Excerpt from Spiritual Classics
Blessed are the poor in spir­it: for theirs is the king­dom of heav­en. (Matt. 5:3)

Before the Lord God made man upon the earth He first pre­pared for him a world of use­ful and pleas­ant things for his sus­te­nance and delight. In the Gen­e­sis account of the cre­ation these are called sim­ply things.” They were made for man’s use, but they were meant always to be exter­nal to the man and sub­servient to him. In the deep heart of the man was a shrine where none but God was wor­thy to come. With­in him was God; with­out, a thou­sand gifts which God had show­ered upon him. 

But sin has intro­duced com­pli­ca­tions and has made those very gifts of God a poten­tial source of ruin to the soul. 

Our woes began when God was forced out of His cen­tral shrine and things were allowed to enter. With­in the human heart things have tak­en over. Men have now by nature no peace with­in their hearts, for God is crowned there no longer, but there in the moral dusk stub­born and aggres­sive usurpers fight among them­selves for first place on the throne. 

This is not a mere metaphor, but an accu­rate analy­sis of our real spir­i­tu­al trouble.… 

The tyran­ny of things 

Our Lord referred to this tyran­ny of things when He said to His dis­ci­ples, If any man will come after me, let him deny him­self, and take up his cross, and fol­low me. For whoso­ev­er will save his life shall lose it: and whoso­ev­er shall lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:24 – 25).

Break­ing this truth into frag­ments for our bet­ter under­stand­ing, it would seem that there is with­in each of us an ene­my which we tol­er­ate at our per­il. Jesus called it life” and self,” or as we would say, the self-life. Its chief char­ac­ter­is­tic is its pos­ses­sive­ness: the words gain and prof­it sug­gest this. To allow this ene­my to live is, in the end, to lose every­thing. To repu­di­ate it and give up all for Christ’s sake is to lose noth­ing at last, but to pre­serve every­thing unto life eter­nal. And pos­si­bly also a hint is giv­en here as to the only effec­tive way to destroy this foe: it is by the cross. Let him take up his cross and fol­low me.” … 

Uncleansed love

As is fre­quent­ly true, this New Tes­ta­ment prin­ci­ple of spir­i­tu­al life finds its best illus­tra­tion in the Old Tes­ta­ment. In the sto­ry of Abra­ham and Isaac we have a dra­mat­ic pic­ture of the sur­ren­dered life as well as an excel­lent com­men­tary on the first Beatitude. 

Abra­ham was old when Isaac was born, old enough indeed to have been his grand­fa­ther, and the child became at once the delight and idol of his heart. From the moment he first stooped to take the tiny form awk­ward­ly in his arms, he was an eager love slave of his son. God went out of His way to com­ment on the strength of this affec­tion. And it is not hard to under­stand. The baby rep­re­sent­ed every­thing sacred to his fathers heart: the promis­es of God, the covenants, the hopes of the years and the long mes­sian­ic dream. As he watched him grow from baby­hood to young man­hood, the heart of the old man was knit clos­er and clos­er with the life of his son, till at last the rela­tion­ship bor­dered upon the per­ilous. It was then that God stepped in to save both father and son from the con­se­quences of an uncleansed love.

Take now thy son,” said God to Abra­ham, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Mori­ah; and offer him there for a burnt-offer­ing upon one of the moun­tains which I will tell thee of (Gen. 22:2). The sacred writer spares us a close-up of the agony that night on the slopes near Beer­she­ba when the aged man had it out with his God, but respect­ful imag­i­na­tion may view in awe the bent form wrestling con­vul­sive­ly alone under the stars. Pos­si­bly not again until One greater than Abra­ham wres­tled in the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane did such mor­tal pain vis­it a human soul. If only the man him­self might have been allowed to die. That would have been a thou­sand times eas­i­er, for he was old now, and to die would have been no great ordeal for one who had walked so long with God. Besides, it would have been a last, sweet plea­sure to let his dim­ming vision rest upon the fig­ure of his stal­wart son who would live to car­ry on the Abra­ham­ic line and ful­fill in him­self the promis­es of God made long before in Ur of the Chaldees. 

Obe­di­ent love 

How should he slay the lad! Even if he could get the con­sent of his wound­ed and protest­ing heart, how could he rec­on­cile the act with the promise, In Isaac shall thy seed be called”? This was Abraham’s tri­al by fire, and he did not fail in the cru­cible. While the stars still shone like sharp white points above the tent where the sleep­ing Isaac lay, and long before the gray dawn had begun to light­en the cast, the old saint had made up his mind. He would offer his son as God had direct­ed him to do, and then trust God to raise him from the dead. This, says the writer to the Hebrews, was the solu­tion his aching heart found some­time in the dark night, and he rose ear­ly in the morn­ing” to car­ry out the plan. It is beau­ti­ful to see that, while he erred as to God’s method, he had cor­rect­ly sensed the secret of His great heart. And the solu­tion accords well with the New Tes­ta­ment Scrip­ture Whoso­ev­er will lose for my sake shall find.” 

God let the suf­fer­ing old man go through with it up to the point where He knew there would be no retreat, and then for­bade him to lay a hand upon the boy. To the won­der­ing patri­arch He now says in effect, It’s all right, Abra­ham. I nev­er intend­ed that you should actu­al­ly slay the lad. I only want­ed to remove him from the tem­ple of your heart that I might reign unchal­lenged there. I want­ed to cor­rect the per­ver­sion that exist­ed in your love. Now you may have the boy, sound and well, take him and go back to your tent. Now I know that thou fear­est God, see­ing that thou hast not with­held thy son, thine only son, from me.

Then heav­en opened and a voice was heard say­ing to him, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not with­held thy son, thine only son: that in bless­ing I will bless thee, and in mul­ti­ply­ing I will mul­ti­ply thy seed as the stars of the heav­en, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall pos­sess the gate of his ene­mies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:16 – 18). 

Sur­ren­dered love 

The old man of God lift­ed his head to respond to the Voice, and stood there on the mount strong and pure and grand, a man marked out by the Lord for spe­cial treat­ment, a friend and favorite of the Most High. Now he was a man whol­ly sur­ren­dered, a man utter­ly obe­di­ent, a man who pos­sessed noth­ing. He had con­cen­trat­ed his all in the per­son of his dear son, and God had tak­en it from him. God could have begun out on the mar­gin of Abraham’s life and worked inward to the cen­ter. He chose rather to cut quick­ly to the heart and have it over in one sharp act of sep­a­ra­tion. In deal­ing thus, He prac­ticed an econ­o­my of means and time. It hurt cru­el­ly, but it was effective. 

I have said that Abra­ham pos­sessed noth­ing. Yet was not this poor man rich? Every­thing he had owned before was his still to enjoy: sheep, camels, herds, and goods of every sort. He had also his wife and his friends, and best of all he had his son Isaac safe by his side. He had every­thing, but he pos­sessed noth­ing. There is the spir­i­tu­al secret. There is the sweet the­ol­o­gy of the heart which can be learned only in the school of renun­ci­a­tion. The books on sys­tem­at­ic the­ol­o­gy over­look this, but the wise will understand. 

After that bit­ter and blessed expe­ri­ence I think the words my and mine nev­er again had the same mean­ing for Abra­ham. The sense of pos­ses­sion which they con­note was gone from his heart. Things had been cast out for­ev­er. They had now become exter­nal to the man. His inner heart was free from them. The world said, Abra­ham is rich,” but the aged patri­arch only smiled. He could not explain it, but he knew that he owned noth­ing, that his real trea­sures were inward and eternal— 

The way of renunciation 

If we would indeed know God in grow­ing inti­ma­cy, we must go this way of renun­ci­a­tion. And if we are set upon the pur­suit of God, He will soon­er or lat­er bring us to this test. Abraham’s test­ing was, at the time, not known to him as such, yet if he had tak­en some course oth­er than the one he did, the whole his­to­ry of the Old Tes­ta­ment would have been dif­fer­ent. God would have found His man, no doubt, but the loss to Abra­ham would have been trag­ic beyond the telling. So we will be brought one by one to the test­ing place, and we may nev­er know when we are there. At that test­ing place there will be no dozen pos­si­ble choic­es for us — just one and an alter­na­tive — but our whole future will be con­di­tioned by the choice we make.

Father, I want to know Thee, but my cow­ard­ly heart fears to give up its toys. I can­not part with them with­out inward bleed­ing, and I do not try to hide from Thee the ter­ror of the part­ing. I come trem­bling, but I do come. Please root from my heart all those things which I have cher­ished so long and which have become a very part of my liv­ing self, so that Thou mayest enter and dwell there with­out a rival. Then shalt Thou make the place of Thy feet glo­ri­ous. Then shall my heart have no need of the sun to shine in it, for Thy­self wilt be the light of it, and there shall be no night there. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Excerpt tak­en from Spir­i­tu­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings on the Twelve Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines, The Blessed­ness of Pos­sess­ing Noth­ing” (Richard Fos­ter and Emi­lie Grif­fin, Edi­tors. Harper­collins, 2000.)

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