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The Gift of Trembling Trust

Updated: Feb 3

S. David Hall, PsyD


I have long found this image so moving.

It is a woodcut replica showing a part of a stained glass window entitled “Isaac” which can be found in the Church of Reconciliation in Taizé, France.

It is a depiction from the story found in Genesis 22, known in the Hebrew tradition as the Akedah, but is generally known as the Binding of Isaac.

Scripture tells us how Abraham is commanded by God to offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice.

Likely created by Brother Éric (de Saussure), an artist and member of the Christian monastic community of Taizé, I love how this simple image captures so much of the innocence and vulnerability of Isaac. These elements are highlighted in Isaac's absent side-gaze that is so easy to recognize in many small children who find themselves in situations they do not understand. But then you also notice Isaac's tiny hand clasping Abraham's forefinger, seeking reassurance in his anxiety but also showing trust in his father. In this woodcut we only see Abraham's hands on Isaac, with one hand turned outward in offering, but with the other hand (the one that Isaac holds) turned inward, maybe betraying the deep conflict of emotions inside Abraham in this moment.

Along with woodcuts you can buy, this smaller image can be found on postcards available in the online store maintained by the Taizé Brothers. But until very recently, I’ve never seen the original stained glass window in full length, but so much more of the story came alive to me when I did.

The pain, the unspoken questions, and the commitment to obedience; it all jumps out at me in seeing Abraham‘s anguished face.

Abraham is afraid…and he has every reason to be afraid.

His God has asked him to sacrifice that which he loves and cherishes more than anything else in his life. To sacrifice the son that God promised him, the son for whom Abraham grew impatient, and even despaired of ever having. The son, that through a miracle, he was able to have with his wife in their old age beyond all possibility. This is the offering that his God has asked of him. And there he is on Mount Moriah, with his knife and his fire and the most precious thing in the world to him to be the sacrifice. How could Abraham not be trembling?

Here is the full passage-

1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham! ”

“Here I am,” he answered.

2 “Take your son,” he said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

3 So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac. He split wood for a burnt offering and set out to go to the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. In his hand he took the fire and the knife, and the two of them walked on together.

7 Then Isaac spoke to his father Abraham and said, “My father.”

And he replied, “Here I am, my son.”

Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? ”

8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Then the two of them walked on together.

9 When they arrived at the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.

11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham! ”

He replied, “Here I am.”

12 Then he said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide, so today it is said, “It will be provided on the Lord’s mountain.” -- Genesis 22:1-14 (CSB)


For the vast majority of us, we can take the story for granted as one where the happy outcome could have been seen as a foregone conclusion from the very beginning.

Of course, a good God would not want a child to be sacrificed!

The moral structure of every movie, TV show, and bedtime story all of us grew up with gave us a fairly consistent model on what was moral. And this would seem to let us know that God was just "faking." Abraham didn’t have anything to worry about.

But this is not the world that Abraham lived in. Abraham lived in the land of Canaan where the cults of Molech and Baal flourished. These gods demanded that their worshipers sacrifice their children in fire to them. Yahweh had shown Abraham time and again that He was not like other gods. But everything around Abraham normalized what was being asked of him, God wanted to be offered what mattered to Abraham the most. And trembling, Abraham came to the mountain to offer it.

So here’s a question, did Abraham trust God?

I believe the answer is that Abraham did trust God, but not in the ways that many of us think of when we think of what “trust” should mean and how we want to apply it in our lives.

There are two specific examples where I think we misidentify trust. Particularly as it relates to trusting God.

The first example is that we believe we trust God when we have confidence that the outcome of the situation will be what we want it to be. We want our kids to make the varsity team, for our offer on that house to get accepted, for the couples' retreat to really improve our marriage, for the cancer treatment to be successful. These are the things we pray for and for which we say we trust God, which can sometimes mean we “trust” that he will give us what we ask for.

But what if the preferred outcome doesn’t happen? Or even more, what if we do not even expect our desires in the request to be fulfilled, do we still say we "trust God?"

Abraham had every reason to believe that what his God was asking him really did mean the death of his child. This is what was demanded by Molech and Baal. Abraham did not have the Torah to reference, he did not know that Yahweh found such sacrifices detestable (Leviticus 18:21).

The second example that I think illustrates where we are often mistaken when we define "trust" has to do with us qualifying trust with our emotional state. We say we "trust something" when we have an emotional and/physical response that seems assured. We do know that there is a biological part of trust. Research done by Paul J. Zak and the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies highlights that the neurochemical oxytocin, often referred to as the "trust hormone," plays a crucial role in facilitating social bonding and trustworthiness. Oxytocin is released in the brain during positive social interactions, such as when sharing a meal or hugging, and it increases a person's empathy and likelihood to trust others (Zak, 2017). But while oxytocin can promote trust and positive social interactions, trust based solely on oxytocin can be misleading. For example, oxytocin can enhance our bias towards favoring people and ideas that are simply more familiar and/or more comfortable to us, regardless of actual trustworthiness (De Dreu, 2012).

Abraham's decision to obey God's command does not seem to be rooted in the emotional or physical assurance that goes with this "feeling" sort of trust. Instead, his trust appears to be based on a simple choice of faith (as said in Hebrews 11: 17-19). A faith that might even go against our natural inclination towards emotional comfort and security. This is a trust that is not about a feeling, but about a commitment to act in "obedience."

In Philippians 2, Paul says:

Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling and arguing, -- Philippians 2:12-14 (CSB)


Obedience, in this way, allows for trust to not be tied to us trying to manage our own security and wanting to get our feeling in line in a certain way. As CS Lewis writes in his novel Perelandra-

"I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are his will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?"

We are weak, and frail, and limited in our imaginations as humans. And we are under a God that is all-powerful, all-wise, and mysterious. In true trust, how could we not be trembling? If we are trusting, in spite of our feeling to the contrary, and with the real fear that whatever we are dreading might actually happen, why would we not be afraid? To approach God without fear would mean that we are arrogant because we believe we can actually manage our own worlds and/or ignorant of who God really is.

But it also key to remember that God is good...because he is not like other gods, especially the gods we make for ourselves and in our own image. This difference is the aspect of God that we ascribe to His "Holiness." The poet and teacher, Jackie Hill Perry, says this about God's trustworthiness in her book Holier Than Thou-

“If God is holy, then He can’t sin. If God can’t sin, then He can’t sin against me. If He can’t sin against me, shouldn’t that make Him the most trustworthy being there is?”

We look for the "feelings" of trust, but a truer trust is not shown in feelings at all, but in our actions. The Genesis story never says what Abraham "felt" about what he was asked to do, but we see what he "does." We see how he acts.

And likewise, our acts of trust are not true trust if those actions only come from us in the belief that God will do what we want. If we only see God as trustworthy if He makes our circumstances fit within what we desire, then we are completely misunderstanding who God is and who we are. As Jackie Hill Perry goes on to say-

“You may be tempted to believe that God has changed because your circumstances have, but if that were the case, he wouldn’t be God. He’d be you.”

Trust for Abraham meant simple showing up. Something that happens 3 times in the Genesis passage I believe is key. When Yahweh first spoke, to command Abraham to do what Abraham likely feared the most, Abraham said “Here I am,” -- Genesis 22:1 (CSB). When Isaac, likely speaking in growing fear, wondered to his father where the sacrifice would come from (remember, Isaac also lived in this world that knew child sacrifice), Abraham answered “Here I am" -- Genesis 22:7 (CSB). And then, with his son bound and Abraham with his knife ready to offer to his God his whole future, the Angel of the Lord intervenes and calls his name. I am sure it was in desperate hope that Abraham says "Here I am" -- Genesis 22:11 (CSB).

God is good, but he will ask for everything, which should make us tremble.



Dr. Stephen “David” Hall (PsyD, LMFT, LPC-MHSP) works as an applied psychologist, a teacher, and as a licensed counselor/psychotherapist. He serves as the dean for the Negev Institute and is the cohost of the Church Psychology podcast. More on David can be found at www.davidhallpsych.com


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