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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Be Who You Are

Charles Paul Landon, 1760-1826
Poor Hagar. Seems like she was everybody’s punching bag, doesn’t it.

When we are introduced to her in Genesis, she is the servant of Abram’s wife. Every modern writer will tell you servitude is the worst of all possible fates, so it must be so. Then Hagar’s mistress, too old to conceive, comes up with the bright idea of using Hagar as a means of perpetuating her own family line.

Despite his years of experience, Abram goes along with Sarai’s plan. After all, he’s a guy, and he’s just been given permission — by his own wife, yet — to have guilt-free sex with a younger woman.

What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty Much Everything …

Rivalry, unexpected emotions, jealousy, cattiness and a lack of ability to keep the big picture in view are what goes wrong, among other things.

Hagar gets pregnant, it goes to her head, and she forgets her place and begins to snub Sarai. Abram, who should have quashed the surrogacy idea with one stomp of his patriarchal foot when it was broached by his wife in the first place, quite reasonably gets the blame for everything that has gone wrong with his wife’s plan and abdicates responsibility entirely. The end result is that Sarai feels justified in mistreating her servant. Hagar makes a run for it, figuring that things cannot possibly get worse.

(As is frequently the case in both scripture and in secular history, the much-maligned patriarchy declined to flex its muscle. That’s not quite the way feminists might tell the tale, but that is neither here nor there.)

Still, for Hagar, it’s get used, get used again and then get dumped on. Not a pleasant experience. I’d run too, and so would you. Probably.

The Angel of the Lord

I can’t help but notice, though, that when the angel of the Lord finds Hagar in the wilderness, he has a very peculiar way of addressing her: “Hagar, servant of Sarai”.

If you didn’t know better, you might think “Servant of Sarai” was Hagar’s last name. That surely wasn’t the way Hagar saw herself. Such a form of address doesn’t seem terribly flattering. After all, the normal way to disambiguate a person with a common first name in those days involved referencing their father: Milcah, the daughter of Haran”, or “Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel” or even “Rachel, the daughter of Laban”.

Hagar presumably had a mother and a father like everyone else but, as it turns out, the angel of the Lord is not interested in discussing her family tree. He’s interested in making a point, and the point is that Hagar’s identity and destiny are all tied up in choices made for her by others; choices of which Hagar may not have approved and about which it is unlikely she was ever offered a chance to express her opinion.

Can you relate? I can.

It’s Not All Fun and Games

But this is the angel of the Lord after all. He doesn’t coddle Hagar. He doesn’t offer her meaningless assurances that things back in Abram’s tents will be wonderful, or that Sarai didn’t really mean to be abusive. He doesn’t pretend that being a pregnant servant in someone else’s household is satisfying or fulfilling. He simply says, “Return to your mistress and submit to her”.

Short version: This is who you are, Hagar. You are the servant of Sarai. Be that. It’s not all fun and games, but that’s not the point.

Now the angel of the Lord does offer something to Hagar: the promise of a son, and offspring so multitudinous they cannot be numbered. More importantly, he tells Hagar “The Lord has listened to your affliction”. And that matters to Hagar, who, until she became pregnant by Abram, had probably lived her life all-but-invisibly. She says, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me”. She had been looking after people her entire life. Now she had Someone looking after her. That mattered to Hagar.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Just somebody to say, “I get it”.

Back to Square One

Still, the angel of the Lord sends Hagar back to her mistress, and Hagar dutifully goes. She serves Sarah for another 16 or 17 years until Sarah, provoked by Ishmael’s mockery of her son Isaac, tells Abraham it’s time to send Hagar and her son packing. So Hagar is dispatched once again into the wilderness with the fine severance package of a little bread and water.

But notice that when the angel of God meets her a second time in the wilderness, he doesn’t call her a servant anymore. He simply asks, “What troubles you, Hagar?” She’s a free woman now, and she didn’t have to run away to accomplish that. And God still sees her and looks after her.

The End of the Story that Nobody Could See Then

The story flatters neither Abraham nor Sarah. It was probably not ideal for Hagar. But serving Sarah against her own natural inclinations for those 17 years was the will of God for Hagar, and I guarantee you there was no better place for her to be. It was who she was. Later, she became the mother of a great nation. She is defined today not by servitude to Sarah but by a legitimate place in history and a spiritual legacy as part of a critical New Testament illustration of the difference between the covenants of law and grace. We live under the latter. Those differences are not trivial.

Many of us find ourselves not thrilled with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, to say the least. Maybe we find them as intolerable as Hagar found hers: Wife of Bob [list complaints here]. Husband of Mary [list complaints here]. Disgruntled employee of [fill in tyrant’s name here]. One of very few serious Christians in a local evangelical church environment that seems to be rapidly going to the dogs. Living in Town X when we think the grass might be greener in Town Y.

Like Hagar, we are tempted to run for it. After all, we tend to see ourselves as independent agents with a right to pursue happiness on our own terms and by our own standards. That is what our culture unceasingly tells us. We have a right to be happy. We have a right to define ourselves as we see fit.

Servant of Somebody

But we do not always remember that, like Hagar, being somebody else’s servant is part of our identity. It’s who we are. What matters is not how we define ourselves, it’s how we are currently defined by heaven. We need to grasp that reality and make it ours.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says, “Every one should remain in the state in which he was called”. Cail Corishev has an interesting take on that here.

The upshot? My less-than-desirable circumstances may be precisely what God intends for me at the present time. I say this as someone who has made a career of squirming from the frying pan into the fire: there is no safer place and no better place than the place in which you are now, at least until the Lord moves you on.

Be who you are.

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