A progressive Mormon sometimes has to suffer sitting through a Church meeting where they don’t feel like they belong. These members are the ones who reluctantly stand out because they ask uncomfortable questions about Church teachings. Some of them are more brazen activists who have felt a personal calling to defend an important cause. These members love their wards but their choices can put them at odds with the traditional Church orthodoxy. This creates a natural tension, where it feels wrong to abandon their controversial ideas and also wrong to challenge the beliefs of the general body of the Church. Members who struggle to be true to both start to feel the anxiety of living under the weight of a contradiction. The story of their Church membership becomes colored by feelings of estrangement.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote in Fear and Trembling about how Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was “a guiding star,” one of the pinnacle examples of faith. Kierkegaard even pondered alternative ways the sacrifice could have unfolded, to illustrate how difficult and heartbreaking the task was. I’d also like to conduct a thought experiment where we imagine a slightly different version of the sacrifice. The Biblical record in Genesis 22 tells that Abraham received the commandment and then “Abraham rose up early in the morning” to travel to Moriah. What if the commandment had not been to leave immediately, but instead to wait one year before performing the sacrifice? What if in the interim Abraham had to defend his choice to orthodox believers?
Rift with Melchizedek
Abraham respected the priesthood authority of God’s servants, including Noah and Melchizedek. As part of Abraham’s nomadic travels during that year, he could have visited the city of his priesthood leader. He could have tried to explain to Melchizedek that God wanted to tempt him.
In case there was any doubt, Noah had explicitly commanded that murder was forbidden. Abraham had to make a choice, to follow the revealed scriptures or to follow his personal inspiration. At the time there was no plausible middle ground. Only in retrospect would it be apparent that an angel was going to save Isaac, meaning that Abraham wasn’t going to be guilty of murder. Abraham could have strained at the revealed word all year, but the prophets’ writings would have been clear: human sacrifice was against the commandments.
Although the choice was painful, there is no indication that Abraham ever wavered in his decision. He submitted to the trial God had given him. He followed his personal inspiration, which must have been most precious to him—more precious than his testimony of the prophets, more precious than his own son. Maybe he realized that his testimony of the prophets had been achieved through personal inspiration in the first place. Since personal inspiration was the foundation for all other testimony, it must be as strong as all the rest put together. Just as the Holy Ghost had confirmed Abraham’s belief in the commandments, the Holy Ghost could confirm Abraham’s need to break them. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. If Abraham had decided to hold to the scriptures and ignore his inspiration, then he would have been left clinging to a belief without any foundation, a spacious building in the air.
The consequences of disobedience would have been dire. Rejecting the words of a prophet and the words of the Son of man is already a serious sin, but rejecting the Holy Ghost has been given a category all its own. The warning comes from Jesus’ own mouth in Matthew 12:32:
And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
Possibly Abraham would have become insensitive to future inspiration. He wouldn’t have known how to find salvation, much less be the patriarch of the Abrahamic covenant. Whatever sincere desire he had to follow the commandments would have backfired if he had neglected the weightier matters.
On the other hand, in obeying his personal inspiration, it would have been tempting to just ignore the scriptures. Since Abraham and Noah had been in communion with the same God, it didn’t make sense for their messages to contain contradictions. Abraham could argue that if Noah were a true prophet, then he should have foreseen the sacrifice, and he shouldn’t have forbidden all murder. Abraham could have suspected that Noah’s teachings were uninspired or at least incomplete. But since Abraham was striving to remain engaged with the gospel, he didn’t lose faith in everything. Unfortunately he didn’t know any logical arguments that would reconcile his beliefs with the written word.
He had to muster the courage to proceed without the knowledge to make sense of this contradiction. That nagging tension must have been Abraham’s constant companion, as we would expect from any disciple who knew they were wandering a long way from the safety of the iron rod. But just as Lehi in vision was led into the dark and dreary waste by a heavenly messenger, Abraham remembered that he had received a commandment directly from God, and he dared not deny it.
Rift with Lot
Abraham must have had friends and family, like Lot and Nahor and Eliezer, who would have a hard time appreciating his decision. Kierkegaard imagined a blunt reaction might go like this: “You despicable man, you scum of society, what devil has so possessed you that you want to murder your son.” A similar example from the Old Testament was Zophar, friend of Job, who incorrectly judged that Job was wicked. In Job 11:5–6 (New Revised Standard Version), Zophar chides, “But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For wisdom is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”
Any activists who have proposed an idea that runs counter to mainstream Mormon belief know about these common reactions. First, members pity them because they are confused but will eventually become more enlightened. Second, members stereotype them as wicked and out of touch with the Spirit. There is very little that can be said for riposte, because criticizing those members back will not actually make the activist feel better. Job only received his consolation at the end of the trial, when the Lord vindicated him and rebuked his friends.
Any unconventional ideas get noticed quickly because the Church is such a monoculture. Many members consider that uniform rigidity to be a sign of the true gospel. They seek the unity that characterizes Zion. Sometimes they overshoot the mark and defend conformity, which is unity’s counterfeit. The difference is that advocating for people leads to unity, while advocating for rules leads to conformity. Unity means to have one heart; conformity means to have one lifestyle. Unity invites people into the fold; conformity gauges people’s suitability, as the scribes and Pharisees did in ancient times. Just as Paul argued to the Corinthians that a body needs eyes and hands and head and feet, the Church needs variety among its members to function.
If Abraham had suppressed his beliefs out of respect for a monolithic culture, it could be seen as idol worship. (Funnily enough, “monolith” literally means “single stone,” which matches the language in the prohibition against “any image of stone in your land”). In modern times, idol worship has been defined as setting one’s heart on anything that is not the true and living God. God did not create the appetite for conformity, so striving for it is setting up a false god.
It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t record anything about Abraham trying to justify the sacrifice to anyone else—even to Isaac, who would have been invested enough to ask. Those conversations could have produced poignant material for an entire additional chapter or more in Genesis. In Job’s conversations with his friends, Job grieved that he failed to win anyone to his side. So Job’s story gives an example of peer pressure but it fails to give an example of successfully navigating peer pressure. It is as if the Bible is warning us that there is no recipe for overcoming the criticism of friends, except to pray for the patience of Job.
Rift with Sarah
Tradition says that Abraham had concealed the sacrifice from his wife, Sarah. The shock of learning about it may have been what killed her. If Sarah had been involved in the decision, her maternal love would probably have been inexorable.
Even laying aside their intense devotion to Isaac, Abraham and Sarah were yoked together in their spiritual journey. Abraham was jeopardizing exaltation for both of them. They had received the promise that they would be blessed through their seed. Isaac was the heir and only son on the matrilineal line through Sarah, which would have been even more significant in Sarah’s day than in ours. Isaac needed to live, for the Lord to be able to fulfill those promises. There was a sense in which Isaac was a symbol, the physical embodiment of Abraham and Sarah’s covenant with God. Abraham’s sacrifice was going to kill their future in every sense.
Today we would best understand that consequence as an excommunication. Abraham was going to be cut off from his covenants, just as excommunication cuts off a modern Church member. Sarah could have demanded an explanation for how it could be a good thing to be excommunicated for one’s beliefs. It would be a clear sign to everyone else that Abraham and Sarah had fallen into disfavor with the Lord.
Even though Isaac was a powerful symbol, Abraham knew not to confuse the physical symbol with the spiritual truth. He didn’t believe that killing the symbol would necessarily deprive the family of eternal life. In the worst case, the Lord could still perform a miracle and bring Isaac back to life. Likewise, as bad as excommunication looks, it may not always remain in force in the eternities. The Church on earth is a symbol of the body of Christ, but it is not always a faithful representation. Disciplinary councils are composed of fallible men. We can imagine that there are occasional circumstances when they make mistakes. But the Lord would not punish any member eternally for the mistakes of other men. In the Book of Mormon, Jacob promised that our righteous judgment belongs to the Lord alone, for “the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there.”
Excommunication would have a profound effect on a person’s spiritual progression, whether or not the excommunication were sanctioned by God. The censured person loses their fellowship with the Church. On the other hand, they could be free to pursue their own beliefs with more latitude. For better or worse, they would continue on their spiritual path alone.
We know that Isaac was too beloved for Abraham to have treated his death lightly. Even though Abraham believed that the Lord could perform a miracle, he did not have the hubris to assume that he deserved one or that it would be granted. This is a good model for anyone who believes that the Lord will vindicate them even though they get excommunicated: it is possible, but it should not be expected. The prospect of excommunication ought to be approached with humility and the fear of God.
Abraham’s trial was not an isolated incident. One of the first and most prominent stories in the Book of Mormon is about Nephi feeling compelled to murder an unarmed man. Nephi’s trial would have exposed him to all the uncertainty and stress that Abraham had felt. Jesus himself was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley once gave a BYU devotional where he commiserated:
There is a great loneliness in leadership, but, I repeat, we have to live with ourselves. A man has to live with his conscience. …
It was ever thus. The price of leadership is loneliness. The price of adherence to conscience is loneliness. The price of adherence to principle is loneliness. I think it is inescapable. The Savior of the world was a Man who walked in loneliness. I do not know of any statement more underlined with the pathos of loneliness than His statement: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
Unfortunately, the lonely disciple must grow accustomed to deep waters. The sections above show how a trial of faith can pit someone against scriptures, friends and family, and the Church organization. The Lord is mindful that these sacrifices seem unbearable, and victory seems impossible. Kierkegaard bore his own testimony of how this “prodigious paradox” is a prerequisite to reach the fruit of everlasting glory:
No! No one who was great in the world will be forgotten, but everyone was great in his own way, and … everyone became great in proportion to his expectancy. One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became the greatest of all. Everyone shall be remembered, but everyone was great wholly in proportion to the magnitude of that with which he struggled. For he who struggled with the world became great by conquering the world, and he who struggled with himself became great by conquering himself, but he who struggled with God became the greatest of all.
Abraham eventually descended from Mount Moriah. He has received his eternal reward. Likewise, any faithful believers who defend a true cause must follow the example of Abraham through their tribulations. The scriptures do not offer any solutions to end their anxiety, but they contain the stories of stalwart role models who felt just as estranged. The Lord’s plan is not to eliminate our trials, but to help us understand that they are a necessary part of our mortal education.