I was sitting in church wondering what to do with the five little pieces of paper I held in my hand.
It was May 17, 1992, and the pastor had asked everyone in the congregation to write down five things we valued most. Because of my circumstances, this task was especially difficult. I was homeless, unemployed, and a refugee.
Our Life in Africa Changed in an Instant
Three weeks earlier my wife, Sandie, and I were serving as missionaries in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Since the beginning of that year, the situation had been tense in the country. There were border skirmishes with rebels from the neighboring country of Liberia and a wide-ranging lack of discipline within the Sierra Leonean army. Suddenly chaos engulfed the country when a handful of disgruntled junior military officers overthrew the president, and Sierra Leone had the world’s youngest head-of-state: a 25-year-old lieutenant.
On Friday morning, May 1, the U.S. embassy notified all American citizens that they had negotiated our safe evacuation, and we were required to be in the capital city before sundown. In the intervening terrifying hours, my wife and I arranged a rendezvous with our three oldest children who were attending boarding school 190 miles away. Then we closed up our house, said farewell to our dear Sierra Leonean friends, and packed our necessities. One backpack per person was all we were allowed.
Watershed Moments: Grieving Loss and Gaining New Insights
So, there I was a few weeks later, sitting in the safe, comfortable sanctuary of Falls Covenant Church in International Falls, Minnesota, trying to list the things I valued most. I didn’t have a house, job, or car. Most of my valued possessions were stored in closets in a faraway country that had just descended into civil war. What was I supposed to write? I didn’t know; I had so little left.
At the outset of the sermon, the pastor asked, “How would you respond if God took away something you greatly valued? To make it more real I want you to review your five slips of paper and then throw one of them away.”
Initially, I didn’t have much trouble. Now I can’t even recall a few of the items I wrote down. Obviously, they weren’t that valuable.
But the pastor persisted asking us to do it again and again. This became more problematic for me. Which would I part with more easily, my life savings or my collection of pastoral and theological books? I chose to “allow” God to take away my savings account, and then with greater remorse, I let go of my much-loved library.
I was ready for this sermon to be over! But one last time the pastor insanely asked me to throw away the slip of paper on which I had written my most valued possession. That’s when I stopped listening to the pastor and started a conversation with God.
Brazenly I thought, “God, don’t you dare take away my most valued possession. I have sacrificially served you as a missionary and now, at age 37, I have almost nothing! Surely you would not ask me to give up what I treasure most!” For you see, on the last slip of paper I had written the names of my wife and our four children.
God Blesses Those Who Trust Him
In his gentleness God did not rebuke my insolent spirit, but rather he brought to my mind the story of Abraham’s powerful encounter with God, recorded in Genesis 22.
[Sometime later God tested Abraham] ... “Take 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 of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:1-2 ESV).
I firmly believe in the trustworthiness of God’s Word, yet I never fail to pull back in horror that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his precious son “as a burnt offering.” I know this happened well over 500 years before God gave his law to Moses. And archaeologists tell us that child sacrifice was unfortunately quite common in the ancient Near East. This might explain why Abraham apparently planned to obey without hesitation or protest. However, I still struggle with the severity of the command.
Abraham’s complete trust in God is evident in his response to Isaac’s simple question, “Father, the fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7-8).
As a child attending Sunday school, I recall acting out this story with great flourish, but I also knew how the story ended (Genesis 22:11-13). Abraham, however, trusted God without knowing how the story would unfold, and God rewarded him for his belief.
“I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:16-18 NIV).
When We Feel Crushed, God Is Sufficient to Meet All Our Needs
Although my circumstances were drastically different from Abraham’s “test” on the slopes of Mount Moriah, I still found applications from my reflection on this passage.
- God wants and deserves to be valued most in my life. Nothing I have or cherish should ever be considered more valuable than him.
- As I trust God and offer up to him all that I have, he blesses me with much more than I originally had or ever dreamt of.
- God has a huge, overall plan of “blessing all nations on earth,” and he calls me, and my children, to be a part of that blessing.
- God can test us through the most severe circumstances, and they are designed to strengthen us, purify us, and prepare us to be his humble servants.
Now, as I fast-forward 28 years to our present circumstances, I believe God used 2020, the much-maligned, never-to-be-forgotten year, to test us. Perhaps he asked you to give up what you value most. It may have been a crucible year, burning away impurities so that his “gold” shines forth ever more brightly.
Way back on May 17, 1992, I learned in a powerful way that my children are not my possessions. And over the years, I’ve had to learn and relearn that lesson. They are God’s dear children, and he can handle them, protect them and prosper them so much better than I can. So, with great struggle, I let go of that last slip of paper. Nothing can stand between God and me.
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