The notion of testing—specifically being tested by God—is a common theme in Christian spirituality and one that has deep roots in sacred scripture. And so, for example, our first reading began with the simple phrase: God put Abraham to the test. But what a test!—a test that continues to arouse strong feelings in both Jewish and Christian believers alike. The source of these strong emotions is not simply the great sacrifice that was asked of Abraham, but also and perhaps especially the nature of that sacrifice. To have been asked to give up his son would have been difficult enough, but Abraham was also commanded to be the one who would perform the sacrifice and take the life of his beloved Isaac. From our perspective it is all too easy to argue that God was only testing Abraham and that, after all, God quickly intervened to prevent Abraham doing any harm to his son. However, as Abraham made that awful journey towards the land of Moriah, and in obedience prepared to sacrifice his son, he had no knowledge or premonition of this blessed outcome.
There is even a sense in which what was asked of Abraham exceeded what Saint Paul, in our second reading, describes God as doing in not sparing his own Son, but handing him over for us all. For, although God sent his Son into our world to be the sacrifice that would free us from our sins, it was through the hands of his human creatures that that precious life was taken and nailed to a cross. In other words, God did not actually crucify his beloved Son but gave him up for us all and it was we who did the crucifying. Thus this extreme to which the Lord was prepared to go in order to test Abraham suggests that there is something very important and indispensable in the act of testing—something that makes it necessary and thus inevitable in the life of each one of us. But what might this be?
Well, perhaps, it is easiest to begin with establishing what God’s testing is not doing. When God is said to test us this is not in order to obtain information about us that he presently lacks. In the case of Abraham, he didn’t put him to the test because he was unsure of Abraham’s loyalty and unwavering obedience to his command. But if this is the case—and God’s omniscience ensures that it is—then why this need to test Abraham and, as I’ve suggested, why the need to test us? In answer, it has been argued that God tests us not in order that he may find out something about us that he doesn’t already know, but rather testing is a way of revealing something to us—either our unacknowledged strengths or our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Accordingly, testing is God’s way of having us see and acknowledge what he has always known about us and then to use this knowledge to encourage further growth and progress.
Understood in this sense, the word “test” is, perhaps, somewhat misleading, and might better be expressed through the terms “enlightening” and “training” or even the word “strengthening.” And just as soldiers or sportsmen and women undergo rigorous and even seemingly cruel training towards the optimal realization of their individual capacities, talents, strengths, and abilities, so too in our spiritual life, the Holy Spirit puts us through a similarly rigorous and, at times, seemingly cruel spiritual training and strengthening. At the heart of this spiritual training is the development and acquisition of that single most important gift without which we will be forever spiritually weak and vulnerable, and that gift is nothing less than total and unconditional trust in God.
As we know, today’s account of the testing of Abraham was the final in a series of lesser experiences of testing that prepared him for this ultimate test of his faith and unbounded and unyielding trust in God. We recall, for example, his earlier call by God to leave his country and his kinfolk for a land that the Lord would show him. So too, his call to believe that he would be the father of a mighty nation even though Sarah remained childless and both he and she were already advanced in years. Similarly, in our own lives we are gradually trained and strengthened—each in our own way—through circumstances and situations that test our faith and our trust in God. And if we don’t lose faith or trust through these times of testing then, like Abraham, we are likely to experience increasingly challenging tests to our trust and faith as we move ever closer to total trust and surrender to God. And if Abraham’s life is anything to go by, it would seem that total trust and surrender to God can only occur in situations and under circumstances that defy all logic and reason. Abraham didn’t set out for the land of Moriah and prepare to sacrifice his only son because it seemed reasonable or because it made any sense—quite the opposite! And yet, not once does Abraham hesitate or question God’s instruction, but simply sets out in trusting obedience.
What went through Abraham’s mind in that somber journey to the land of Moriah? Was he perturbed, vexed, anxious, or even angry at what was being asked of him? One can only speculate, but I don’t believe that he was telling himself that this was just a test and that God would not really demand the life of Isaac. Instead, I suspect that his mind became totally silent and still as he transcended human ways of thinking and reasoning and in an act of final trust and surrender approached the terrible moment. As disconcerting as it is, each one of us is called to undertake a similar journey that will likewise bring us to this incredibly liberating moment of total and final surrender to God in unlimited trust. For many this moment is the moment of death, but it doesn’t need to be. If we remain fully engaged in the spiritual quest and embrace, rather than try to escape, the times of testing intended to strengthen and deepen our trust, then little by little we will approach our equivalent of sacrificing Isaac and with the sustaining power of God’s grace break through into that eternal freedom that was Abraham’s and that even in this present life can be ours also.