Monday, October 14, 2013

Disillusioned By God & His People: Part II

I can look back in my past and see God's footprints as He carried me through one trial or another, those watershed moments that broke my heart and buckled my knees so I couldn't take another step on my own. In hindsight, I know God has always been for me, even when I couldn't lift my eyes to see Him or couldn't comprehend the why for the pain of the what.

Somewhere along the way, I bought into the assumption that the more I turned to God in these times of trial, the easier it would be to turn to him the next time I entered another trial, for I realize that there is always another struggle somewhere in front of me, just past the vanishing point where the horizon meets the sky.  

I assumed that as I matured in Christ, it would just become second nature to encounter the next difficulty sent my way, accept it as part of His plan, and move forward by His grace.  

But that's not how it works.  

For starters, no two trials are alike, so learning how to live abundantly in one trial doesn't make overcoming the next trial an easy task.  Then, there's the problem of reconciling what we know with what we expect--we may know in our hearts that another trial is coming, but we never expect it to come so soon on the heels of the last trial.  We also don't expect the next trial to be as hard as it always is; in our Christian walk, we assume maturity will make the trials easier to endure, if for no other reason than because we're more experienced in dealing with them.  

Yet, each time, we're blindsided by the sheer magnitude of the thunderstorm bearing down on us when seconds before, nothing was on the radar except clear blue skies.  As such, the latest trial is much like the first trial God sent our way.  It is a new choice to either turn to God or turn away from God.

Last week's message ended with Hagar running from an abusive Sarah, meeting the God of Israel, and returning to Abraham and Sarah where she would give birth to Ishmael.  Out there in the wilderness, the Lord had come down and spoken to her, offering her comfort and a promise that through Ishmael, her descendants would become too many to count.  In that moment of trial and despair, she chose to turn to the Lord, saying, "'You are a God who sees'” (Gen. 16:13).

Years passed fairly uneventfully as she continued her life as Sarah's maidservant.  Then came the birth of Isaac, the true child of promise, who, in her motherly eyes, usurped her son's place in both Abraham's heart and inheritance after all these years.  

After Ishmael incited Sarah's ire by taunting the young Isaac, slave mother and son were sent packing.  evicted from the camp and with nowhere to turn.  Scripture records, "So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, and gave her the boy, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba" (Gen. 21:14).

Here Hagar was, sixteen years later, right back in the same wilderness to which she had fled before. The irony of the situation couldn't have escaped her as she made her way into that place where she had once met with God.

Yes, it was the same place, but it was still a different trial.  And while Hagar chose to believe God those many years ago, things weren't so certain this time around.

For starters, the absence of any dialogue on her part when Abraham sends the pair away shows a woman as hard as flint.  If I had been Hagar being sent away with only a skin of water and bread, you'd better believe the annals of history would record me repenting, begging, pleading, and promising nothing shy of my firstborn child just to not be turned out on the road with thieves and jackals.  Yet, Scripture records nothing of the sort here.

Hagar's tight lipped retreat into the wilderness shows a proud woman...and a very angry woman, too.  I imagine she was so furious with Abraham for following Sarah's orders to send them packing that her pride wouldn't allow her to ask Abraham's forgiveness for Ishmael's actions. 

I imagine her turning on one heel and wordlessly marching away into the dust and sand, her head held stiff and high....never turning back for a second glimpse of the life she was leaving behind. No, her body would have stayed erect and unyielding until she was out of sight, as if she feared her resolve would crumble if she turned her head for just an instant.

But adrenaline fueled by anger can only last so long, and when the heat of the day along with the seriousness of her situation set in, Hagar had two choices--return to Abraham and beg for mercy or continue on this path to nowhere.  Drowning in her own pride, she chose the latter.

Still, Hagar did have another choice.  She could have called on God, the One who sees.  Yet, she refused.   

Scripture records, "When the water in the skin was used up, she left the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away, for she said, 'Do not let me see the boy die.' And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice and wept" (Gen. 21:15-16). 

Death was imminent.  And still, Hagar did not call out to God for help.  She may have believed God had simply sided with Abraham and against her. Perhaps she had even convinced herself the previous encounter with God in the wilderness was just a fluke, that she had misheard Him, or that He had gone back on His word, abandoning her like everyone else in her life.  In truth, though, I believe she was angry with God, that she would have rather died in her anger than ask for His help, blaming Him for her present plight.

Although she may have been hardened with anger, Ishmael did cry out: "God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.' Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin with water and gave the lad a drink" (Gen. 21:17-19).

The phrase "What is the matter with you, Hagar?" could just as easily say, "What's your problem, Hagar!?  Why haven't you called to me for help?  Don't you know I'm just a call away? Are your pride and anger really worth your death and the death of your son?"  It reminds me of when Jesus said to Philip, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me?" (Jn. 14:9).

God then reached out and provided that life-giving water to Hagar and Ishmael, but this mercy wasn't extended because of anything Hagar had done.  No.  It was extended because Ishmael cried out for help, and the Lord answered him.

This wounds me, the thought that like Hagar, my child may be the one who calls out to the Lord for me when I am too hurt, proud, or angry to seek His face.

Hagar knew the God of Abraham.  She had met Him in a most intimate way sixteen years earlier. Yet, this time, Hagar chose to embrace her anger, pride, and despair, and turn away from the Lord.  As much as I'd like to shake my head at her unbelief, I honestly can't.  If I've learned anything in my thirty six years, it's that my proper response to God in the next trial is not assured.  

A Christian can never grow complacent, believing him or herself "mature enough" to always respond as the Lord would have him do.  Turning to God in the midst of a trial will always be a conscious choice we will need to make again and again.  But we can be encouraged, knowing that although we change like the shifting sands, our Father never changes.  He will always be there for us, waiting for us to petition Him and rest in His arms of mercy as the storms of this life rage around us.

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