When somebody loved me, everything was beautiful . . .
I was in Disneyland last weekend and heard this song (from Toy Story 2) in one of the venues, and even though I’d heard it before, it struck me somehow more deeply this umpteenth time. I got to thinking about the Christmas holidays coming up, and all the people I know (and don’t know) who will be going through their first Christmas without a loved one recently lost. But it also made me think about the many, many people who suffer grief of a different kind. A friend recently confided about the hurt in her home, for instance. She feels ignored. The holidays can exacerbate this grief too, the outward cheer and romance of the season that much more painful due to the internal anguish of strained relationships or depression.
This is the kind of “loss” that is hard to explain, if one even feels the courage to talk about it. I would remind pastors in particular that their churches will be filled with intact families that are hiding and harboring all kinds of brokenness.
And I’m thinking of you, reader. Maybe you’re a regular visitor to this blog, or maybe the title just caught your eye. You’re suffering from an emotional, spiritual pain for which there seems to be no relief. You aren’t physically alone, but you feel like you are. I hope you’ll give me a little bit of your online time here and see if an old story of injustice will speak to your heart.
Genesis 16 tells us a story about the pain suffered as the result of injustice. God has made this covenant promise to Abram to make a mighty nation out of him, but in the last chapter, Abram complains, saying, “What are you going to give me, God? When are you going to do this? I don’t have any kids. One of my servants is going to be my heir.”
And God says, “No, I’m going to give you a son. A lot else, but also your very own son.” And it says that Abram believed God, and this belief was credited to him as righteousness.
But we get a few years on, and the son hasn’t yet arrived, Sarai has not conceived, and the doubt has built up again and the bitterness along with it, and Abram and Sarai do what they normally do when God seems to be taking too long—what we all do when it seems like God is taking too long—they try to take matters into their own hands.
“God’s working is slow,” they figure. Maybe he can’t be trusted. (Which is what we’re saying when we do things our own way and in our own timing: “God can’t be trusted.”) So Sarai hatches a scheme and tells Abram to take their maid Hagar and conceive a child with her.
So Abram takes Hagar. Do not let the plainspeak of the text fool you. This is a bad thing. Abram has exploited his authority over Hagar—he and Sarai both have done this. He is treating her like something he owns. They didn’t ask her permission.
It says in Gen. 16:3 that Sarai gives Abram Hagar as his wife. They are not just departing from God’s design for marriage as one man and one woman; they are treating Hagar not as a person with thoughts and feelings who as a human being is made in the image of God but like property.
This is not just sexual harassment. It is sexual injustice. And in these days a servant had even less power than other women. No voice. So Hagar is being exploited here and sinned against greatly.
Next to Abram handing off Sarai to Pharaoh to do God-knows-what with her, this is one of the earliest examples of sexual exploitation in the Bible.
And it doesn’t turn out the way Abram and Sarai figure it would. According to Gen. 16:4, Hagar after conceiving a child by Abram begins to look with contempt on Sarai. What for? Is it a “Look, I’ve got a child and you don’t” kind of smug contempt? A kind of comeuppance? Or is it a “I can’t believe you’d do this to me” kind of contempt? Maybe both. Hagar has been victimized, and maybe her own need for control and power to compensate for the injustice prompts her to “lord it over” Sarai.
In any event, Sarai gets sick of it. Abram gets sick of hearing about it, and the thing continues to be a big mess. So if you’re tracking the story, you see that weak, passive Abram has take Hagar as a wife, conceived a child with her, and if that wasn’t exploitation enough, he now treats her like a cast-off: “Whatever you want to do with her, Sarai, go ahead and do” (Gen. 16:6). So Sarai, in effect, throws Hagar away. At the end of Gen. 16:6, she “deals harshly” with her to the point Hagar takes off carrying her unborn child.
Not all pain is physical. Sometimes we’d prefer physical pain to the kind of inner trauma that can persist, haunt, damage. When I was a pastor, I had some emotionally and verbally abused wives say to me, “I almost wish my husband had hit me. It’d be easier to see, easier to explain, harder for someone to ignore.” What a terrible prospect, what a feeling of hopelessness and alienation, that somebody would wish for physical hurt because it would be easier to address, to manage, to fix than the “hidden” emotional hurt. Their husbands needed to be disciplined (and were), but consequences for offenders doesn’t always lessen the pain of the offense.
And sometimes our pain has no tangible source, no offender to address, no Abram to be disciplined. Sometimes it’s just the pain of being a fragile person in a hard world.
Maybe right you now you feel a bit like Hagar. Someone has hurt you, someone has done an injustice to you, maybe they’re continuing to do so. And you don’t know what to do about it. Or maybe your hurt is somehow indiscernible. There’s no clear explanation for it. You just know you hurt. Maybe the dark cloud of depression and anxiety hangs over you, and you can’t figure out how to shake it. You feel alone, hopeless.
You need to know God has not forgotten you. And he has not forsaken you.
In Genesis 16, the angel of the Lord finds Hagar out in the wilderness. She’s alone, she’s afraid, she’s feeling used and thrown away. And God comes near.
She needs to know what to do, where to go, how to make sense of this great wrong that’s been done to her and the great pain that has resulted.
The Lord’s messenger tells her to go back and submit to Sarai. This should not be taken as a blanket endorsement for those abused or victimized to submit themselves to more abuse and victimization. Please don’t read it that way. Too much damage has been done in the evangelical church in instructing victimized people to keep themselves in harm’s way.
But this specific instruction to this specific person does have a general application for all people everywhere, and it is this: “Trust me.”
See, God doesn’t send Hagar back into a difficult spot without compensation, without hope. He says, “Trust me. I’m writing a magnificent story here, the end of which you don’t yet see, but will provide the vindication and restoration you are longing for.”
God says to Hagar, as he said to Abram, “I’m going to make a great people out of you too. You will be compensated for this; there will be justice. You are not forgotten, you are not thrown away by me.”
Hear this, those of you who are hurting: God has not thrown you away. He has not forgotten you. He will plead your case. He will redeem the time you spend in pain.
Consider Psalm 126:5-6:
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
Consider Isaiah 61:2-3, which says that when the day of the Lord comes, God will come:
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified
Consider Jesus beginning his sermon on the mount with these declarations:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
You Christians who hurt and wait, hurt and wait, hurt and wait, your day is coming. Habakkuk 2:3 says, “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”
So what does Hagar’s day look like? God sends her back into difficulty, but he makes a promise that he never makes to any other matriarch. Hagar is the only woman in the Bible to receive this promise as in Genesis 16:10: “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”
There’s an interesting, powerful dynamic that takes place immediately. Hagar does not return to a comfortable, welcoming environment. She and Sarai never get along, and even after Isaac is born, Hagar rubs Sarai the wrong way, and both Hagar and Ishmael get thrown out again. But God comes along and looks after them. Because that’s what he does. So I imagine for Hagar living in a hostile environment, it could be extraordinarily empowering to know “God’s going to take care of me.” It’s extremely liberating.
When you believe God will handle it. When you believe your reward is in heaven. When you believe God will mete out justice in a satisfactory way. When you believe God can be trusted. When you believe it’s all going to get set right in the by-and-by, you worry less, you stew less, you try to control things less, you try to get revenge less.
You can endure great loneliness with confidence and joy when you believe God is looking after you. Paul says about his constant pain, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). How could he call his pain a “light momentary affliction”? This is a guy who’s been tortured, a guy who’s been shipwrecked, betrayed, assaulted, spends most of his time in prisons and before hostile crowds who want to stone him. And on top of all that, he has this strange “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). How can he call all this “light”? How can he call it “momentary”?
Well, he was comparing it to that “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Paul knew that God was telling a story about everything, and this meant even his pain was being swept up into the grand narrative of God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ to restore the world and vanquish that pain forever.
This does not make pain painless, of course, but it doesn’t make it purposeless either. Pain for those who trust Christ is not pointless. It is being stewarded toward something, drafted into a story of glory and wonder and eternal joy.
This may not make Christmas easy. But it might make it bearable.
[F]or he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
— Hebrews 13:5b