Boot Camp: “Tragic Short Cuts” – Genesis 16

Did you ever take a short cut that ended in a mess? We all love shortcuts, because they make us feel like we are clever. The problem is the fastest way to do something isn’t always the best way to do it. Ask anyone who works at a barbecue stand and they will tell you that grilling hamburgers on the hottest setting won’t get burgers on the table more quickly; the practice will simply burn the meat into inedible hockey pucks. And while taking the shortcut under the rail overpass might work in your car, you shouldn’t try it with your tractor trailer (show picture of trailer stuck under bridge overpass).

Abraham lacked information about something going wrong in his life. We know he was anxious about it, because the record we read in the last lesson reminds us:

Genesis 15:3 And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” 4 Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5 And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

He believed God’s promise, but didn’t see God’s results. What to do? He decided to take the PART of the promise he understood and fill in the other part. What should he have done?

Key Principle: To avoid painful results, seek more information from God about your problem.

The apparent problem: God hadn’t delivered…yet.

Genesis 16:1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no [children]…

The apparent problem was a lack of child – the real problem was a lack of patience with God. Be aware that many of our problems are actually nothing more than masked impatience. We want comfort, peace and security NOW. If we don’t get it now, we assume God isn’t on duty doing what He has promised.

The truth is God didn’t promise comfort and He didn’t offer a time table for many things in our life. He offered Himself – and no one in the story seems to be seeking Him!

The apparent solution: Use the law.

Genesis 16:1b …and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar.

The apparent solution is to enact the legal mechanism of allowing conception through one in the household under the wife’s command – the real solution was to seek the Lord about the barrenness of the womb.

In the absence of seeking the Lord, there is always looking to other people. That is why prayer meetings often devolve into discussion groups with a few minutes of complimentary prayer. It is hard to seek the Lord, but easy to seek the counsel of others. Learning to seek Him is a necessary part of the maturing process for any believer.

The apparent understanding: God left the plan to us.

Genesis 16:2 So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing [children]. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. 4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived

The apparent understanding of God’s delay was that He wanted them to figure out another way to get His promise fulfilled – the real understanding should have been as simple as God sending an invitation to ask Him.

Look at the steps:

First, Sarai concluded (without asking God) their lack of conception was an intentional work of God designed to force them to step in to fix the situation.

God’s delay may have had many purposes, but she projected an understanding of God’s plan she didn’t have. Without any idea as to what God was doing, she figured out something that WOULD WORK that didn’t really require God to do anything extraordinary. In her practicality, she delayed the miracle she would experience. Often, when we get really good at finding answers, we get really bad at seeking God.

What Sarah proposed was the custom of the day even if it seems strange to us now. Remember, they had short life-spans (comparatively) and high infant mortality and natal mortality rates. Many women died giving birth just as many infants died. Customs were created to compensate. God didn’t cancel them until much later, in 1 Corinthians 7, where polygamy and multiple sexual partners were all forbidden.

Some of you may object to me sounding hard on Sarai. After all, perhaps she thought she was just being practical. A long time passed with no child and neither she nor her husband was getting younger. Why was the short cut a bad idea? Maybe it wasn’t. Without asking God why He was delaying the baby, they would never know.

Second, Abraham decided Sarai’s idea made sense, so he also sought nothing from the Lord.

God engaged Abe with promises. He wasn’t silent. Abe knew how to talk to God, but he leaned on the words of Sarai for the method of fulfillment of the words of his God. That is unwise. Sometimes it seems the more we learn to depend on people, the less we really seem to need God. Your pursuit of God needs to be personal. It doesn’t mean you cannot learn from others, it means you cannot substitute what others say for seeking God Himself.

As much as we desire to teach you to use the Scriptures well, it will take practice.

Did any of you ever have a coach show you how to throw a basketball into the hoop? The positioning of the elbow, the flexing of the wrist, and the gentle release off the finger tips are all part of the proper form. Yet, all the form instruction in the world cannot make up for practicing techniques that will show when the game gets tough.

To be clear, when we speak of “allowing God to work through us” we do not speak of something passive. It is a practiced proficiency. It is a communication skill initiated intentionally and developed over time and with careful repetition. It is the work of one who would spend much time asking God to direct steps and less time figuring out a way to make broken people behave and broken situations find immediate resolution.

One of the greatest lies Christians believe is that prayer is what you do when you can’t figure out what else to do.

That isn’t true at all. Prayer is what you do to allow God to put answers in place when you need them!

If we retreat to a counselor when we really need to pray, we get the best wisdom of a man or woman – but not necessarily the counsel of the All Knowing One. It doesn’t mean the counselor was deficient. It means God placed the problem in front of us in order that we would seek Him, and we are running from His desire. We have nothing to give God but ourselves – but that is what He seeks. Sometimes intractable problems are nothing less than an invitation of the Almighty to sit and chat for a while.

If you are honestly encountering this truth and you know that you really want God to just leave you alone and let you do what you want to do – at least be honest with yourself. There is nothing wrong with the teaching – the issues are within you. No amount of Bible reading, Bible instruction or preaching will change that reality. You are wasting your time if you won’t bring your heart to God. You can learn volumes from the Bible and perform a moral service with your daily behavior, but Jesus will still say of you: “This people honors me with their lips, but there heart is far from Me.” Worship beckons us to bow, but only we can choose to hear the call and do it.

The apparent result: God’s blessed Abraham!?!

It seemed obvious that God offered a wonderful blessing to Abraham, and certainly any of us would consider a baby a blessing of the Lord no matter HOW it was conceived.

Genesis 16:4b …and when she saw that she had conceived,

Every child is God’s blessing, not only the ones a settled, stable, married couple conceives. Every child opens a new world of possibilities. Every great invention of mankind began with a baby’s birth. Some of those inventions came from children born into nearly impossible situations.

At the same time, we need to recognize that God put up fences for a reason. He delayed the baby, not because He forgot about His promise, nor because He lost the formula to create them in the womb – He did it for His own purpose. When we crash through the fences of God, we encounter unintended beasts that live behind those fences.

Abe welcomed Hagar into his bed and some of the results were predictable. The baby was the blessing part of that. At the same time, when Hagar realized she was pregnant, more than just her belly puffed up, so did her head. What Sarai tried to accomplish for a long time took her a mere evening. It may seem funny, but to Hagar, even fertility was a contest. The text went on:

Genesis 16:4b …her mistress was despised in her sight. 5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me.

Try as I may, I cannot understand how Sarai turned this into an argument with Abraham! At the risk of sounding obvious, though, I must confess to having a critical flaw – that of being a man.

Instead of pure blessing, what Abe got was a migraine. One gal was pregnant and the other was mad at him. This wasn’t going well at all! Keep reading the story, because it only gets worse.

Genesis 16:6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence.

Can you believe what Abraham did? To make his wife happy, Abe became passive rather than seeking a solution that honored the promised offspring. Don’t forget that! God promised him a child from his loins, and now he had one. If this was the long awaited child that God promised, he had no business treating a gift of God as something less than sacred.

That is part of the problem with fixing things ourselves.

When we don’t seek God about a problem, but rather ingeniously fix it ourselves, we aren’t as certain the “answer” isn’t just something we concocted.

We can end up missing the greatest part of God’s work because we think we “goofed” and went the wrong way. We won’t be sure. How can we?

The text followed Hagar into the desert:

Genesis 16:7 Now the angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. 8 He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” And she said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” 9 Then the angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.” 10 Moreover, the angel of the LORD said to her, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” 11 The angel of the LORD said to her further, “Behold, you are with child, and you will bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. 12 He will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand [will be] against everyone, and everyone’s hand [will be] against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers.”

God interrupted the regularly scheduled program to bring an emergency message to Hagar in order that she treat the baby with special care, and keep the baby with Abraham for his infancy and young life. Without taking every aspect of these verses into consideration, think about the promises.

First, she was commanded to return home, no matter the condition of her treatment. She was also told to respect the authority of Sarai in the home. God didn’t just send her back; He commanded change in her.

Second, she was encouraged with the message that she would bear a son, and from that boy would come a great company of people. She was told to name him “God has heard” to remind the family that God knew what happened in the whole story.

Third, she was promised the boy would be like the desert onacker, a wild donkey of great worth, but difficult to domesticate. Despite the translation of verse twelve, the Hebrew made clear, “His hand would be in everyone’s hand, and everyone’s hand would be in his.” This appears to have been a promise the boy would be deeply tied to the economy of all the other people in the region.

Finally, the end of the story offered the ONLY PERSON in the account who took what God promised back to the feet of the Lord Himself. Hagar was the one person in the story who did the right thing! The text reads:

Genesis 16:13 Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees”; for she said, “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered. 15 So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.

What a scene! Hagar dropped in worship and did what God instructed. What a difference in how the story unfolded if Abraham and Sarah had done so back in verse 2!!! The whole situation came about because of impatience with God’s time table and the feeling that someone needed to “right the wrong” they felt.

Hagar knew life would be bearable with the knowledge the Angel of the Lord was watching over her. She called God El Roi, which means: “the God who sees me.” Even a sassy servant who ran away was in His grasp learned God didn’t miss things or mess up things.

When we turn to Him and trust Him, the outcome is left in His hands – where it belongs.

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt God may have taken a vacation? Have you wondered why things happened that pummeled your life when (remarkably) it wasn’t your fault? May I remind you that God sees you too! He sees how overwhelmed you are caring for loved ones. He recognizes the challenges you have on your job. He understands how you feel when people treat you badly at school. He feels your pain when loneliness eats away at you. He sees, and He cares. He doesn’t want you to fix the world – He wants you to find Him in the situation.

James has a reminder for us when we are in this situation:

James 1:2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have [its] perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 [being] a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Did you notice what James revealed?

He told us that we WOULD encounter various trials – it wasn’t an IF, but a WHEN. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that God hasn’t exempted His children from the pains of a fallen world.

He cautioned us to consider or reckon such times with JOY – the resolute assurance that God has neither lost interest, nor the power to deal with my problems. He doesn’t call you to feign “happiness” but rather to exude JOY. The latter is a confidence in God and His abilities.

He made clear that trials can “dot the landscape” of our lives. The term “polka dot” comes from the word used of the number of trials. Life can and will occasionally get “bombed” by trials.

He explained that trials have a purpose – the tempering of the metal of our faith. They are necessary to complete our maturity and readiness of God’s use. To push against the trials is to push against His shaping work.

What can we do when we are in the midst of a spattering of troubles?

We can trust God’s generosity is answering our painful cries. We can call on Him. We can, with confidence in His engagement and His goodness, reach out to Him for clarity in the storm. If we doubt His goodness, we will not recognize His voice. If we disbelieve His power, we won’t grab His hand for rescue.

In short, to avoid painful results, seek more information from God about your problem.

Look at the situation as an invitation to sit with God. When you do, may I offer three little insights you may want to consider:

First, don’t try to figure out God – work at following Him. Your problem isn’t as big as your God. The real issue is you don’t know why He has you where He does. As long as you resist God’s direction, you may get deeper into the problem because you won’t go where He commands. Instead of conditionally following (i.e. “I will do this if you show me what it all means and where it all goes”) – decide that it is HIS WORK to get you safely into His arms. Concentrate on knowing His character as it is revealed in His Word, and work at your attitude of willingness to respond to His command.

Second, don’t try to work for God – learn to let Him work through you. Again, this isn’t passive. Look closely at the models both in Scripture and in life of people who have learned how to let God work without giving Him advice and trying to push Him around.

Third, don’t try to find the solution to your problem – try to discern His leading in the problem. In the end, since the problem is smaller than God, the real issue isn’t how to solve the situation, it is to understand what God wants you to do or be in that place. Many believers don’t learn what God wanted them to do in troubles, because they are focused on the troubles and not on God’s lesson.