hen recently studying the story of Hagar, I could not help but notice the ways in which her story intersects with my own. And perhaps with yours.
During a church Bible study, our group talked of how we have usually heard Genesis 16 expounded in a sermon. Usually something like, See the mess we get ourselves into when we try to get ahead of God, like Sarai did? Sarai told her husband, Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai (v. 2 ESV).
Rather than focusing on Sarai, think of all the disadvantages stacked against Hagar. In verse 1, we see Hagar was (1) a woman, (2) a foreigner (from Egypt), and (3) a servant—some translations call her a “slave.”
In verses 3 and 4, we see Hagar being used in Sarai’s attempt to “help God” fulfill His prior promise of children. Hagar doesn’t appear to have any say in the matter.
In verse 4, we read that once Hagar “had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress” (ESV). Had I been in Hagar’s position, wouldn’t I have done the same? The text doesn’t specify why Hagar looked on Sarai with contempt. Was it because Hagar rejoiced that she could bear children, while her mistress could not? Or was Hagar’s contempt simply a reaction to being forced into such painful circumstances?
Whatever the case may have been, Sarai complains to Abram. And in verse 6, Abram tells Sarai to do whatever she wants with Hagar. Sarai then deals so roughly with Hagar that she flees to the wilderness.
Hagar appears to be a victim of her circumstances—circumstances not of her own making.
In our culture full of modern conveniences, we overlook how dark a place the wilderness was in ancient times. We might think of it being a little hot, dry, and dusty, but easily survivable with our outdoor shoes and insulated water bottles. But for Hagar, the wilderness represented a place of desolation and desperation.
Here she was—a woman, a foreigner, and a slave—forced into a pregnancy by her conniving mistress and a man she probably didn’t even love.
And she finds herself ousted to the wilderness—a place without provision. Without relief, without hope. But then, an angel of the Lord shows up and asks her, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” (v. 8 ESV).
Hagar says she is running from Sarai, and the angel tells her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her” (v. 9 ESV).
How hard it must have been for Hagar to return to the very person who had caused her such grief and pain—the one who had put her in this terrible situation!
Following God often requires radical obedience. But look at the radical promise that follows the command of obedience: The Lord would multiply Hagar’s offspring so greatly that they could not be counted (v. 10).
My friend Déborah pointed out this is one of the few times in Scripture where God makes a covenant with a woman—and she is a foreigner.
Here I breathe a sigh of relief. God has come to Hagar in the wilderness. He hears her “cry of distress” (v. 11 NLT), and gives her a promise!
But then there are more hard words, even within this glorious promise. The angel tells Hagar that her son “shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (v. 12 ESV).
If I were an expectant mother, I would find these words disheartening. Tell me there will be peace; tell me there will be comfort! Don’t tell me everyone’s hand will be against my son! (Perhaps this is how Mary felt in Luke 2:35, when Simeon prophesied to her, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too,” [NIV]).
The promise God gives Hagar is still glorious, even with its hard-hitting words. In fact, the word for glory in the ancient Hebrew language connotes “heaviness” or “weightiness.” Not the lighthearted, light-footed emotions we Pentecostals tend to associate with it.
Even when God’s words seem so harsh and stark, Hagar rejoices, “You are the God who sees me. . . . I have now seen the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13 NIV).
Heaviness and all, God does fulfill His promise to Hagar. She delivers a son named Ishmael (v. 15).
Scripture may not directly tell us how God fulfilled the rest of His promise to Hagar; that is, the promise of numerous descendants. However, history tells us God did fulfill that promise; for out of Ishmael’s descendants came a large and powerful people.
As I mentioned earlier, in some ways I feel that Hagar’s story intersects with my own.
For all the blessings in my life—and there are many—I have great sorrow. Like Hagar, I am a victim of circumstances, for I had no part in choosing my disabled body. But also like Hagar, God gave me a promise.
On a Palm Sunday service when I was 4 years old, in the sanctuary of the Westmore Church of God, God gave a public promise that He was going to heal me.
As a little child, I accepted His words with a beautiful, simple faith. God said He would heal me, so He would. And surely this would come to pass before things got really bad.
But the older I’ve gotten, the wearier and more limited my body has become. With those limits comes more physical pain—pain in more forms than I thought I would ever experience.
And the more my body betrays me, it seems, the less my heart and mind are able to bear it.
Indeed, as difficult as it is to admit, I’ve been struggling with depression off and on for many years now. To me, this depression is not unlike Hagar’s wilderness. Yes, as Isaiah 43:19 says, God has made a way in the wilderness for me. But it is still the wilderness.
I had hoped my life would have been very different by now.
I often hear people who are further along in their faith say things like, “The older I get, the less my suffering bothers me.” That’s great for them, and I wish I could say that. But I can’t.
If anything, it bothers me more. I’m more aware than ever before that my brokenness is a far cry from the all-encompassing wholeness (shalom) that God originally intended for all of us.
My years of pain have left me with blisters instead of calluses. And those blisters have the sting of desperation in them. Not unlike what Hagar must have felt.
With each passing year, there are new wounds, new scars. And it gets harder to hold on to God’s promise.
Perhaps, then, I’ve said, it is time to let go of this promise. At best, I’ve concluded that I wildly misinterpreted God’s words. At worst, I call them hogwash. What a fool I am to believe!
Truly, I do think God does call for me to let go of something: I must let go of my idea of how His promise should be fulfilled. But not the promise itself.
Indeed, though I have tried many times to let go of the promise, God stubbornly does allow the promise—or Himself, for that matter—let go of me.
So like Hagar’s promise, my promise—though glorious—is heavy to bear.
For every day, I am called to live a paradox. To walk in that seemingly interminable, aching space between the promise and its fulfillment. Between the already and the not yet.
But like Hagar, I rejoice. Every day, I am thankful that God is the One who sees me. And I rejoice that He still speaks promises to me, even when His words are heavy ones—not the ones I want to hear. Yet, as Deuteronomy 8:3 says, “Man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (NKJV).
Like Hagar, I do not know how God’s promise to me will come to pass. But I must trust that, one way or another, it will be fulfilled. For He is the God of infinite creativity—the One who spoke the cosmos into existence, the One who creates something out of nothing.
Where do you find yourself right now? Are you—like Hagar, like me—victim of a circumstance you did not choose, with disadvantages stacked against you?
Are you trying to hold on to a promise?
Have you tried to let the promise go, even when God refuses to let you go?
Do parts of that promise seem too painful and hard to bear?
Do you feel banished to the wilderness? To a place that is seemingly without provision? Without relief? Without hope?
Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom said, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”
I would extend the language to say, “There is no wilderness so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.
Even though God’s love is deepest, our pain is deep, too. In Philippians 3:10, the apostle Paul mentions “the fellowship of [Christ’s sufferings,” as if it is a good thing. And it is a good thing; but it doesn’t feel good. And there is room to openly acknowledge this. It’s OK to name the wilderness for what it is—a wilderness.
I invite you to come to the Lord, bringing whatever is on your heart. Mourn and weep if you need, knowing that “Jesus wept” too (John 11:35). Sigh and groan if you need to, knowing the Spirit prays through us “with sighs and groans too deep for words” (see Romans 8:26). Remember the covenant God has made with you, knowing “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19 ESV).
May we all cry out to “the God who sees.” May we let Him answer us with His heavy, glorious promise.