The Courage of Abraham

Andrew delivered this talk at an Alumni Weekend in 2015. The topic was Christian courage, and given the current global crisis he thought it worth repurposing for his own blog Imagining Otherwise. We are resharing here with his permission.


My focus this morning is a story that sits at the heart of the Old Testament understanding of faith. It is a story about an old man asked to kill his own son by God, the story of Abraham and Isaac, of Abraham’s lonely walk to Mount Moriah, and his willingness to sacrifice his son there.

It is a strange story. A troubling story. And yet, I will argue, it reveals the heart of a particularly Christian conception of courage, and offers a profound challenge to those of us today who call Abraham the father of our faith: to be a Christian requires courage because of the God in whom we put our faith.

But I don’t want to start with Abraham. I want to start with Steve Jobs.


Part I: “There is no reason not to follow your heart” (Or, Steve Jobs must really love turtle-necks)


In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered a now famous graduation speech at Stanford University in which he pleaded for a certain type of courage to mark the life of the graduates. I want to start with this speech because Jobs was a culturally significant figure whose words capture a particularly modern understanding of courage. Attending to his definition and contrasting it with the picture of courage we find in Abraham—I will imagine the graduation speech Abraham might give in Part II—will help us understand Christian courage more deeply and attune us to how significantly most of us borrow our conception of courage from Jobs rather than Abraham.

We may say the shape of a person’s courage is determined by how they answer three questions: Who or what they have faith in? What they hope for? Who or what they love? In his speech, Jobs told three stories which revealed his answers to these three questions and set up his definition of courage.

The First Story: The Land of Promise

Like Abraham, Jobs was told to leave everything and go to the land of promise. For him, this land was college. As a baby he’d been adopted out on the condition that whoever adopted him must promise to send him to college. Unlike Abraham, however, Jobs decided not to stay in the land of promise. Famously, he dropped out. He continued to take courses, but only those that seemed interesting to him, rather than following a prescribed programme. Most famously, he took a course on calligraphy. Ten years later, that course had a profound impact on how he would design Apple Mac computers. Good design is at the heart of Apple’s corporate ethos and success because Jobs took a course on calligraphy after dropping out of college.

This story was deeply significant for Jobs and illustrates a central tenet of his life philosophy. He called it connecting the dots:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

What did Jobs have faith in? Some type of mysterious ordering of the universe and his gut’s ability to connect to it, to guide him faithfully. What did he hope for? That trusting his gut would create a meaningful life. As we will soon see, these answers underpinned his understanding of courage.

The second story: On “love and loss.”

Following his gut, Jobs found something he loved, designing computers and creating a business, and he became enormously successful. If we take (just for the moment) money as a measure of success, Jobs once said: “I was worth over a million dollars when I was 23 and over ten million dollars when I was 24, and over a hundred million dollars when I was 25.” To put that in perspective, at 25 I was earning $7.50 an hour cleaning rooms in a Vancouver hotel.

But at 30, after 10 years at Apple, Jobs was asked to give up what he loved—he was forced out and replaced as CEO. Love and loss. This was a period of profound testing for Jobs’s commitment to pursuing what he loved. He related how he spent months in despair before deciding to not give up faith. He got back to doing what he loved and in the next few years started two new companies: NeXT and Pixar. His faith paid off enormously.

The lesson Jobs drew out from this story for the graduates is perhaps similar to what Abraham would say: “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.” But the object of faith differs greatly from that of Abraham: “I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.… If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

Faith, hope, and love. These themes came together in Jobs’s final story and set up his definition of courage.

The Third Story: “My third story is about death.”

Jobs told the graduates about his first diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and how it changed the way he saw the world.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important… There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Death clarifies. It tests. For Jobs, his hard-won conclusion was, “There is no reason not to follow your heart.” This is really what each of his three stories were about; it was his account of human flourishing. His desire for the graduates was that they live lives where they followed their hearts and did what they love. Jobs had faith and hope that the universe would somehow respond, a meaningful life will emerge.

This, in the end, was Jobs’s understanding of courage. He closed his speech by imploring the graduates,

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

All our themes come together here: Your heart knows what you want (faith). It will all work out (hope). Courage therefore is to follow your heart (love) even when others disagree, when obstacles get in the way. Everything else is secondary.

Let’s pause here and think about that. On one level, it is an extraordinary statement. Everything is secondary to following your heart—other people? morality? wisdom? reality? It is an extraordinary statement, but also very ordinary. Almost boring. It is the plot of every Pixar and Disney movie. It is the theme of every college graduation speech. This is the water we swim in. This is the default standard by which we judge the success of our lives. When we ask ourselves in quiet moments, am I living well, what we are conditioned to mean is, am I living out of my heart’s desire? Philosopher Charles Taylor suggests we live in an Age of Authenticity. Our fundamental understanding of the human person is,

“Each one of us has his/her own way of realising our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

Jobs’s speech was from this script. And when we view human flourishing this way, courage becomes following your own heart in the face of any obstacles. This is a modern understanding of courage.

But is it Christian courage? Let us turn to the story of Abraham and put him in dialogue with Steve Jobs.


Part II: A Very Different Graduation Speech (Or, how Abraham bombed)


Let’s imagine Abraham giving a graduation speech. He can match credentials with Jobs. It is said that Jobs revolutionized six industries, well, Abraham is the father of three religions. He’s worth listening to. But do we want to hear what he has to say?

Like Jobs, Abraham has many stories he could tell, but he shares only one: the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. And here his voice grows quiet, and he tells about the time God called out to him and he answered, “Here I am.” And God said,

“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.” (Gen 22:2)

All the graduates are listening now. And so, Abraham describes how he rose early in the morning, how he saddled his donkey, cut the wood for the burnt offering, and went with Isaac to the place God showed him. He describes how they walked for three days and how they were the longest three days of his life. He describes on the fourth morning seeing the mountain far off. How he walked with Isaac to the top and Isaac asked him, “where is the lamb for a burnt offering.” And how he answered, “God will provide”, even though he didn’t know what that meant.

Abraham is not yet finished, but already the graduates are confused and a little alarmed. This is not like other graduation speeches. Jobs lived in a world where human persons strode like gods—“I want to put a ding in the universe”—but Abraham appears to be speaking from a very different place. He has faith, but not in the guidance of his own heart as Jobs did; Abraham puts his faith in God, “God will provide a lamb.” He has hope, not that the universe will reward the pursuit of his passions with a meaningful life, but that God will fulfill his promise, that he will bring life even out of death. He loves, as Jobs did; he loves Isaac deeply. But his ultimate love is God. He loves God more than he loves himself, more than he loves Isaac. And these differences lead to a different understanding of courage. Like Jobs, the climax of Abraham’s speech is about love and loss, about death, and about courage.

Abraham grips the podium now, and his voice drops to a whisper as he describes how he bound Isaac and raised his knife. Here he pauses. He wants to let the audience feel something of his uncertainty in that moment. He did not know if God would stop the knife. Here—here is his vision of courage.

The graduates are shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. They don’t like what they hear. Disney and Pixar have not prepared them for this. Abraham asks the graduates what is their vision of human flourishing. He has learned over his 100-plus years that it’s a life given in full allegiance to God. “Everything is secondary” to this. Even the desires of his heart. He implores the graduates, therefore, to live lives marked by obedience to God, even when it’s hard, even when we are asked to give up what we love. This is Christian courage.

It’s fair to say this is not a crowd-pleasing speech. Abraham is politely thanked by scattered applause but before the auditorium has emptied a petition has already begun for Oprah to be the speaker at the next graduation. When his speech is uploaded to YouTube, it gets only a few hundred views. For a few days there’s a debate in the comments section about whether his story even illustrated courage at all. The consensus is it did not. It was a story about cowardice—living another’s vision of life rather than his own. People pity him, this old man who barely lived. Soon, the debate peters out. No one’s that interested.

But what about us? Two different accounts of courage. Whose do we believe? Before answering too quickly, let us try to understand what is at stake, and what is not. There are ways Abraham can be misunderstood and its worth addressing these before returning to his understanding of courage.


Part III: Misreadings (or, don’t sacrifice your children)


1. This is not a story where the moral is God might ask you to sacrifice your children.

In Abraham’s day, this was something the gods would occasionally ask. Part of the point of the story of Abraham and Isaac is that the God of Israel is not like other gods. He will provide the sacrifice. In Jesus, he even provided his own life.

2. Nor is this a story about not loving anything in the world. Abraham loved Isaac, and this was good. God wants us to care for the world. God himself loved the world. So whatever the moral is, it is not live lives of detachment.

3. This story is the climax of a whole life of obedience and courage. Sacrificing Isaac was not something God could have asked Abraham to do the first day they met. The courage of Abraham displayed in this story was learned, the fruit of his everyday endurance and faith following God through his whole life.

4. The obedience that Abraham shows is not slavish or robotic. This is not a story about not doing anything unless God tells you to. The story needs to be read in the wider context of Scripture, which describes humans as created to bring their creativity and freedom to the blessing of the world. In Genesis 18, we get an incredible scene of Abraham arguing with God and changing God’s mind. God listens to Abraham; he doesn’t just command him.

So, what then is at stake? The real issue is the question of, What is our first love? That’s what sits behind the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is the test. It is Monotheism 101: “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Ultimately, the challenge before us is whether we agree with Jobs or with Abraham about what it means to truly flourish. Our understanding of flourishing gives rise to our account of courage. For Jobs, to truly flourish is to follow your heart. Courage, therefore, is following your heart no matter the obstacles life puts in your way. For Abraham, to truly flourish is to put God first, to live toward him and all things in relation to him. Courage, therefore, is being obedient to God no matter the obstacles. What do we believe?

There’s a further point to make, one that takes us to the troubled heart of Abraham’s story. Being Christian requires courage because one obstacle we face in putting God first is God’s own self.


Part IV: Being a Christian Requires Courage (Or, this isn’t your Grandmother’s Christianity…or is it?)


Why does Abraham talk about courage in his graduation speech at all? Well, because I made him. But why have I told the story of Abraham as a story about courage? Isn’t Abraham usually associated with faith, not courage? The point I want to make is that to live out our faith in God in this world will require courage because of our experience of God’s own way in the world.

At one level, the story of Abraham is the story of a God who provides. God promises a child and then provides a child. God promises land and then provides land. God promises blessing and provides blessing. The biblical witness is clear, God provides.

But the biblical witness is also clear, God sometimes makes us wait. God sometimes tests. God promises a child—but Abraham and Sarah have to wait for twenty-five years until he delivers. God promises land, but Abraham and Sarah never get to own it. Nor did Isaac, or Jacob, or Joseph, or the generation of the Exodus. God promises descendants—and then asks Abraham to kill the child of promise. He tests Abraham. And God doesn’t explain any of this. He simply asks that Abraham and Sarah trust him, even when they can’t make sense of him.

This way of God with us in the world isn’t just found in the Old Testament. The Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in heaven, “lead us not into the time of trial.” Hebrews 11 talks about the experience of many of the great heroes of our faith:

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” (Heb 11:13)

It is not always easy trusting God in this world. That is the biblical witness, and it’s our experience too. God promises, but he makes us wait. We suffer, and God doesn’t explain. We don’t always experience all the blessings that are ours in Christ. It takes courage to give full allegiance to this strange God who does not always explain.

Faith is not a passive thing. It’s not just something we feel in our hearts—it requires obedient action, and when obedience is hard, when there are obstacles, when God is hidden, or God asks hard things, living out faith will require courage. We work out our “salvation with fear and trembling” according to Paul in Philippians 2.


Part V: Closing thoughts (Or, stepping out without guardrails)


I began by contrasting Jobs’s account of courage with that of Abraham. Jobs speaks with the voice of our culture, and his vision of human flourishing is attractive. Abraham speaks with a strange voice, one that sits outside of us, and what he says is uncomfortable. I want to close by saying, however, the courage of Abraham is a better courage, because it is based on a better story of the world.

It is a better courage because it creates space to live a life on behalf of others. Jobs said, “Everything is secondary” to pursuing your heart. Living out of this, Jobs did some amazing things in the world—he did put a ding in it—but he also hurt many people. He abandoned those who got in his way; even his own daughter and her mother. He lived to regret this, but I don’t know if he ever connected this behaviour to the vision of courage he implored the Stanford grads to live out of.

Abraham also hurt people—he too abandoned a child and the child’s mother, Ishmael and Hagar. But these acts were a failure of his courage, not an expression of it. They were acts of disobedience when obedience got too difficult. God called Abraham to obey because through his obedience all the world would be blessed. We read at the close of Genesis 22: “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Abraham’s courage was on behalf of others. This same courage led Jesus to die for the sake of even his enemies. It has led countless Christians through the centuries to lay aside their own desires to obey a God who loves the world and is working to put it right.

It is a better courage. And this courage is possible because it is a better story. Abraham and Sarah were old and barren—as good as dead, we read in Romans 4:19—and God called out to them and promised them a child. Following their hearts could not produce that child. Following his heart could not save Steve Jobs from death. But the God we are called to give full allegiance to is the God who can bring life out of death, who created the world out of nothing, who gives a child to the barren, who resurrects the dead.

It was not foolish for Abraham to trust God to rescue Isaac. Isaac’s life had always been a witness to God’s power over death. As we live lives of obedience, we too learn that we can trust this God. That giving our all to him is the source of real life and it is the only way we will beat death.

In his book The Christian and Anxiety, Roman Catholic theologian Hans von Balthasar closes with a powerful reflection on Christianity and courage. Alluding to the story of Peter following Jesus out onto the water, he writes Christian faith involves “stepping out without guardrails. Climbing over the gunwale and stepping out into the water.” It requires courage. Drawing on themes I have already explored, he goes on:

“Faith, love, hope must always be a leap for the finite creature, because only in that way does it correspond to the worth of the infinite God. It must always mean taking a risk, because God is worth staking everything on.”

Faith involves risk, courage, a leap toward God that is willing to leave everything behind because God is God, because he is worth staking everything on. “And the real gain lies, not in a ‘reward’ for the daring leap, but in the leap itself, which is a gift of God and thus a share in his infinitude.”

Here is von Balthasar’s point: Only through the courage of faith, our staking of everything on this strange God, can we truly flourish, because in leaping out in faith we gain God himself, the source of true flourishing. When we give ourselves fully to God, he gives himself fully to us. God is both the cause and cure of Christian anxiety. He asks us to give our all to him, and in exchange he give his all to us his Spirit. This is the true source of Christian courage.

So, we return to Philippians 2 as we close:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil 2:12-13)

It is God who works in you. It is God who calls you for his purposes. Follow him, even in the face of trouble. Being a Christian will require courage. But it is the best sort of life.