Return to the hard thing

This morning’s “Jesus Calling” references one of my favorite passages in Scripture — the story of Hagar.

Hagar was Abraham’s servant whom he and Sarai used to conceive a son.  God had promised a son to Sarai, but apparently His timing was longer than she anticipated and she tried to force her own solution by having her husband bear a son with her slave.  I totally sympathize with Sarai’s impatience.  God promised Abraham a long-awaited child.  I would have been right there with her thinking the wait was over and we’d be pregnant soon.  And when that didn’t happen, I’d unfortunately probably be right there with her questioning God rather than believing and waiting on Him.

Now this isn’t really all that surprising — Sarai ends ups treating Hagar harshly after she sleeps with Abraham.  Even though it was her idea, she can’t bear the continual presence of this woman who’s been with her husband.

So Hagar flees into the desolate wilderness, escaping an overwhelming situation that she didn’t ask for.  I can picture her turning her face away from the home she lived in and was provided for, shading her eyes against the sun’s harsh reflection off the barren land she now faced.  I imagine her wondering where she would go.  How would she manage?  What was her plan?  Why this and what now?

In Genesis 16, as Hagar just sits on the ground with no plan and no hope, the angel of the Lord finds her.  It doesn’t even say that she sought Him.  He searched for His distressed child and she was found.

He asks her where she’s come from and where she’s going.  This would have been the time that I would have had a lot of complaints and a lot of questions.  God is standing in front of me, and I don’t want to miss the chance for Him to lay out His whole plan so that I know why this is happening and when it will end.  He’s here!  That must mean things are about to get dramatically different and I will feel better!

But Hagar just tells Him simply that she was fleeing her mistress.  No “Rescue me!  Turn this all around — finally, You’re here and I’m relieved of this problem!”

And honestly, that’s what I would have expected God to do.  Deliver her in a way I understand.  Take her far from that place of hurt, comfort her, remove the point of pain and make it easier.  

I would have expected Him to do that for Hagar because deep down I expect Him to do that for me.  When I don’t understand why something is the way it is, I expect God to remove the hard thing.  I get caught in the trap of thinking God is in the business of making things easier for me.

But God does the opposite.  He tells Hagar, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.”

No deliverance into a new land flowing with milk and honey for Hagar.  No dramatic easing of the pain.  Instead, go back to the place you just came from that hurts and is confusing.  Go back in submission.

Then — then! — God tells her that He will surely multiply her offspring.

Go back to the place you don’t understand.  Return to the hard thing.  But know that I will bless you there.

He’s not making it easier for Hagar.  He’s making it worth it.

I’ve had my own times of pleading with God to remove me from situations I don’t understand and that feel fruitless.  Sometimes I can’t see how anything about that place is doing me any good and I want to move on.  But He keeps me there.  He doesn’t make it easier.  He’s asking me to trust that it will be worth it.

Hagar didn’t argue with God.  She didn’t tell Him she was disappointed that His instruction was the opposite of what she probably wanted.  She didn’t pout in her prayer time with Him (guilty!)

Instead, she understood where God was going with all this.  When God tells her to return to the very source of her struggle and submit to it, her response is to call the Lord “the God who sees me,” and say “Truly I have seen him who looks after me.”

I need to learn that being in a hard place doesn’t mean God has stepped away from me.  He hasn’t turned me out of His presence.  He searches for me and finds me.

I also need to learn that God looks after me in a different way than I sometimes want Him to.  While I think looking after me means deliverance from the hard things, His definition is different.  Sometimes looking after me is making me stand in the very center of the hard thing, completely blind to the blessing it might bring, so that I learn to trust Him.

When Hagar returned to Sarai, it wasn’t easier than before.  Sarai ends up turning her out into the wilderness again.  Hagar spent years there under a mistress who struggled to bear her presence.  I imagine she must have spent a lot of time on her knees, begging God for the strength to submit and for the patience to withstand.   It seems like time wasted when our human minds consider it.  But when God considered it, He deemed it worthy.

And so she returned and submitted to the hard thing.  Lord God, make me as humble as this slave woman!

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