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Many of us are familiar with the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. After decades of waiting, Abraham is finally blessed with a son by Sarah. After some time passes (enough time that Isaac has become older and strong), the Lord asks Abraham offer his son as a sacrifice. Abraham faithfully takes Isaac up to the designated mountain and prepares for a sacrifice. As Abraham reaches forth to slay Isaac, an angel stops him and commends him for his faithfulness. Abraham was willing to sacrifice the thing that mattered most to him.
This story has actually always made me just a tad uncomfortable. I don’t think I always consciously acknowledged that discomfort, but I think I always shied away from it. I don’t think it made me uncomfortable that the Lord was asking so much; He asks a lot for us because He has big plans for us. We should be willing to leave behind everything, even long-awaited blessings and life plans that we’ve prayed about for decades. It’s part of the mortal experience and any sacrifice made will be blessed ten-fold or more.
No. This story made me uncomfortable because I felt like the Lord was asking Abraham to do something wrong. I shied away from it because I couldn’t reconcile this story with what I knew about God. I’m the kind of person that thinks, “Well maybe I don’t want to worship a God that asks me to do something wrong. Why would I do that? Why would I want to live with a God who could go back on His own standards?” As I read this story for this week, I figured it was time to face the story head on and learn. I’ve been confused and hesitant about gospel things before and the Lord hasn’t let me down yet, so I decided to see if the Lord could help me resolve this one.
I’m basically going to be sharing the thought process I went on and what the Lord has taught me this week.
What the Lord was truly asking
Genesis 22:2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
This is the verse where the Lord asks Abraham to offer up Isaac.
Now here is a very comforting little note that I just discovered. In my mind, I had always thought, “The Lord asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and that’s sinful.” HOWEVER. The Lord actually commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. There are a couple of definitions for the word “offer.” They include: to present as an action for worship, to present in order to satisfy a requirement, to declare one’s willingness, to make an attempt, to present something for acceptance or rejection.
The Lord did not ask Abraham to go up the mountain and kill Isaac. He asked Abraham to go up to the mountain and present Isaac for acceptance or rejection. The sacrifice of Isaac was always going to be rejected. It was always part of the plan for the angel to intervene. Always. Because the sacrifice of innocent people is murder, and murder is wrong. Abraham was only ever meant to offer Isaac.
That seems like a silly nuance, but make no mistake. The Lord was extremely purposeful in this.
Even though the Lord didn’t actually ask Abraham to do something wrong (Isaac was to be presented as a sacrifice but not actually sacrificed), the Lord still allowed Abraham to believe that Isaac would be sacrificed. The Lord didn’t ask Abraham to do something wrong; Abraham just thought He did and the Lord allowed Abraham to keep believing this misconception about Him.
He allowed Abraham to be confused for a hot second because it would actually be of infinite worth to Abraham.
Learning about the atonement
This experience taught Abraham about the atonement, and it has taught millions since about the atonement. Some may argue that it’s a pretty jerk move to teach it that way. Some may argue that there are a million ways to teach about the atonement with causing Abraham such excruciating pain.
But that’s just the point of it, isn’t it?
Abraham learned firsthand what it felt like to offer up his son, and I can’t imagine how it changed his entire perspective after that.
I picture the moment that Abraham was stopped by the angel. Isaac is bound, looking a little bewildered by his father but not resisting. Abraham feels one last pang as he raises the knife, and then the angel stops him. Once Abraham realized that his test was truly over, I imagine him collapsing in relief, dropping the knife and shaking a bit. I imagine him falling on Isaac and saying, “I’m sorry,” over and over and over and over until he can’t speak anymore. I picture him pleading with Isaac to understand that it was the only way; Abraham felt he had to do it.
I picture the reunion between Christ and His Father when Christ finally escaped his pain-ridden body here on earth. I picture that despite Their knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and its purpose, Heavenly Father still hugged Christ and repeatedly told Him, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry You had to experience that. It was the only way.”
Surely there was no other way to comprehend at such a deep level. Anyone who has experienced something tragic knows what I mean. To the young mother who had to labor for a baby whom she knew would be stillborn. To the old man who lost his beautiful wife of 55 years to cancer. To the child who was abused. Any tragedy. You don’t understand, not really, unless you’ve experienced it firsthand.
Even Abraham did not watch Isaac suffer torment in the way that Heavenly Father watched Christ experience torment, but Abraham is a little closer to understanding what Heavenly Father went through in comparison to the rest of us. Heavenly Father had to sacrifice His innocent Son for the rest of us. Abraham knew, a little bit better, what it meant to sacrifice an innocent son.
Such is the way with sacrifice
Now that we’ve cleared up the fact that Abraham was not actually asked to do something wrong, this sacrifice becomes much like any other sacrifice (only on a deeper level than many of us comprehend).
When Abraham came out on the other side, he had not only shown faith but he had grown it. I wonder if Abraham put it all together immediately. Was Abraham too consumed with relief to realize what Christ had been asking him to learn? Was Abraham too caught up in the fact that his son was still alive to realize that he had just become a type of our Heavenly Father?
Was there a quiet night, as he was pondering, when it all hit him? Did his eyes become wide as he thought, “There was no relief for Heavenly Father. No one stopped the sacrifice. I didn’t have to go through with it, but He did.” I wonder if Abraham fell to his knees in gratitude, not only for the sacrifice of the willing Savior, but for the sacrifice of His Father as well.
I think of the old man who stood up in a Sunday school class and spoke of his privilege of being in the Martin Handcart Company that suffered death and deprivation. He spoke of how the suffering was the price he paid to become acquainted with God, and he was grateful that he had been allowed to pay it. I assume that his words echoed what Abraham had felt long ago.
I am grateful for the sacrifice of my Savior, and I am grateful for the sacrifice of my Heavenly Father. I’m grateful neither of Them turned back but instead shouldered their way through to save the rest of us. I’m grateful that to a smaller extent, They ask us to step into their shoes so that we can become better acquainted with the love that motivated Their sacrifices. There is no other way to truly become acquainted with that love, and there is no other happiness like the one that accompanies that love.