I wrote this post a few weeks ago and hesitated to put it up, but after reading R.A. Savilla’s account at Rachel Held Evan’s blog, and the overwhelming response to it, I’ve decided that this needs to be said.
The story of Abraham and Isaac, if we’re being honest, makes Christians uncomfortable. If you’re not the least bit bothered by God telling Abraham to perform a human sacrifice and Abraham being willing to do it, I’m suspicious of your humanity. God told Abraham to slaughter his son as a sacrifice, and he almost did it, hoping against hope.
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this story, but I am familiar with what many people consider to be the triumphant ending — at the very last moment God sends an angel to step in, and he provides a ram for the sacrifice. It’s become a narrative we use to talk about our lives– sometimes, it looks like God is asking us to do something so difficult we can’t even wrap our brains around it, but he will always swoop in at the very last moment and provide a solution, or to save us from whatever we were about to face. And hopefully he’ll do this in the most spectacular, most miraculous, way possible.
Many of our narratives revolve around Abraham in this story– doing the hard thing that God asks of us, even when we don’t fully understand why. We don’t have all the information, so we just have to trust that there’s something more going on, something larger at stake.
But I’ve always wondered about Isaac.
We don’t know much about him in this story– we don’t know how old he was, we don’t know how much he understood about his father’s God, we don’t know how much God has told Isaac about the Abramic Covenant. All we have is a question:
“My father, behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
We don’t know how he responded to Abraham placing him on the altar he had just helped his father build. We don’t know if he was begging his father not to do this, not to kill him. We don’t know if he only cried, or if he did anything at all.
Most of all, we don’t like asking the question of the moment– where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
I have a medical condition called Poly-cystic Ovarian Syndrome, complicated by IBS and endometriosis. This means that, for most of the month, I experience uncomfortable, but most of the time, manageable pain. It’s a dull ache that most of the time I can ignore. I’ve learned to live with it– to not eat a bunch of dairy, to make sure that I drink as much water as possible, to eat enough fiber, to walk and move even when I don’t particularly feel like it, to not jostle myself, to never run, to take things slowly and don’t push myself. I always have to sleep on my right side– if I lay on my left side, the internal bleeding caused by the endometriosis shifts to a new spot, and the pain intensifies.
But, during my period, all hell breaks loose. I live in absolute dread of my period coming. I try not to think about it too much, because simply thinking about it makes my anxiety skyrocket. I start taking anti-inflammatory meds the week before, slowly building up to 800 mg a day. During my period, I have to take hydrocodone just to survive, but it barely even touches the pain. I take it not because it actually reduces my pain, but because it helps me not care so much.
I can’t move, hardly at all. If I’m home by myself, I keep the painkillers and food I can eat while lying down next to my bed. I try not to drink that much– if I have to go to the bathroom, I have to crawl there, and going to the bathroom is so excruciatingly painful it terrifies me and I usually end up sobbing because the pain is so bad. At moments, the pain is breathtaking, and all I can do is cry. There have been times that I have actually passed out and gone into shock from the pain itself. It starts out pretty localized– but, over the first two days, it spreads all the way up to my ribcage and down to my thighs. I have trouble sleeping, and, occasionally, I’ll have cramping so bad it wakes me up– you can put your hand on my stomach and feel the spasms. Sometimes, you can see the cramps clench everything in my lower abdomen; you can see things jerking and twitching just below the skin.
I don’t usually talk about this.
Over the years, I’ve built up a c’est la vie approach to my medical problems. I shrug it off most of the time if anyone asks, which is rare, because I tend not to tell people.
I learned not to talk about this the hard way.
In small groups, in churches, when people ask for prayer, there have been times where I’ve mentioned my health problems. A long time ago, I used to ask people to pray that they would simply go away, that I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I used to ask that they would pray that God heal me. But, now that I’ve been dealing with this for over ten years– about 150 periods– if I ask for prayer from anyone, it’s simply a prayer for strength.
I’ve stopped doing even that, usually– because then many people will confidently assert that no, they won’t pray for strength. I don’t need strength– I need God’s healing touch on my life. “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” they’ll chirp with a promise that I’ll be on their minds every morning. And, a few weeks or a few months later, I’ll bump into them again, and they’ll inevitably ask how I’m doing. And I’ll shrug and say, “oh, about the same.”
I’m a living reminder that God doesn’t always answer prayer.
Oh, they’ll toss out the typical “sometimes God says wait,” but when you’ve been waiting for ten years and it’s only gotten worse instead of better, you have a tendency to think that’s a load of bunk. Or, their eyes will narrow slightly, and they’ll inform me that if I only believed, I would be healed.
I don’t tell them about the darkness– I don’t tell them about the fear and the terror that grips me in the week leading up to my period. I don’t tell them that, sometimes, when the pain is so bad I honestly don’t know how I can stand another second of it, that most of the time, I start screaming at God, at life, at the pain, at everything. I don’t tell them, that in my most desperate moments, that I pray for God to kill me. That I beg God for an answer– where is the lamb? Where is my at-the-last-moment spectacular rescue? Where is God reaching down in my life and sparing me from this?
The short answer– there’s never been, and he never has. There probably never will be.
On most days, I’ve accepted that.
And that makes people uncomfortable.
Because I’m the reality that life is largely a very painful experience, and, most of the time, it doesn’t go away. There’s nothing we can do to wish our lives magically better– we have to deal with the daily aches, the common pains, and move through our lives knowing that there are occasionally excruciatingly painful things outside of our control. I’m the reminder that no matter how much we think of ourselves as survivors, as fighters, that sometimes, it’s a battle with no end in sight– ever.
I’ve talked about my experience, but I’m actually rather lucky. My ongoing pain is something I can hide rather easily. I might disappear from church occasionally, but other than that no one really knows unless I tell them. But there are many, many people who can’t hide it, not really– but they try. They do everything they can to downplay their pain. They’re ashamed. They’re embarrassed. They don’t want to make the other people around them uncomfortable. Very often, these people are blamed for their pain– they must have done something to deserve it. God is punishing them. They just don’t have enough faith for God to heal them. Their prayer life must be weak. Maybe they’re not even a Christian.
And that’s wrong. Because we should be coming alongside the people who suffer, the people who mourn, the people who are in pain. And yes, it’s uncomfortable, and yes, it takes work, and yes– it necessarily means that we must accept the reality that not everything can be fixed. It means sacrificing our hero complexes and sitting down with that person in compassion and empathy– and realizing that we probably have no idea what that person is going through, but we don’t have to.
We just have to be there.