Give Us a Break!

My sister-in law found out last week that the baby girl she is carrying has a significant heart problem. For the next several months, she will constantly face the excruciating question: will the life that she is nourishing within flourish and grow or will it wither and die?

My friend just lost her baby. This isn’t the first time she has gone through this, but it will be the last. Along with her baby, she just lost her uterus, too.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Psalm 90:1-2

How do I pray about all this? My heart is crushed with grief for these precious women. They have endured so much loss, so much disappointment, and now my friend’s hopes of bearing a child are dashed forever. How can I call her to hope in God when I myself feel that He has been too severe with her? And yet where else can I turn but to the One who gave birth to the world and everything in it, who holds her children, her body, and her future in His hands?

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning– though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Psalm 90:3-6

At times like this He seems so harsh, so distant and uncaring. We feel like helpless peons, tossed about in a cruel world where blossoming infants are suddenly blighted and our ability to bear fruit is abruptly cut off. Did He not call us to be fruitful and multiply? Does He not raise our expectations with talk about blessing His people with children: making them fruitful vines, filling the barren woman’s arms, and all that? And yet another infant has perished under His watchful gaze; another godly woman lies bereft of her fruit-bearing capacity.

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. … their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. …
Psalm 90:7-11

Is God angry with us? Is this suffering simply the product of a sinful, cursed world in which life is cut short and the days we do have are filled with sorrow and hardship? If that is all we have to look forward to, then our lives are reduced to a desperate act of survival. If God truly is that aloof and indifferent, then we have no hope at all.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

But life can’t really be that bleak. God can’t really be that unloving. There has to be more to the story than I can see at this moment. So, as Moses did before me, I turn to God and ask Him to show me the big picture. What are our lives really about? What cause do we have to keep hoping, to keep persevering through the pain and pressing on towards the future?

Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
Psalm 90:13-16

Give us a break, Lord! We can’t go on like this much longer. Show us some mercy. Apart from you, we will wither and die. We can’t bear another day imprisoned under these steel skies. Break through the dark clouds that swirl around us and let us see your beauty, your goodness, your love. We are your weak, grieving people. Come and comfort us. Reassure us with your smile. Touch us with your tender hand. Give us a reason to be happy again. Show us those wonderful ways that you intervene on behalf of your servants. Give us a sign of your goodness. We want to believe, help us in our unbelief.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days… my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.
Isaiah 65:17, 19-20, 22-23

Once again, my soul settles on the reality which Moses died believing but never seeing. Two thousand years later, a baby survived some rough birthing circumstances only to later have the breath of life crushed from His lungs. His resurrection is God’s response to the prayers of anguished sufferers past and present. It broke the curse under which we writhe. It relocates our hope to the new creation, where the curse will be finally and fully undone. Our fruitfulness will be restored. Our babies will live. Our God will be with us. Our joy will be full.

Seven years ago today, I watched as a team of blood-spattered doctors raced the clock to rescue the tiny infant from my own failing body. Hours later, I awoke from the anesthesia, wondering if she had joined the four others who had gone before her. My womb was gone, and with it my fruitfulness as a woman. But in God’s incredible kindness, He spared me my Anastasia, my little “resurrection.” Today, I hold her sturdy, growing body and bury my face in her soft, warm skin. She is my living, breathing reminder of the power of His resurrection, a tangible sign of His goodness in the here and now.

Lord, fill the empty arms of those who mourn. Create anew the bodies of those who are at-risk. Restore the fruitfulness of our bodies, our work, our lives.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us– yes, establish the work of our hands.
Psalm 90:17

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Delivered!

“I think that God is telling me to go back.” My heart sank as I listened to my friend talk about returning to life with her abusive husband. She had endured so much at his hands that the thought of her going back into that situation made me feel sick. Surely it wasn’t God’s voice she was hearing. It must be the voice of her own damaged identity telling her that she wasn’t worth any better, convincing her that God would be more pleased with her if she sacrificed herself to “help” her husband. But despite my stated concerns and strong conviction that she had every biblical right to leave, she remained unshakably certain. This was what God was asking her to do.

God was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her freedom.

I wanted to keep trying to talk her out of it, to claim that God would never send someone back into such a harmful situation, but who was I to say what God was or was not asking of her? Had He not met Hagar running away and told her to go back to her abusive mistress? And yet along with that terrifying directive He had also given her assurances of His ongoing presence and care for her. He was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her good.

Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery.
Genesis 16:9-11

Hagar believed God. She reached out and took His hand as He led her back to Abraham and Sarah. She submitted to them and served them for at least another fifteen years. She gave birth to the child they had forced on her, and gave him the special name God had given her in advance. Ishmael became her constant reminder that “God hears,” that God was watching over her and she was not alone. But God was not content to leave her in that precarious situation. He was at work to bring about her deliverance in a way she never would have chosen.

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10

The day came when Hagar’s worst nightmare came true. Jealous for her little Isaac to be Abraham’s only delight and heir, Sarah insisted that Abraham divorce Hagar. Never mind Hagar’s rights as a concubine, never mind the fate of a homeless woman and child wandering alone in the desert. Sarah just wanted them gone, erased from her family picture.

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you… Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.
Genesis 21:11-14

Abraham was not so quick to reach the same conclusion. He felt trapped between honoring his wife and doing right by her maid, his concubine. But God intervened and nudged him in the direction of going along with his wife’s wishes. He got up early the next morning, packed Hagar up with enough provisions to get her started on her journey, and sent her off with nothing to her name but her son.

Devastated. Where could she go for food and housing? Abraham’s home had not exactly been a paradise for her, but at least there she and her child had steady provision and secure shelter. What would become of her precious child without a father? Maybe theirs had not been an ideal family situation, but at least before Ishmael had the identity and hope of an inheritance as Abraham’s son. To whom did she now belong? Hagar was riddled with fears. She had never made her own decisions. How could a life-long slave suddenly start being the master of her own life? She would not have chosen to walk away like this, but now it had been forced on her.

She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
Genesis 21:14-16

Scorching sun. Empty water bottle. Crying child. Panicking mother. Where was that cool refreshing stream this time? Where was the God who had met her there and promised a great future for her son?

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
Genesis 21:17-20

God was right there, just as He had been all along. He had given her this child and He had every plan to make sure that she was able to keep him. He had brought her safely through the fire of living in an abusive home, and now He had intervened to deliver her from it. She was not leaving as a runaway slave; she had been sent off as a free woman. She was not leaving alone; she had the future security and the current dignity of being the mother of a son, one whom everyone now recognized as the legitimate son of a well-reputed man.

This time when God addressed her, He did so by her own name. He acknowledged her identity as no longer the handmaiden of Sarah, but as Hagar, her own person. This was her independence day, and He was here to share it with her. Through her He would protect and provide for the child. Through her He would raise him up to become a mighty man. And through her He would establish a great nation.

The way God took care of Hagar gave me confidence to support my friend in her decision. I prayerfully held my breath to see what He would do for His trusting, devoted daughter. Many terrifying twists and turns later, she phoned me with the devastating news that her husband was divorcing her. The dreaded day finally came, and I sat praying in the attorney’s office waiting room as she signed the final papers. But my mourning turned to rejoicing as the realization dawned: this was her independence day. God had seen her misery and had intervened on her behalf. He was delivering her from the bonds of an abusive marriage, and He Himself would be her nurturing husband, a wise, tender father to her children. Together we wept and worshiped, mourned the past and celebrated the future. God’s goodness had prevailed. At last, she was free.

No Holds Barred

“How dare you take your children to live in such a dangerous place! What about your calling to be a good father to them? How could you live with yourself if they died because of your decision to follow God?” The questions my brother was facing were identical to the ones I had asked myself years earlier as my husband and I prepared to move overseas. None of us had any doubt that God had called us to go and serve Him in these very challenging fields, but we all struggled to reconcile that calling with our other calling to nurture and protect our children. Which came first?

“Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
…it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.
Genesis 18:18-19; 21:12

Abraham had gone before us in facing this dilemma, and his response became the basis for our own. Everything that he had been promised, everything that he had staked his life on, hinged on the life of his only son. This was his miracle baby, the one they almost didn’t have. This was his last chance, the only child left after he had lost the other one. This was his Isaac, his long-awaited gift from God. Surely God wouldn’t demand him back.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Genesis 22:1-2

But the call was clear. God had told him to sacrifice Isaac. No one else had heard it, but he had. There was no denying what God had asked him to do, but it just didn’t make sense. The mental image of his beloved son, the promised child of the covenant, brutally slaughtered and engulfed in fire was too much to bear. Why would God raise his hopes for the future only to dash them? Why would He give this precious child only to take him away?

Ultimately, the decision was Abraham’s. God had not struck Isaac dead. He had asked Abraham to do it. He had to make a choice, to take a course of action one way or the other. Doing what God had asked of him would be a violation of his calling to fatherhood, through which he had been promised that he would become a great nation. But not doing it would be a violation of his relationship with God. God had asked him for a specific sacrifice, the one thing that he treasured more than anything else in this world. To protect Isaac would be to deny God.

The cost of what we are willing to offer reflects the value we assign to God.

Interestingly, Abraham did not wrestle with God over this one. He had not hesitated to boldly and persistently argue his case with God when it had been a matter of justice and mercy. But this was different. It was a matter of sacrifice, an act of worship. To try to bargain down the price this time would mean devaluing God. Abraham knew that his response to God’s request had to be all or nothing. No in-between compromise would suffice.

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. … When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Genesis 22:3-5

And so without a word of protest he took Isaac along to the distant place that God led him to. He would offer this precious gift back to God. Whether God would take Isaac or would give him back, Abraham did not know. But he did know that God had always come through for him in the past. He would be faithful in this, too.

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
Genesis 22:6-8

Abraham laid the sacrificial wood on his only beloved son’s back and together they ascended the mountain that would one day be known as Zion. Each step of the way he wondered how it would all work out, if he would make the return journey with or without a son. But his dread of what might happen did not stop his obedience to what God had said should happen.

I listened to my brother recounting the story of Abraham as the answer to his questions about obeying his own dangerous call. I knew from personal experience that we could not claim that God would spare the lives of our children, that He would protect them from harm as He had Isaac. But Abraham’s sacrificial act of willingly laying his son on the altar of worship resonated deeply with my own growing love for God. It gave significance to the risks we had taken and the losses we had endured because of our obedience to God’s call. These were opportunities to show how much He was worth to us, to offer up our love to Him. And so with tears of sorrow and of joy, I offered Him the unborn child I had just lost to dengue fever. She became my Thysia—my priceless offering.

Godly Abusers?

When we were kids we used to talk about the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys were heroes who got everything right; the bad guys were villains who reveled in doing wrong. That simplistic paradigm works in the world of Superman and Inspector Gadget, but when we try to read the Bible that way, it gets really confusing.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6

Sarah was a good guy, right? She was the beautiful, beloved wife of the ultimate hero of faith, Abraham. She herself was the model of submissive faith, held up by the Bible as the example for all Christian women to imitate. So how could she be an abuser?

Abusers are bad guys. They use their strength to hurt other people. They use their positions of power and authority to keep others under their control. And when their superiority is questioned or their control is threatened, they respond in ways carefully calculated to put those under them back down in their place. Whatever it takes, no matter the damage, they will maintain their precarious position of power.

Treating another person as if they are not made in the image of God, as if they are not loved and valued by Him, is abuse.

When I used to read the story of how Sarah treated Hagar, it messed with my tidy paradigm. Even if it did seem a bit extreme to me, I wanted to find a way to explain Sarah’s actions other than as abuse.

So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”
“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.”
Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert.
Genesis 16:3-7

But God had no such qualms. When He told the story from His perspective, He called it what it what it was. Abuse. Sarah treated Hagar wrongly. Whether that involved physical violence, verbal assault, or some other form of demeaning treatment, the word the Bible uses indicates an overpowering, oppressive, possibly even violating humiliation. And lest we try to justify Sarah’s behavior by pointing out that Hagar had been misbehaving, God follows up their little incident by showing up to comfort and affirm Hagar, not Sarah. Yes, He directed Hagar to go back and to submit to her mistress (until He later freed her properly), but He did not defend Sarah’s behavior. Nor did He cover it up. He named it and recorded it for the world to read.

Abuse at the hands of godly people, especially spiritual leaders, can be too confusing to identify. We either want to see them as total bad guys, or we want to keep them in our good guy category by explaining away their abusive behavior as somehow good and right. But no matter how hard we squint or from how many angles we look at it, treating another person as if they are not made in the image of God, as if they are not valued and loved by Him, is abuse.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:25-28

Belittling comments. Silencing tactics. Intimidation moves. Power plays. All of these are efforts to push down and control, the very opposite of how God builds up and empowers. When we accept or justify such behavior within our families or churches, we perpetuate a system antithetical to God’s. Sacrificing the dignity of His image-bearers for any agenda, no matter how good, is a corruption of His charge to serve and tend His people.

The good news is that when God’s representatives get it wrong, He shows up to make it right. The rest of Hagar’s story goes on to show that God does not tolerate any form of abuse, even when the abusers are the good guys.

Rules of Engagement

Being invited to wrestle with God feels just a bit like being told to jump in the arena and fight with a lion. As C.S. Lewis so pithily remarks in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, He is “not like a tame lion.” And as many who have gone before us have discovered, crossing the line with Him can result in devastating consequences.

So what does it look like to be friends with God? It’s not like He will stop being the almighty Ruler of the earth, nor will we stop being frail, needy mortals. What happens when we have a difference of opinion? Is that the point where our friendship breaks down and we return to a state of respectful resignation before Him, or does He want us to push back? How do we argue with the Judge of the universe?

When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
Genesis 18:16-17, 20-21

Abraham walked this fine line with terrifying audacity and unrelenting humility. God had taken him into His confidence. He had formed a special relationship with Abraham and had told him the amazing things He had in store for him and His descendants. He had even hung out at Abraham’s house and had dinner with him. But when God revealed His plans to destroy the city where Abraham’s relatives lived, Abraham faced a real conundrum. He knew how to handle a dispute with men, but what were the rules of engagement when disagreeing with God?

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.
Genesis 18:22

Abraham did not meekly accept God’s revealed intent. He did not bow before God’s sovereignty in compliant determinism. Instead he remained standing in God’s presence, continuing to assert the same intimate status that they had shared up till then. In fact, he took a bold step further and approached God with an incredulous, almost reproachful question.

Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Genesis 18:23-25

Would God really act this way? It seemed so out of character for Him! How could the Judge of all the earth violate His own standards of right and wrong? Abraham argued vigorously against God’s plan, appealing to God’s own justice, righteousness, and compassion. There was a lot more than just the preservation of Abraham’s loved-ones on the line. This was about God’s own integrity, and Abraham wasn’t about to let go of that without a fight.

The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Genesis 18:26

God reassured His friend. No, He would not destroy a city with that many righteous people still living in it. He would be true to His character and would spare it, if fifty righteous ones were actually found there.

God is not a tame lion, but He is a loving one.

Abraham could have stopped there. God’s integrity had been established. His character was no longer in question. But the fact was, Abraham really didn’t want anything bad to happen to his relatives. This was a matter of personal interest, but wasn’t that reason enough between friends? Did he have a firm enough platform from which to plead for something that he just really wanted?

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” … “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” … Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” … Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
Genesis 18:27-33

Abraham ventured out in fearful faith, with no defense in hand but an appeal to their relationship. He relentlessly pursued God in a bargaining duel, closing in the gap each time God stepped back and gave him a little ground. He knew he was treading on thin ice, pushing God so far, but with each round of success he felt like he might just be able to get a little closer to getting his way. But even in the midst of such boldness, Abraham never forgot Whom he was sparring with. As he poked and prodded forward, he repeatedly affirmed his smallness and unworthiness before God, and God’s right to get angry and put him back in his place.

So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.
Genesis 19:29

Amazingly, God played along. He did not rebuke Abraham for being so forward. He did not shut down the argument with a “Because I said so!” And in the end, He honored Abraham’s wishes. Out of His love for Abraham, He went to great lengths to spare his relatives.

What are the rules of engagement when we are compelled to wrestle with God? For starters, we already have to be His friends, to be walking the course of our lives in communion with Him. With that relationship firmly established, we may boldly approach, argue, persist, even negotiate. But we can never forget Who it is we are wrestling with. He is not a tame lion, but He is a loving one. He may or may not grant us our wish, but He will not devour us for bringing it to Him boldly.

Whose Side is God On?

This true story says it best…

Pregnant. Battered. Alone. The woman was running away, but to what? Her whole life she had been controlled by others. Sold into slavery as a girl. Carried off to a foreign country by strange owners. Forced to have sex with an already-married man. Bearing his child, but only to have to give it over at birth. Now violently humiliated by his jealous wife. She couldn’t take it anymore; she had to escape. But she had nowhere to go, no one to help her.

As the miles dragged on, her mind whirred towards the future. Who was she anyway? She was a possession, her identity completely bound up in those who owned her. Apart from them, she was just a runaway slave, the baby within her a bastard child. What future could she possibly hope for? What would become of her, of this child within her? Frazzled and shaken, she pulled off the road into a rest area.

A soothing creek ran undisturbed by the side of the road, its peaceful gurgle a welcome relief from the turmoil in her soul. She sat down to rest in solitude. But she had not gone unnoticed.

“Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”
Genesis 16:8

Her heart plunged into her stomach. She had been seen! Who had come all this way in search of her? An angel! She should have known better. Abraham and Sarai were important people, very special to their God. She was carrying their baby; she herself was their property. Of course He would never let her get away with running away from them. He was on their side. He was here to protect their best interests. Was there no one out there to protect hers?

Broken and helpless, Hagar didn’t even try to resist.

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.”

Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”
Genesis 16:8-9

Naturally, God was on their side. They were the righteous ones; she was the one who was out of line. After all, she was the one who had let her pregnancy go to her head. She was just a little slave girl who had gotten cheeky with her mistress, thinking that perhaps now that she was carrying Abraham’s child she should be treated with a little more respect. Who had she been fooling, thinking that she deserved to be treated better? God would probably say that she had brought Sarai’s abuse on herself with her uppity attitude. God had made her their slave, and God was here to make sure she stayed in her place. Hagar resigned herself to her fate. Who could argue with God?

God was not there to condone her leaders’ actions. He was there because she had been wronged.

But the angel wasn’t finished. God was not there to condone her leaders’ actions. They may be His chosen people, but that did not give them the right to treat her the way they had. She, too, was His creature, made in His image and loved by Him. He was there because He had noticed her plight. He had seen her misery, and He was moved to act on her behalf.

The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”
Genesis 16:10

Had Abraham and Sarai’s God just promised a future for her? Her descendants? This was the kind of promise that He made to important people like them, not to insignificant slave girls like herself. This must just be an extension of the covenant God had already made with Abraham. It couldn’t be meant for her, personally.

The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Genesis 16:11-12

Incredible! God was doing this for her. He was making this promise to her, speaking directly to her with the same honor and dignity that He would later bestow on Hannah and Mary, the maidservants of the LORD. A promised son, named in advance by God. Prophecies about his future, his significance, his role.

Why would the God of her abusers do such a great thing for her? Was she really so valuable to Him that He would stand up for her and make restitution for the wrongs she had endured? But He had promised He would. He had seen her. He had come near to her and honored her with this rare glimpse of Himself. Hagar responded in faith.

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
Genesis 16:13

Giving Up with a Fight

If God took from me everything on earth that I most cherish—my husband and children, my home and community, my health and security—could I still rise and bless His name? I used to periodically ask myself this question, using it as a litmus test for my heart’s posture towards God. Was He truly on the throne of my heart, or was I holding on to anything else more tightly than to Him? In moments of abandoned worship, I could wholeheartedly answer yes. At other times the question would make me shudder, suck in my breath, and confess that no, my heart was not oriented towards Him in such total surrender.

True relationship calls for a fight;
true love results in surrender.

It struck me recently that I have not asked myself that question in a long time. Perhaps this is because in the years since I last asked it, I have experienced many aspects of that hypothetical worst scenario, and by His grace, I love Him more now than ever. But this discovery also made me fear that I have grown so accustomed to wrestling with God that I have forgotten how to surrender. How do these two postures fit together in how I relate to God?

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Mark 14:32-34

Jesus embodied both wrestling and surrender during the hours leading up to His worst scenario. Like His ancestor Jacob, He stayed up all night wrestling with God over the outcome of the next day’s events. Jesus knew what was coming. He had been preparing for it and preaching it for a long time now. But that didn’t take away His shear dread at the thought of actually going through with it.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

Sleepless night. Anguished cries. Hot tears. Bloody sweat. No, God! Don’t make me have to bear this. It’s too hard, too much. Spare me! I don’t want to go through with it. Won’t you let me off the hook?

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Matthew 26:42-44

Through the night Jesus called out these candid objections to His Father. All was not well with His soul, and He did not pretend otherwise. He would not lie down and rest, He would not back down, He would not stop wrestling until God answered Him.

But even as He voiced His protest to God, Jesus affirmed His willingness to surrender. With each round of stating His will, He also declared His desire that God’s will would ultimately prevail. Here was a wrestling match between two contestants with opposing wills but united hearts. Their clash in desire did not undermine their deep love for each other or their mutual commitment to each other’s honor. And not for a minute did Jesus let go of the submitted respect of a son to his Father, a servant to His Master, a man to His God. More than anything else—even more than His very life—Jesus wanted God to win. But that didn’t stop Him from wrestling in the meantime.

Jesus’ exemplary prayer unmasks our false dichotomy between grappling prayer and serene surrender. What does God want of us? To argue our case heatedly and pester Him persistently until He answers. To love Him wholeheartedly and surrender to Him fully after He does, even when His answer is no. True relationship calls for a fight; true love results in surrender.

Abuse: An Assault on God

“Why should I care about abuse?” Cain asked God almost the identical question, right after he beat his brother to death. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 2:7, 15; 4:2, 8

The irony of Cain’s question makes me laugh every time I read it. Had not God just created a magnificent world and placed people in it to tend and “keep” it? Was Cain not a devoted gardener, a “keeper” of the soil and a nurturer of its tender plants? He had embraced his God-given role to rule the earth in a way that made it more fruitful, more beautiful, more full of life, but did he not understand that his care for fellow humans was an inseparable part of that created role?

The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Genesis 4:10-12

If Cain thought it was possible to tend his own business without tending his brother, he was in for a big surprise. Even the land had noticed his abusive treatment of Abel, and as a result, it was boycotting his business. It refused to cooperate with his efforts to make it productive, righteously protesting his abusive behavior and compassionately receiving his victim’s broken remains.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. What is done against us is done against God.

But the land wasn’t the only one that had noticed. God saw the way Cain had treated Abel, and He took it personally. Abel was precious to Him. He had lovingly fashioned Abel’s body and spirit according to His unique design. Abel was God’s handicraft, and Cain had defaced it. Even worse, Abel was God’s image, and Cain had desecrated it.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.
James 3:9

Abel, like every other human on the face of the earth, had been created in the image of God. That meant that his body, his personality, and his very life were a sacred representation of God Himself. Any mistreatment of Abel was, in fact, a direct attack against the God in whose likeness he was made. When Cain raised his fist to strike Abel, he was really assaulting God. And as the Scriptures go on to make clear, when we raise our voice to lash out at another, we are really attacking God.

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
Genesis 9:5-6

God does not tolerate such abuse, against Himself or against the ones He loves. He confronted Cain for His reprehensible conduct, allowing him no wiggle room for excuses or diverting questions. Like any good property owner, God required Cain to give an account for the way he had cared for his brother. And like any offender caught red-handed, Cain was left powerless before God. Everything he had said or done to Abel was laid bare before God, and all he could do was beg God for the compassion that he had refused his brother.

The story of Cain and Abel is just the first in a long line of abuse stories that are an integral part of our Bible. God does not turn His face away from abuse, nor does He allow us to. He will require us to give an account for how we have looked after each other, not just in terms of whether we have abused others or not, but also in terms of what we have done to protect, nurture, and build them up.

When I stop to look at myself and at those around me as living, breathing, touchable images of God, I am moved by a deeper, more connected love for humanity. What happens to us happens God. His glory is bound up in our frail lives.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is an affirmation of that image.

So am I my brother’s keeper? Even the dirt knows the answer to that one.