On sacrificing your children

I wrote a whole ago about an article by a secular woman dating an evangelical man, and how that man as an evangelical believes he must love and serve God before even his serious girlfriend. In evangelical and fundamentalist circles, this same idea applies even to parents’ love for their children. One must always love God more than one’s own children, or else those children become an idol.

One passage of the Bible was held up to us growing up as an absolute validation of this idea: the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac. Basically, God tells Abraham to kill his only son as a sacrifice in order to see if Abraham really truly loves God, and when Abraham is about to do so, God is satisfied that Abraham truly loves him and calls the whole thing off.

Genesis 22: 1-18

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 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.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

I only just noticed, on this read through, that it says God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham “feared” him, not to see if he “loved” him. This is a total tangent, but there’s a verse in the Old Testament that says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I wonder whether our conception of needing to “love” God rather than to “fear” God is new, and if so, when it developed. Because like I said, this passage was always held up to me as a test of whether Abraham loved God more than anything else, not of whether Abraham feared God.

Now this passage is obviously rather extreme. Evangelical parents today aren’t put through this sort of test. The moral is still there, though – the idea that parents are to love God more than their children, and to put God first, before their children.

But then there are the stories of Christian martyrdom evangelicals read from organizations like Voice of the Martyrs. I remember hearing one growing up about a man who was forced to watch his son tortured in front of him. The torture would stop if the man verbally denied Christ, but of course, being a good, stalwart Christian, the man did not relent, and his son was ultimately killed before his eyes. Here’s another example from another martyrdom story:

Back in the 1920s and 30s, Western missionaries brought the gospel to Korea. The people received it with joy and, by God’s grace, Biblical faith spread like fire. The news of their zeal spread to China, and Chinese believers came to visit and learn from them. But everything changed when the Communists took control. By the 1950s, thousands had been killed. Torturous persecution had forced others into hiding.

Near the village of Gok San, a group of 24 adults and 4 children lived underground in hand-dug tunnels. They were discovered when communist workers built a road near their tunnels. The Christians were pulled out, bound and led before a village crowd for a public “trial” and execution.

A guard told them to deny their faith in Jesus “or die.” But they refused. A communist officer then ordered the guards to seize the four children and prepare them for hanging. The frightened children clung to their parents, but the heartbroken parents comforted them with the tender assurance that “we will see you soon in heaven.”

With ropes tied around the children’s small necks, the officer again promised freedom if only the parents would deny Christ. None were willing to betray their Lord. The children were hanged.

Now I don’t know if these incidences really happened, and if they did, this sort of persecution of people for their religious views should be horrifying to all regardless of belief. My point here is simply to illustrate the insistence that God comes even before one’s own children. My parents read martyrdom stories like those above to us to illustrate a point: God must come before all else. And when they read these stories, they hoped that they too would have the courage to act as these stalwart believers if they ever found themselves in this situation.

For evangelicals, religion matters more than anything else. And if it doesn’t, if an evangelical seems to care more for his cars or career than his faith, that’s seen as gravely concerning. Growing up an evangelical, I used to worry if I was making my possessions or hobbies “idols,” loving them more than I loved God. I even knew a girl who gave away almost all of her possessions, leaving only a few outfits for herself, in an effort to make sure that she wasn’t putting anything before God. It’s something that’s drummed into you as an evangelical: if you love anything, whether it’s fashion or new house or spouse or children, more than you love God, you are living in sin by putting an idol before God.

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