I’ve written a lot about the evangelicalism I grew up in. I’ve written about patriarchal ideas about male leadership and female submission, and about what it was like to believe demons were literal beings I might encounter. I’ve written about young earth creationism and end times eschatology. I’ve written about ideas about corporal punishment and filial obedience. But it occurs to me that there’s still a major belief I have yet to write about—one I think receives less attention than it should.
I recently came upon this passage in one of Bill Gothard’s textbooks:
Name your “Isaac.”
Each of us has at least one “Isaac” in our life. Our “Isaac” is the center of our affection. It could be a possession, or an ambition, or a person. It draws our delight whenever we think about it. It is what we build our plans around. Others know that it is a priority in our life.
We sacrifice other things for it and push away the thought that it could be taken from us someday. It is important that we identify our “Isaac” before the Lord and place it on His altar.
I didn’t grow up in Gothard’s program, but this is actually fairly standard evangelical teaching. The idea is that we all have things in our life that we risk loving or valuing more than we love and value God, and that that’s a problem. Our pastors, youth group leaders, parents, and Bible study material used the story of Isaac to teach us that we needed to be willing to sacrifice—or give up—whatever we valued more than God.
The reference, of course, is a Bible story in which God commanded Abraham to kill his beloved son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice, and Abraham obeyed God but was stopped by an Angel at the last moment. We were taught that this was a test for Abraham, to make sure he really and truly loved valued God above all else. (It was only later that I learned that some Jewish scholars have long interpreted the story differently.) We were asked how we would we react if we were so tested. Were we willing to give up our hopes, our dreams, our idols? Were we willing to give up everything for God?
I repeated over and over again that I was indeed willing to give up everything for God—and I gave my life goals and aspirations to God more times than I can remember—but I also remember worrying that I loved my family more than I loved God. I was taught that this was wrong—that it made my family idols. I felt so conflicted over this, and purposed time and again to love God more than I loved my parents or siblings.
We’re all familiar with the story of Andrea Yates, but we’re probably less familiar with that of Deanna Laney, who stoned two of her three sons to death and attempted to stone her third son on what she believed were God’s orders. Would she have rejected the idea that this could be God’s orders if she had not been taught that her love for God must come before her love for her children? It’s possible that her psychotic delusions would have led her to kill her children even without this teaching, but it certainly can’t have helped that she likely also believed she was to love God more than she loved her children, and that she should be willing to sacrifice anything for God.
No parent should have to worry that their love for their children might get in the way of their love for God. No spouse should have to worry that, no child, no friend. Love should not be a thing to be afraid of, and we should not have to fear valuing others.
As a parent, I love seeing my children work together and value each other. I love seeing them show love for each other. When they fight, it makes me sad, because I love them both and I want them to love each other too. Why would I, as a parent, be jealous of my children’s love for each other? Why would I worry that their love for each other would in some way compromise their love for me? If I told them that they had to love me more than they loved each other, or that they had to be willing to sacrifice their feelings for each other if those feelings got in the way of their feelings for me, I would be abusive and manipulative to the extreme.
And yet, that is what I was taught God does.
Imagine a boyfriend telling his girlfriend that she has to love him more than her parents, or her friends. Imagine him jealously watching her actions for any signs that she might value those others more than she values him. Imagine him shaming her if she spends what he considers too much time with her friends. We would term this abuse without qualm or reservation. Love for family or friends does not have to have any negative impact on love for a partner, and in a healthy relationship love is given and accepted freely, not under terms of guilt and coercion.
When I think about all of this now, I am profoundly sad, not only at what is, but also at what could have been. I can imagine a Christianity that holds that because all humans are created by God, when we love another human, when we value another life, we honor the God who created them and loves and values them alongside us. I can imagine a God that shows only tender love toward his creation, and not jealousy. But sadly, that God is not the God I learned to know as a girl. Instead, I learned to know a God whose love came with strings attached.