When Abraham laid his son Isaac on a sacrificial altar no witness was present but God. The Bible is silent on whether Abraham wept as he bound the boy to the firewood. The scriptures do not tell us whether he averted his eyes from Isaac’s frightened gaze. If we have ever loved someone dearly, however, we can imagine the turmoil raging in Abraham’s soul.
‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them’, God had promised Abram many years before, ‘so shall your descendants be’ (Gen. 15:5). And Abram had looked to the heavens and believed Him. At that moment of faith a vision was planted within the childless Abram, a vision of descendants whose numbers he could not count. ‘You shall be the father of many nations’ he had heard God say on another occasion when His name was changed from Abram to “Abraham, Father of a Multitude”. ‘I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you’ (Gen. 17:6). And again Abraham believed.
What kind of God was this who promised a man such things? But promise begets vision. The God- given vision planted in Abram’s spirit took root, becoming embedded, becoming inseparable from him. He would be a father; his posterity would fill the earth and reign over peoples. God had promised, Abram believed, and so he took the natural steps to ensure God’s promise would prevail. With Sarai his wife unable to conceive, Abram did what any other man in his time and culture would do: he implanted his seed in Sarai’s maid Hagah and waited for God to do the rest. A son, Ishmael was born, and Abram rejoiced that the first part of God’s promise had been fulfilled. The vision received on that starry night many years before was well on its way.
Or was it?
Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ Then God said: ‘No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him’ (Gen. 17:15-17).
At that precise moment Abraham found himself suddenly confronted with a reality each of us will face sooner or later. God did not desire Abraham’s assistance to fulfil the vision He Himself had planted. Rather shockingly, God would actually prefer it if Abraham hadn’t interfered at all. Ishmael is not the evidence of Abraham’s faith. Ishmael is the evidence of Abraham’s independence.
‘Oh that Ishmael might live before You!’ Abraham bursts forth. ‘God, I already have a son. Here he is, Ishmael! Can’t you just fulfil Your promise to me through him? After all, he is already here with me. It may not be the perfect situation we had envisaged, but why waste it? Surely we don’t have to start from the beginning?’
The answer, as we know, was ‘no’. Ishmael is a child of the flesh, Isaac will be a child of the Spirit. And Spirit and flesh can never mix (John 3:6).
Everyone who has ever conceived a vision from God must be brought to this moment of truth. No matter how ‘worthy’ the vision that drives us, be it related to ministry, family, church planting, a life of worship and service, healing the sick, or any number of other possibilities, our efforts to walk in it through our own willpower will only serve to complicate and delay its fulfilment.
God-given vision is intrinsic to our spiritual growth. It exercises and strengthens our faith and assists us in learning who we are in Christ. But vision must not define us. If we are finding our identity in anything other than Christ, even in a God-given vision, we have not yet done with the flesh.
There are going to be times in our journey when God calls us to lay on the altar the very vision He has planted into us. For those who have never experienced being broken by God, such a suggestion will not make sense. We may spend weeks, months or years anguishing over where we went wrong. Did we not hear God properly? Did we disobey Him? Has He forsaken us? At such times we will entertain any possibility other than the one we do not want to deal with: that God simply asks us to lay down our vision, let go, and trust Him with the outcome.
Often the vision we carry has not come about simply because we have yet to learn the most basic lesson: all God-given vision is an expression of Christ. Christ is life and every spiritual vision truly given by God is but a tiny seed of that Christ-Life. Furthermore, we are not the originators of the vision, God is. He plants, we carry. When our God-given vision becomes mixed with the strength of our flesh, when our focus becomes centred on how we can bring the vision about, God must deal with us. If it is to survive, our vision must be purified and our focus must be brought back to Christ.
Then He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you’ (Gen. 22:2).
There was no distressed pleading from Abraham at Moriah. ‘Oh that Isaac might live before You!’ was not heard echoing down the mountainsides. The hand that held the knife ready to slay his son was the hand of a man dying to his own strength, will and understanding, yet alive to God through faith.
Abraham no longer had a plan B. Ishmael, the son of the flesh, now banished, would not be his backstop. The vision of descendants numbering more than the sand of the sea was entirely dependent on Isaac, son of the Spirit, living and reproducing. Abraham’s readiness to relinquish Isaac into God’s hands was not fatalism, but faith, for he believed God could and would raise his son even from death (Heb. 11:19).
And He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me’ (Gen. 22:12).
You have not withheld your only son! On Mount Moriah God speaks of Isaac as the ‘only son’ (Gen. 22:2, 12). And so it was. For Abraham, the flesh had been crucified, the God-given vision would come to pass: born of the Spirit, sustained by the Spirit, and fulfilled through the Spirit, without the touch of man’s flesh.
All God-given vision is an expression of Christ. When we begin to understand this truth, God can trust us as vision bearers.
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2014 Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.