By Jonathan Kopke.
Genesis 22 is one of those hard-to-love Bible passages. It’s the story of how God tests Abraham’s faith by ordering him to go to a hilltop in the wilderness and sacrifice his only son Isaac. At the last minute, right when Abraham is all set to follow through, an angel calls out to him, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad” (Genesis 22:12 kjv). And just then, Abraham notices “a ram caught in a thicket by his horns,” so he sacrifices the ram instead of the boy. Abraham realizes it was God who provided this substitute sacrifice, so he names the hilltop “Jehovah Jireh,” which means “God will provide.”
A couple weeks ago, I previewed a new video of that Bible story. The people who made the video thought it would help Christians trust that “God will provide” during the economic meltdown that we’re going through because of the coronavirus. As I watched the video, I decided to just ignore the fact that this Abraham, with black elastic around the edge of his wig, didn’t seem to have enough firewood on hand to sacrifice a gerbil, let alone a boy. And I still didn’t eject the video when little Isaac dutifully hopped onto the pyre to get immolated. But when the angel’s voice boomed out of the clouds in Shakespearian English, I gave up. This video wasn’t helping me.
The people who made this video may have been ham-fisted in how they presented the story, but they were correct that we need to remember one of the messages of Genesis 22 during the current economic catastrophe. It’s quite true that “the God who provides” sometimes tests us by not coming through until the very last minute. And it’s also quite true that some of us are being severely tested right now. Do we really trust that “God will provide” for us materially?
When Jesus talked about trusting God to provide for us, he highlighted some parallels in nature:
I tell you not to worry about everyday life — whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? (Matthew 6:25-30 nlt)
In this passage, we can’t help noticing that none of this is a suggestion from Jesus. It’s an instruction: “Do not worry.” But where can we get the faith to obey that instruction? And how can we experience the comfort that it offers?
About a week ago, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal wrote this: “All the people who’ve lately been praying more may be onto something. Scientific studies of prayer are limited, but available research suggests that prayer can calm your nervous system, shutting down your fight-or-flight response. It can make you less reactive to negative emotions and less angry.”
So scientists are discovering what the Bible has taught all along: that prayer is the antidote to anxiety. But while scientists are still fixated on the dosage of our prayers (“20 minutes a day”), the Bible focuses more on the content of our prayers. And one of the Bible’s key verses about praying when we’re worried is in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. (Philippians 4:6-7 nlt)
The second sentence of that passage has two crucial instructions bundled together: “Tell God what you need” and “Thank him for all he has done.”
Most of us are good at telling God what we need. As the old joke goes, we’re always willing to serve God “in an advisory capacity.” But when we’re overwhelmed by things that are going wrong, it’s easy to forget the second part of our instructions: “Thank him for all he has done.”
It would be hopeless for me to try to catalog everything we could thank God for, but here’s just a starter list of things that God provides for us every day, to ease our way in this blighted world: The scent of lilacs in the breeze. Bifocals. Hot running water. Distant church bells. Good laughs. Robins chirping “Cheer up, cheerily.” Salt and pepper. Warm pajamas. Literature, music, art, cinema. God’s forgiveness. Kittens. Family. Chocolate. Christian friends. Tylenol. The promise of eternal life. And the lingering aroma from 132 years of coffee-brewing in the basement of old NorthChurch. “Solomon in all his glory” never had treasures like these. And when we count the blessings we’ve already received, it builds our faith that God will indeed provide for us again.
An old foot-stomping hymn by Johnson Oatman states the thanksgiving principle this way:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
We may never hear the voice of an angel speaking to us in Shakespearian English. And we may never find anything miraculously “caught in a thicket” to solve our problems. But if we “tell God what we need and thank him for all he has done,” then even in the midst of a global economic meltdown, we can “experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.”