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Humans don’t like confusion, but God waits for us in the mess


“God put Abraham to the test.” Genesis 22:1

Most of us, I daresay, are not very comfortable with mess, with unanswered questions or with unresolved conflicts. We’d like things to be clear and we’d like to be able to understand things -- even, and perhaps especially, difficult and discomforting things. For my money, the story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the more disturbing passages in all of scripture, because it brings up all kinds of messy and uncomfortable questions. What the story says about Abraham is bad enough, considering that we’d imprison a man who killed his own child; if he said that God had ordered him to do so, we’d commit him.

What it seems to say about God is more disturbing still. Did God really put Abraham to the test? Why would God do such a thing? Doesn’t God know our hearts already? And why would God test Abraham in such a soul-wrenching way? Bringing the questions even closer, would God ask me to give up the person closest to my heart? If I take Christianity seriously, is God going to ask me to sacrifice my future?

As discomforting as such questions are, we cannot shy away from them. Neither can we safely ignore the more difficult parts of God’s Word. This is because it’s not simply a question of ignoring or paying attention; rather, it’s a question of finding God. Hamlet says, as he contemplates a discomfiting prospect, “there’s the rub.” God is to be found in the rub, in that point where things don’t move freely but rub against one another; the point of friction, the point where things don’t seem to go together and don’t make a great deal of sense. That’s where God is. Think of it! The entirety of our Christian religion is grounded in a rub, in a paradox: the paradox of God made human. The ultimate truths of life are this very kind of thing: We find ourselves by losing ourselves; we gain love only by squandering it; we attain freedom only by choosing to live within limits. These essential truths, then, are things that don’t fit together very well and don’t make a great deal of sense. Or how about this one: Jesus was born of Mary, and neither Joseph nor any other man had anything to do with it. There’s an unresolved conflict for you.

I remember an old German priest from my time in Zimbabwe, well on his way to senility. This became clear one Sunday when he was speaking the words of consecration while presiding at Mass. After saying, “This is my body,” he stopped dead, skipped a beat, looked at the host he was holding and said “What nonsense!” And you know what? He was right. The Real Presence doesn’t make sense, and there’s no disrespect in saying so. How can something that looks like one thing be another thing? It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true and it’s where God is.

If you’re expecting me to resolve the Abraham and Isaac story for you, I can only say that you’re barking up the wrong tree. I don’t have the answer. Some people say that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was there all the time, hidden, pushing the ram up the hill in order to save her child. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that a woman once again had saved the day, and once again had been God’s instrument -- and had been left out of the story. I suspect that the story says more about the way the ancient Israelites understood God than it says about God himself or herself, but I don’t know that. There may not even be an answer, and maybe scripture is not a library of answers to life’s difficult questions. That’s all right, and that doesn’t mean we should give up looking, or that we should give up trying to understand things that seem by their very nature to defy understanding. Keep looking for the answers, keep engaging God, and don’t turn away from that which is difficult.

Uncertainty is a fearful thing, and not knowing what is going to happen is, to say the least, stressful. I don’t know what God is going to ask of you. I don’t think God is going to ask you to do something you can’t do, but that’s small comfort at best. I don’t know whether God is going to ask you to sacrifice something that is precious to you. It’s certainly happened before. I do know this one thing, though: God is right there, in the midst of the confusion, waiting for you, with infinite love.

Jesuit Fr. Dirk Dunfee is minister to the Jesuit community at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000