This is what God does with us, he asks everything of us. Why does he do this? …he needs from us an attitude toward him that the persons of the Blessed Trinity have toward each other, and that God has toward us … an attitude of total gift … in love …that is selfless and pure, with no self-interest in it.
Abraham stopped from sacrificing Isaac
Much depends upon your point of view. This principle could be illustrated by a couple of stories. The first is about a group of baseball umpires at an umpire convention. One was an idealist, one was a realist, and the third was a logical positivist. When discussing the problem of calling balls and strikes, the idealist had utter integrity. He said, “I call them as I see them.” The realist glared at him and said, “I call them as they are.” And the logical positivist smiled and said, “They are what I call them.”
Or take the story about Mimi, Fifi, Gigi, and Fido. There was this poor old American mutt named Fido. He was a traveling salesman. One day he was registering at the New York Hilton and found himself right in the middle of a pedigree French poodle assembly. He was in line waiting to register together with all these French poodles. The first poodle went up to the hotel clerk and said with an elitist attitude, “My name is Mimi, you spell that MI-MI.” The second poodle went up and said, “My name is Fifi, you spell that FI-FI.” A third went up and said, “My name is Gigi, you spell that GI-GI.” And finally, the mutt’s turn came up, and he said, “My name is Fido, you spell that PHIDEAUX.”
I talk about a point of view because it is intertwined with the theological virtue of faith. Faith is a fundamental attitude, or a divinely-given point of view. Think about a popular definition of religion that I once heard: “Religion is what I do with my aloneness. In solitude, I find out Who and What my God is.” It’s the fundamental point of view I choose to take about life; the meaning of my life, the meaning of life itself. Let us think about that—religion is what I do with my aloneness. In solitude, I find out Who and What my God is. In a sense, we are awfully afraid of solitude. What we are really afraid of is loneliness. Some people associate solitude with loneliness. If we really understand our faith, the fundamental point of view we have, we can never be alone. We’re always in God’s Presence. God himself is not a single person who is alone. God himself is Three Persons in profound relationship with one another. So total and complete is their relationship, their being toward one another, that there is only one divine way of being, only One God. When I’m by myself, do I have a sense of being with God and for God, or do I have a sense of simply being isolated?
St. Paul expressed what the attitude of faith is all about, the fundamental attitude he chose to take toward life in his letter to the Galatians 2:17: “The life I lead now is no longer my own, it is Christ who lives in me. True, I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself on my behalf.” We begin to understand what faith is from what Paul has said. Faith is my attitude toward God who has a loving attitude toward me. This attitude is one of mutual totality. He leads a life of faith in the Son of God.
What then really is faith? It is a decision to take the only life that I’m ever going to have, for now and for ever, and simply hand it over to God: no questions asked, no preconditions, no ifs, ands, or buts, simply because I love him. That’s really what an act of faith is—it is the most radical act of love of which I am capable. I do this in its pure form. I make this act of faith when I’m alone. I entrust myself, now and forever, completely into his hands. I gift myself totally over to him. This is what I freely choose to do. I need to be apart and alone to make this an act of faith, to really make it an act of love. Granted, that in my act of faith, I learn what faith is all about from my parents, from my teachers, from my Church, from the culture in which I live in my family. But sooner or later, that act of faith, knowledge of which I gain from others, which comes to me from tradition, is passed down through the generations. Sooner or later, I have to make that act of faith by myself. Perhaps, people can go through life being carried by the faith of others, never really making the decision themselves. Perhaps, they go through critical periods in their life when those they seem to depend upon are not available to them. At this point, God is giving them a splendid opportunity to entrust themselves into his hands.
We can get some concrete examples of what this virtue of faith is, this act of faith and the dimensions of it, by pondering some examples in Scripture. I would like to present to you the story of Abraham, but I’d like to present it in three stages in his life. The first incident occurs in Genesis 12. Our Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your land and your people and your father’s house for the land which I will show you. … I will make a great nation of you.” That was the proposition God presented to Abraham. If you think about it from the natural viewpoint, this didn’t make much sense at all. Here is Abraham, 75 years old, and childless, and God is saying, I’ll make you the father of a great nation. Well, Abraham and his wife Sarah are already too old to have children. So, from a human viewpoint, God’s proposition to Abraham didn’t make much sense. This is an important point to keep in mind: the act of faith we are asked to make transcends the merely human point of view. The greatest enemy of our making an act of faith is seeing things from this natural level, being stuck in this merely natural point of view.
The greatest heresy we have today—permeating our culture, our Church, our seminaries—is this thing called secular humanism in which we take a merely human point of view about everything. It can be summed up in a simple statement: that is to be believed, and that is moral, which is humanly reasonable. For instance, the moral code, which is being so reduced, particularly in regard to sexual morality which we have traditionally observed, we are watering down and doctoring, all in the name of human reasonableness: “God wouldn’t ask me to make this sacrifice,” and yet, God does. At this point, Abraham was asked to do something that was not humanly reasonable—leave his land and his people. In his culture, as even in our own, when we get old, we need our people to support us. They are the ones on whom we depend. God is saying, not only leave them, but go to this strange land. Especially in Abraham’s time, it was dangerous to go off into a strange land, leaving behind the security of his own people. And yet, isn’t that what an act of faith is? Leave this really human way of looking at things, and go off into God’s land, immerse yourself into the Divine Being. Entrust yourself into God’s care.
In Genesis 21, nothing much happened, Isaac hadn’t come as yet. Sarah got a little concerned, and she decided to take things into her own hands. She told Abraham to take her slave girl and have a son through her. After Abraham had a son through the slave girl, Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac is born. Now Sarah has another problem—there’s competition because of Ishmael. One day, Sarah saw Ishmael playing with her son Isaac. This didn’t sit well with Sarah. She said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave girl with her son, for the son of this slave girl shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham because Ishmael was his son. But God said to him, “Be not distressed on account of the boy and your slave girl. Heed all that Sarah says to you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be called. I will also make the son of the slave girl a great nation because he is your offspring.” You wonder why God asks such a thing from Abraham, to give up one of his sons. What we need to understand is that God is setting Abraham up for an even more radical and perfect act of faith.
Abraham left his land and, as result of this act of faith, this entrustment into God’s care, Isaac had miraculously arrived. Now, the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham depends on Isaac. It is through Isaac that he will become the father of a great nation. We need to understand the meaning of that promise to Abraham by God. Scripture scholars tell us that, at that time, the Israelites did not really have an understanding of life after death. One lived on through one’s descendants. But what God said to Abraham was to entrust himself to God, and he would give him eternal life. Abraham makes that radical act of faith, but God is not finished with him yet.
In chapter 22, God put Abraham to a greater test. He said to him, “Abraham!” He answered, “Here I am!” This was a very simple and powerful response. It is very meaningful to me because when I was ordained, they called the roll of those to be ordained. As your name was called, you stood up and responded, “Ad sum!” “Here I am!” This is the attitude that God needs on our part. Here I am; I am ready, Lord. It’s an attitude of what faith is all about. Faith is simply being available to God. When he calls, I listen, and respond with open hands. God asked this of Abraham, “Take the son whom you love and go into the district of Moriah and there offer him as a holocaust on the hill which I will point out to you.” Now we understand why God had Ishmael sent away. What God is doing now with Abraham is saying, “Do you love me because you love me, or do you love me because I gave you Isaac and the promise?” Even though Abraham would have been willing to surrender Isaac to God, he would have had Ishmael to fall back on if he were not sent away. Now, Abraham doesn’t have Ishmael to fall back on, so what God is asking of Abraham is everything.
This is what God does with us, he asks everything of us. Why does he do this? It’s not because he’s mean or arbitrary or because he just feels like toying with us. It’s because he needs from us an attitude toward him that the persons of the Blessed Trinity have toward each other, and that God has toward us. It’s an attitude of total gift; total gift in love, total gift that is selfless and pure, with no self-interest in it. When you think about it, the identity of each one of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity can only be defined in terms of what they are for the Other Persons. They cannot be defined in terms of themselves. You can only understand Father if you can understand who the Son is. The Father is the one who gives his life to his Son. The Son is the one who receives the life from the Father, and reflects his life back to the Father. The Holy Spirit is the one who is the bond of union, the means by which the Father gives himself to the So,n and the Son gives himself to the Father. Each of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity is totally selfless, totally for the other Persons. That’s what the meaning of life is, that is the meaning of love.
So God, in order to share his life with us, needs us to be willing to be as he is: to have the attitude toward him that the persons of the Trinity have within themselves, and toward each other, and that God has toward us, selfless. And that is what Paul is capturing when he says, “The life I lead now is no longer my own, it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). True to all appearances, I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God. To live the Christian faith is to live a life of total gift, of giving myself unconditionally over to God, who has totally gifted himself over to me, who loves me, and gave himself on my behalf. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that all those who believe in him might not perish, but might have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). It’s only through faith that we have God’s life. It’s only through faith that we have the proper attitude to surrender ourselves to God and, thereby, empower God (if I can speak in this human way) to take possession of us, to gift himself to us. God is pure goodness, he is pure love. He does not impose himself upon us; love does not impose, love can only enter in where it is welcome. God needs my act of self-surrender. That act of self-surrender is captured so perfectly when God calls Abraham and he responds, “Here I am!”
We can see that this is what God is asking of Abraham when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son whom he loves. To continue the story, “Abraham took the wood for the holocaust and put it upon his son Isaac while he himself carried the fire and the knife.” Imagine what’s going through Abraham’s mind at this point as they walked together. Isaac is a smart Jewish boy. He makes an astute observation. He said, “Father, you have the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?” Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust, my son.” And they went on together. They arrived at the place God had told him. Abraham built the altar, put the wood on it, bound Isaac, and laid him on the wood. He stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But an angel of the Lord called out to him saying, “Abraham, Abraham.” He answered, “Here I am!” The angel said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy, do nothing to him, I know now that you fear God since you did not withhold your only son from me.” Abraham caught the ram from the bushes and offered it instead. A point to ponder: what God needed from Abraham was complete selflessness, completely being for God, for God’s sake. When God put Abraham to the test, he gave him the opportunity to have a most pure attitude toward him.
The first and greatest commandment is to love God with our whole mind, soul, body, heart, and strength. The nature of love itself is to be total gift, unconditional gift. We need to foster, more and more, that attitude of total giving. It’s a lifelong work that must grow in us. We need to foster it more and more. As we go through the circumstances and interpersonal relationships of each day, we try to have God’s attitude of selfless love in us, we try to accept what happens as coming from him, trusting that whatever it is, he will take care of us. So, more and more, as we go through life God will put us through “testings” of faith. His only purpose is to invite us to be more and more selfless in our loving, entrusting ourselves to him as the source and radical meaning and purpose and fulfillment of our being.
Notice the tremendous paradox: Abraham put the wood for the sacrifice upon Isaac, Isaac carried the wood, the means by which he was to be sacrificed, up the hill, just as Jesus carried the wood of the cross up the hill, the instrument by which he would be sacrificed. When Isaac got to the top of the hill, God did not require the life of Isaac from Abraham. But when Jesus got to the top of the hill of Calvary, what God did not require of Abraham, he required of himself. He did require the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that all those who believe in him might not perish, but might have everlasting life.” This is how much God loves us. This is such an astounding thing, it’s overwhelming. This is the very nature of God in his goodness.
We could give another vivid example of this act of faith from the story of Joseph in Genesis 37. The story of Joseph is puzzling to us. You would think that Jacob, his father, would know better than to give Joseph such an extraordinary gift of the cloak of many colors. None of the other brothers ever received such a gift from him. And it gets worse. Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him the more. Listen to my dream, he said, “We were binding sheaves in the field. My sheaf rose up and remained standing, while your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” He had another dream which he also told his father and his brothers, “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were worshipping me.” Because of this dream, his father reproved him, yet he did ponder the matter while his brothers envied him even more. As we know, Joseph is sent out to check on his brothers. Here he is, going toward his brothers as his father’s favorite son, with his cloak of many colors and his two visions. Shortly thereafter, he’s sold into slavery.
Joseph has a choice at this point. He can still believe in the visions, or he can really become enraged at God: one minute he is so favored, and the next minute he is sold into slavery, torn away from his family and off to a foreign land. The point to ponder is this: the very thing that Joseph’s brothers did to frustrate God’s vision is the very thing that God used to fulfill the vision. Because he was taken off in slavery into Egypt and became very successful there. When the famine came years later, he was in charge of all the storehouses of grain. And, indeed, his brothers and his father came, and they did bow down before him. The point to keep in mind is this: just as Joseph did, so too, in our act of faith, we must give ourselves to God unconditionally.
In order to give ourselves to God, we have to let go of everything that we have, including our very life. God never takes anything away from us except to give us something better. Our problem is that when he takes the something away, what he has taken away is very concrete and real to us. We focus our attention on this, upon the deprivation, instead of focusing on the better thing that he wants to give us. Frequently, the better thing that God wants to give us, as opposed to something very concrete that we can put our hands on, is something very spiritual. He wants to give us a change of attitude. He wants to give us an enlarged heart. He wants to give us a deeper faith. He wants to deepen and intensify our capacity to be selfless, to trust even more fully. When we focus our attention not upon what we are losing, but upon what it is that God wants to give us to replace what it is that he has taken away, then we get a sense of peace. Then God can richly bless us.
Editor’s Note: After Fr. Blessin’s article was accepted by HPR for publication, but before it was published, he died. However, in his honor, we present his final work here. Please remember him in your prayers.
Requiescat in Pace!