What do you do when God says no? What do you do when he takes something away from you?
Answering these questions for someone else is much easier than answering them for yourself. If somebody else is turned down for a job she wanted badly, or if she loses her husband, it’s emotionally easier for us to counsel her with God’s wisdom. God will turn all things to good! we assure her (Romans 8:28). Or we recite verses about love from 1 John 4, or simply tell her that God’s ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9).
But when it’s you losing the job or the spouse, suddenly that advice seems to melt. I have counseled people to remain steady in their faith before, but when I want something, I want it. “God,” I might pray, “surely you wouldn’t take that away. It’s something I’ve planned for and arranged for. Surely you want what’s best?” And that’s true, he does. But the best is not always what we want.
For a good while now, I have wanted to get some corrective eye surgery. I may be a candidate for it, or I may have to wait for a new product to be approved for my eyes. Every time my mind focuses on my flawed vision, a terrible ache of desire comes into my heart—a stronger desire, I’m embarrassed to admit, than I often feel for conversation with God. And if I don’t get what I want, now, in the way I expect it, then I dissolve into gloom, discontent, and rage. When we act this way, the thing we want or the thing we desperately clutch becomes more important than God.
Let me say this: When God says no or takes something from you, he is not doing so for spite or experimentation. He is protecting you.
Abraham, the father of the Jews, undergoes this kind of trial in Genesis. God promises to make a nation from Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 12:2). Abraham is seventy-five years old at this time (v. 4), but the promise of an heir is not fulfilled until he is one hundred (21:5). There’s nothing like waiting twenty-five years for a son to make that child incredibly precious. Imagine, then, his confusion and fear when God asks him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (22:2).
Most of us Sunday-school regulars know the rest of the story—how God stops Abraham from killing his son, how Abraham receives a blessing for his obedience (v. 18). But why would God ask this sacrifice of a man, only to relent at the final moment? God isn’t just testing the strength of Abraham’s faith. I believe he is taking a treasure from Abraham to free him from an idol.
Abraham sees Isaac as part of his bloodline, and also as a long-promised gift from God. We can barely fathom how important Isaac is to him—more important, perhaps, than the God who gave Isaac to him. I don’t question Abraham’s genuine faith, but all of us are weak to idolatries, to emotional reliance on certain people or objects for confidence that everything will be okay. Isaac is such an idol for his father. By taking Isaac away, God purges Abraham’s faith of dependence on anything other than God alone. Abraham, trusting that God will come through on his promise, “conclud[es] that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19).
As he did with Abraham, God may be protecting you from an idol. This protection may manifest in a loss, a disappointment, a refusal, a setback. This is a hard truth, never harder than when you are the one confronting it. But to let our hearts stray from God, to let anything other than God become so important to us that life is empty without it—God will not permit this to happen to a believer living in his will. This is love. It is a form of love we may not initially welcome or recognize, but it is love nonetheless.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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