My Dad recently directed my attention to the story of Hagar in Genesis 16, and its been on my mind a lot over the last week or so. The other day I jotted down a tentative sermon outline with some preliminary notes. One way to divide the story is by the four characters and their contrasting behavior:
1) Abram’s passivity
Abram’s passivity in this story creates the conditions for Hagar’s mistreatment. Instead of listening to Sarai’s plea to sleep with Hagar (v. 2), he should have said to her, “no Sarai, we have to keep trusting God and not take matters into our own hands! We can’t abandon waiting on the Lord.” And then instead of allowing Sarai’s subsequent mistreatment of Hagar (v. 6), he should have said, “no, Sarai, we did this, now we have to live it. Remember whose idea this was?” Its easy to focus on Sarai’s cruelty in this story, but none of it would be possible apart from Abram’s passivity. He shares in the responsibility for the mistreatment of Hagar.
Application: when those who have the ability to stop evil do nothing, they share in its responsibility. I think this passage has some application for where we are tempted to remain passive when God may be calling to act on behalf of others. Passivity in leadership is a big deal. As Bonnhoeffer said, “silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. God will not hold us guiltless.”
2) Sarai’s self-deception
I remember Tim Keller saying once in a sermon that self-deception is not the worst thing we do, but its the reason we do the worst things we do. Few people are deliberately, self-consciously cruel. Most cruelty occurs because self-justification, playing the victim, overlooking that nagging voice in our conscience, saying “but look at what they did to me!” whenever confronted. When I look at Sarai’s treatment of Hagar in this story, her lack of responsibility and remorse for her behavior smacks of self-deception. The whole thing was her idea, but when it blows up in her face, she plays the victim, talking about “the wrong done to me” (v. 5). An obvious question is, how can Sarai be so upset about Hagar’s treatment of her without considering her own treatment of Hagar? How does she only seem to play the victim?
Application: there is a little bit of Sarai in all of us. For example, when we are hurt by someone else in conflict, its so easy to focus on our own wounds so much that we forget what we contributed to the conflict. Even if the other person is 95% to blame, and we are 5% to blame, we are responsible to own that 5%. This passage makes me pray, “Lord, let me never react to others’ sin at the expense of owning my own sin. Let me be a truly fair person in how I treat others.”
3) Hagar’s flight
At first glance, Hagar’s flight seems totally natural. Escape is our first impulse in a bad situation. But the angel of the Lord confronts her. He specifically calls her “Hagar, servant of Sarai” (v. 8), and then he asks her two questions: “where have you come from and where are you going?” As my Dad pointed out to me, Hagar has an answer to the first question, but no answer for the second. So the angel of the Lord sends her back: “return to your mistress and submit to her” (v. 9). This can seem like a harsh order. Submit to one who just treated you harshly? Ouch! But obviously God has not released Hagar from Sarai, even though it was a painful situation.
Application: this passage reminds me that it is not always God’s purpose to take us out of bad circumstances. Obviously, there are some situations, such as abusive or unsafe environments, from which we must simply flee. But more often we face less than ideal, even painful circumstances, that fall short of this category. A family member who needs to be taken in. A friend who is difficult to love. A task at work which is extremely tedious. Our instinct may be to run from these kinds of situations. But this story is a reminder that God may not be calling us to escape them. If we run away, He may stop and send us back. Yikes.
This part of the story is tough. But thankfully, its not all there is to see here.
4) The Lord’s attentiveness
The angel of the Lord says to Hagar, “the Lord has listened to your affliction” (v. 11). What an interesting statement. It doesn’t say, “the Lord has listened to your prayers amidst affliction.” In some sense, God listens to her affliction itself. Then in response Hagar declares, “you are a God who sees me” (v. 13). Its a great comfort to know that God hears and sees us in our pain. He may send us back into it, but it isn’t because He doesn’t care. He sees our pain. He hears our pain.
And the Lord does not send Hagar back without a promise: “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (verse 10). The Lord is gracious to Hagar. He uses the very situation that has become such a painful mess to bring about his good purpose for her. While God may be sending her back into bad circumstances, He uses those bad circumstances to bring about good.
Thus in this passage we see not only the fallen behavior of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar (which we can all relate to), but aspects of the Lord’s character as revealed more fully in the gospel. Specifically, we see his attentiveness to our suffering, and his redemptive purpose behind it. He may not let us escape our pain. But to those who trust Him he gives His comforting presence, and His redemptive purpose, amidst it.