Leaving, Losing and Letting Go
Text: Genesis 12:1; 17:18; 22:2
Losing is a necessary part of living. We grow up by giving up. That is the message of Necessary Losses, a book by Judith Viorst about the things we must leave, lose and let go of in order to grow– loves, illusions, dependencies, impossible expectations.
When we think of loss, we usually think of loss through death, a tragic loss of someone we love. But not all losses are tragic. Loss can be a promotion rather than an interruption, for the road to maturity is paved with renunciation. We must leave our childhood to enter adulthood. We must let go of illusions if we are to grasp reality. A man must leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, says the bible. You can’t cleave if you don’t leave. We leave home to make a home.
This is especially true of the Christian life and the story of Abraham portrays it vividly. From God’s first call to His final promise, faith was for Abraham a “letting go” in order to “take hold.” To live out the purpose of God, he incurred necessary losses–leaving, losing and letting go.
A Land to Leave
God’s first word to Abraham was, “Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you.. .So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him” (Genesis 12:1, 4).
Leaving the land meant that Abraham was to abandon all natural roots, to disentangle himself from any and all present ties, to leave the things that gave him security and identity. Abraham would become a nomad, a sojourner, a pilgrim—- an exile.
When God calls us to Himself, He also calls us from the world. No longer a part of this world, we are in the world, but not of it. As He did with Abraham, God calls us to leave behind the worldly pressures that keep us from being what He wants us to be. He isolates us so that He alone may be the influence that shapes and molds our life.
God has a new land for Abraham, but he must leave the land of the present to obtain the land of the promise. Abraham must leave the known for the unknown, he must live in the “not yet”, and find his reward in something he might never live to see.
The emphatic tone of Abraham’s life is found in the words, “I will show you,” (Genesis 12:1). These words define the nature of the Christian pilgrimage – it is trusting in the midst of mystery. And every command of God is an echo of the original call. “I will tell you,” is the theme song of sojourning saints.
This “pilgrim posture” has become a fossil of an earlier age. We are too much at home in Egypt. We have trimmed the corners of our convictions so we can “fit in”.
Are we willing to travel under sealed orders? Can we leave the future to God and allow Him to plan our itinerary? We often pause on the edge of obedience and look across the divide, trying to discern the consequences of our obedience in advance. But we cannot walk by faith until we walk away from sight.
A Love To Let Go
Abraham’s next crisis of faith is recorded in Genesis 17. Part of God’s covenant with Abraham was the promise that he would be the father of many nations, but after ten years in Canaan there was no son because Sarah was barren. In a carnal attempt to fulfill the promise of God, Abraham, at Sarah’s suggestion, fathered a son by Sarah’s maid, Hagar. As far as Abraham was concerned, this son, Ishmael, fulfilled the promise. The problem was solved and for 14 years Abraham thought Ishmael was the promise!
Until God spoke to Abraham again, renewing the promise that Sarah would bear him a son: “I will bless her and also give you a son by her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her” (Genesis 17:16). When Abraham heard that he “fell on his face and laughed and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?”’ (verse 17). Abraham laughed. He couldn’t help himself: the idea was ridiculous. He laughed because he didn’t believe. And we know Sarah did not believe because when she heard the news she laughed too. If a ninety-year old woman discovers she’s going to have a baby, there are any number of things she might do – but laughing is not one of them.
And then we hear Abraham plead with God: “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” (verse 18).
What is Abraham saying?
First, he’s saying, “Lord, be reasonable.” This is incomprehensible to Abraham, so he recommends a more believable course of action. After all, Sarah is a very “iffy” proposition whereas Ishmael is a certainty. Let’s go with a sure thing.
Second, he’s saying, “Lord, do it my way.” Ishmael is a symbol of man’s attempt to take matters into his own hands. Ishmael is Abraham’s contribution to God’s redemptive purpose in the earth. Ishmael is our version of the will of God, our cherished vision. Ishmael is where the will of God and the schemes of man collide. And one must go.
Again, Abraham is expressing what all of us have felt at times.; Lord, this is not what I imagined my life would be. This is not what I had in mind when I entered the ministry. This is not what I dreamed of for my children.
Because of Isaac’s prominence, we forget that Abraham loved Ishmael with all his heart. He was, for Abraham, the realization of all God’s promises.
We all have our Ishmaels and it is painful to let then go, but go they must, Isaac cannot come until Ishmael is gone.
A Life To Lose
Losses may be necessary, but some are easier to take than others. Abraham now faces his greatest loss, recorded in Genesis 22: “Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.”’.
“And He said, ‘Take now 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 which I shall tell you”’ (Genesis 11:1,2).
I can understand why Abraham had to leave his country. I can even understand why he had to let go of Ishmael – he was Abraham’s idea, not God’s.
But Isaac was God’s idea. It was God who insisted that Ishmael be driven out in favor of Isaac. If Isaac dies, then everything that has happened since God first called Abraham has been a meaningless, cruel joke. Isaac is the only channel through which the promised greatness of Abraham’s seed can be fulfilled.
But from the very first words of God’s command we know God does not intend Isaac to die. “God tested Abraham.” It was a test (although Abraham did not know this), and Abraham passed it: “And He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad, 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” (verse 12).
Isaac was not meant to die on that mountain – but someone died. And I’m not talking about the ram caught in a thicket; I’m talking about Abraham. Abraham died that day — he died to Isaac. Until God had Isaac He did not have all of Abraham there was to have.
The good thing, the best things, the things God has given to us can become idols. Since I know preachers better than I know anyone else, I can say that we preachers sometimes make an idol of the ministry — our ministry, and many a church building has been raised as a monument to ministerial ego rather than to the glory of God.
In every godly life there is an altar, and if God is to be on the throne of our life, Isaac must be on the altar. God’s gifts are gifts of pure grace. They are not ours by right or title, but by the grace of God. The Lord giveth, and the Lord can take away.
When we lay our Isaac on the altar we acknowledge that possession isn’t ownership. We may possess Isaac but we don’t own him. The same is true of our health, our family, our occupation, even our life. Possession is not ownership — therefore, let us hold all things loosely.
At the beginning I said that losses are necessary for growth, that we let go of one thing so we can take hold of another., We grow up by giving up.
Necessary losses do not diminish us, they enhance us. They do not make us poorer but wealthier. They are not acts of judgement or chastisement. They are acts of love – and of growth.