Once I was in the valley known as Hebron, now beautifully fruitful and where tradition has it, there is a tomb to father Abraham. As I approached the place with Elder Hugh B. Brown, I asked, “What are the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” Elder Brown thought a moment and answered in one word, “Posterity.” Then I almost burst out, “Why, then was Abraham commanded to go to Mount Moriah and offer his only hope of posterity?” It was clear that this man, nearly ninety, had thought and prayed and wept over that question before. He finally said, “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.”
You are aware that the record speaks of the incredible promise that Abraham after years of barrenness-which in some ways to the Israelites was the greatest curse of life-would sire a son who would in turn sire sons and become the father of nations. This came about after Abraham had left a culture where human sacrifice was performed. Abraham was then counseled, and if that is too weak a word, he was commanded to take this miracle son up to the mount.
We often identify with Abraham; we sometimes think less about what that meant to Sarah, the mother, and to Isaac, the son. If we can trust the Apocrypha, there are three details that the present narrative omits. First, Isaac was not a mere boy. He was a youth, a stripling youth on the verge of manhood. Second, Abraham did not keep from him, finally, the commandment or the source of the commandment. But having made the heavy journey, how heavy! He counseled with his son. Third, Isaac said in effect, “My father, if you alone had asked me to give my life for you, I would have been honored and would have given it. That both you and Jehovah ask only doubles my willingness.” It was at Isaac’s request that his arms were bound lest involuntarily, but spontaneously, he should resist the sinking of the knife. Only in the Book of Mormon, though many have assumed this, has a prophet said that this was in “similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” (Jacob 4:5).
As we later ascended the mount traditionally known as Mount Moriah-it is just inside the east wall of Jerusalem-we remembered a statement of Brother Ellis Rasmussen of BYU: one can believe that it was to that same mount that another Son ascended. And this time there was no ram in the thicket.
Scholars are widely split over this account. At one extreme are those who say that it could not be, that it did not happen, that this is an allegory. We have here a description of the internal struggle that Abraham went through in trying to leave behind his boyhood training in . God would not require such a thing. One man put it to me this way, “That is a terrible way to test a man. A loving God would not do it.”
At the other extreme are those who have held that the story, if not true to history, is nevertheless true to life. However, they go further. They almost rejoice in the contradiction. They say this story illustrates that faith must do more than go beyond reason. Faith, if it is genuine, pulverizes reason. We must, as Kierkegaard put it, be “crucified upon the paradox of the absurd.”
My testimony is that both the rationalists and irrationalists have misread. For in modern times, we have been taught that this story does not simply lie in our remote past but in our own individual future. As modern revelation states, we must be “chastened and tried, even as Abraham” (D&C 101:4). Do you remember after that more than 900-mile march from Kirtland to Missouri we call Zion’s Camp-a march that from all mortal appearance was a failure, for it achieved nothing, someone came to Brigham Young and said, “What did you get out of that fiasco?” He replied, “Everything we went for–experience.” He could say that because he had only within hours been with the Prophet Joseph in a meeting where the Prophet had declared in substance, “Brethren, some of you are angry with me because you did not fight in Missouri. But let me tell you, God did not want you to fight. He wanted to develop a core of men ‘who had offered their lives and who made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.’ Now God has found his leaders, and those of you who are called to positions who have not made that sacrifice will be required to make it hereafter” (DHC, II, p. 182, note.)
There is the recorded testimony of Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor, who described the Kirtland Temple experience-an outpouring so rich that some of those present honestly believed that the Millennium had come, that the era of peace had been ushered in, for they were so filled with the spirit of blessing and love, The prophet arose in that setting and said, “Brethren, this is the Lord that is with us, but trials lie ahead. Brethren [he was speaking to the Twelve], God will feel after you, and he will wrench your very heartstrings. If you cannot stand it, you will not be fit for the kingdom of God.” All too prophetic was that statement. Half of the original Council of Twelve later, as the Prophet put it, “lifted up the heel” against him and against Christ. Four others were at least temporarily disaffected. Only two, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimiball, did not buckle under the pressure, and they were tried, too.
Let us look at the implications for now. We live in a time when many are saying we need commitment, a total kind of commitment, a “risk-everything” kind of commitment. On that subject many contemporary writers are eloquent. But on the question, “To what does one commit?” vagueness and often vagaries are all that are offered. Someone asked me once, “What is the definition of a fanatic?” I answered in Santayana’s phrase, “A fanatic is a person who doubles his speed when he has lost his direction.” But what then is the name of a person who doubles and quadruples his effort when he has found his direction? That is commitment.
It is a mistake to suppose that Abraham acted in total ignorance-that his leap was a leap in the dark. If you consult the Inspired Version or even the King James, it is apparent that Abraham saw in vision the Son of Man (with a capital M meaning Man of Holiness, the eternal Father). He saw him; he saw his day; and he rejoiced (See Genesis 15:12. John 8:56) He received promises and accepted them. He was told, as our Pearl of Great Price reminds us, that he stood, even before mortality, among the mighty, the noble, and the great; that he was one of them; that he was chosen, which is more than simply called, before he was born; and that there therefore lingered in him a residual power of response to Christ that came out mightily in the hour of need (See Abraham 3:22-24).
We have been told that we are of Abraham. We are his children.
We have been taught that those of us who have joined the Church by conversion are just as much so as those of us who are born under the covenant (See D&C 84:33-34). We have been taught that the spiritual process that is to occur with us is not just a matter of changing names. It is a process whereby the blood itself is somehow purged, purified, and we literally become the seed of Abraham (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp 149-150). But those who are Abraham’s descendants must also bear the responsibility of Abraham (See D&C 132:30-32).
We live in a time when everybody is willing to talk about rights, but it is rare to hear the words duty and responsibility. There never was a right, I submit, that did not have a corresponding duty. There never was a duty that did not also eventually entail a right.
We talk often as if the priesthood is solely a privilege. It is also a burden and many who have lived long in this Church know there are times, sometimes lengthy times, when the priesthood is much duty and very little right.
This leads to a statement allegedly made by the quotable J. Golden Kimball. Someone asked him how he accounted for the call of a certain brother to a certain position. He is supposed to have replied, “The Lord must have called him; no one else would have thought of him.”
Someone else was also complaining about how difficult it was to follow a certain leader. (You see, it is not just a matter of following the request to give a spectacular amount. What if you are called to give less than you can give? What if you are called not to be called? What if you are told only to wait for a decision and be patient?) In answer to this complaint, J. Golden says the legend, replied, “Well some of them are sent to lead us and some of them are sent to try us.” After the laughter and delight of that statement passes, the truth of it becomes apparent. All of us are sent to lead and to try each other. And the priesthood is given to try us to the core because of what it demands of us.
May I speak only for a moment, out of the abstractions about some modern examples? You are aware that the Donner party, under the terror of their trauma west, lapsed into cannibalism. Not so with these modern human yet superhuman Latter-day Saints. Some of them died in each other’s arms. Some died with their hands frozen to the crossbar, always with their faces west.
Then there were the three young men, Brother Huntington, Brother Grant, Brother Kimball, all only eighteen years of age, who went with the relief party the second thousand miles to help with the Martin Handcart Company. On this trip they faced a stream that was swollen with ice and snow. Have you ever walked, even to the knee level, through such water? The pioneers almost hopelessly stood back, unable to go through in their weakened and emaciated condition. Those three boys carried every one of the company across and then crossed back, sometimes in water up to their waists. When Brother Brigham heard this, he wept and then rose in the majesty of his spirit and said, “God will exalt those three young men in the celestial kingdom of God.”
What about Brother Helaman Pratt, who had been in four states, driven from all, and who now had a toehold within an adobe house in the valley. Brigham Young called him in and said, “Brother Pratt, we are calling you to colonize in Mexico. You will be released when you die. God bless you.” Brother Pratt went. He was released when he died. One of the great things that came out of that Nazareth was a man named Henry Eyring.
There are sacrifices. But the prophets again and again insist that we ought to use a different word. How can it be called a sacrifice to yield up a handful of dust when what is promised is a whole earth? But we think we know better than God. We think that what we want for us is greater than what he wants for us. Then we simply violate the first commandment, which is to love God first and over all. The moment that pattern is followed he seeks in us the one thing that we do not really want to give up. Many of us will say that we do not have that kind of faith. But I submit to you that you do not have that kind of faith until you pass that test.
Until We Are Proven
Now we are back to the statement, the wise statement of Elder Hugh B. Brown: “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.” What did he learn? He learned that he did love God unconditionally, that God could now bless him unconditionally. Do you think his prayers had a different temper and tone after that? Do you think he could pray in faith, saying, “Lord, you know my heart,” and the echo would say, “And I know it.” John Taylor said that the Prophet taught that if God could have found a deeper way to test Abraham he would have used that (See JD 24:264). As Paul looked back and wondered how Abraham could have his willingness account for righteousness, his conviction was that Abraham believed Jehovah could raise his son from the dead if necessary in order to fulfill the promise, which that sacrifice scene contradicts. That is what God did ultimately with his own Son. (See Hebrews 11:19)
Brothers and sisters, all about us there are quibblings, demeanings, oppositions, negations, shrinkings. But I, as one who has feet of clay that go all the way to my waist, bear by testimony that is it the love of God that cries out for us to prove our love for him. He cannot bless us until we have been proved, cannot even pull out of us the giant spirit in us unless we let him. If we come offering what we think he wants, without having testimony that we are doing what he really does want, we are not yet prepared. I bear testimony that there is also in the record evidence that joy can attend us even in the midst of such sacrifice. It is a sweeter, perhaps a bitter, sweeter joy. But it comes when we know that we are acting under the will of Christ. There is also the testimony that he delights, he rejoices, with a power that is born of his own descent into pain when we thus respond.
Abraham was called the friend of God, the son of God, the father of the faithful. Modern revelation tells us that now he is a little higher than the angels. Abraham says the revelation, sits with Isaac and Jacob on thrones, “because they did none other things than that which they commanded.” They are no angels but are gods and have entered into their exaltation. (See D&C 132:37).
A Personal Reflection
Years ago, there was a moment when I became intoxicated with the idea that I could become a Rhodes Scholar.
It did not take me long to become convinced that that was also what God wanted for me. The greatest shock of my life to that point was when, after passing certain of the preliminaries with the committee, I sat down and heard the committee announce two other names as going to Oxford. I was so baffled. “You must be kidding. Don’t you understand? This is for me,” I thought. But they did not make a mistake.
I remember giving a talk the following Sunday, I am afraid a hypocritical talk, on prayer in a local ward where I announced that one of the great principles we had been taught is that when we pray we must always say, “Thy will be done,” and then listen for it, that half of prayer was listening. As I said that, I heard something, a kind of an imp on my shoulder saying, “You’re a fine one to talk that way. You’ve been saying, “Thy will be done as long as it’s my will” for months. Now you’re bitter, bitter as gall. Suddenly without any introduction that the audience could have understood I said, “I prophesy [strange thing for me to say, for I had never done that before] that the thing that I had expected and wanted but which has been denied this week will somehow be made up to me, that what I am to do (and I don’t know what that is) will somehow be better than what I was to do.” And then quite confused at what I had heard, I sat down.
I forgot that completely until the time came when, in circumstances I cannot relate, it became clear that I could do graduate studies at Harvard in New England. I had forgotten any relevance in that until the hour came (thirty-five years earlier than I hoped) that I was called to be a missionary again and a mission president in New England. I know there are those who will say, “You might just as well have gone to England and to Oxford, had you been able to cut it. It is only a coincidence.” I am here this morning to say that I am convinced in my soul that what was intended for me was not old England but New. When I prayed the bitterness out and the lingering peace of the Savior in, I had nothing but gratitude.
Brothers and sisters, today we need Abrahams, Isaacs, and Jacobs. We need those who are willing to stand and who, having done all, stand. We have people now, and need more, who can listen to the living word and the present commitment of the Lord Jesus Christ through his prophets and stand. We are not a generation who will be recorded as that group who grumbled about our home teaching families. It seems to me such trivia is beneath the dignity of our heritage, the dignity of our calling, and the potential that God has in mind to prepare the world for the future. May God help us to respond and become sons of Abraham.