“Do I serve God for nothing?”

“Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio (circa 1603)

In my sermon last Sunday on the binding of Isaac (which I’ll post later), I followed a lead from John Walton’s excellent NIV Application Commentary on Genesis and drew an analogy between Job and Abraham.

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, in Genesis 22, Abraham had already sacrificed plenty for the sake of his call: home, family, country, comfort, and security. And he succeeded. He fulfilled his mission.

What else did Abraham have to prove?

Exactly one thing: While it’s true that Abraham sacrificed a great deal in order to answer God’s call, he did so in order to receive something in return: that he would have the promised son, that he would become father of a great nation, that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars, that his name would be revered.

Could Satan’s question of Job not also be asked of Abraham: “Does Abraham serve God for nothing?”

If God took everything away from Abraham, would he remain faithful?

By his willingness to sacrifice his son—thereby throwing away everything he’d spent 40 years of his life pursuing—Abraham answered the question with a resounding “yes.”

Abraham’s example of faithfulness terrifies me. It causes me to wonder: “Do serve God for nothing?”

This question literally kept me awake last Saturday night. I even re-wrote a portion of my sermon at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday morning because I couldn’t not deal with this question.

After all, I sacrificed in order to answer God’s call into ministry: I gave up a successful engineering career. I sold my house. I uprooted my family. I drastically downgraded my standard of living. And God help me, along with financial sacrifices, I also sacrificed some portion of my self-respect. God knows my wife and family sacrificed even more, thanks to me.

Why did I do it?

Certainly a part of me did it because I sincerely believed God wanted me to do it (as God wants all of us to do something).

But I don’t serve God for nothing. I expect something in return. And until last weekend, when I shared it in my sermon, I had never admitted—to myself, to God, to anyone else—what it was.

And here it is: for all the sacrifices I’ve made for God, I expect God to make me successful—in a way that I measure success. I expect God to give me the kind of success that other people would recognize and appreciate and praise me for.

And what kind of success could satisfy me? As I said in my sermon:

Would I have to become like Billy Graham and lead a stadium full of people to faith in Christ through the power of my eloquent preaching? Would I have to become like Rick Warren, launch a mega-church, and publish best-selling devotional books? Would I have to be elected a bishop and lead our United Methodist Church to a bright and faithful future?

Ah, who am I kidding? Unless I change, no matter what success I achieve, it would never be enough.

The sin of pride is the oldest in the book, I know. But it’s insidious in my life. It often prevents me from enjoying other people’s success—especially the success of fellow clergy—because if they achieve something I haven’t, then it becomes an indictment: What am I doing wrong?

So I believe the Lord is speaking to me through the story of the binding of Isaac: Lay down your pride, your worldly ambition, your desire for success. Destroy it on this altar. Follow me. Be faithful to me. That’s the only thing that matters.

God, make it so. Amen.

4 thoughts on ““Do I serve God for nothing?””

  1. this is my thorn: i am not ordained clergy just husband, father, grandfather who has done fairly lousy job of it and every time it is shown to me how lousy a job i have done, which is to say by comparison how good somebody else did, whether in sermons, movies, books, tv shows, etc i too take it as indictment and i go into the deep dark corner and wish it all away. it is not constructive behavior i know but it is hard in a performance-based culture not to view one’s self through those lying lenses. lenses which are totally human and not in the least like the ones that the Risen One would use. truthing lenses? Brent, keep up the good work. you are reaching someone out here.

  2. I offer a resounding AMEN! I need to bookmark this and pound it into my head. I would say that shame is the opposite of pride and something our culture does not embrace. For me, Brene Brown’s TedTalks on shame and vulnerability highlight our need to admit and abandon our pride–indeed a crippling sin.

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