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Sacrifice and Surrender

The story of Abraham and Isaac, sometimes called the Akedah or the binding of Isaac, is pivotal to the Jewish and Christian faiths. And it is raw, brutal and confounding. It is one of those stories in the Bible where how you approach Scripture is all important because if you take the story at a literal or surface level then we have a horrific story. (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 8[13]. Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; and Matthew 10:40-42.)

Over the years and decades of my faith life I have heard and read (and preached) a lot of perspectives that have life giving aspects but are ultimately unsatisfactory. Sermons focusing on obedience and faithfulness have some merit but still leave us with a God demanding, even if then changing His mind, murder of an innocent child to prove loyalty. And of course this story has been seen by some Christians as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of the Son of God for our sake. I also find the focus on the God who provides what is needed to have some encouragement. But mostly I remain uncomfortable and unsatisfied by the skirting around of the central image of human sacrifice.


My ongoing struggle with this story has brought me to understand this story best and most helpfully in terms of an archetypal story that describes an essential and life giving aspect of the inner faith journey. That is, every character is a part of the individual person of faith and all this drama is taking place within each of us as part of a process of spiritual growth and development. This approach borrows deeply from depth psychology (starting with Jung) and many of the mystics across faith traditions including Sufi, Jewish and Christian strands.


The second lens through which I am reflecting on this story is that of an exploration of the difference between surrender and sacrifice and the assertion that it is mercy and surrender that is required not sacrifice. This strand of teaching runs throughout the Bible in the Hebrew and Christian texts.[For example in the gospel of Matthew 9:13 Jesus seems to be referring to Hosea 6:6 and the statement attributed to God that I desire mercy not sacrifices] It is also one of the great insights of pastoral psychology in particular in the area of addiction and twelve step spirituality.


So let us approach the story again. Within the person of faith is that part of us that desires union with the Holy One (we might think of as God in this story) and the process of growing in the direction of union requires that we (Abraham) detach, that we let go of our fierce attachment, to many things, ideas and relationships (Isaac) that we hold dear. This process of detachment leads us into a more intimate connection with the Holy One. While this is a very simplistic or crude description I hope you can follow what I am suggesting. Many of us would easily enough agree that some of our attachments need to be released but what about even our good attachments – our love of spouse, child, friend; our sacred philosophy of life we have developed over many painstaking reflections; our very view of ourselves and perception of God?


We, Abraham, think we are being asked to sacrifice or kill off what is precious to us. But what if what we are being asked to do is to surrender? How is that different to sacrifice? And why does that matter? Here I am indebted to the writings of Richard Rohr and his insights that came out of his time spent around twelve step recovery groups. The first step of AA is to acknowledge that one is powerless over alcohol/narcotics/whatever our addiction. This is to acknowledge that our will power, or the strength of our ego, is not sufficient to get us out of our predicament and into a life of wholeness and freedom. “A common substitute for renouncing our own will is ‘the myth of heroic sacrifice’. There is a love that sincerely seeks the spiritual good of others, and there is a love that seeks superiority, admiration, and control for itself, even and most especially by doing ‘good’ and heroic things. Suicide bombers, resentful and manipulative people, and co-dependents are invariably sacrificial.” [Richard Rohr, 12/11/2019, Daily Reflection, “A Radical Surrendering”, cac.org]


The myth of redemptive suffering and sacrifice (a common misreading of the story at the heart of our belief system) is one of the ways we avoid personal surrender – or letting go of the controls even to God! AA and real gritty life says that the starting point in not any kind of control or worthiness at all but in fact our unworthiness or our lack of control! When we let go of the story we cling to, our attachments, our sense of separate self, when we surrender control of our life, then we are letting God be God, and beginning to live in truly authentic ways. Until we surrender we are play acting (ever so earnestly) at being faithful and holy whilst still trying to direct the storyline of our life and faith. “Admitting our powerlessness frees us to allow the One who is Power to become active in our lives.” [Richard Rohr, 2/28/2023, Daily Reflection, “Letting Go of Control”, cac.org]


Undoubtedly life sometimes requires us to make sacrifices. We sacrifice one expenditure for another so that what we most value is given priority. We sacrifice our time with family for work or service (or vice versa). We sacrifice some of our hard earned money so that someone else can have groceries or accommodation. We sacrifice a kidney so that someone compatible can have one functioning kidney. Sacrifice is a part of life for most of us. But God has also said that sacrifice is not what God requires but rather that we are to be merciful. Whereas Jesus certainly called his disciples to a life of surrender and giving over of control, to taking up their cross and going where he, Jesus, went. And it is this surrender of control over our life that most of us find so difficult. Many of us would prefer to sacrifice one thing of our choosing than hand over control of everything.


When we truly surrender, when we let go of control, we do not know what may be taken from us only that it is now out of our hands. In the end Abraham went home with Isaac alive but they were both surely changed by the total surrender of Abraham, by his readiness to let go of what was most precious to him. And so we are changed, each time we surrender and offer up our fantasy of control over our life, and loosen our grip on what is most precious to us. Each time we seek to surrender we grow toward union with the Holy One. And as we grow in communion with the Holy One so we will grow in our sense of connection and communion with all of God’s precious ones until it is completely natural to offer a cup of water to any who thirst and to receive a cup of water from any who offer it when we are thirsty.

Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, help us to surrender to love and life even as you surrendered your life into your Father’s hands.

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