Human nature gets enamored with successful people but dismisses those who are perceived as lowly. We give fame and fortune to the successful, but we disdain those who fail.
Godly nature, however, loves and looks out for individuals without regard to social standing.
Genesis 16 tells a story of three individuals: Abram, Sarai, and Hagar. Abram’s name means, “Exalted father.” Sarai’s name means, “Noble lady.” Hagar’s name means, “Flight,” as in “to flee” or “to run away.” According to social standing, she is a ‘nobody.’
When Abram and Sarai cannot conceive a child and are well along in years, they make a decision to use Hagar as the means to get a baby. The ancient Babylonian law of that time, the Code of Hammurabi, stipulated that an infertile wife should provide her husband with a surrogate child-bearer. But that remained the only status Hagar was given under the law: Surrogate child-bearer. She didn’t become a second wife or a replacement wife; she was viewed only as the vessel through which Abram and Sarai would get their child. She remained insignificant…and that hurts!
It hurt even more when Sarai began to abuse her…and when Abram ignored the abuse.
A young woman whose blog site is titled, “The Journal of My Insignificant Life,” wrote something Hagar would have related to:
“If I don’t need love, why am I crying? If I don’t need love, why am I suffering? When I’m all alone, I feel like dying. My soul is ripping, so heart-breaking. ‘Cause I dream of love, though I tried to hate it. Yes, I dream of love, and I know I’ll never find it.”
In agony of soul, Hagar lives up to her name. She runs away.
But God—who cares for people without regard to social standing—reaches out to her. In a play on words, God’s angel asks her, “Flight (Hagar), servant of Sarai, from where are you fleeing? And to where are you flying?” (verse 8).
Up to this point Hagar may have been seen by others as merely a servant. She was named (and perhaps tagged) simply as a runaway. Her value may have been considered only as a vessel for the production of someone else’s baby. She was mistreated by Sarai, and ignored by Abram. But the Almighty God took a personal interest in her. In the pages of Scripture, she is the first woman whose conversation with God is recorded since God’s talk with Eve in the Garden of Eden. That’s rather special!
Even in her running away, God watched out for her, so she named the spring where God met her Beer Lahai Roi, which means “The Well of the Living One who Sees me.” And in her agony, God heard her cry, so she named her son Ishmael, which means “God hears.” She experienced the watchfulness of God and the attentiveness of God, so she gave testimony to God’s care for her!
She discovered for herself what Larry Crabb wrote about in his book, The PAPA Prayer: “It isn’t only nature that abhors a vacuum. God does too. But the vacuum He abhors is spiritual. He can see a dry riverbed and not fill it. But He cannot see an empty heart and walk away. His love won’t let Him” (p. 145).
And she found out the truth of what Jerry Sittser wrote in his book, A Grace Disguised: “To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely. In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true and deepest selves. We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being” (p. 90).
Hagar met the One who loves us without regard to our successes or failures, and without regard to our social standing, but purely as a Father who cares deeply for His children!
I appreciate—and am humbled by—the honesty of several main characters in the Bible. They are far more honest about their struggles with doubt than I am. Abraham, Moses, David, Habakkuk, John the Baptist, Thomas, and others all share openly and honestly with us about struggles they had at times with doubt. I, on the other hand, tend to cover up my doubts. I live in the illusion that it is more important for me to be a strong person of faith (even if I have to pretend that) than it is to be an honest struggler of faith, so I hide the struggles I have at times with doubt rather than admit them honestly.
When I look at the “father” of our faith, Abraham, I find that he does not cover up his doubts or pretend to be more confident in his faith than he is. In Genesis 15, Abram fears that God’s promises to him are empty, so he says to God honestly (and doubtfully), “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir” (verses 2-3).
When God promises that He will give to Abram the land of Canaan and as many offspring as there are stars in the sky, Abram continues to be honest with God about his doubt. He asks, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” (verse 8)
In the midst of this passage—between Abram’s two expressions of doubt—we are told, “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness” (verse 6).
Apparently God is more impressed by faith that is strong enough to admit doubt than He is by faith that is so weak it must cover up its doubts behind a mask of spiritual strength.
I appreciate something Ruth Senter wrote about doubt many years ago:
“All my life I had been told, ‘God is love.’ It was one of the first verses I memorized in Sunday school. And I had always been so sure about God’s love—until I saw my dad being loaded into an ambulance. Then none of the verses meant a thing. God was not fair.
“If God were so loving, how could he have led my dad to move our family 1,000 miles across the country, only to find there was no job at the other end of the move? If God cared so much about us, why was my dad now sick, on top of everything else we had just gone through? Suddenly all my neat little theories about the love of God crumbled. God might have said he was love, but at the moment, as the ambulance drove off, I doubted it. It was as though somebody had thrown a bucket of cold water on my faith, which had always burned so strongly.
“All the other Christians I knew came through things like this with glowing testimonies of how they learned to love God more through their trials. They never spoke of praying and feeling like God was nowhere in the vicinity, or of looking around and concluding that life was harder on those who tried to live for God than on those who arranged their own lives. No one ever talked about doubting God’s love or his fairness. Christians weren’t supposed to doubt. They were supposed to trust. But I had my doubts.”
Honest about her struggles with doubt, Ruth Senter goes on to write, “Admitting my doubts to others has…helped ease the tension I felt about having unanswered questions. I’ve begun to realize there are a lot of other Christians who have the same doubts and questions I have. Being honest about my doubts gives others the opportunity to be honest about their struggles too. It allows us to help each other through tough times. To pretend that I never question God may cut me off from the companionship I need with another fellow struggler.
“I haven’t outgrown all my doubts. There are still many loose ends of life which I haven’t been able to tie together—and probably never will. I’ll never understand all the ways of God. He doesn’t even expect me to. But he does expect me to love him. And loving means honesty.
“I wish I’d learned a long time ago that God does understand about doubts. It would have saved me a lot of energy I wasted trying to pretend my questions didn’t exist.” (Campus Life magazine, July/August 1984)
As I consider the character or attributes of God, I think of how wise and good and caring and merciful and trustworthy God is, and I think of how deeply my life has been enriched and blessed by these qualities of God. I am a better person, and a more hope-filled person, and a more caring person, and a stronger person, and a more peaceful person because of how wise and good and caring and merciful and trustworthy God has been with me.
By definition, a Christian is a person in whom Christ has come to live. As such, God is living in a Christian, which means that the character of God should begin to be seen in us. It also means that those qualities of God that have enriched our lives so deeply should begin to enrich the lives of people around us. God fills our lives with His character so that, by working through us, God can enrich the lives of others.
If that is not happening…something is wrong.
It seems to me this is what Jesus had in mind when He stated, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by people. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Dan Bernard puts it this way: “Remember putting your face above a headless frame painted to represent a muscle man, a clown, or even a bathing beauty? Many of us have had our pictures taken this way, and the photos are humorous because the head doesn’t fit the body. If we could picture Christ as the head of our local body of believers, would the world laugh at the misfit? Or would they stand in awe of a human body so closely related to a divine head?”
Centuries ago, when God called a person named Abram into a personal relationship with God, God made it clear that He would bless Abram out of love for Abram and so that God could bless others through Abram. God said to him (In Genesis 12:2-3), “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse. And all people on earth will be blessed through you.”
From the very beginning of God’s intimate relationships with people His plan has been to bless us out of deep care for us and so that through us He can bless others. According to the pattern God has established, whatever blessings we have received in life are to be used in blessing others. If that is not happening…something is wrong.
Every day we have opportunities to cut people down or to build people up.
Which will we do?
Valerie Cade, the founder of Bully Free at Work writes, “Have you heard of the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome?’ In Australia, where poppies grow, they for the most part grow to the same height. Every once in a while, one poppy grows higher than the rest. What do you think [the growers] do? You got it…they come along and chop the poppy down to match all the others. This is the same methodology a bully will take with…a high achiever. Workplace bullies by nature are very insecure people…. The insecurity of workplace bullies is far reaching. They feel socially inadequate, behaviorally and morally. While they present a public image of superiority, supremacy and bravado, underneath it all they feel profoundly inadequate. Workplace bullies, rather than facing their inferiorities, choose instead to lash out at people who threaten their superiority.”
Sherri Gordon applies similar perspective to the matter of bullying among children. She writes, “Sometimes envy rears its ugly head when a person feels a sense of inadequacy, emptiness or unworthiness. In these cases, kids want to close the gap between what others have and what they want. So the goal behind their bullying is to bolster their own feelings of self-esteem at the expense of another person.”
Interestingly, the first story in the Bible, following the account of the creation and fall, is a story of envy and cutting someone down in contrast to the call to look out for one another. Cain is jealous of his brother Able, so he strikes him down. When God asks Cain about the whereabouts of his brother, Cain ashes out, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (In other words, ‘Do you expect me to look out for Cain like he looks out for his lost sheep?’) God says to him, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
There’s the contrast: We can cut others down, or we can look out for one another to build each other up. Which will it be from us?
I have often found myself challenged by a story Tom Wicker shares in his book, On Press, describing a lesson he learned when he was 23:
“As a correspondent for the Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen, N.C., I covered a divorce case that involved one party who had futilely chased the other with an ax. It was the human comedy at its most ribald, and the courtroom rocked with laughter. I wrote a humorous account for page one. The next day I had a visitor: a worn-out woman whose haggard eyes were blazing. ‘Mr. Wicker,’ she said, ‘why did you think you had the right to make fun of me in your paper?’
“I have never forgotten that question. My story had exploited unhappiness for the amusement of others. I had made the woman something less than what she was—a human being. Seeing that, I saw, too, that I had not only done her an injury but had missed the story I should have written.”
So often, we, too, use our words to cut others down, but we have the opportunity to do something better. We have the opportunity to build people up rather than to cut them down.