“I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”

Matthew 9:13

Last Sunday, LDS parents around the world sat in Gospel Doctrine praising Abraham’s exact obedience as demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac.* LDS children around the world may have been feeling a bit concerned about the story, but I’m sure their teachers did their best to help the kids see what a great example Abraham was. 

I think a lot about this story, and wonder if we are getting the exact opposite message from it that we are supposed to. Instead of reading this as a story about how we, like Abraham, should be willing to sacrifice anything if asked to by God (or Church leaders …), perhaps we should be reading this story as a witness that God will never ask us to sacrifice our children. Perhaps the lesson Abraham needed to learn was not to be obedient to harsh and inscrutable commands, but that the God of Israel is a loving God unlike the one of his own childhood. And perhaps the sacrifice Abraham needed to make was not of his child, but of his previous conception of God. As Adam Miller put it, “At some point, God will ask you to sacrifice on his altar not only your stories about your own life but your version of his stories as well.”

I know that this reading of the story is difficult in light of the scriptures’ apparent claim that God is the one who told Abraham to make the sacrifice, and then rewarded him for his willingness to obey. I’m not sure how to explain that away. Was Abraham delusional? Was the intent of the authors actually to encourage the typical set of lessons (obedience) but God is whispering the true story of God’s love through the verses to those who will listen?

Lindsey Hansen Park said something about religious trauma a few weeks ago that has stuck with me and I think may illuminate this story. She wrote, in response to the Wilcox fireside:

A lot has already been said about the (now infamous) Brad Wilcox fireside talk. Mostly about his egregious remarks defending the priesthood/temple ban, his disgusting sexism and more. I feel like that talk contains all the worst parts of my childhood church. 

I’m still struck by the fear and anger in his voice. The intensity and urgency behind how he talked about apostasy and doubt. It was binary. This splitting, black and white thinking: The church is either the most true church or completely false. You stay or you leave. You don’t question god, and if you do, walk away from everything.

Whenever I hear such reasoning, I’m reminded that logic like this is a result of a traumatized brain. Unprocessed trauma leads the brain to be unable to see other choices, nuance and options.

The most generosity I can give Brother Wilcox (although I don’t think he deserves it after spewing such hatred to youth, especially in a position of authority), is that he’s clearly spent a lifetime traumatized by his own faith. It’s so obvious in his logic and reasoning that he confuses fear with love. He’s adopted a theology of pain, passed down from generations of Mormon trauma that accepts that God asks cruel things and it is us who has to call cruelty like that, love.

One of the biggest tragedies in Mormonism for me (mostly because I live in its wake) is all the unprocessed generations of trauma that has been codified as theology. It’s unnecessary and dangerous. If you look at the history, it’s the same- our leaders take their unprocessed trauma and preach it over the pulpit as God’s love.

I wonder if Abraham’s story is an example of that – of unprocessed trauma being mistaken for theology – whether of his own trauma (in the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, Abraham himself was offered as a child sacrifice by wicked priests) or the trauma of the men who first spoke and later wrote this story down in Genesis.  

Either way, going back to the interpretation, I see Abraham’s God of sacrifice play out in unhealthy ways in our congregations. Too often, I see that we are willing to sacrifice our children in response to what we believe is a hard thing God is asking us. We interpret the objection in our hearts as a trial that we have to overcome, as proof that this is a really hard thing God is asking us to do, but we never stop to question whether those misgivings are actually warnings telling us “this is not right. This is not God.” Sometimes it seems the more miserable a Church requirement makes us, the more convinced we are that it must be our cross to bear. What if the misery is telling us the opposite – what if it is trying to warn to us that this ask never came from God in the first place? So often we go on sacrificing our children, but there is no ram in the thicket to save them and no angel appears to stay the knife.

  • Did you discuss this story at Church? Were there other interpretations put forward?
  • Have you seen examples where LDS folks (or other religious people) have a mindset that God will ask them to do terrible things? Or have you seen the opposite?
  • Have you ever had an experience where you felt like you had to sacrifice your concept of God to make way for truer one?
  • Do you think God really told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Was Abraham crazy? Why was this story told the way it was?


*If your class focused on Lot’s “worldly” wife instead, here’s an excellent reinterpretation of that story.