This conversation comes up a lot for me in adulthood, whether in RCIA groups, young adult ministry, small groups—any of those situations where a bunch of us are gathered in some kind of prayerful intimacy, looking for God’s presence in our lives in one of those oh-so-Jesuit ways.
One of us will say something like, “Yeah, when I was growing up, I had such a fearful understanding of God. Or maybe I thought Jesus was the “nice” one, and God the Father was the angry, terrifying guy with a long, white beard, floating in the sky, glaring down at me.” The rest of us will laugh knowingly, maybe with a little discomfort. We’ll pour more wine and agree to the idea that we know better now. These days, God is our bff. We know he loves us (even if we don’t always feel it).
And then comes a reading like Genesis 22. This one is hard to explain away. It makes me feel as though all those assurances that “God is love” (coming from Scripture itself!, such as in 1 John 4:8) is one big gaslight. Coming back to Abraham’s “almost sacrifice” of Isaac is like finally cleaning out my closets and uncovering a letter written years before by a friend who’s changed a lot (“I knew you used to feel that way! I remembered, and I was right! I have you quoted right here!”). Revisiting the near-sacrifice of Isaac brings me right back to my elementary school relationship with God, when I would lay in bed at night with the covers up to my chin, praying alternate obsessive mantras of “Please don’t let me die!” and “Forgive me, Lord, forgive me!” over and over again until I fell asleep. I knew God was big, and mysterious, and true, but let’s be honest—he scared the shit out of me, and I would hardly characterize our early relationship as “healthy.” I decided to study philosophy in college because I wanted to understand the deepest workings of the universe—I wanted to know the things God knew. It wasn’t until a brand new encounter with the spirituality of a Loving God that I decided I actually wanted to know God himself.
So, Lord, let’s talk about this, can we? I want to understand (I think. I mean, mostly . . . Ok, I kind of want to understand). Lord, I trusted Saint Augustine when he wrote that you’re closer to him than he is to himself. I believed Saint Anselm when he said you are that which nothing greater can be thought. My Jesus, my Creator, my Holy, Loving Spirit, I trust in you, and I love you. My Lord and my God!, you are why I believe in love. You are my hope. This passage . . . is this really you? How can I make sense of this?
My Lord and my God . . . you always tell me you want to know what I’m really thinking and feeling, right? That you don’t want me to come to you in prayer in an overly pious, dressed up way? Well, Lord, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. I’m angry. There it is, I said it. Part of me is waiting for the Job smackdown in admitting I’m mad at you (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determines its measurements—surely you know!” Job 38:4-5).
But, my Lord, my Jesus, I remember that though you drew yourself up with powerful indignation toward Job, you let yourself be humbled and grieved by the pain of your friend Mary, sister of Lazarus (“’Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled . . . Jesus wept” John 11:32-35). So I’m taking the chance to be real with you, trusting that we love each other, and if I can’t be real with you, then this isn’t the relationship I thought it was.
My Lord, how could you say “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you”? (Genesis 22:2).
This doesn’t sound like you. I remember some other important words from Saint Augustine, how he told us to interpret all of Scripture through the lens of the Gospel, that if our interpretation offends love, or strays too widely from the understanding the whole Church has had of you since ancient days, the interpretation cannot be right. Saint Augustine allows for such a wideness of insight! My Lord, it’s so liberating, to consider that your Holy Word can have an infinite number of meanings, and that it’s only when we betray love and truth that our interpretation cannot stand.
But my Lord, I cannot find a way to interpret this passage in the way of Love.
I mean, at best you’re stringing Abraham along if this Scripture is right, aren’t you, Lord? (Forgive me!) You’re certainly not being straight with him. My Jesus, you tell us, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Certainly Abraham was a friend. How could you betray him that way?
Forget Abraham: how could you put Isaac in an unsafe situation? My Lord, he was your little one before he was Abraham’s! (Not to mention Sarah’s—is anyone even thinking about Sarah here??!)
My Lord, this does not sound like you.
And what about us? Lord, you have to know that it’s passages like these that justify all kinds of atrocities in your name. It’s passages like this one that make extremists and hate groups justify all kinds of oppression, twisting the line in Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8) to paint your love as cruelty. So many have taken your sacred heart and made it into a sword, my Lord. They have made you seem less loving than we are, as though your Love is totally unrecognizable, though you came to dwell among us precisely so we could see and know you!
But I don’t buy that picture of you, my Lord. Not only do Saint Anselm’s prayers and treatises resonate with me, but my Lord, I have known you! “You have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139: 1) so tenderly, my Lord, and I have seen your tenderness in the process.
The God I know was right there, extending unfailing protection to Isaac, and Abraham, and Sarah, and Hagar, and Ishmael too! But my Lord, my Lord. If it is so hard to find you in the Scriptures, so difficult to read your Love in these words, Lord, what can we do?
I feel like Peter pleading with Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). If even the words of your Word can lead us away from you, Lord, where can we go? If the safety of your sanctuary isn’t safe, Lord, to whom shall we go?
Your little ones cry out to you. And it’s getting scary down here waiting for your messenger to yell “mercy” from heaven.
Holly Mohr works in formation in Pittsburgh, PA. She shares a beautiful and slightly eccentric life with her husband and three children.