When your Life is Stuck on Pause: See God’s Faithfulness in our Faithlessness (Gen. 16; 21:8-21)
Through the life of Abraham, we have been seeing that when our lives are stuck on pause, God is far more interested in getting our hearts unstuck on things that take His place in our hearts than us getting that thing at the end of the pause. God’s heart is about who we are becoming that what we are getting, especially when we are in a waiting season.
The life is Abraham is split up into two major acts (if you think of it like a play). Gen. 12-15 is one act. Gen. 16-22 is another. Act 1 focused on Abraham and the promised land (remember Abraham leaves the land to go to Egypt in Gen. 12, separates from Lot who wanted to leave the land in Gen. 13, Abraham then leaves the land to rescue Lot, resists the temptation to get his own land in Gen. 14 and God confirms at the end of Gen. 15 that God will eventually give Abraham’s descendants the land, but in God’s way and timing). We are now beginning Act 2, which is about Abraham and the promised seed. For the next several chapters, we will see the dominant theme of the promised seed. We learn that though both land and seed promises will have obstacles, but God is faithful!
In Gen. 16 we have the first soap opera in the Bible. After Genesis 15, one may have thought things are looking up in Abraham’s life. Abraham saw that God was far more committed to him than he was, to be willing to sentence Himself to die on Abraham’s behalf. What amazing grace! What an amazing God! Abraham’s faith must have been soaring. However, it collapses pretty quickly here like a deck of cards in Genesis 16. From the end of Gen. 15, in just six verses, you move from faith to violence! What happened? How can this happen to the father of faith? Let’s start with this:
I. The sin of unbelief always brings destruction (vv.1-6)
In Gen. 15, we saw Abraham struggle with doubts. Doubt is different from unbelief if you remember. Doubt is wavering between belief and unbelief. It says, “I’m having a hard time believing. I don’t know what God thinks.” However, unbelief is “the willful refusal to believe or a deliberate decision to disobey.” Unbelief says, “I won’t believe. I don’t care what God thinks.” Moses knows how deadly unbelief really is. It caused them to build a golden calf. It kept the children of Israel wandering for 40 years. It made them want to go back to Egypt (Num. 11:5,8,20; 14:3; 20:5). This is another sermon to the people of Israel about to enter the Promised Land that unbelief will lead them into destruction. When does doubt become unbelief? I like how Alister McGrath answered, “Once you let it.”
Gen. 16:1 sets up the story. We are reminded again that God’s promise to them of a son is still on hold. We are then introduced to a “female Egyptian servant” named Hagar. Why tell us this? Not only because she is a major character now in this story, but to remind us about Gen. 12. Hagar came back with Abraham when Abraham left the land. And why did he leave again? Unbelief (Gen. 12:10-20). He deliberately disobeyed. Why did he have unbelief then? Because he was living by what he saw instead of what God has said; by sight and not by faith. Now because of those choices he made, there are consequences which show up now in Gen. 16.
And now it is Sarah who is living by what she sees (Gen. 16:2). It’s been 10 years (Gen. 16:3). Abraham is 85 years old now. Sarah is 75. Nothing’s going on. No kid in sight. Sarah might be hitting menopause. It’s always been the same-old-same-old since they left Ur. In essence Sarah is thinking, “Thanks for the promises God, but what good are the promises of God if my womb is dead?” The seeds of doubt are watered into unbelief. Notice her analysis of the situation: “Yawheh has prevented me.” On the one hand she is acknowledging God as the provider and source of all life, but on the other hand, there is blame placed on God. Take note:
a) Unbelief attacks God’s character and God’s Word
Interestingly, this whole chapter is paralleled with Genesis 3: 
|16:2a: so she said [Sarai] to…||3:2: The woman said to…|
|16:2b: Abram listened to thevoice of Sarai||3:17: you listened to your wife|
|16:3a: Sarai … took||3:6a: she took some|
|16:3b and [she] gave her to her husband [Abram]||3:6b: she also gave some to her husband|
This is another replay of the Fall. This is “The Fall” Part Two, if you will. If you remember the temptation in Gen. 3, it all started with Satan questioning God’s Word: “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1). Then He attacked God’s person. He portrayed God as a taker, when we saw clearly in Gen. 1 and 2 that He was a giver and a lavish giver at that. Satan portrayed God as dishonest and stingy. He told them essentially, “Not only is God putting you in bondage, not only is God restrictive and narrow needlessly, not only is God trying to withhold from you some delight, some joy, some satisfaction, but do you know God is actually dishonest? God doesn’t tell the truth. He’s not good. He’s not caring. And He’s not even honest.”
Satan magnified what they didn’t have (the prohibition) and minimized what they did have (the provision). And since God wasn’t trustworthy and good, they needed to take matters into their own hands. You need to control your life, Satan said. Seven times in Gen. 1 we read, “God saw it was good.” In Gen. 2, God says, “It is not good.” So we learned right away that only God knows what is good for us. But the next time we see “good” is Gen. 3:6 when it says, “…the woman saw that the tree was good.” When did Eve sin? The moment she believed God was not good and she knew what was good for her life better than God did. She wanted to take God’s place. God is preventing you, Eve. And Sarah here says, “God is preventing me.” Unbelief blames God as the source of trouble and forgets that He was the source of every good and perfect gift. It then attacks God.
God had made promises to Abraham and Sarah in Gen. 12:1-3. Their only responsibility/command was to “go.” God was going to take care of the rest. Every temptation comes because we feel we have a right to evaluate what God has said. Did God really say that? Granted, it was not clear that God was going to bring this son through Sarah. We knew it was going to Abraham’s seed (Gen. 15:4). So they must have had doubts about that word, but instead of laying those doubts and praying those doubts (which we don’t see any consultation to God or prayer or anything here), Sarah decided she knew what was good for her, since apparently God did not.
This is why anxiety is a form of pride. We are not wise enough to know how our life should go. We don’t know what’s good for us better than God does. Sarah assumes she will be forever barren. Notice, “I shall obtain children,” which means, “I can build a family.” God had said He would do give Abraham an heir and a family and now Sarah, like the Babel builders (Gen. 11), are going to build her life and family, her way. Sarah, dear, unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers labor in vain who build it! (Ps. 127:1). Where in your life do you believe that God is not good right now? That He cannot be trusted? Where do you doubt God’s Word? That’s where unbelief grows. Secondly,
b) Unbelief reveals our bondage and idolatry
Our unbelief is our own sin, but often it uncovers something deeper that our hearts are stuck on. Why is Sarah going crazy here? Notice the repetition of “children” (Gen. 16:1-2). Sarah’s obsessed with having a child. Why? Because that culture said, “You are a disgrace and a failure if you are barren.” Pastor Kent Hughes notes, “Her barrenness was deemed a tragedy in ancient culture, where it was a mark of success to have many children and a sad failure to have none.” Abraham, called Abram here, whose name meant, “father of many” daily reminded him that he did not even have one person who called him “Daddy.”
So they may have heard this day after day. It was a good desire, but it soon became an ultimate desire. A good thing became a god-like thing. Sarah’s identity is wrapped up in having a child. She is more of a slave here than Hagar here. “If I don’t do this…If I don’t have this…I am nobody. A disgrace. A failure.” Tim Keller observes, “Every culture says, ‘Unless you have THAT, you are barren. You are a nobody. You are nothing. You are a failure.’ Today’s culture screams: ‘You better be good looking, smart, successful, popular, cute.’ There has never been a culture that does not say, ‘You better be THIS, or you are nothing.’ We hate ourselves if we think we do not measure up or achieve to what our culture tells us. We feel barren.”
What do you feel like if you did not have that would make you barren? A failure or a nobody? The honest answer to this question is what your true God is and where your salvation is found. See for Sarah, when the pressure came to overcome her barrenness, she chose the baby over God. In our Asian/Indian sub-culture, I know honoring your parents is what makes you not “barren.” So when the pressure comes on you, God is often out of the picture. Education, a good paying job, right partner in marriage, status in the community, all tells you that you are important. But when your child doesn’t follow through on your expectations, then there is chaos and many relationships sacrificed at that altar.
What are you a slave to? People’s opinions? Man’s approval? Working to prove something? Wanting love so that you know you are loveable? Where does the slavery to the culture’s standard of barrenness show up in our life? Unbelief uncovers our idols and our slavery to them.
Unbelief also causes people not to trust God’s way of salvation. Paul will actually use this story to say that these women, Sarah and Hagar, are like two approaches to salvation (Gal. 4:22-23). To get the blessing through Sarah, Abraham has to receive it as a complete act of grace. He has to wait on God/trust God for a miracle. But to get the blessing through Hagar, he can do so by human ability because Hagar is able to have kids. Paul uses this as an illustration to show that our heart due to unbelief manifests itself even in how many do not want to believe God’s way of salvation, but would rather prefer their own way.
Hagar is the way of works; Sarah is the way of grace. Hagar is the way to get God’s blessing through achievement/effort; Sarah is the way to get God’s blessing through receivement/faith. With Hagar he can get God’s blessing by performing with his own power. With Sarah, all he can do is to wait for supernatural divine intervention. Abram had two choices: Save yourself by works or save yourself by grace. Our father of faith chose to save himself/get the blessing by works/performance.
c) Unbelief leads to chaos and disorder
Notice the downward spiral of this choice to give Hagar to Abraham, to make their dream come true. By the way, this may look like a bad scandalous soap opera to us, but “Ancient Near Eastern custom provided for the substitution of a slave for the purpose of bearing a child in the case of a barren mistress. If the wife could not produce children, the husband might marry another; perhaps the offer of a substitute circumvented the acquisition of a second wife.”
Hagar is also treated like property. Hughes adds, “Abram and Sarai had treated Hagar like an inanimate, unfeeling instrument—a soulless baby machine.” Notice she is “taken” and “given.” She has no say. She is merely an instrument.  And when we want our idols and dreams to come true, we use God and people to get it.
However, God does not always approve of everything, which the culture may approve. And in attempting to get control over her life, things start to spiral out of control. You want to be God Sarah? Take over and see how well you can drive your life. And isn’t that what always happens? Control is an illusion. What really do we have control over? Perhaps our choices, but even then we make choices because we are controlled by something else. If we do not let the Lord control us, we will be controlled by something else and that always ends in chaos. Sin, like scrambled eggs, cannot be put back together.
Notice how passive Abraham is. The author compares him to Adam here, who blindly listens to his wife (which is not wrong, except when it is a godless idea). Is this the same guy who fearlessly knocked down four powerful kings? Many people have won the battles on the field, have lost the war at home. Who cares how many championships you won if you end up cheating on your wife and destroying your family?
Hagar, ironically, has no problem at all in becoming pregnant. As soon as she conceives, Hagar “looked with contempt” (v.4) on Sarah. Though Hagar became a slave wife, she was not in equal standing with Sarai. However, if Hagar produced the heir, she would be the primary wife in the eyes of society. Here we go. Now it turns into the weekday talk show. Hagar feels proud of her pregnancy. She, a “piece of property,” can do what Sarah cannot, so she probably gave Sarah some arrogant looks and perhaps intentionally strutted her belly around Sarah.
Sarah then gets jealous, angry and blames Abraham in Gen. 16:5. This blame shifting eerily reminds us of Adam in Gen. 3:12-13. She calls what’s happened to her as “violence,” the same word God used to describe why He sent the flood (Gen. 6:11, 13). Our idols always break our hearts in the end. When we sin, we may get we want, but in the end, we will not want what we got. It always disappoints. It over-promises but under-delivers. And it ends in disorder and chaos. Sarah is volcanic and angry literally saying, “I placed Hagar between your legs and it’s your fault!” Then she brings God into the picture to get Abraham! True, Abraham allowed this being the patriarch, but it takes two to tango, sister! Unbelief has blinded her. She can’t see past her self-centeredness. Abraham still does not man up and gives up all responsibility as though he was an innocent bystander. He is callous and indifferent.
Sarah who says she was a victim of violence, beats Hagar in rage. How can you hurt a pregnant woman? The words “dealt harshly” with her are used to describe the suffering endured by the Israelites in Egypt in 15:13; Exod 1:12. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be a blessing to the nations and this Egyptian girl wants nothing to do with this family or their God. Abraham does nothing. Anyone seeing this?! What a bad witness!
Notice there is no prayer, consulting God, except to blame or to call down judgment. Whose fault was this? Well, Sarah dreams up the idea, but Abraham went along with it. Both of them did not trust God. But Hagar is the victim, yet she despised her mistress. Sarah also mistreats Hagar. However, Abraham tries to wash his hands of the whole affair and fails as a leader. Hagar runs away like Adam and Eve does (Gen. 3:8).
But who is hurt in all this? God is. His name, His reputation, His character all hurt. His heart is broken because He just “covenanted” His heart with Abraham, amazingly before all this fiasco. Even with all this, God still introduces Himself as the God of Abraham. Sarah will still receive the promised seed. What does that tell you? That tells us that grace comes to God’s people, even in the midst of our worst unbelief. Grace comes to those who do not deserve it, who do not seek it, who continually resist it, and who do not appreciate it even after they receive it. Note this last thing:
II. The faithfulness of God is always greater than the faithlessness of man (vv.7-16; 21:8-21)
Hagar runs away. This second scene in this chapter is set in the wilderness on one of the roads to Egypt through the Sinai peninsula. Hagar is making her way to her native land. God’s messengers in the land have failed and are stuck in their sin. God’s people are faithless. No heroes in this story? We have a victim, Hagar and two perpetrators, Abraham and Sarah. The true hero is God, who turns Hagar’s life around.
God can turn our worst failures into greatest demonstrations of grace and mercy. A mysterious friend comes to Hagar. God’s people have refused Him. They do not want Him and so God reaches out to this oppressed woman. Scholars have debated about who “The angel of the Lord” is here in Gen. 16:7. “Angel” here can be translated “messenger.” Some say this might be a pre-incarnate Christ, since he says he can do only what God can do in Gen. 16:10. And who else can be so near, comforting and tender like our Lord Jesus? Doesn’t this foreshadow the Lord Jesus sitting on a well also looking for another non-Jewish woman in John 4? And besides He is THE angel, not an angel. Nevertheless, even if it is just an angel, God is speaking to her through him.
Notice He knows her name, “Hagar” (Gen. 16:8) You are not just a baby machine and a piece of property. And typical God-like fashion He asks a question as if He doesn’t know the answer to: “Where have you come from? Where are you going?” This is not for God’s information, but Hagar to confess her trouble. This sounds like God in the garden: Where are you Adam? (Gen. 3:9). Loved ones, we have a God who pursues us, who knows our name and draws us out. Sarah drove her away, but God draws Hagar in to Himself.
Then the angel of the Lord tells her to go back and submit (Gen. 16:9). What?! She has to trust God’s goodness here. God promises her to that she will be called to a season of pain, which will lead to blessing (Gen. 16:10-12; Gen. 21:8-21). Ishmael means “God hears.” God has redeemed this! The crown comes after the cross. Humility before the exaltation. I wonder what would happen if we truly saw that God often calls us to some extreme difficulty because that is the pathway of His blessing? Hagar goes back and submits, very unlike Sarah and Abraham in this chapter!
However, there are consequences to all, since this son will bring about people who will oppose Abraham’s seed. In fact, by the end of the Abrahamic narrative, Ishmael and Isaac live in separation (Gen. 25:18). The image of a “wild donkey,” a fearless and fleet-footed animal, is a metaphor for an individualistic lifestyle…Ishmael is not a child in whose seed the nations will be blessed; his blessing will be away from the land of promise, living by his own resources. Ishmael is the father of Arab peoples today who are still fighting the Jews.
But the encouragement is that God will be faithful to Hagar if she trusts and waits on God for His timing. Wait, who was supposed to be hearing this? Is this a message to Sarah and Abraham? They didn’t want to hear it and now God speaks it to an unlikely person, an Egyptian servant.
Unfortunately, we should be hearing about Sarah and Abraham’s response to God’s grace here, but instead we hear it from the lips of Hagar in Gen. 16:13-14. Notice here that Hagar as Bruce Waltke says, “…gives God a name that expresses his special significance to her. She responds to the person, not to the promise. She no longer gloats that she is pregnant but marvels at the Lord’s care for her.” All this time, the way that Sarah and Abraham looked at her gave her the idea of what she was: property. Now she sees how God sees her and that helps her see God better. She was the object of God’s affection not an instrument of man’s orchestration.
Who is this message to? First, this is a message to Abraham and Sarah. You did not see me when your life was stuck on pause. You were in pain. You were struggling with doubts, which led to unbelief. But you did not call out to me. Now everything is in chaos. But I see you. If I can hear and see the affliction of a nonbeliever, how much more do I hear and see the affliction of the ones I have covenanted my heart with? Notice that Abraham names the son Ishmael in Gen. 16:15. How did he know to do that? Through Hagar! When Abraham and Sarah failed as witnesses to Hagar, God uses Hagar to witness to them. She must have came back home and told them what happened. Abraham and Sarah again see that the God who called them is faithful, even in their unbelief and faithlessness. God’s blessing will come the way of grace.
This message is also for the Israelites entering the Promised Land? Unbelief will kill them like it did their ancestors. Salvation is by grace, not by their efforts. Going to Egypt is never an option. Return and submit to God’s timing when things get hard. Even when you cannot see God, God sees you.
But this message is for us as well. If your life is stuck on pause, you might not be seeing God at all at times. You may have doubts that have turned into unbelief. Destruction around you might have come as a result. People might have been hurt because you were impatient. Yes, it is really embarrassing when we think about how bad fall into unbelief. But our hope is not that we have seen God well, but that God sees us. God sees you. He hears the cry of your heart. He sees the pain. And He comes to you in the desert. He draws you to Himself. How can God do that to undeserving people like us? Why doesn’t God unleash His wrath on Abraham and Sarah and leave Hagar alone?
God comes to us because 2,000 years ago, we had our worst embarrassing moment. All of our unbelief, all of the pain, all of the destruction and chaos was unleashed on the Son of God. God’s Son, who was the apple of His eye, the object of His affection, was treated like a rotten apple. God could not look upon Him. He turned His face away and cast Him off and drove Him away. He drove Him away, cast Him off like an outcast, so God can draw us to Himself. God turned His face away from Jesus Christ, so He can turn His toward us in our unbelief.
And we know something better than what Hagar knew. This God doesn’t just notice us, but He has also died for us. He doesn’t notice us for a moment, but loves us forever! Now we can receive His grace because we know that He will never leave us nor forsake us, because His Son was already lost and forsaken for us. Grace comes to God’s people, even in the midst of our worst unbelief. Grace comes to those who do not deserve it, who do not seek it, who continually resist it, and who do not appreciate it even after they receive it. It cannot be controlled and managed. It just comes, like a river that can’t be dammed, a sun that can’t go dark and a mountain with no peak. But the beauty of it all is that it always comes.
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (247). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Guinness, Os (1996). God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt (23). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
As quoted in http://jameslau88.com/opposite_of_faith_is_unbelief_not_doubt.html accessed 16 February 2012.
Hamilton, V. P. (1990). The Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (443). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Gaebelein, F. E., Sailhamer, J. H., Kaiser, W. C., Harris, R. L., Allen, R. B., & Zondervan Pub. House. (1990). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (134). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 2: Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary (8). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (252).
Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (238). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
From the sermon, “See the God who sees you,” as transcribed in http://westloop-church.org/messages/old-testament/15-genesis/175-see-the-god-who-sees-you-genesis-161-16 accessed 16 February 2012.
Keller, T. Ibid.
Mathews, K. A. (2007). Vol. 1B: Genesis 11:27-50:26 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (184–185). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Hughes, R. K. (240).
Hamilton, V. P. (446).
Biblical Studies Press. (2006; 2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Ge 16:3). Biblical Studies Press.
Wenham, G. J. (9).
Wenham, G. J. (9).
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (255).
Acuff, Jon. From a tweet https://twitter.com/#!/jonacuff/status/124499370841346048 accessed 17 February 2012.