Genesis 21 tells the story of Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant. Through no fault of her own, she has been involved in Sarah and Abraham’s crazy scheme to “help” God out by taking pregnancy matters into their own hands. Now, some 14 years later, Hagar and Ishmael (her son by Abraham) have been cast out of their home. Sarah has had a son of her own in the intervening years and she does not want Ishmael around as a rival to Isaac. And so Hagar and Ishmael have been turned out into the desert with a loaf of bread, a bottle of water and the clothes on their backs.
This, by any definition, would be considered dire straits. Having no hope of rescue, Hagar and Ishmael have sat down in grief to await their deaths.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt that way. Abandoned. Alone. Without options. Without resources. Rich in anguish, but poor in every other way. Life lately has been quite difficult and strange. COVID-19, loss of jobs, illness, injury, death of loved ones, financial difficulties, relational stress, more questions than answers. And in the face of those circumstances, visitors have come calling. Their names are Despair, Discouragement, Confusion, Anger, and Fear. Perhaps you’ve met them.
There is another visitor, though. His name is Holy Spirit, and He tells a different story. It’s the same story we find in Genesis 21: 17
“And God heard the voice of the youth, and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar?”
Let me interrupt the story long enough to say this. Really? I mean, really!!!! On the surface, this looks like a very unobservant angel. Does he really have to ask Hagar what troubles her? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? She’s homeless, destitute, betrayed, abandoned, and anticipating not just her own death, but the death of her son. And this makes the angel’s next sentence all the more astonishing. “Fear not.”
I don’t know about you, but this seems the perfect time to be afraid. If not now, when?
But the angel isn’t finished with the sentence. “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the youth where he is.” Ah. This is a “but God” moment.
“This isn’t the life I planned on.” A lament uttered by a friend recently. Truth be told, it’s a thought that almost all of us have had at some point. And it surprises us, puzzles us. Leaves us wondering, “how did I get here?”.
Youth tends to see the world definitively, in shades of black and white. Youth is certain that life will unfold a certain way, that dreams will unfold in a particular timing, that things will be as they are expected to be. It’s the hopeful and passionate launching ground from which we set out in life. And there is great comfort in believing that there is a straight and linear march toward our hearts’ desires. But life isn’t straight and the paths before us often appear more like tangled knots and Rubik’s cubes. Even more astonishing, we find along the way that perhaps we don’t know ourselves as well as we thought, both for better and worse.
So what do we do when we find our souls in this lament? When the marriage we longed for never appeared, or did appear but has now ended in painful divorce. When finances fail, jobs are ripped out from under us, health is assaulted, relationships fracture, infertility strikes, abuse occurs.
The answer is not one simple thing, but rather a collection of necessary responses on our part.
1. Grieving what has not yet been (and perhaps will never be). This may mean facing a legitimate sense of regret and loss.
2. Grieving what has occurred that was outside what we had hoped for our lives. This too may involve regret over our part in choices/behavior that have derailed or detoured us from the truth of our hearts and the best for our lives.
3. Finding comfort in God’s ability and intention to turn “all things for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purposes”. Trust the great Redeemer, the powerful Restorer who delights in healing what is broken and who will direct our steps back toward health and wholeness.
Allow that our “broken road” may actually have been designed, at least in part, by God. Please hear clearly that I am NOT saying that God authors disaster or heartbreak or that He approved awful things that may have happened to you or those you love. I am, however, saying that we often lack clarity about what we need and about the process of growing into maturity of character and identity. God sometimes leads us a different way than what we anticipated, or even wanted. But He does it FOR OUR GOOD. Always, for our good, for our welfare, and not our calamity.
Ultimately, these things must lead to a basic bottom line. We must come to a place where we know Father so well that we are able to trust that He is good and He is for us. We must trust that He is able, and perhaps more importantly, willing, to throw the force of Heaven into action on our behalf.