts a pretty swell gal – didn’t fall into quite the same category. It was only to avoid an argument that I repeatedly acquiesced, and there was a selfishness to the requests, so they didn’t engender the same level of trust.
When the patriarch Abraham laid Isaac on the altar, he was putting the liver to his lips, albeit to an exponentially greater degree. God was testing him, to reveal the depths of Abraham’s love and trust. Of course, because He already knew the exact nature of those feelings, He was really revealing it to Abraham. And Isaac. And everyone else who has read and believed this story. Abraham loved God, and desired to please and obey Him. He also trusted Him fully, knowing that God would not ask him to do anything contrary to His loving nature and desire for His children’s ultimate peace and happiness. God stopped Abraham’s hand from falling against his son. Over two thousand years later, the Father’s hand was not held back from the Son. But it was not a test, it was a humiliation of forgiveness.
“What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven.”
– C.S Lewis, The Problem of Pain
I was recently asked what one verse I would choose to represent the entire message of the Bible. I chose John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” That simple description of Christ’s reaction to the death of His friend Lazarus – even as He knew that Lazarus was about to be raised, by Christ Himself – tells me much of what I need to know about God’s love. He loves us, and as God the Son hung on the cross, He pleaded for the forgiveness of those who put Him there. This love of God can only result in forgiveness for those who are willing to accept it.
It’s been said that one of the hardest things to say is, “I’m sorry.” In my experience, it is even harder to say, “I forgive you.” There are moments in life where people commit the “unforgivable;” I am certain there are people out there right now who feel I have done the unforgivable to them. Families are torn apart because factions develop in response to an affront, and the conciliatory power of an apology is overshadowed only by the greater power of forgiveness. To the one who has humbled himself to apologize, the offended party wields great power in the choice of whether to forgive or not. Forgiveness cannot be granted without cost, however.
Many people question why God cannot just forgive all sins, if He truly desires that all repent and are saved (1 Tim 2:4). Our own experiences reveal the flaw in this logic. There is no free lunch – somebody always has to pay. If you leave a restaurant after receiving a free meal, likely either the company or the nice people at a nearby table paid for it. To be sure, somewhere along the line, the ingredients, the labor, and the service cost something.
Similarly, forgiveness just transfers the payment to someone else. Using an example from Tim Keller, if I punch you in the face, justice demands that I pay for my actions. If you forgive me and don’t call in the payment, someone still pays: you. You pay because you have given up your right to recompense or punishment; you have to swallow the desire for revenge and justice. When the innocent man dies in the place of the guilty, he pays the price owed and takes the punishment on himself. True justice demands punishment, and God’s very nature requires that He be just.
Much of the Old Testament is setting the stage for the penultimate act/event in human history. In the garden, the skins of a slaughtered animal are used to cover the results of Adam and Eve’s sin. The ram takes the place of Isaac on the altar. In Egypt after the first Passover, every home contained either a dead lamb or a dead son. The scapegoat and animal sacrifices demonstrated the seriousness of sin, as well as the fact that continued sin required continual redemption. The blood of an innocent had the redemptive power, but there was no choice on the part of the sacrificial animal. However, One came who was willing to pay the price for all of us – once and for all – so that we no longer bore the burden of satisfying the demands of justice, but had only to accept the payment made on our behalf. Humbly accepting the gift is the only requirement, obedience and service are merely the natural response to the freedom, peace and joy offered from the Cross.
“Suppose you arrive at your home, and find a friend waiting for you. He says, while I was waiting, a bill came and I paid it. How do I respond to this? I have no idea how to properly respond until I know how big the bill was. Was it just postage due for a letter, a few cents? Then just a simple “Thanks” is enough. But suppose it was the tax collector. Suppose it was ten years of back taxes. Suppose it was a great debt I could never pay that would land me in debtors’ prison for the rest of my life. What if that was the debt my friend paid. Until I know how much he paid — I don’t know whether to shake his hand or fall down and kiss his feet.”
– Martyn Lloyd-Jones