Saturday, June 14, 2008

Genesis 17:23 -- The Psychology of Obedience

Genesis 17:23: Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him.

God says His bit, and then leaves us alone to act. The human will kicks in right at that point. In the verse before this we learned that when God had finished speaking to Abraham, He “went up from” him. Abraham now had a choice – do what God asked for in verses 9-14 of the same chapter and trust God for the rest, or once again rely on his own strength and wisdom. The decision was not an easy one for any man to make. It seems that where and when God chooses to interfere in our lives so directly, it never is. But for Abraham, a decision to obey would be difficult to carry out as well as have social implications. Oftentimes for us, the decision to obey is weighed more by its social implications rather than the physical request itself. I don’t know what was worse for Abraham -- the pain of circumcising adult males, never mind young children and babies in those days or the social cost of actually asking his household to be circumcised – all for a covenant that had been made directly to him and still with no evidence of its being delivered that could be seen by others.

Yet Scripture says that Abraham started with his son Ishmael first and then all his servants who born in the house or bought, and then every other male in his household, and circumcised them that very day. He decided to obey. Today’s social scientists would find this a fascinating study in risk-taking psychology. They would wonder what probability theory he used to decide to obey. Did the chances of God delivering His promise far outweigh His potential not to do so? Were the consequences of what Abraham was about to do in order to obey not seem as costly to him in the ‘event’ God did deliver? Was there any other explanation?

I think to best answer these questions one needs to go back to Abraham’s own personal experiences with God. I believe that while he still had his free will, he had no sane choice but to rely on his knowledge that God was indeed God, and that if he walked before Him, he would be blessed. Many psychologists today do not understand that. Perhaps it is best to say that they do not wish to accept it as a rational method for arriving at one’s decision.

[Some reader my wonder “what about Abraham, was he circumcised?” The answer comes in the verses that follow this.]

There are three interesting aspects to what Abraham did in this verse. First, there is an implication, although not conclusive, that he himself carried out God’s wishes in performing the circumcisions. At the very least, as head of the household, he saw to it that they were carried out. When God speaks to us and tells us to do something, He intends for us to either carry it out or by our means, see to it that it is accomplished. We cannot leave it to someone else, hoping God will speak to him or her as well. It’s His requirement of us and we can’t lose sight of that. [Today I took my two-year-old grandson, Elijah, for his second haircut with me – it’s our monthly ‘date’. On the way, when we were stopped at an intersection, an Asian woman in her late thirties approached our car and opened a folded sign that revealed her need for help. I had been taken before and was not about to be taken again. I shook my head indicating I would not help. Every argument for and against helping a young mother in distress who would beg on the streets of an affluent Toronto community came to mind. I won’t list them here. But the bottom line was that once again I felt this terrible empty feeling of not obeying. As I drove on I promised myself I had to deal with this issue of poverty for myself, once and for all. I decided that I have to find out not so much “what would Jesus do?” because I could never claim to have that wisdom or the audacity to think that I could predict exactly what He would do in any given case, but rather “what would Jesus have me do?” And I will as soon as I can. The point here is that failure to obey causes great emotional tension in our minds, especially if the obedience were for good or in response to God. On the other hand, obedience to evil has the same effect as disobedience for good or to God. Interestingly, this became evident to me last night as I was flicking through the channels on the television. I managed to see a few minutes of the movie Ella Enchanted. I don’t know the story at all, but I do know that Ella (I presume she was the main character I was observing) was enchanted by evil to obey it and her emotional tension was released when she at last felt free from having to do so.] Living a life of disobedience to good and God is a terrible way to live.

Secondly, Scripture says that Abraham did all this “the very same day.” Abraham did not obey in steps, a little at a time, just in case God would change His mind, or God would take mercy on him and say, “That’s enough, you’ve proven yourself.” No, Abraham carried out what God had required of him totally in that same day. He was serious in his obedience. And there was no turning back. [I often wonder how much flack he had to take from Sarah or to other women in his household who may have been married to some of the men he had to circumcise. Yet the Bible says he did what he had to do at all costs.]

Thirdly, the verse ends with a phrase that is possibly the most “personally emotional and mental peace-guaranteeing” phrase in the Bible. It is simply this, “[he did] as God had said to him.” Many years ago Billy Graham wrote a book that impacted millions, for eternity. It was called Peace With God. If I only had a few words to paraphrase that great work of a man of God, I would simply say, “Peace With God comes in actually doing as God says to us to do.” Understanding that simple principle can be as easy as pie for some, or as difficult as man trying to bring about total global harmony these days for others. I believe God has given us the ability to make it the former.

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  1. The trouble with just doing what you hear God telling you to do, is that that is exactly what many people rampaging with guns and knives say they are doing. Who's to know the difference?

    And maybe if Abraham had held out a moment with the circumcising knives, he might have heard God say "No, I've changed My mind, just testing" the way he reportedly did with Isaac. It would have led to a lot fewer dead and damaged babies.

  2. Ken B. Godevenos15/6/08 19:12

    To Hugh7: I would agree that many claim they hear such voices and direction from
    God. But I believe there is a way to tell the difference between what God says to us and what we claim God may be saying? If God is telling us something, it is usually in line with what His entire message in Scripture is. The issue I have with your second statement is that this kind of argument is made by those who have difficulty letting God be God. To someone like me, who believes in His ultimate right to manage as He wishes due to the fact that I believe He is both Creator and Supreme Being, your otherwise posed possibility would not present a problem. Having said that, let me not give you the impression that I do not care about people dying or being damaged -- I do very much. But I also feel that today that is happening because of our original disobedience, not God's preference.

  3. But Abraham didn't wait to carry out God's command to sacrifice Isaac. He set out for the mountain right away. God would have stopped him circumcising the first child or man if that had been His intention. It was not.

  4. Ken B. Godevenos16/6/08 15:20

    Great point, Basil. Thanks for that insight.

  5. "If God is telling us something, it is usually in line with what His entire message in Scripture is." But the man with the gun might say God is telling him to kill you/me just as He told Moses to kill the Midianites (Num 31), the Amalekites (Ez 17), the Aradites and Bashanites (Num 21), etc. etc. - all in accordance with scripture.

    And a days-old baby dies of septicaemia or haemorrhage because of his great...grandparents' disobedience? No, that just doesn't work.

  6. The fact that "the man with the gun might say God is telling him to kill...." does not make it a fact, nor does it make it right, nor does it make it God's fault. It is so easy for us to blame God for all that takes place when in fact it is often as a result of our humanity and fallen state.

    If we cannot accept the fallen state of man, then we have two different foundations from which we approach the issue. My basis is based on man's fall from grace and thus the presence of sin and its consequences -- including the inability to think straight, morally, or ethically. Thus the claim of a madman that "God told me to...." Hope that helps.

  7. "The fact that "the man with the gun might say God is telling him to kill...." does not make it a fact, nor does it make it right, nor does it make it God's fault."


    Now, how do I tell the difference between you and the man with the gun?

    And how do YOU tell the difference between you and the man with the gun?

    What would you do if God told you to stab your son?

  8. Glad we agree on the first part. Your question of “how do I tell the difference between you and the man with the gun?” is a good one. One answer is this: Simply track record and how well you knew the person. Another answer is the Biblical one that says, “By your (spiritual) fruit, they shall know you.” [But that’s a whole other topic.] If you argue that we cannot know, I would say that there are some rare occasions that we may not know, but in the vast majority of cases, we would know. In a sense, one could argue that overall we feel safe when a police officer is walking down the street towards us and we know he/she carries a lethal weapon. Anyone other than that type of official, I would not feel “as” safe. I know the difference as most people do.

    To your second question, I would answer thus: “I would check what this individual ‘man with a gun’ is saying against what I know and believe Scripture is saying – is what he/she saying contrary to how God tells us to live in Scripture? If it is, then it is not valid and I would not waste a minute trying to be convinced that it is – the person is not hearing or understanding God correctly.

    Your third question is the easiest for me to answer as follows: He wouldn’t. And there is no hypothesizing that He would. Let me explain the Abraham situation with Isaac that you refer to. First of all, the Bible says God wanted to tempt or test Abraham. Secondly, it was a matter of Abraham’s obedience. God never allowed or intended for Isaac to be actually offered. Abraham obeyed out of His love for God and partly because human sacrifices were common in those days, although not for the Children of Israel. However, most importantly, God’s provision of His own Son, Jesus Christ, as the ultimate sacrifice several thousands of years later replaced the need for any sacrifice. So, God wouldn’t tell me to do that. And finally, God would not expect us to murder our son when He tells us how we are to love them and provide for them elsewhere in Scripture. The only condition I could see that happening is where the child was on death row and the parent was the executioner and even then, I would expect God to allow me to be replaced, because He fully understands what it means to love a Son and to see Him die. Hope this helps.