The altar has its issue in the tent. Genesis 12:8 says, "And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent." From then on, Abraham lived in God’s house—Bethel. From then on, he lived in a tent. Actually he lived in a tent before, but God did not mention it. Not until he had built the altar does the Word of God bring the tent into view.
What is a tent? A tent is something movable; it does not take root anywhere. Through the altar God deals with us; through the tent God deals with our possessions. At the altar Abraham offered up his all to God. Was he thereafter stripped of everything, even his clothing and belongings? No! Abraham still possessed cattle and sheep and many other things, but he had become a tent dweller. What was not consumed on the altar could only be kept in the tent. Here we see a principle. Everything we have should be placed on the altar. But there is still something left. These are the things that are for our own use. However, they are not ours, they are to be left in the tent. We have to remember that anything that has not passed the altar cannot even be in the tent. But not everything that has passed the altar is consumed. Many things are burned away by the fire and are gone. When we consecrate many things to God, He takes them and nothing is left behind. But God leaves some of the things offered on the altar for our own use. The things that have passed through the altar and are for our use can only be kept in the tent.
Abraham’s life was a life of the altar. A day came when even his only begotten son was offered upon it. But what did God do with Isaac? He did not take him away. What you place on the altar, God accepts. He cannot allow you to live for yourself, for your own pleasure, or by your own strength. The altar claims your all, yet not everything that is on the altar is burned. Many things that are placed on the altar are like Isaac; God gives them back to you. Yet these things in your hand can no longer be regarded as your own; they can only be kept in the tent.
Some people ask, "If I give my all to God, do I have to sell all my possessions and dispose of all my money? If I consecrate myself to God, how many chairs and tables may I have in my home and how many garments in my wardrobe?" Some people are truly perplexed over such questions. But we need to remember that we have two lives. We have a life to live before God, and we also have a life to live in the world. In our life before God everything must truly be on the altar, but for our life in the world we still have need of many material things. While we are living in the world, we need clothing, food, and a dwelling place. We ought to consecrate our all to God and live for Him alone; but if He says we may retain a certain thing, then we may retain it. Nevertheless, we must apply the principle of the tent to all the physical things that He permits us to retain, because they have been given back to us to meet our need in the world. If we do not need them, we should dispose of them. We may use them, but we must not be touched by them. We can have them or let them go; they can be given, and they can be taken away. This is the life of the tent.
May we learn this lesson. We dare not use anything that has not been placed on the altar, we may not take anything back from the altar, and what God gives back must be kept according to the principle of the tent.
(The Life of the Altar and the Tent, Chapter 1, by Watchman Nee)