Review

When I Lay My Isaac Down: Unshakable Faith in Unthinkable Circumstances

by Carol Kent

In some theoretical realm we all know that life can change drastically in an instant --- a slip on the ice, a freak accident. But most white-collar, suburban churchgoers do not expect the message that Carol Kent and her husband received in October 1999, just a few weeks after she had mused, "Does life get any better than this?" (Their careers --- directing a national Christian speakers' bureau --- were on track. Their only son --- an earnest Christian, a navy lieutenant --- was married and the stepfather to two young daughters, whom they enjoyed grandparenting.) The devastating news? That their son, Jason, was in jail, charged with the first-degree murder of his wife's ex-husband --- a crime witnessed by several bystanders. With this as the book's setting, you quickly understand the subtitle "Unshakable Faith in Unthinkable Circumstances."

As may be obvious, the book's title is drawn from the biblical story of Abraham, who was willing to give up all claim to his son Isaac. It is a book about surrender and the paradoxical lessons it can teach. "There is hidden power in our unthinkable circumstances," she says. Subtitles of the eight chapters outline the journey: "The Power of Unthinkable Circumstances;…of Relinquishment;…of Heartache;…of Community;… of Hope;…of Faith;…of Joy;…of Speaking Up."

The narrative, which includes quotes from journals of Carol and her husband, draws the reader into the depths of parental wipeout but without dragging the reader through detailed specifics of the author's own circumstance. It is, at the same time, a very personal and yet impersonal story. You "see" emotion and spiritual process and growth more than you "see" Jason or the courtroom, for example; in some ways Jason is representative of any "heart sacrifice," any relinquished dream. (Unlike Abraham, the Kents have seen no miraculous and evident "deliverance." Jason is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole.) "When we release our grasp…It's an act of trusting God when we cannot envision a positive outcome. But in the end, it's the only thing that works."

Carol's spiritual discussion in some chapters is supplemented by anecdotes tracing other people's faith journeys: a woman hearing that a husband has sexually abused a daughter, a single man losing the love of his life. The copyright page says some of these are "true to life" and included with permission; others are "composites of real situations." This disclaimer made it hard for me to endow a few compelling anecdotes with real-character authenticity.

Because of their nationwide ministry, the Kents have been "upheld" by a network of supportive "stretcher bearers" who have girded them in ways that may be enviable to the average reader. But I encourage the average reader to set aside that distinction and walk this journey alongside the author, who dares through darkness to hope in God's redemptive purposes --- some of which she can identify by the end of the book: "If [we] had never endured unthinkable circumstances, we might not have understood the pain of brokenness…. If there had been 'a lamb in the thicket' for our family, we wouldn't have launched Speak Up for Hope," a new prison-related ministry. "If life hadn't held unspeakable tragedy, we never would have been the recipients of such extravagant love."

Each chapter ends with questions that help the reader process personal pain. To her credit, at the end of the book, Carol goes out of her way to establish that her pain is not necessarily greater than that of other people's losses. "We don't need a meter to tell us which pain hurts the most. All of our heartaches produce great sadness, and telling our stories to each other brings a release, a comfort, and the knowledge that somebody cares." Most of all, she's newly aware of the love of God. "I know He loves me more than I love my 'Isaac.'"

Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on May 13, 2004

When I Lay My Isaac Down: Unshakable Faith in Unthinkable Circumstances
by Carol Kent