Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take 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 that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy 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.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

A Tale of Two Mothers

Third Sunday after Pentecost

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Genesis 21:8-21

One thing I appreciate about the Hebrew Bible is that it isn’t afraid to portray its characters as flawed human beings. If I were making up origin stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs of a religion, I certainly would think about leaving out certain details about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, or Jacob and his  “sister wives”. Sarah and Abraham certainly don’t come across looking very good in this passage.

First, a little background: At God’s direction, Abraham leaves his homeland and migrates to “a land I (God) will show you.” God promises Abraham that his descendents will be as numerous as stars in the sky, yet years go by, Abraham and Sarah aren’t getting any younger,  and they still have no children. Sarah gets the bright idea of using her personal servant as a surrogate. “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” If this sounds a lot like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, you’re exactly right. The Biblical stories are where Margaret Atwood got many of her ideas, including the term “handmaid”. As Sarah’s property, Hagar doesn’t have much choice in the matter, becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Ishmael. Thirteen years later God’s messenger shows up again and tells the aging couple they will have a child together. Sarah laughs at the very idea, but within a year Isaac arrives on the scene. With a child of her own, Sarah has no more use for her human property, and wants them gone. So off into the desert they are sent – disposable people who have lost their value to their owners.

Sarah really comes across as a villain in this story, and Abraham comes across as weak. Earlier in the story, before Isaac actually arrives on the scene, Abraham seems to stand up for Ishmael a little:  “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”  And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” But the most he seems to be able to do when Sarah’s push becomes a shove into the desert, is to provide Hagar a skin of water and a loaf of bread. If you do a Google image search on “wilderness of Beersheba”, you will see that is not a hospitable-looking place. Hagar is helpless to save herself or her son.

But the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael were not throwaway people to God. “God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her,What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.  Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” And God fulfills his promise. He saves Hagar and Ishmael from a horrible death by dehydration, he continued to be a presence in their lives (“God was with the boy as he grew up”), and Ishmael does become the ancestor of millions, just like his half-brother Isaac.

Unfortunately the descendants of Sarah and the descendants of Hagar, both children of Abraham and beloved by God, have been at odds for much of history. The butterfly effect continues to ripple through time and space. How different might our world be today if Sarah and Abraham made a more compassionate choice! We can’t go back in time and warn them, but we can learn from their mistakes and hopefully make better choices today. Who knows what difference our choices might make a thousand years from now?

Sarah was given a great gift by God, a child of her own when she thought that could never be. Yet she responded to that great blessing in the wrong way. She thought it meant that she, and her son Isaac, were special in a way that made them superior to Hagar and her son Ishmael. God did choose Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of the nation of Israel, but his purpose in making that choice wasn’t because Abraham and Sarah were better than anyone else. They were chosen in order that  “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” God’s blessings are not meant to be hoarded, but shared, and there are certainly not meant to be used as an excuse to ostracize or oppress other people.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Hagar to be in such a helpless position. She was unable to tell Abraham “no” when it came to having sex. She was unable to stop Sarah’s abuse and mistreatment, even by running away. And she thought she would be unable to prevent Ishmael from dying under the hot desert sun. There are still Hagars today- women caught in abusive marriages, women who are harassed and mistreated in jobs they can’t quit, women who fear their children could die because they do not have access to healthcare.

I also can’t imagine how Abraham could send his teenage son away. Sarah must have considered him her son too, at least for his first thirteen years. How could they do that? The scary thing is I think they thought they were doing the right thing. God had promised that his covenant with Abraham would be fulfilled through Isaac, so perhaps they needed to do something to protect Isaac and ensure that future. There is still that kind of thinking going on today. I especially think of cases where parents have kicked their gay teenage children out of their homes, mistakenly thinking that action is something God would want.

There are no nobodies in the mind of God, no disposable or dispensable people. We may think that some people are more important or deserving than others, but we are wrong about that. One of my favorite Doctor Who quotes is “In nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important”. I think that’s how God thinks, too.

Everyone you meet was created in the image of God and is beloved by God. I believe that if we practice seeing others with God’s eyes, things will get better for us all.