Here is something that’s been on my mind for a long time. I have not resolved it, nor have I made peace with it being unresolved.

It’s the question of faith, and of sacrifice.

This is my issue: no matter which church I go to, pastors often talk about the need for us to have faith: “the faith of a mustard seed”, faith moving mountains, being faithful and trusting God for his providence, etc. They sometimes also talk about living a life of sacrifice, about picking up our respective crosses and following Jesus, about presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, as Paul so vividly describes in Romans. And if they’re feeling particularly brave or optimistic about their congregation’s ability to stomach less palatable truths, they’ll even tie the two concepts together, like this: if faith, then sacrifice. Faith. Therefore, sacrifice.

And I know, I know. Maybe these sermons occur more often towards the end of the financial year, where faith equates to more money in the offering, which in turn means the church meets its annual budget, or maybe the pastoral staff is reaching out to the many of us who would consider it a big sacrifice to spend one Friday afternoon a month volunteering at a homeless shelter. But pastors, if you’re going to talk about such serious topics, you have to realize that by virtue of the topics themselves, there may be some real, serious consequences.

It baffles my mind.

It’s like we can all be talking about faith and providence and studying our Bibles together, and then you come outside and start taking off your coat to give it to some homeless person so they don’t freeze and those same people start looking funny at you, “Hey, what are you doing? You’re gonna be cold like that…” And you think to yourself, “Didn’t we just all agree that we need to make Sacrifices and live in Faith…why not start with living without a coat?!” Or everyone reads about forgiveness together, heck, the whole Christian faith is based on the forgiveness of sins, and then when you’re forgiving someone who hurts you time and time again, you know, actually taking Christ’s command seriously and doing what He said, people get concerned about you being too “soft” for letting the other person “get away with it”.

I am not so much angry because some people don’t take this message seriously, but because the poor fools of us that do, can seriously get hurt . Ours is not a faith for the faint hearted.

Imagine this scenario: One day a mother of three small children receives a calling to go serve as a missionary in Afghanistan. She is certain of her call: it has all of the elements of the real thing – it will serve the Kingdom, it requires of her tremendous faith (especially when everyone in her family, her congregation, her work, and her entourage tries desperately to dissuade this woman, who they feel has lost her mind), and also, a great sacrifice. (As a side note, I don’t think there are “small” sacrifices. Those are called inconveniences. A sacrifice has to hurt, by definition.) So while everyone, religious and not, is trying to stop her, from the pulpit every Sunday she hears, “Have more faith, change the world, living sacrifice, walk like Jesus did…” Compelled by her personal experience and fueled on by the weekly preaching, she goes to Afghanistan, and is killed.

How do you begin to make sense of such a situation? Who was at fault? The woman, for not listening to the sober voices around her? The Church, for not considering the real impact powerful preaching (and even more powerful content) can have? God, for allowing her to act on her delusion and go through with it? Or no one at all, because she was not deluded and now, thanks to her, there’s a convert in Afghanistan who will go on to lead the nation in a process of peaceful reconciliation which will end warfare in the region as we know it and bring about a greater reconciliation of the Muslim and Christian worlds?

In mainstream Christian teaching, Abraham plays a vital role. His near-sacrifice of Isaac is said to foreshadow and parallel God’s sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is the father of our faith, the father of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he is the epitome of righteousness. We are supposed to model our faith on his, because he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3). But look at how he expressed his faith.

He was going to sacrifice Isaac. In other words, he was going to go up Mount Moriah and kill his son. Because God told him so.

Do pastors realize this when they tell their congregation about Abraham? Do they think of the possible consequences?

Yes, the traditional response is that this is to be taken metaphorically: we’re not to go out trying to sacrifice our children because God couldn’t possibly actually mean that. He didn’t even mean it back then. He was just testing Abraham’s faith, and Abraham wasn’t actually going to kill his own son, he knew that God would provide.

But THIS IS THE KIND OF FAITH that God wants! Not the faith that is safe, small, inconsequential. And when Paul talks about sacrifice, writing as an ailing man from prison, this is what Sacrifice means. Not giving up Sunday night football in order to go visit the elderly.

Imagine another, more frightening scenario: A middle-class, religious American Dad feels he receives a similar calling from God as Abraham did, to go sacrifice his son (the son that he’s been waiting for all of his life; his pride and joy…) to demonstrate his faith in God. So he goes through all of the chilling details of the preparation, and in the end there is a miracle and the child is left unharmed. “God has provided” the father believes.

Now this father’s only hope of getting anything less than life in prison is a plea of insanity. When he makes references to Father Abraham, people just shake their heads, bewildered.

Thinking about the potential of Abraham’s faith, I am both mesmerized and terrified. I do not know what to make of it.