What do you do when bad things happen?
I was speaking to someone last week, and we were reflecting on some of the sad things that have happened. Surely, he said, at a time like that, the most natural thing is to give up on God. What good has God done?
And he’s right, isn’t he? If God’s promised to look after us, what use is he if he doesn’t deliver?
Bad things don’t happen all the time. But we all know the frustration of seeing good things that God has promised fail to materialise. He’s promised to answer my prayers, but he didn’t answer that one.
So wasn’t he right? When bad things happen. When good things don’t happen. When God makes promises that he can’t be bothered to keep. Why not give up and take life into our own hands?
That was a temptation that Abraham knew all about
We can follow the story we had read just on its own, but to understand what’s going on we need a bit of the background. Let me fill things in for us.
Abraham in this story is 85 years old, and he’s married to a woman called Sarah who is 76.
The story began ten years earlier, when they were 75 and 66. God appeared to Abraham and made him 3 big promises.
First, God was going to bless him and his family, and was going to use them to bring blessing to every nation on the earth.
Second, God would give him so many descendants they could never be counted.
And third, God would give him a land, the land of Canaan, as his very own.
Those were 3 big promises, and Abraham’s response was to trust God.
But now 10 years have elapsed. Abraham is 85 and Sarah is 76, and there’s not even one child. Sarah knows that she’s past having children. It seems that those promises of God were just empty words. What are they to do?
Enter Sarah, who has a bright idea.
Why doesn’t Abraham sleep with her maid?
Our natural response is to think that’s desperately inappropriate.
I don’t know whether you enjoyed watching Downton Abbey at all, but one of the tensions that keeps the plot moving is the need for the Lord of the Manor, Lord Grantham, to have a male heir who can inherit the estate. Nowhere in that story would it be suggested that there is an easy solution – he should simply sleep with one of the housemaids.
And yet, while we find this hard to relate to, apparently in that day, this was a perfectly acceptable custom.
But while this may be acceptable at a social level, the bigger problem was that this was not a trusting solution. There are a number of clues in the way the story is told that the narrator doesn’t think much of Sarah’s bright idea.
One of them is the way in which Sarah is consistently referred to as Abram’s wife. In the previous chapter, Abraham had had a bright idea. He thought he could help God keep his promise by adopting a son. Unlike Sarah, he bothered to ask God what he thought, but God was quite clear. God’s would keep his promises by a son coming from his own body. At which point we’re meant to infer the obvious. God would give Abraham and his wife a son.
A bright idea of Sarah’s, but not one that reflects her trust in God. And Abraham’s trust fares no better. When Sarah suggests his plan to him, he just responds by saying “Yes, dear”.
So how do things work out? On the surface of it, they turn out rather well.
Hagar becomes pregnant. The plan is working. Except she then realises that she’s got something her mistress doesn’t, so she begins to get lippy. After a while, the goading gets to Sarah, so she blames Abraham for getting them into this mess. The cheek of it! Abraham shrugs it off with another “yes, dear!” “Do whatever you want!” So Sarah mistreats Hagar. The word used suggests she is thoroughly abusive, totally disproportionate. So Hagar runs off.
It’s a disaster. Hagar has lost her home and her job. Abraham has lost his second wife, his unborn son and a possible heir. Sarah has lost her maidservant. Total disaster.
Trying to Help God
All these people had thought they would do is help God out. Give him a helping hand. When they first heard those promises, they had decided to trust God. But 10 years is a long time. It’s a very long time when you want children. 10 years proves too long to wait, and they take things in hand themselves. This story is showing us that it never ends well when you do that.
Now, when I say it’s not trusting God to try and help him, of course I’m not saying we should do nothing! It’s God’s business keeping his promises, and we just live as though we trusted him to do what he says.
Suppose you’re flying back from New York to Gatwick one day. Your sister says she’ll meet you at the airport, all you have to do is phone when you land. When you land, you pick up the phone. That’s not trying to help her keep her promise. That’s not giving up waiting, and taking matters into your own hands. That’s believing her. That’s acting out of trust. It would be quite different, though, if you got into a taxi to take you home. That would be deciding that your sister won’t come, you’ll get yourself home.
Abraham doesn’t take Hagar because he’s trusting God to keep his promise. This is getting into the taxi. This is giving up on God, and taking things into his own hands.
And this is something we are all tempted to do, is it not?
When the promises of God aren’t working, we start to God’s not going to keep them. God’s not really going to look after me. So I’ll go it alone. Whatever impact God has on my life, he’s not solving the things that need solving in the way I think he should, so I’ll make sure that I’m looked after. I’ll start to leave God out of things a bit.
As Christians, we face a particular version of this. Many of the good things God has promised won’t come about until Jesus returns, one day, to judge. That is the day when God’s people will enjoy perfect health, happiness and be free of all pain and suffering. And yet that is something we have to wait for, and we’d rather have it now. We’d rather have things on our terms.
This story warns us that this never works out well. It’s confusing God’s delay with his disinterest. Instead of allowing life’s difficulties to draw us away from God, we need to trust that God does know what he’s doing. All that cutting God out of the picture does is give us a logical reason why things aren’t working out. It doesn’t actually help anything.
The trouble is, if we’re going to keep trusting God through the times when he has a very different timescale from us, we need to be absolutely sure that he can live up to that kind of trust. Is he a God worth trusting our lives to?
Well, for that kind of reassurance, we can follow Hagar as she runs away. She heads south, towards Egypt, presumably heading back home. She stops at a well, and there an angel of the Lord meets her. God wants to talk to her, and God has three things to say to Hagar.
First, God knows her name. Hagar, servant of Sarai, where you have you come from and where are you going? That would unnerve her at first. It’s a bit like stopping at the motorway services, half way up the M1, and a complete stranger comes up to you and seems to know your name, your job, and all about your family. But this eerie stranger becomes very comforting when she realises he’s a messenger from God. Abraham’s God knows her, Hagar, and he knows her by name.
Second, God sends her back. Return to your mistress and submit to her. That’s a hard ask. It’s implying that God will look after her. Now it’s Hagar’s turn to trust God, and to live as though she does.
And then, third, God has a promise to make. I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude. Her son will also be Abraham’s son. God’s made some big promises to Abraham about his offspring, so some of those promises become Hagar’s too. What the angel doesn’t say is as significant as what he does. He doesn’t say that every nation will be blessed through Hagar’s son. Not every promise applies to her. But all those that do, God will keep.
God knows her name, God sends her back, God makes a promise. And then Hagar worships God. Here she is, not the wife but the maid, on her knees. She’s in this mess through her own fault. It was as much her attitude and her lip that got her here as it was Sarah’s faithlessness. And yet she’s discovered that God cares for her.
She’s discovered three truths about God. First, God has heard her. That’s why she’s to name the boy Ishmael. In her distress, Abraham and Sarah may not have helped, but God heard. Second, God sees her. Everything we go through in life, God sees. And third God is faithful. Not one promise God has made, that applies to Hagar, will he break.
We’ve had these things more wonderfully revealed to us than Hagar ever knew. She met an angel in the desert. 2000 years ago, God didn’t just send an angel; he became human. We can see for ourselves that God sees and hears. Jesus is the one in whom all of God’s promises are kept. We can see God’s faithfulness too.
What a wonderful God. And on the run, in the middle of the desert, Hagar discovers that this is who God is, and she worships him. Undeserving Hagar, meets the hearing, seeing and faithful God.
You don’t need me to tell you that life is full of difficulties. When things don’t work out s well as we hope, the promises of God can seem little more than a nice idea. Good things often don’t happen. Bad things often do.
How do you react?
The tempting thing is to take God out of the picture. To blame him. To decide you’re better off without him. That’s a mistake.
Much better is to be reassured that he sees, he hears and he is faithful. And so to trust him to be all that we need, but we have to trust God when it comes to the terms under which he looks after us, and the timing of when he decides to do so.