Tag Archives: rejoicing

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.

Comfort and Joy? Glad Tidings in the Dark

Christmas caroling facilitates the most bizarre cultural collisions. When else do people open their doors and light up with a smile at the sound of the gospel being proclaimed? When else do secular, public facilities thank you for singing about the global reign of Christ the King?

All is calm; all is bright.

But Christmas caroling also produces poignant emotional collisions. Nostalgic tunes, cheery colors, cherubic faces, soft lights, and celebrating words weave together to send a message that all is right with the world. But what about when it isn’t? For those who sit in deep darkness, songs of comfort and joy dredge up the underlying sorrows, the deep pain, the unresolved conflicts that keep their world from being right. Blessed arms cradling a thriving infant call to mind the babies who didn’t make it or cause an ache in the hearts of those whose arms remain empty.  Presents stacked under a tree and a sumptuous feast spread on the table taunt those who struggle to cover their family’s most basic financial needs. And picture-perfect families happily celebrating together stand in stark contrast to the painful reality of those whose families are broken or abusive, separated by miles or perhaps even by death.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The first Christmas “songs” were for people sitting in the dark. The infertile couple who were past hope of ever holding their own child. An unwed mother wondering how this was going to work out. An engaged man wondering if his woman had cheated on him. Marginalized men working the night shift out in the fields to feed their families. An old widow living in the temple, without the security of a home of her own or the comfort of a family gathered around her. For Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the prophetess Anna, these songs brought a message of comfort and hope into their messy lives.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.

God had heard their cries. He had noticed their plight. They were not alone. They were not forgotten. He had come to walk with them, to grieve with them, and to comfort them. He had also come to change their world. He had come to overturn the curse and make the wrong things right. He would heal the sick and restore the broken, feed empty stomachs and fill empty arms, affirm the humiliated and admonish the arrogant. And ultimately, He would restore all things to their rightful place in relationship with their God.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night and pierce the clouds and bring us light!

Songs of Christmas stir our deepest longings. They bring us face to face with what is not right in our lives, and then promise us so much more. The thought of hope can be painful, especially in light of our past disappointments. But the message of Jesus’ birth calls us out of our dark caves to bask in the dawning light. God has heard our laments. He has and is responding to our pain.  And He will make all things new.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2

When Joy is Wrong

“Stop telling me why I shouldn’t hurt. Since when did that help anyone? Listen to the roar of the pain, the rage, the frustration, the disappointment churning deep within me. Don’t ignore my agony. Acknowledge that it is real. Don’t leave me alone in it. Hurt with me. Don’t mock me with simple solutions. Wrestle with me. Don’t silence me with platitudes. Make space for my lament.”

I know I shouldn’t be, but I have been surprised by the number of wounded individuals who have responded to the raw, unresolved pain of my last post with stories of their own suppressed suffering. I say suppressed because for many of them, well-intentioned Christian “comforters” have compounded their pain, not alleviated it; praise-filled church services have crushed their spirits, not lifted them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I suspect that many Christians are too threatened by the immensity of pain to be able to engage it. It scares them, because if they look it straight in the face, they might lose their joy, might start to question God’s goodness, might even be in danger of losing their faith! So they escape into exciting praise songs, testimonies with happy endings, and repeated reminders to be thankful and joyful all the time. But where does that leave the wounded? Out in the cold. Isolated, hurt, and now with a generous serving of guilt on top.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

The Jewish exiles shared a similar experience. Their homes pillaged and burned, their loved ones raped and murdered, their temple desecrated, their country destroyed, and themselves hauled off as helpless captives, they sat in the prison of a strange, scary place with nothing but the painful memories of all they had lost. Traumatized. Grieving. Broken. Their hands hung limp. Their harps hung unused.

There are times when songs of joy are just wrong, when cries of lament are the truest form of worship.

As if that weren’t enough, their captors came around to taunt them. “Sing us one of your praise choruses! You know, the catchy tunes you used to sing back home.” Worse than another blow to the body, this kind of torment violated their souls. It made a mockery of their pain, requiring them to pretend that nothing had happened and that everything was fine.

The exiles did not give in to the pressure. They refused to join the farce, to surrender the last few shreds of dignity they had left. How could they enact the lie of being joyful when they were anything but? Instead they used their voices to express their agony over the horrors they had endured. They called on God to remember all that had happened to them, and not to forget it until He had made it right. God did not condemn them for refusing to be joyful at that moment. Rather, He recorded their laments for our benefit.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell…
Psalm 137:4-7

There are times when joy is just wrong, when faking praise only further isolates us from God. There are seasons when lament is the truest form of worship, the only honest way we can relate to God. This is not a permanent state, but rather a necessary stage on the road back to joy.

Embedded within the New Testament calls to “be joyful in hope”(Rom. 12:12) and to “rejoice with those who rejoice”(Rom. 12:15) is also a reminder to “mourn with those who mourn”(Rom. 12:15). Whether we find ourselves currently in a season of celebration or in a season of despair, love compels us to acknowledge and share in each other’s emotional realities. Compassionate tears. Shared laughter. Heart-rending cries for mercy. Heart-filled songs of praise. This is the stuff that binds us together as the church, with our weeping, worshipping Savior at the core.