READ : Genesis 16:1-16
God cares about us all. He pays attention to where we are; he understands what we feel. He knows who we are and what we need. No detail is too small for the Lord to notice; no person is so unimportant that he will overlook them.
The Bible speaks often of the importance of waiting on or waiting for the Lord. Some wonderful promises are made to those who are willing to wait like this. Here are a couple of them, from the book of Isaiah:
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are those who wait for him.
There are also exhortations urging people to wait.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
The Bible also makes promises concerning those who are willing to wait in quiet trust for God to act.
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
Waiting is a function of hoping. To wait for the Lord is to confidently expect God’s deliverance – from pain or suffering, from sin, from material want, from sorrow, from loneliness, from all the troubles and evil that blight our life in this world. To wait is to refuse to give up on God, no matter how bleak the circumstances are, no matter how discouraging appearances may be. “I wait for the Lord,” cried the psalmist, “and in his word I hope!” Waiting is persistent trust in both the goodness and the power of God, and that equals hope – no matter what!
The reason why waiting for God is so important is simple. It’s because while God’s agenda and ours have the same bottom line – to redeem the whole universe from evil and unite all things in the glorious joy of Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 1:3-10) – our timetables are different. We want it all to happen right now. We want an immediate end to suffering. We want wrong to lose and right to win. We want happiness and health and prosperity, and we want it all today. When we don’t get it, many of us are tempted to question God or to doubt his wisdom and power or even his goodness. And some of us reject him altogether. But God is real. God is good. God is there. He’s just working to a different schedule.
God’s time is not the same as our time. The Bible says that the Lord is not slow about keeping his promises, but to him, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8). God has great plans, both for the world and the human race at large, and for your life and mine. The Lord discloses those plans through his word, and makes wonderful promises to us about our part in them. He is going to bless us, and he’s going to use us to bless others. All this we’ve learned from the story of Abraham, the Bible’s paradigm of faith. But God always reserves to himself the prerogative of working out his plans and fulfilling his promises in his own way and time. And that’s why we must learn to wait. As with so many other lessons about faith, we can learn this one too from the story of Abraham although in Abraham’s case the lesson is taught in a negative form.
GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES?
Here’s one of those famous verses that isn’t in the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.” This sentiment has an especially strong appeal for Americans, with our tradition of independence, self-sufficiency, and rugged individualism. The only problem with it is that it isn’t true. The Biblical God values a spirit of dependence and obedience much more than self-reliance. He regularly comes to the aid of the poor and the powerless who trust in him. As the psalmist cried:
Who can compare with God, our God,
So majestically enthroned,
Surveying his magnificence heavens and earth?
He picks up the poor from out of the dirt,
Rescues the wretched who’ve been thrown out with the trash,
seats them among the honored guests,
A place of honor among the brightest and best
The fact is, according to the Bible, God helps those who can’t help themselves.
That was a lesson Abraham had to learn the hard way as we learn from an incident that is related in Genesis 16. Abraham and Sarah and their household had been living in Canaan for ten years now (v. 3). God’s promises had first called them out of their original home, and drawn them to this far-away place. Now they had settled into a routine of life, dwelling in tents as resident aliens in the land that had been promised as a homeland to them. God had blessed them with an abundance of things – flocks and herds and servants – but the central gift was missing from their lives. They still had no child.
God had promised to give Abraham and Sarah a son, an heir, and through him descendants beyond counting. He had repeated the same promises several times, but they still had not yet been fulfilled. Now Abraham and Sarah are getting old (Abraham, in fact, was over 80), and time seemed to be running out. They had given God ten years and he hadn’t done a thing. Maybe it was time for them to take some steps to help themselves. Perhaps God needed a push. Maybe they had been waiting too passively. So Sarah came up with a plan, as the biblical writer describes.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2 and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. 4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!”
6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
Sarah’s proposal to use her Egyptian maid Hagar in order to produce an heir for Abraham might strike us as morally questionable, but actually it was a fairly common practice in ancient society. In our own day of test-tube babies and surrogate mothers, the story has a very contemporary ring to it – no doubt it would make a popular made-for-television movie. And it looked like Sarah’s plan was successful when Hagar became pregnant and eventually bore Abraham a son. But it wasn’t God’s plan. It wasn’t God’s time. It wasn’t God’s way.
A LESSON IN HUMAN NATURE
The way human nature is constituted, three people being involved in an intimate sexual relationship is one too many. God established the norm at creation when he said that a man shall leave his father and mother, cleave to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh. This is the Biblical definition of marriage, rooted in God’s creation – one man and one woman together making one flesh, the core of a new family. Any attempt to tamper with or change this law of creation will produce domestic disaster. We can see this lesson repeated over and over in Bible history.
Polygamy in the Bible was mostly practiced by patriarchs and kings (perhaps in imitation of their pagan neighbors, or to emphasize their importance). While God seems to have tolerated it in Old Testament times without explicit condemnation, he also allowed the unhappy fruit of polygamy to be experienced to the full by those who tried it. The lesson taught itself through painful family histories. Changing God’s prescription for the family results in grief for every one. By New Testament times God’s people had learned to return to his original plan for the family: monogamous marriage.
To see an illustration of the negative lessons, both regarding polygamy and the need to wait for God and his timing, we need look no further than Abraham’s household. As soon as Sarah’s plan to open her husband’s bed to her maidservant is put into operation, things begin to go wrong. When Hagar becomes pregnant her attitude changes drastically. Feeling superior to her childless mistress, Hagar begins to express contempt for Sarah.
An angry and jealous Sarah then accosts her husband Abraham and proceeds to blame everything on him! Abraham, meanwhile, showing not the slightest shred of responsibility or leadership, tries to wash his hands of the whole matter. Here is yet another episode where Abraham’s character does not appear to best advantage. He seems to have surrendered his integrity as well as his authority as head of his family. When Sarah approaches Abraham with her proposal, he passively agrees. Then when Sarah, unhappy with the results, comes complaining to him, Abraham merely turns Hagar over to her. “She’s your servant,” he says. (You can hear the shrug in his voice.) “Do what you want with her” (v. 6).
So Sarah makes life miserable for Hagar. When this servant woman who is carrying Abraham’s child runs away, Abraham does absolutely nothing. It’s an ugly scenario all the way around, and a good illustration of how the basic defects in our character often emerge under pressure.
THE GOD WHO SEES
But if human nature is disappointing, God’s character and faithfulness are a constant source of hope. The story, you see, does not end with Hagar’s flight into the wilderness. Even though Abraham and Sarah had made a complete mess of things by their impatient attempt to make God’s promises come true by themselves, the Lord did not abandon everyone. The fleeing Hagar headed for her old home in Egypt. But she never got there. At a desert spring along the way, Hagar had a remarkable encounter which changed her life and the life of her unborn child. We read that:
The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness. . . . 8 And he said. . . . to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”
And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction….13 So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi” (“the God who sees”); for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi (“the Well of the Living One who sees me”) . . .
The angel of the Lord – that mysterious figure who is both from God (vv. 7, 9, 11) and who is God (v. 13) – appears to Hagar and tells her to return to Sarah, adding a prophecy of a unique greatness for the child in her womb (vv. 11-12).
Hagar was awe struck as well she might be. “‘The Lord has given heed,’ said the angel, ‘to your affliction.’” The child she was carrying was not the promised one, but God would bless him anyway. God is able to take even our mistakes and make something good come from them. “I have seen the One who sees me,” cried Hagar, when God had visited her and spoke to her and comforted her (v. 13). And so she named the Lord El-roi, “The God who sees.”
That is an amazing truth. The amazing part is not that God can see us; after all, he wouldn’t be much of a God if he couldn’t. It’s that he notices us. God cares about us all – even the least of us, even pregnant, runaway slaves. He pays attention to where we are; he understands what we feel. He knows who we are and what we need. No detail is too small for the Lord to notice, no person so unimportant that he will overlook them. There is blessing for Hagar and Ishmael, blessing for Abraham and Sarah. And there is blessing for you and me too, no matter what mistakes we may have made along the way. The well where Hagar met the Lord was named Beer Lahai Roi – the “well of the Living One who sees.” That’s a wonderful truth about God. We all live near that well, wherever we may be, for the living God is a seeing God and a noticing God and a caring God and a blessing God.
And that’s another reason why we can wait for him in hope. The Lord is not slow about keeping his promises, not as he counts time. We have 70 or 80 years (or perhaps fewer) to live in expectation of the fulfilment, and we have all eternity to enjoy it. And so we wait confident in the knowledge that God sees and cares.