Monday, October 7, 2013

Disillusioned By God & His People: Part I

A little over three years ago, popular author Anne Rice made front page news by posting to her Facebook page that she was leaving Christianity.  The news was surprising, especially since she had so publicly abandoned atheism for Christianity just years earlier in her novel Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, a compelling memoir tracing the winding path that took her from atheism to faith in Jesus.

Yet, here she was, writing, "Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else." 

Sadly, Rice isn't the only person I know who has turned her back on religion...and maybe on her faith.  While there are a multitude of reasons many turn their back on both religion and God (two separate things in my book), two seem to top the list--the actions of Christians and the trials of this life.

I know too many people who have been hurt by professing Christians or who have witnessed too much hypocrisy in the church to the point where they incorrectly equate these people's actions to be representative of true Christianity.  Then, there are the others whose life circumstances have been incredibly difficult to the point where they've chosen to believe no God of goodness would allow such heartache.  

Both groups have said "enough" and turned their backs as they make their own path across a barren desert of their own choosing.

Abraham and Sarah's servant, Hagar, would fall into both these groups--those disenchanted with the actions of those who claim to be God's people and those whose life is cruel is unfair.

A day was coming when she would turn her back on God for these very reasons.  

But before then, Hagar met the Lord.

It is easy to look at the servant Hagar's life and conclude that if anyone had a grievance against God for the hand she'd been dealt, it was her.  Once a slave in Egypt, she had been casually given to Abraham, forcing her to leave behind likely the only country she'd ever known, friends, and perhaps even family to join these foreigners whose customs, God, and language were strange to her.

Then her new mistress, Sarah, decided to offer Hagar to her husband Abraham so the two of them could conceive an heir.  As was the life of a slave, Hagar had no choice in the matter.  She couldn't refuse.  And she had nowhere to run even if she did.  

Yet, perhaps she realized that with this forced coupling came her chance to become more than what she was--a somebody in the eyes of her master and perhaps even escape slavery for a better life.  The wheels started turning in her head, how to work this to her advantage.    

Those dreams must have seemed close enough to touch because once Hagar became pregnant with Abraham's son, she grew quite haughty.  Scripture records, "and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight" (Gen. 16:4).  Down South, we'd say she had grown too big for her britches, vaulting herself before her mistress in her own self-importance.  

In Hagar's mind, she had succeeded where Sarah had failed.  She had provided what Abraham wanted most when Sarah could not.  She was the one who should be pampered and held in high regard, what with the child of promise (or so she believed) growing inside her swelling belly.  

I imagine she began to act the role of the queen bee around camp, perhaps speaking disdainfully to her mistress, perhaps refusing to do her mistress' bidding or grumbling as she did, and perhaps even giving orders, herself.  

If she had hoped Abraham would stand up for her, would exalt her out of her lowliness as a servant now that she carried his heir, she was shaken from this delusion in short order.   Her place in Abraham's "kingdom" hadn't changed.  

Surely to her surprise, when Sarah complained about Hagar's attitude, Abraham refused to intervene in what he likely considered women's troubles.  In one simple sentence, he gave Sarah carte blanche to treat Hagar as she wished, saying "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight" (v.6a).

 So, Sarah did what one would expect and knocked her servant down to size: Scripture records that Sarah "treated her harshly, and she [Hagar] fled from her presence" (v. 6b).

Where Hagar expected to go, I'm not sure, but I doubt she had anywhere particular in mind.  Her heightened emotional state brought on by pregnancy combined with the dream-crushing disappointment of her child's father refusing to stand up for her and exalt her above his own wife (that should have been expected)--Hagar had been shoved firmly back into her social place and couldn't deal with what she perceived as a demotion.  So, she just ran into the nowhere of the wilderness.

 Yet, there in her despair is where God found Hagar.  

There, the angel of the Lord met her, saying, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority...I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count....Behold, you are with child, And you will bear a son; And you shall call his name Ishmael, Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction" (v. 9-11).

These words to return to Sarah and submit must have chafed even while the other part of the angel's message left her feeling vindicated. Her descendants would be too many to count.  

Her.  A woman.  A slave.  A foreigner living in exile from her homeland.  Her descendants would be too many to count.

Then, "she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, 'You are a God who sees'” (v. 13).

Hagar's mistress and even Abraham may have seen her as nothing more than a servant for breeding an heir.   But the God of Abraham saw her. He heard her.  She mattered to Him.

In this instant, she met the God of Abraham.  I believe it was then that Yahweh became her God as well, for Hagar obeyed the angel's command and returned to Sarah where she gave birth to Ishmael.  

Whether Hagar returned with a sincerely submissive spirit (I doubt it), whether the Lord's promise was enough to tuck away in her heart to get her through the daily grind of life as a servant, or whether Sarah and Hagar came to some sort of truce, whether voiced or unspoken--I don't know.  But life moved forward without recorded incident. Scripture swiftly leaps over Ismael's entire childhood, not mentioning Hagar again until Isaac's weaning when her son Ishmael was sixteen or seventeen years old.   

Did Hagar have reason to be disillusioned with a God who not only allowed her to remain a slave but who also instructed her to return to a mistress who mistreated her?  Did she have reason to be disillusioned with a God whose professed chosen people were allowed to afflict their slaves and use them as they wished, seemingly without consequences?

Sure.  Abraham and Sarah didn't act like we would expect God's people to act.  And God didn't miraculously change Hagar's circumstances once she met Him.

Yet, here, she accepted God for who He was, not for who she wanted or even imagined Him to be.  She also accepted God based on her encounter with Him and not because of her encounters with others who professed to be His followers.

And therein lies a lesson for us all in how we should relate to God.  As hard as it may be, we cannot allow others' actions to determine whether we do or don't seek a relationship with God.  Also, when God doesn't act according to our expectations, we must ask ourselves if we are serving the God of Scripture or a God of our making and then choose to turn towards Him and not away from Him.

To do the contrary is the equivalent of walking aimlessly through that wilderness where Hagar first ran, a dry, barren place without the living water to quench our thirst that only can be found in Christ Jesus.

1 comment: