Archive | September 2020

God cares about the ugly stories

I confess to you that if God had chosen me to write the Bible, I would have written it quite differently.

I tend to think that to inspire people in their faith, the Bible should have portrayed the key figures as purely noble models of faithfulness—not as flawed individuals like Peter denying that he knew Jesus, or David having an affair with the wife of one of his generals, or Abraham abandoning to the desert his wife’s servant and the child they had together.  I would have filled the pages of Scripture with victorious stories of the Red Sea parting, and manna coming down from heaven, and the walls of Jericho falling.  I would have left out depressing passages like Hagar and her son being chased away from their home. 

But God insists on stories like this being included in Scripture because God seems to have a special place in his heart for those who have been shunned, disenfranchised, exploited, mistreated, and abandoned.  In the pages of the Bible, God keeps telling their names and their stories.

Although I would have omitted from Scripture the story of Hagar’s and Ismael’s abandonment in the desert, God includes it.  And though I would still rather ignore it, God would have us listen to Hagar’s story, because the stories of those who are disenfranchised matter immensely to God.

Indeed, Hagar’s story is included in Scripture because so many disenfranchised people find themselves in her story.  Phyllis Tribble writes about Hagar’s travails in Genesis 16 & 21, “All sorts of rejected women find their stories in [Hagar].  She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.” 

 Genesis 21 begins nicely enough, with a party thrown to celebrate the weaning of Isaac, the miracle baby born to Abraham and Sarah in their great old age.  But the story quickly turns ugly.  Sarah sees Ishmael (the 16 or 17-year-old son Abraham had with Hagar) “playing with her son Isaac.”  (Some scholars suggest that this could mean that Ishmael was playing as if he was Isaac, as if he was the child who was the heir.  Other scholars speculate that this could mean that Ishmael was molesting Isaac.)  Sarah demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ismael.  Abraham gathers some bread and a skin of water and sends them off.  When the water runs out, Hagar leaves her son under the shade of a bush while she walks “a bowshot” away so that she would not watch her son die of thirst.  But God heard the boy crying and sent an angel to minister to Hagar and to rescue them. 

Abraham and Sarah may have closed their hearts to Hagar and Ishmael, but God had not.  Abraham and Sarah may have cast Hagar and her son aside, but God was still listening to their cry.  Abraham and Sarah may have abandoned Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, but God went to the desert to find them.

God has a special place in his heart for those who are abandoned.  Since they matter to God, those who are cast aside should have a special place in our hearts as well.  I have read that some churches in China welcome new members by saying, “Jesus now has a new pair of eyes to see with, new ears to listen with, new hands to help with, and a new heart to love others with.”  As God’s people in this world, it is our job to look at others with God’s eyes, to listen to others with God’s ears, and to care for others with God’s heart. 

Some years ago a prisoner shared, “My next-door cellmate is black, 24 and illiterate.  I do all his reading and writing.  The guy received a letter from a concerned citizen.  The writer called him a human being.  The guy made me read that particular sentence over and over and over.  The thought of someone calling him a human being made all the difference.”  When we look upon others with the eyes of Jesus, and listen to others with the ears of Jesus, and care for others with the heart of Jesus, we can make “all the difference.” 

God listens to the cry of the disenfranchised, and he shares the stories of those who have been abandoned.  May we do so as well. 


Arguing with God

Do you ever argue with God?  Have you ever considered who actually provoked the argument?

Genesis 18:23-33 records an argument between Abraham and God, in which Abraham questions the goodness of God.  But verses 17-21 suggest that it is God who stirs up the argument, for God asks himself (in verse 17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” 

To set the context: In verse 18, God speaks of his desire for Abraham to be a blessing to the nations of the earth.  In verse 19, God expresses his desire for Abraham to guide successive generations in the ways of righteousness and justice.  Then God confides in Abraham, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin.”  From there, Abraham and God argue over God’s impending judgment against Sodom.

I believe that God stirs up this argument with Abraham in order to teach Abraham three important lessons pertaining to righteousness, justice, judgment, and in what is involved in being a blessing to others:

Lesson #1: Righteousness begins with hearing the outcry of those who are hurting from injustice. 

The Hebrew word translated as “outcry” in verse 20 (ze’akah) appears throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to describe the agonized cries of the oppressed and brutalized.  It is used to describe the cries of Israelite slaves in Egypt in Exodus 2:23, and the cry of the oppressed widow and orphan in Exodus 22:22-23, and the cry of the cheated laborer in Deuteronomy 24:15, and at various places in the book of Jeremiah to describe the screams of terror of an individual or a city when under attack. 

Ray Vander Laan comments, “Ze’akah, one of the most impassioned, power-filled words in Hebrew communicates intense emotion…. Such an outcry rises out of great pain, suffering, and despair caused not simply by impersonal suffering but by the brutality and cruelty of other people.  Scripture reveals that God never fails to hear ze’akah, and his response against those who cause it is frightening.”

People from all around were being abused, oppressed, cheated and mistreated by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Ezekiel 16:49 states, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  The outcry of “the poor and needy” had come to God, and he was determined to do something about it.

Lesson #2: God’s care includes judgment; God’s response to the outcry of the suffering includes decisive action to address injustice. 

David Seamands remarks, “‘But,’ someone continues to protest, ‘I don’t understand this anger of God business—it scares me.’  Maybe it will help if we ask, What is the alternative to the anger of God?  The alternative is not a God of love, because…love and anger are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other.  The alternative to anger is apathy, which would mean an apathetic God who is morally neutral and indifferent to the outcome of the battle between good and evil.  That would make him a God who sits on the moral fence of the world and says, ‘I don’t care what happens to them.  Let them sin if they want to, that’s their business.  I’m not going to interfere in their lives.’  So whenever the biblical picture of a holy God who gets angry about sin seems old-fashioned and frightening, try to imagine something a whole lot scarier—an apathetic God who doesn’t care.  Imagine what it would be like to live in a world like ours if God were personally indifferent and morally neutral.  That would be a terrifying nightmare.”

“It is the reality of a holy God who is irreconcilably opposed to all sin that makes life tolerable in a world like ours…. It means, too, that we know which side God is on—he has declared himself on the side of right and righteousness.  That’s comforting—not scary!” (Freedom from the Performance Trap, p. 76-77)

The judgment that will come against Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 comes as God’s response to the outcry of those who have suffered.  Judgment against injustice flows out of God’s care for those who cry out to him.

Lesson #3: Righteousness involves interceding on behalf of others.

When God’s compassion for others begins to makes its home in Abraham’s heart, he begins to plead with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  When God begins to grow within us a genuine concern over the outcry of those who are suffering, we will cry out to God for their sake. 

Proverbs 21:13 stresses, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.”  Abraham’s ears were not closed to the cry of the needy, neither was his heart.  May we open our ears and our hearts to the cry of those who are hurting so that we join our prayers with theirs.

God Embraces the Joke

I discover in Genesis 18:1-15 two characteristics of God that I tend to overlook but which I want to pay better attention to for the refreshment of my soul: God is not in a hurry, and God gets the joke.

The passage begins with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent “in the heat of the day.”  This is the time for rest.  It is the time for taking it easy—especially when one is 99 years of age.  But as the passage unfolds, Abraham does very little resting.  The text reads, in part, “When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them…. And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it and make cakes.’  Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.”

Abraham is 99 years old, but he is consumed with rushing and hurrying.  This report of Abraham’s hurriedness is presented in contrast to the unhurried nature of God.  While the text describes Abraham as running and hurrying and getting others to hurry along, we find the Lord standing with Abraham in verse 1, given the opportunity to rest under the tree in verse 4, being refreshed by some bread in verse 5, and eating in verse 8.  Moreover, God is content to wait until Abraham is 99 and Sarah is 90 before giving to the two of them the child they have longed for.

What we find in this passage is a 99-year-old man who is driven by anxious hurry, and a God who is not. 

I am like Abraham.  I rush.  I hurry.  I get impatient.  I want to be more like God who is willing to stand, to rest, to eat leisurely, to be refreshed, and to work things out in God’s good timing. 

Many years ago, Ruth Graham wrote, “He was not quite tall enough to see over the dashboard of the car I was driving.  ‘Hurry up, Mom!’ he urged.  But he was too young to read the road signs that said 45 miles per hour.

“As I began to apply the brakes, he demanded, ‘Why are you stopping?’

“‘There is a school bus that has just stopped,’ I explained.

“As soon as we started again, he urged, ‘Pass him, Mom.’  He was too small to see the double yellow line.

“I thought to myself, ‘How like me when I pray!’  Spiritually I am too young to read the road signs, too small to see what lies ahead.  Yet how often I am guilty of telling God how to run things.”

In verse 10, the Lord announces that Sarah will have a baby within the year.  Verse 12 reports that “Sarah laughed to herself.”  (In the preceding chapter—in Genesis 17:17—we are told, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?  Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”) 

Gordon Wenham suggests, “She laughed not out of cocky arrogance but because a life of long disappointment had taught her not to clutch at straws.”  Sarah laughed because it was the only safe response.  If she didn’t laugh, her heart would break.

I would be inclined to think that such a response would result in a rebuke or punishment from God.  I tend to fear that God is perennially bothered by my doubts and by my miniscule faith.  But that is not what we find here.  God gets the joke!  Rather than rebuking them for laughing at God’s promise, God embraces the joke.  God tells Abraham to name the son Isaac, which means, “He Laughs” (Genesis 17:19).

Perhaps one of the best kept secrets about the character of God is God’s ability to embrace and enjoy the humor of life.  G.K. Chesterton says about Jesus, “His pathos was natural, almost casual.  The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud, proud of concealing their tears.  He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city.  Yet He concealed something. 

“Solemn Supermen and Imperial Diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger.  He never restrained His anger.  He flung furniture down from the steps of the Temple and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell.  Yet He restrained something….

“I say it with reverence—there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness.  There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray.  There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation.  There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth, and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth [His merriment].” 

I want to grow in the likeness of the God we meet in Genesis 18:1-15.  I want to become less hurried and more willing to embrace merriment with God.