The Strength of the Absurd

“Resignation is, as it were, renouncing one’s most cherished hopes when whatever is hoped for proves unattainable. Resignation is not giving up thinking about one’s heart’s desire; on the contrary, being resigned requires retaining the original interest but accepting that nothing on earth will permit it to be satisfied. If you were to accept that it could indeed be satisfied, it could only be ‘on the strength of the absurd’.” – Alastair Hannay, Introduction to Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

Abraham longed for a son. Culturally, it was expected of him; without a son, he had no heir. This significant desire characterizes Abraham’s story from the very beginning. In Genesis 12, the Lord promises to make Abraham’s line into a great nation. Three chapters later, Abraham brings it up again.

“‘In case you forgot, Lord, you haven’t given me any kids, which is fine, but I’m just gonna have to give all my stuff to my servant instead.’

‘Calm down and trust Me, you’ll have way more kids than you could imagine.’”  (Genesis 15:3-5, paraphrased).

Abraham attempts to fulfill God’s promises in his own time by having a child with Hagar, a slave; however, God reaffirms that His covenant will be established with the son of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

In chapter 18, an extremely elderly Abraham and his equally old wife are visited by three mysterious men. One of the three says that Sarah will give birth within a year (which she seems to dismiss with a skeptical laugh.)

The story could easily be wrapped up with Genesis 21. “Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. And they lived happily ever after.” Abraham’s desire of many years has been fulfilled. Sarah’s skeptical laugh has turned to joy. Cue the triumphal score in the background. Roll credits. The End. If you’re familiar with the Bible, though, you’ll know there’s still quite a way to go in this book.

_____

I cannot say that I long for fatherhood. At this point in life, I’m not in any position to take on such a responsibility, so the lack of interest is probably acceptable. However, as I’ve documented somewhat in past writings, I have wrestled with the desire for authentic friendship. This is a common thing among humans, I believe; Drew Hunter’s book Made for Friendship recently pointed this out to me more clearly! Learning the proper place of such friendships, founding them foremost in the relationship with God, and working to grow healthily in them is a process, to say the least. In the era of Facebook-friends, culture has devalued and warped the understanding of Friendship (capitalized to differentiate between the two). But I’m not writing to examine that difference (…yet).

For a long time, my Friendship was much like Abraham’s fatherhood: a distantly perceived and confusingly elusive hope. Through much wrestling, skepticism, and growth-into-relative-maturity on my part, God began to reveal in earthly ways His fulfillment of my desire. A few months ago, I thought I was ready to watch the credits roll.

_____

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied.

Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’” (Genesis 22:1-2)

I imagine Abraham didn’t get much sleep that night. However, by the following morning, he knew what was required of him and responded accordingly. (Do you think Isaac helped chop the firewood?) For two long days, they traveled towards the place God had pointed out. Abraham, well over one hundred at this point, must have aged decades during the trip.

“Then why does Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof.” 

Abraham was not passionless. The three-day journey was not one of emotional shutdown, but of entrance into “infinite resignation”, to borrow language from Fear and Trembling. In committing to this course, he is sacrificing Isaac not only as a person (which is incomprehensible in and of itself) but also as an ideal, representative of Abraham’s ethical responsibility as a father and his deep desire from years past. The fact that God would demand proof of faith in this way seems… absurd.

“All that can save him is the absurd; and this he grasps by faith. Accordingly he admits the impossibility and at the same time believes the absurd; for were he to suppose that he had faith without recognizing the impossibility with all the passion of his soul and with all his heart, he would be deceiving himself, and his testimony would carry weight nowhere, since he would not even have come as far as infinite resignation.” 

It’s unnecessary to explain but important to point out that, after the altar, Isaac will be beyond Abraham’s reach. Paradoxically, he holds on to his hope for Isaac. It is absurd to believe that God, ever faithful to Himself as to us, would withdraw the command He had just given – yet Abraham did. He did not eliminate his desire for Isaac, “for it is great to give up one’s desire, but greater to stick to it after having given it up; it is great to grasp hold of the eternal but greater to stick to the temporal after having given it up.”

I wonder how Abraham’s blood thundered in his ears, heart rate elevating, as he and his son ascended the mountain. When he told Isaac “God Himself will provide the lamb,” how did the hopeful, sorrowful words catch in his throat?

“He knew it was God the Almighty that tried him, he knew it was the hardest sacrifice that could be demanded of him; but he also knew that no sacrifice was too hard when God demanded it – and he drew the knife.”

_____­­­­­­­

It’s not that I expected perfect resolution, but it seemed like a good place to roll credits on this episode and pick up in a new season. There would still be trials, but not tests, right? The wrestling has already lasted so long; surely this is the conclusion of whatever lesson God is teaching, some small finish line in a greater race. For a while, I thought I’d figured the Friendship thing out. While there was great value in that short time, it wasn’t the end of this particular story. People are even more of a mystery than I thought.

When my best efforts still fell short of reaching the ideal, my Enneagram-Four personality often responded by quoting C.S. Lewis: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Abraham, however, seems to respond differently. “His faith was not that he should be happy sometime in the hereafter, but that he should find blessed happiness here in this world.”

I believed my pursuit was founded in faith. For God’s sake and for my own, I need to prove that it hasn’t become a temptation distracting from His will.

The test of sacrifice demanded by God functions as a reminder. Giving up the ability to pursue the ideal reminds us that we only have blessings by His power in the first place, not our own efforts (though we easily forget that until we must sacrifice them). The Lord knew Abram’s desire three chapters before he spoke it.

It also reminds us who God still is: faithful to His promises, generous to provide, and wise to things beyond our comprehension.

It reminds us that we are dependent on and fulfilled by the strength of the absurd.

“Some might find it convenient enough that the desire is no longer alive, that the smart of pain has dulled; but such people are no knights. A free-born soul who caught himself at this would despise himself and make a fresh start, and above all would not allow himself to be deceived in his soul.”

Through faith, though we raise the knife, we do not eliminate desire or become passionless. In infinite resignation, we are reminded of the strength of the absurd. This isn’t a promise that the sacrifice will turn out like Abraham’s did; the whole point is that it might not – even likely will not – and that we must obey faithfully nonetheless. The richness in resignation is the reminder.

“Deeper natures never forget themselves and never become something other than they were. So the knight will remember everything; but the memory is precisely the pain, and yet in his infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence.”

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