In my opinion, it is as good a description of the Abrahamic test as has been prepared by a Latter-day Saint scholar.
Larry E. Dahl, Brigham Young University
Joseph Smith, in speaking to the Twelve Apostles in Nauvoo said:
You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.
Mortal Testing Intended and Purposeful
It is interesting to review the Lord’s own statements about his intent to test and try his people. In the very beginning, in the planning stages of this earth, the Lord said, “We will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abr. 3:24-25.) All things, not just some things!
The angel taught King Benjamin this same truth:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19; italics added.)
Give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith.
And whoso layeth down his life in my cause, for my name’s sake, shall find it again, even life eternal.
Therefore, be not afraid of your enemies, for I have decreed in my heart, saith the Lord, that I will prove you in all things, whether you will abide in my covenant, even unto death, that you may be found worthy.
For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me. (D&C 98:12-15.)
Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified. (D&C 101:4-5.)
In Doctrine and Covenants 98:12 the Lord specifies that the faithful were to be tried, even unto death. Both chastening and trying are needed in the process of becoming sanctified. Indeed, one of the meanings of chasten is “to make chaste or pure; purify; refine,” and one of the meanings of try is “to make pure by melting or boiling.” The Saints needed to be chastened “in consequence of their transgressions.” (D&C 101:2.) In addition, they needed to be tried, even as Abraham, in consequence of their righteousness. In a revelation to President Brigham Young, the Lord explained, “My people must be tried in all things, that they might be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” (D&C 136:31.) The Lord’s intent is clear-those worthy of his kingdom will be tried and proven, even as Abraham.
Even as Abraham! Concerning Abraham’s test, the biblical record says simply:
God did tempt [the JST says ‘try’ instead of ‘tempt’] Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, 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. 22:1-2.)
First, consider the matter of human sacrifice. Abraham, as a young man, had been saved by the Lord from being offered as a sacrifice himself at the hands of an apostate priesthood who worshiped false gods. These idol worshipers offered to their gods “men, women, and children,” specifically those who “would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone.” (Abr. 1:8-11.) The Lord had told Abraham to leave the area because of those evil practices (Abr. 1:14) and go to a strange land that would eventually belong to his descendants (Abr. 1:16-18; 2:6). Now he was being asked to offer a human sacrifice-a hard thing to reconcile.
Further, God had made it clear to Abraham on several occasions that it was through Isaac the blessings of the covenant were to come to Abraham and to the whole world. Those blessings are the heart and soul of bringing salvation to the children of men, for the promise was that the seed of Abraham, through Isaac, would be scattered among and bless “all the families of the earth.” (See Abr. 2:8-11.) How could that promise be fulfilled if Isaac were killed?
Besides, Abraham loved Isaac dearly. After all, he had waited anxiously for Isaac to be born for at least twenty-five years from the time the Lord first promised him an heir. That wait alone would be an Abrahamic test for many. And this long wait troubled Abraham. Several years after the promise of a son at Haran, after Abraham had traveled from Haran, through Canaan, to Egypt, and back to Canaan, and still no child, Abraham asked the Lord for an explanation. He even proposed that perhaps a child born “in my house,” meaning a child of one of his servants, could become his heir. Without any details about how or when, the Lord simply reaffirmed the original promise of literal seed:
Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. (Gen. 15:1-5.)
And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.
And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.
Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed [the JST says “rejoiced”], and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old bear?
And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. (Gen. 17:15-19.)
Can you imagine the joy that Abraham and Sarah must have felt-joy accompanied by deep gratitude and an undeniable realization of the power of God and the surety of his promises. They had waited for such a long time, yearning and praying and living righteously. The blessing had finally come. Surely now all would go smoothly. In their old age they could quietly witness the continued fulfillment of God’s promises through Isaac. Or could they? First came family problems: Ishmael mocked Isaac and concern grew over who would be Abraham’s heir. Hagar and Ishmael were sent away to be cared for by the Lord. Shortly thereafter came the unthinkable requirement: offer Isaac as a sacrifice!
Now, keeping in mind the historical events we have reviewed, try to put yourself in Abraham’s place for a moment. How might you have reacted? I can feel myself wanting to say:
No. It can’t be. Human sacrifice is an abomination. All the blessings of the covenant are to come through Isaac. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I have been obedient. I have been patient. And besides all that, I love him with all my heart. I don’t want him to die. This is too painful. Why does it have to be this way?
In spite of the hurt, Abraham passed his test. The Genesis account does not describe Abraham’s thoughts or feelings or questions. It matter-of-factly says: “And Abraham rose up early in the morning . . . and went unto the place of which God had told him.” (Gen. 22:3.) But the apostle Paul bears witness of Abraham’s profound faith in God:
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. (Heb. 11:17-19.)
Abraham, Abraham: . . . Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him; for I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. (Gen. 22:11-12.)
What faith! What discipline! What a sterling example! No wonder Abraham is held up as the model.
What about us? How are we to be tested “even as Abraham?” Being asked to offer a child as a sacrifice just does not relate to our time and circumstance. But wrenching heart strings does relate-to all times and circumstances. And there are many ways to wrench the heart in any age: being asked to choose God over other things we dearly love, even when those things are good and have been promised, and when we have worked for them, yearned for them, prayed for them, and have been obedient and patient; or being asked to persevere in righteousness and service (perhaps even Church service) in the face of terrible difficulty, uncertainty, inequities, ironies, and even contradictions; or watching helplessly as the innocent suffer from the brutal misuse of God-given agency in the hands of evil men.
We should remember that not all the difficulties that try the souls of men are specially designed Abrahamic tests from God. Most, in fact, are the inevitable consequences of living in a mortal, fallen world, where natural law and agency, for the most part, are allowed full sway. It is true that such conditions come from God in the sense that he created the earth and that the conditions here are allowed by him, even designed by him to be a universal, probationary testing ground for his children. Everyone experiences bumps in the road of life, which expose weaknesses and strengths, giving opportunity for self-understanding, growth, and refinement. We are not wise enough to sort out all the factors that contribute to our challenges in this life. The critical issue is not the source of the challenges, anyway. The critical issue is how we respond to them. We can lose our focus and our progress if we constantly examine every bump in the road to determine whose fault it is.
The same principle applies to anticipating tests. It is self-defeating to spoil the present by worrying incessantly about the “big test” that will someday come. And it just may be that the “big test” will be very different from what we expect. It is enough to know that God will try us-in his own time, and in his own way, and that the very best way to prepare for that eventuality is by faithfully dealing with present tasks.
It appears that in addition to the general trials of life that all people face, those who claim to be the people of the Lord are faced with special challenges both collectively and individually.
Collective or Generational Tests
The Prophet Joseph Smith, writing from Liberty Jail in March 1839 about the Saints being driven out of the state of Missouri, addressed the idea of different but equal generational Abrahamic trials:
And now, beloved brethren, we say unto you that inasmuch as God hath said that He would have a tried people, that He would purge them as gold, now we think that this time He has chosen His own crucible, wherein we have been tried; and we think if we get through with any degree of safety, and shall have kept the faith, that it will be a sign to this generation, altogether sufficient to leave them without excuse; and we think also, it will be a trial of our faith equal to that of Abraham, and that the ancients will not have whereof to boast over us in the day of judgment, as being called to pass through heavier afflictions; that we may hold an even weight in the balance with them; but now, after having suffered so great sacrifice and having passed through so great a season of sorrow, we trust that a ram may be caught in the thicket speedily, to relieve the sons and daughters of Abraham from their great anxiety, and to light up the lamp of salvation upon their countenances, that they may hold on now, after having gone so far unto everlasting life.
Knowing what the ancients suffered and what the early Saints of this dispensation went through leads naturally to the question of our own generation. What is our collective, generational trial? Consider the teachings of President Ezra Taft Benson, as he spoke to regional representatives of the Church in 1977, while he was president of the Council of the Twelve Apostles:
Every generation has its tests and its chance to stand and prove itself. Would you like to know of one of our toughest tests? Hear the warning words of President Brigham Young, ‘The worst fear I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty and all manner of persecution and be true. But my greatest fear is that they cannot stand wealth.
Ours then seems to the toughest test of all for the evils are more subtle, more clever. It all seems less menacing and it is harder to detect. While every test of righteousness represents a struggle, this particular test seems like no test at all, no struggle and so could be the
most deceiving of all tests.
Do you know what peace and prosperity can do to a people-It can put them to sleep. The Book of Mormon warned us of how the devil, in the last days, would lead us away carefully down to hell.
The Lord has on the earth some potential spiritual giants whom He saved for some six thousand years to help bear off the Kingdom triumphantly, and the devil is trying to put them to sleep. The devil knows that he probably won’t be too successful in getting them to commit many great and malignant sins of commission. So he puts them into a deep sleep, like Gulliver, while he strands them with little sins of
omission. And what good is a sleepy, neutralized, lukewarm giant as a leader?
We have too many potential spiritual giants who should be more vigorously lifting their homes, the kingdom, and the country. We have many who feel they are good men, but they need to be good for something-stronger patriarchs, courageous missionaries, valiant genealogists and temple workers, dedicated patriots, devoted quorum members. In short, we must be shaken and awakened from a spiritual snooze.
We are tested and we are tried, we are going through some of the severest tests today and we don’t realize perhaps the severity of the tests that we’re going through. In those days, there were murderings, there were mobbings, there were drivings. They were driven out into the desert, they were starving and they were unclad, they were cold. They came here to this favored land. We are the inheritors of what they gave to us.
But what are we doing with it? Today we are basking in the lap of luxury, the like of which we’ve never seen before in the history of the world. It would seem that probably this is the most severe test of any test that we’ve ever had in the history of this Church.
And thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men. . . . Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people . . . then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One-yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity. (Hel. 12:1-2.)
One more brief note about an additional collective trial we face today. It involves affluence but of a different kind. It is the affluence of knowledge. Elder Harold B. Lee called it sophistication. He said,
We are now going through another test-a period of what we might call sophistication. This is a time when there are many clever people who are not willing to listen to the humble prophets of the Lord. And we have suffered from that. It is rather a severe test.
O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are
learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. (2 Ne. 9:28-29).
There are individual tests in addition to collective ones. Each person faces unique circumstances. Each person has a particular aggregation of strengths and weaknesses. What is a challenge for one may be simple for another, and vice versa. Elder Boyd K. Packer explained:
The crucial test of life, I repeat, does not center in the choice between fame and obscurity, nor between wealth and poverty. The greatest decision of life is between good and evil.
We may foolishly bring unhappiness and trouble, even suffering upon ourselves. These are not always to be regarded as penalties imposed by a displeased Creator. They are part of the lessons of life, part of the test.
Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of age.
Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury.
All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect.
“In time,” Neal A. Maxwell observed, “each person will receive a ‘customized challenge’ to determine his dedication to God.” The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that before one can have his calling and election made sure he must be “thoroughly proved”; God must find “that the man is determined to serve Him at all hazards.” “All hazards” may at times mean there will be no ram in the thicket, no angel to stop the knife, as there were with Abraham. Paul faced that reality. He said, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me. . . . For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7-9.)
Paul’s particular “thorn in the flesh” is reminiscent of the more general principle spoken by the Lord to Moroni:
I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27.)
The Purposes of Being Tested
There just have to be exalted purposes in all this testing. The scriptures help to identify some. Lehi explained that without opposition, neither righteousness nor happiness could be brought about. (2 Ne. 2:11.) In a revelation to Joseph Smith the Lord said, “If they never should have the bitter they could not know the sweet.” (D&C 29:39; see also Moses 6:55). To Brigham Young came the word that “my people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion,” though just how it prepares them is not said. (D&C 136:31.) The Lord indicates that being chastened and tried is a prerequisite to being sanctified. (D&C 101:4-5.) James taught that the “trying of your faith worketh patience.” (James 1:3.) We learn from 2 Chronicles 32:31 that being tried exposes the heart: “God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart.” Note what Christ’s suffering did for him, in addition to all that it did for us.
And he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12.)
An actual knowledge to any person, that the course of life which he pursues is according to the will of God, is essentially necessary to enable him to have that confidence in God without which no person can obtain eternal life. . .
Such was, as always will be, the situation of the saints of God, that unless they have an actual knowledge that the course they are pursuing is according to the will of God they will grow weary in their minds, and faint. . . .
Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things. It was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God.
President Hugh B. Brown, in answer to the question of why Abraham was asked to “offer as a sacrifice his only hope for the promised posterity,” said: “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.” Knowledge about ourselves thus gained puts our relationship to God on a higher plane. We truly become heir to “all that my Father hath” (D&C 84:38), and our “confidence” will “wax strong in the presence of God.” (D&C 121:45.) That confidence is not arrogance or self-righteousness; it is not a feeling we have simply received that which we have earned. It is, rather, being at ease or comfortable in the presence of Goodness, having complete faith and trust in One who has been gracious-who has given us that which we could never, on our own, achieve, once we have proven what the deepest yearnings of our heart and soul really are. Note the confidence with which Job, as he successfully dealt with his own Abrahamic trials, withstood those who accused him of unrighteousness:
Hold your peace, let me alone, that I may speak, and let come on me what will. . . .
Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. . .
He also shall be my salvation: for an hypocrite shall not come before him. Hear diligently my speech, and my declaration with your ears.
Behold now, I have ordered my cause; I know that I shall be justified. (Job 13:13-18.)
But he knoweth the way that I take; when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold. (Job 23:10.)
For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me. (Job 19:25-27.)
President John Taylor described the spirit of that difference:
I was not born a slave! I cannot, will not be a slave. I would not be a slave to God! I’d be His servant, friend, His son. I’d go at His behest; but would not be His slave. I’d rather be extinct than a slave. His friend I feel I am, and He is mine. A slave! The manacles would pierce my very bones-the clanking chains would grate against my soul-a poor, lost, servile, crawling wretch, to lick the dust and fawn and smile upon the thing who gave the lash! . . . But stop! I am God’s free man; I will not, cannot be a slave!
The stark reality is that understanding the need for Abrahamic tests and the and nature of such tests does not take away the pain that comes with them. It helps, however, to realize that we are not alone. Others have traveled similarly and endured it well. And so can we. It is at the same time both comforting and somewhat disquieting to read the exchange between the Lord and Joseph Smith as the Prophet cried out in frustration from his cell in Liberty Jail:
O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
How long shall thy hand be stayed? . . . (D&C 121:1-2.)
My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes. . . .
Thou art not yet as Job. (D&C 121:1-2, 7-8, 10.)
Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.
The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?
Therefore, hold on thy way. . . . Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; . . . God shall be with you forever and ever.
1. As reported by President John Taylor in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards & Sons, 1851-86), 24:197.
2. World Book Dictionary (Chicago: Doubleday & Co., 1986), s.v. “chasten.”
3. Ibid., s.v. “try.”
4. The promise of a great nation coming from Abraham came while he resided in Haran. (Gen. 12:1-3; Abr. 2:1-11.) According to Genesis 12:4,Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Isaac was born when Abraham was one hundred years old. ( Gen. 21:5.) Hence the twenty-five-year wait. If, however, Abraham 2:14 gives Abraham’s correct age at leaving Haran (sixty-two years old), then the wait was thirty-eight years.
5. Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 24:264.
6. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938), pp. 135-36.
7. Ezra Taft Benson, “Our Obligation and Challenge,” Regional Representatives Seminar, 30 Sept. 1977, pp. 2-3. Unpublished typescript in author’s possession.
8. Harold B. Lee, address to Church employees, Salt Lake City, 13 Dec. 1973. Unpublished typescript in author’s possession.
9. Neal A. Maxwell, “The Gospel Gives Answers to Life’s Problems” (ad-dress to seminary and institute personnel), Provo, Utah, Brigham Young University, Summer 1970, p. 2.
10. Harold B. Lee, “Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity,” Instructor, June 1965, p. 217.
11. Boyd K. Packer, in Conference Report, Oct. 1980, p. 29.
12. Neal A. Maxwell, as quoted in Daily Universe, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 7 Oct. 1983.
13. Smith, Teachings, p. 150.
14. Rabbinic traditions and apocryphal writings contain the notion that Isaac was a grown man and fully subscribed to his being offered as a sacrifice. Such an idea, though not affirmed in the scriptures, makes the comparison with the atonement of Christ more poignant and meaningful. (See Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968), pp. 271-283; and The Book of Jasher (Salt Lake City: J. H. Parry & Co., 1887), pp. 59-63.
15. Joseph Smith, “Lecture Sixth,” Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985), pars. 2, 4, 7.
16. As reported by Truman G. Madsen in Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), p. 93.
17. Oil for Their Lamps, comp. M. Lynn Bennion (Salt Lake City: LDS Department of Education, 1943), p. 73; see also Elder Boyd K. Packer in “Follow the Brethren” (address to Brigham Young University students), Provo, Utah, 23 Mar. 1965.