Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons

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Shadow Sides 2: Paul and the problem that won’t go away

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine. 

Think of the man who wrote a good part of the New Testament (Paul) and the first words that come to mind probably aren’t “man whose prayer didn’t get answered”. There are good many other phrases that might come to your mind: genius, great writer, leader, certain, inspired, ethical, apostle, convert, road to Damascus, church-planter, missionary. Or maybe there are other, less-complementary words that come to your mind (of which the equally Biblical ‘hard to understand’ may be the mildest). Love him or hate him, he’s one of the single most influential people in the history of the Christian faith. It’s apparent that God used him to communicate some eternal truths and to help us understand what the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as told in the 4 gospels means for us.

So what sort of person was he? What, when pressed, defined him in his own eyes and, most importantly, in God’s eyes? We get a fascinating insight into that in the letter we now call 2 Corinthians. It’s markedly different to the CV’s of the influencers in the early 21st-century:

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus

(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, The Message)

We want our leaders to be in control; Paul admits to anxiety.

We expect leaders to have good relationships; Paul’s had arguments with friends.

We expect moral cleanliness from those in charge; Paul openly admits to plenty of time in prison and to being on the receiving end of brutal punishments.

We want to follow people characterised by strong competence; Paul invites us to follow him because he’s weak and he’s suffered.

He boasts about the things that have humiliated him and led to suffering because it’s in them that he finds himself to be similar to Jesus. Jesus, so anxious that He sweat drops of blood; feared God had abandoned Him; was betrayed and let down by close friends; was punished by the powers-that-be.

That’s not all. For Paul, there was more.

I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

(2 Corinthians 12:7-9, The Message)

Paul, so close to God that Jesus speaks directly to him; Paul, so inspired by God that 2,000 years we still read what he wrote to keep us going; Paul, writer of some of the most influential words in human history; this Paul has a problem he can’t shake, that God won’t take away no matter how much he pleads. It’s probably a physical problem – one serious enough to make him ‘beg’ for relief.

I know how that feels. I’ve been in pain every day for more than 16 years. On bad days, I’m told by people who know about these things, my levels of pain are worse than those of childbirth. I’ve begged for it be removed, and so have others on my behalf, many more than 3 times. Newsflash: I’m not as close to God as St. Paul.

It limits me. I’m also clinically depressed and anxious; I recently ended a church business meeting by breaking down in tears. I’m limited by mind and my body.

That, says Paul, is the point.

God’s fond of those who struggle, close to those in pain. Because when you’re weak, His strength is seen through you; His power is made apparent because mine is stripped away.

Got it all together? Sorted? Ducks in a row? That could be your biggest problem.

Painfully aware of limitations and dis-ability? Wrestling with weakness? Desperate for relief? God’s especially close to you.

 Also in this series:

Moses – frustrated and angry at God’s people

These posts are based on a series of sermons.

Shadow sides 1: Frustrated and angry Moses

The first in a series of posts adapted from sermons about some great characters from the pages of the Bible, with weaknesses and frailties that we might find all too familiar. 

Anger and frustration are frightening. They suggest being out of control – either ourselves, or at the hands of others. They speak of abuse and violence, fear and quaking in the corner. Good Christians shouldn’t get angry or frustrated. They should let go and let God.

Or should they? What if anger and frustration, rightly handled, take us closer to Jesus, mean we’re more like Him, not less?

Take Moses, for example.

We know about Moses. Performing signs and wonders in the courts of a despotic ruler; courageously leading a fear-stricken people; not afraid to lead a wander through the wilderness; parting seas and bringing water from a rock; receiving stone tablets of law in the handwriting of God. We know about Moses. Murderer with a speech impediment; often angry and frustrated, dying on the doorstep of his destination. Despite his successes, hardly a model leader. Or is he?

Let’s focus in on Moses, for the time being doing what he should be doing. At the end of Exodus 24, we read about him heading up a mountain with Joshua. For 6 days he watches; on the 7th day God speaks; for 40 days he’s on top of the mountain, enveloped by cloud which signifies the very presence of God, receiving the law which will shape the worshipping life of God’s people. It’s written on stone tablets, apparently by the hand of God Himself (Exodus 31:18).

While he’s doing what a leader of God’s people should be doing – spending time with God, listening to Him, paying attention to Him, God’s people are getting impatient.

Where is he?

This is taking far too long (32:1); let’s do something instead of just wait.

Aaron, left in charge by Moses, is pressured into collecting golden jewellery; it’s melted down and shaped into the image of a calf. This is what the people choose to worship; this, they say, took them out of Egypt. It’s ludicrous, but no less offensive for that.

God can see what’s going on, so He tells Moses. God’s less than happy, on the brink of wiping them out when Moses intervenes and tells Him it would be better for His reputation not to do so, to remain true to His word to make a great nation out of them. Moses’ self-control is all well and good, until he comes down the mountain himself. He sees and hears the chaos around him; in his anger he smashes the stone tablets of the law in pieces; burns the golden calf and grinds it dust, scattering the dust on water which the people are then forced to drink. Stand in leader Aaron shifts the blame to the people in a ducking of responsibility reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Moses allows those still for God to show themselves, and the rest are slaughtered. Even so, there’s still a plague to come as a reminder of such a naked act of disobedience and idolatry.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us, first, with the reality of frustration and anger. Leadership of God’s people is no easy task. Any attempt to do something under God’s authority – especially an act of leadership – will likely be laced with anger and frustration. You  might even say it’s part of the calling; you can see where you, your church, your people, your project is and where they should be – and the distance is great, the blindness of the people on the ground so rebellious, so wilful, that you might just snap. God feels it, Moses feels it, so you and I will feel it.

Even so, in your anger and frustration do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Do not go on a crusade that God has not given you; in your anger, do not run ahead of God and try to fix His problems for Him. He is more than capable – and just as angry, but not prone to sin.

Jesus does the ultimate Moses: He sees the sin, bears the consequences in terms of the isolation of people and the wrath of God – death, and provides a way beyond it in the shape of resurrection. Now He lives at the right of God, interceding, praying for His people.

So you feel angry and frustrated at the state of God’s people? Well you might; maybe you’re becoming more like Jesus. So leave the crusading and the fixing to Him, the perfect intercessor.

So often we think anger and frustration are marks of weakness. Too often they lead us into sin. Rightly managed they catapult us headlong to the arms of a God who knows only too well how we feel, yet still acts in love towards the objects of His anger and frustration – you, me.

We must be careful; anger and frustration can be corrosive and destructive. But in themselves they are not wrong. One way or another, they will carry us away. It’s up to us whether we let that be away or towards the one whose image we are made.

 

 

 

 

 

On God’s Silence

When the woman who was to become my wife and I were dating, we would often look at other couples around us in coffee shops and restaurants. We’d pick out the ones we’d want to be like when we grew up, and the ones we didn’t want to emulate. The ones we wanted to emulate – no matter their age – were the ones in lively conversation, laughing and sharing. The ones we didn’t want to be like were sitting in silence, apparently focussing on food rather than each other.

Nearly seventeen years of marriage later, my perspective has changed. On those all too rare nights out together ,Bev and I do have plenty we want or need to talk about. But we’ve also grown to appreciate the importance of just being together. There’s a comfort, a profound kind of silence that can settle over us when we’re together – reading, watching a film or show, enjoying a meal, sleep. I’m naturally a quiet person, and I really value the freedom not to have to fill the silence – that Bev is happy just to be with me. She knows me well enough to know that my silence doesn’t mean a lack of love or ease; quite the reverse. It indicates that I feel comfortable in her presence in a way I don’t feel with others. I can just be with her. I have other friends for whom this is also true, if not at the same depth – we can watch a game together, or look at each other and laugh without speaking, knowing what the other is thinking. Silence can be profound, pregnant with meaning and expectation. Can you imagine feeling safer than (literally) sleeping with someone every night of your life?

This speaks to me of God. It’s not unusual for people to ask why God isn’t speaking to them  – especially in difficult, challenging seasons of life. I feel like I’m in one of those periods right now – many things having to be done or decided, and precious little from God that appears to help. He’s silent. Why? Why won’t He speak?

Maybe He doesn’t need to. In a sense, of course, He’s always speaking. Through the Bible, through people, through circumstances, through creation. But there are times when I could have done with a very clear ‘THIS’ from Him. That does – and can – happen, but rarely these days, it seems.

Take Esther, though. It’s the book of the Bible where God is famously unmentioned by name. It’s a time of crisis, personal and national. Ethnic cleansing of God’s people is threatened and women are used for sex by men (never tell me the Bible’s ancient and irrelevant). Where is God? We might well ask. He doesn’t speak, He doesn’t seem to act. Or does He? He’s strongly implied in the famous ‘for such a time as this’ that is uttered by one to another at a key moment; read the story and it’s hard to shake the sense that He’s the shadow cast inescapably by events, never out of sight but easy to lose track of if you’re not looking for Him. Reach the end of the book and it’s clear He’s been doing something, never far from the centre of events and actions.

Take Elijah, depressed and panicking. Hearing in the quiet rather than the earthquake.

Take Jesus, sweating drops of blood in the garden, no reply – save for an angel.

Maybe I’ve underestimated God’s silence. Maybe He’s the lover content to be with me after a while; content to listen and make me feel really listened to in the way others can’t; at peace with sharing the day with me, living life alongside me, nudging, indicating. Maybe His silence is the silence of deep comfort and a maturity I thought I lacked, an honouring of me as a person, an image-bearer of Him.

Where is He when I am in agony and desperate? With me.

Where is He when I can’t see the way ahead? With me.

Where is He when I can’t hear Him? With me.

Where is He when I stray? With me.

Why won’t He speak? Maybe because all I need is a look.

So I lay me down to sleep.