Breakfast Club: The Nudge of Dread

Nudges and Nights of DreadHave you ever experienced a nudge or even a night of dread? What I mean by a nudge of dread is a self-apprehension, a view of oneself, as bent, broken, in Christian terminology, as a “sinner.” It may be a wave of shame that sweeps over you, or a nagging guilt that you just can’t shake; it may be an apprehension that you truly are an addict, that you dominated by self-pity, that you are a spiteful or angry or lustful or fearful person; it may come through the death of one you loved. These self-apprehensions of dread can, at times, move beyond temporary “nudges” and become whole “nights of dread” where you face off with and feel deeply – for an extended period of time – your own bentness, darkness, brokenness. Christianity both explains and provides a solution for the “nudges of dread” and the “nights of dread” that we all experience.

The Dread of Abraham

Many people have heard the story of God’s testing of Abraham’s faith that is found in Genesis 22. In this chapter, God commands Abraham “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Few have pondered the weight and dread and ethical implications of this command as well as Soren Kierkegaard. In his book, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard makes the point that we have all been lulled to sleep by this story; that we dwell only on the greatness of Abraham and his faith. But, he argues, a better reading of the story must wrestle with the massive ethical angst and dread that Abraham must have felt. He puts it starkly:

“The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that we would sacrifice Isaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”

Kierkegaard challenges us to see not only the greatness, but the dreadfulness of Abraham’s deed.

What made God’s command dreadful to Abraham? 

According to the story found in Genesis, it was not what throws us moderns into angst: the ethical dilemma of God's command for Abraham to murder his own son. In fact, in the biblical account, we get no indication that Abraham viewed this as a command to murder his son. After all, why would he need to go to a mountain to murder his son.

What filled Abraham’s heart with dread was this: in the command of God he was confronted with the dread apprehension that he and his family owed a debt of sin to the Holy God and that God was, at this precise time, and in this sovereign way, requiring Abraham to pay that debt by the sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac. This fits with numerous Old Testament Scriptures where God reminds his people that He, the Holy God, has a right to their “firstborn.”  Abraham’s night of dread was the dread of one who knew that before this Holy God he and all his family were sinners and that God was demanding an accounting.

The Christian Solution

All religions of the world agree that there is a problem with the human condition (in part, arising from the universal experience of human ethical “dread”). And each religion offers both an explanation and solution. Christianity is unique in both its explanation of the human condition and its solution.

First, Christianity, affirms that there is a Holy God and that before this God not only have we sinned, but we are at the very root of our being sinners: bent, corrupt, depraved, wicked. Christianity’s description of the human condition is by far the darkest of all the world’s religions. In Christianity’s affirmation of both the Absolute Holiness of God and of human's utter corruption and inability to live according to his Holy commands, there is an explanation of the nudges and nights of dread we all feel: we do owe a debt of Sin to a Holy God that deeply, existentially, we know that we cannot pay.

Second, Christianity offers a unique solution. Unlike all the other religions of the world that prescribe a path, something for the person to “do”, Christianity tells a story about what God has done. Abraham’s story of sacrifice, and God’s provision of a ram in the place of Abraham, point us to another mountain, Mount Calvary, where God did not spare his own Son, but freely gave him up for us all (Romans 8:32). On the cross, Jesus Christ paid the debt of sin that we could not pay. And by faith in him, God gives us all of his grace, love and approval that we could never earn.

 Alone of all the religions of the world, Christianity both explains human dread and offers a gift of God’s unending love that forever takes it away.