Waiting is one of the most common things we do. Sometimes it is a healthy and eager expectation of something that we know is coming such as a baby, starting a new job, Christmas, a birthday or some other special moment. Other times we are waiting without knowing if or when it is going to be realised. We wait for things like traffic, buses, mail, babies, relationships, promotions, test results, answers to prayer and the list could go on and on. When there is uncertainty some of us deal better with our waiting than others. Often our waiting can be a huge struggle. The key thing however is what God is teaching us through our waiting:
“Our lives are full of waiting and what we do in our waiting, matters to God and it changes us.”Prof. Beth Peterson
One of the best examples in the Bible of waiting is Abraham (originally Abram) & Sarah (originally Sarai) who waited 25 years for God to give them the child He had promised. Today I want to wrestle a bit with some of the challenges that they faced through their protracted period of waiting. It could not have been easy, but in the end, God came through for them big time! My focus today is on Genesis 16 and the cycle of disappointment that begins to take their eyes off the incredible promises God had given to them. This cycle is a response to their growing disappointment and has four stages: (1) being defined by it, (2) trying to fix it themselves, (3) blaming others and (4) becoming bitter. I am sure that this cycle will resonate with many of us!
Step 1: Allowing the wait to define us (11:30, 16:1-2a)
Right back in Genesis 11:30 we read that “Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.” That comes right before God’s great promises to Abram & Sarai in Genesis 12:2-3 that He would make them into a great nation, bless them and make them a blessing to others. The promises were about descendants who one day would become a nation. Ultimately, the fulfilment of these promises had to come through an heir. In chapter 15 God appeared to Abram and told him not to be afraid for He said, He was his shield and very great reward. Abram however expresses something of his pain with this and seems to now think, that given his lack of children, one of the servants would have to be his heir:
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”Genesis 15:2-3
God is categoric here that this would not be the case but rather one of his own flesh and blood would be his heir. God said that his offspring would be just as numerous as the stars in the sky and “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (v6). The focus of the story switches in chapter 16 to Sarai and we are immediately told that she had borne him no children. It had been about ten years since God’s promises and Sarai was now around 75years old. It is therefore not hard to imagine that this issue had come to define her. It is likely that she thought she had missed her chance and that she was now too old. She also seemed very clear that it was God who had kept her from having children (2a).
Step 2: Trying to fix it ourselves (16:2b-4)
I cannot begin to think about what it would be like to wait even ten years for something like this. I can therefore sympathise with Sarai for looking for another way – I naturally tend to do the same thing in my waiting. She had an Egyptian slave called Hagar (likely acquired during their time in Egypt), and she suggests that Abram sleep with her in order that she might build a family through her instead. While it feels quite a brave step for Sarai to be open to sharing her husband, it is also clear how desperate she had become. But this was never God’s plan and there is no sign that they had talked to God about it either. The waiting was tough but sometimes we use our waiting as justification for all manner of poor choices. I also find it surprising that Abram went along with it. After the events of chapter 15 surely he should have encouraged her to keep believing that God would come through for them. Instead he willingly went along with Sarai’s plan and Hagar conceived.
Step 3: Apportioning Blame (16:4b-5)
Things took a turn for the worse when Hagar became pregnant even though that was clearly the desired outcome of Sarai’s plan. Firstly, it confirmed that the problem was with Sarai and not with Abram. That is never going to be an easy truth to hear! Secondly, it created a new tension between Hagar and Sarai. Hagar began to despise her distress Sarai – perhaps she now thought herself better than her? So Sarai turned her frustrations on Abram and told him: “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering” (v5). In a sense she was right – Abram should have helped her to trust in God’s promises rather than agree to her plan that essentially cut God out of it. In another sense however she had only got herself to blame – God’s plan is always best and things never turn out well when we try and go it alone.
Step 4: Becoming bitter (16:6)
There is one final step down into the mire and that is to become bitter. Abram heard her cries and told his wife to do with Hagar whatever she thought best. This was a woman who was carrying his child and he gives Sarai a free hand in deciding her fate. Sarai’s response was to mistreat Hagar and so she flees from her. Things must have become so bad that she had felt her only option was to run. But God had other ideas and sent an angel to intervene. The anger told Hagar to go back to Sarai and told her that God would also increase her descendants so that they too would be too numerous to count. It is a difficult chapter, but it is actually Hagar who experiences God most clearly:
13 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.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.Genesis 16:13-14
Amidst the pain of her own situation Hagar calls God the God who sees me and she called the place the well of the Living One who sees me. The life of her son would not be easy (see v11-12), but God was still going to work out His purposes through Him too. Once she had returned, Hagar gave birth to a son and Abram called him Ishmael meaning God will hear.
A better Story – The Cycle of Faith & Hope
Throughout the story of Abram and Sarai God was teaching them a better story – a story of faith. God wants us to put aside this cycle of disappointment and instead participate in his Cycle of Faith & Hope. It is a cycle that rests upon the promises of God. Abram and Sarai were not unaware of God’s promises and in chapters 12-15 we see them taking steps to believe. God had appeared to them and showed them how His presence was enough for them – their shield and very great reward. Later God appeared again to reiterate His promises and at that time He told them: “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless” (17:1). In that same chapter God changed their names from Abram (meaning exalted Father) to Abraham (meaning Father of many nations) and Sarai (meaning my lady, or my princess) to Sarah (meaning princess of a multitude). There were of course more challenges to believing God as they continued to get older. Both Abram (17:15-18) and Sarai (18:9-15) both laughed at the prospect that God would fulfil His promise to given them a son (Abram aged 99 and Sarai aged 89). But in the end God proved Himself to be faithful and both are commended for their faith. Sarah in particular was commended for considering God to be faithful to His promise.
11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.Hebrews 11:11-12
Waiting is inevitable. It is an integral part of life. God wants to use our waiting to teach us to trust Him. The choice that we see so clearly in the life of Abraham and Sarah is whether we will follow the cycle of disappointment which leads to blame and bitterness or whether we will follow the Cycle of Faith & Hope and believe Him to be faithful, clinging to His promise and presence in our lives. In the words of Paul Tripp: “Waiting is not just about what I get at the end of the wait, but about who I become as I wait.”