When God Sends a Sackbut

I have been studying to write a women’s Bible study on the book of Jonah (you wouldn’t believe how much is packed into that little tiny book. The mind grenades are flying) and came across a quote by Charles Spurgeon that has lodged itself firmly in the craw of my mind:

“Just when we need a mercy, and when the mercy is all the more a mercy because it is so timely, then it comes. If it had come later, it might have been too late; or, at any rate, it would not have been so seasonable, and therefore not so sweet. Who can know when is the right time like that God who sees all things at a single glance? He knows when to give, and when to take. In every godly life there is a set time for each event; and there is no need for us to ask, “Why is the white here and the black there; why this gleam of sunlight and that roar of tempest; why here a marriage and there a funeral; why sometimes a harp and at other times a sackbut?” God knows, and it is a great blessing for us when we can leave it all in his hands. Let the gourd spring up in a night, it will be the right night; and let the gourd die in the morning, it will be the right morning. All is well if it be in God’s hands. Let us, therefore, distinctly recognize God in our comforts, in their coming to us when we are unworthy of them, in their coming in the form in which we most require them, and in their coming at the time when we are most in need of them.”

Believe it or not, I am not prone to asking why. Throughout the years, with the various and sundry trials and tribulations that God has seen fit to send my way, I have not plagued with a curiosity for why He is doing what He is doing, and while I would like for that to be a faith-filled gesture, my very quiet in the realm of questions demonstrating an unwavering confidence in God, the reality is often, I daresay, more that I don’t want to know. I suspect that even if He gave me a reason, in the throes of my pain and suffering, it probably wouldn’t feel like a good enough reason. It would be like asking your toddler why they took a bite out of your lipstick. They might have an answer for you, but odds are you won’t feel better for having heard it.

I’ve been thinking about Hagar lately. In case her name isn’t familiar to you, jump over to Genesis 16, then later in chapter 21. Abraham and Sarah were childless, though God promised them more descendants than they could count (and when God makes a promise, it will happen. He isn’t slow… He is sudden). Sarah got squirrely waiting for God, so she takes her handmaiden, Hagar, and tells her husband to get her pregnant. Abraham agrees, which always gives me pause but this essay isn’t written for men, so we are going to leave it there. When Hagar is found to be with child (just what was supposed to happen…), Sarah is harsh to her, so harsh that she flees to the wilderness. God meets her there, and is gentle with her even while urging her to return, to submit to her mistress. He promises that her descendants will be multiplied. Hagar gives Him a name that we do not read anywhere else: You-Are-The-God-Who-Sees. Later, she and her son will be cast out of the house, and in the depths of her despair, when she places her little fellow under a bush because she cannot stand to watch him die, God will again come to her (for He never stopped seeing her) and bring life, a promise kept.

Different things strike me about the story every time I read it. It came up recently because Hagar is mentioned in Galatians, the comparison between sons and slaves, between grace and the law. It feels almost out of place in this letter that Paul writes to the church at Galatia that has been lured from the true Gospel into a twisted form of law-keeping, of Christ plus circumcision. But what showed up in our group discussions more than anything was the pain of Hagar’s story, how we almost wish it had been written differently, or that we somehow felt she had gotten more of a fair shake… in our utterly fallen way of thinking about “fair”, of course.

I find myself gripped by her story this week. God does bless her in the end. She has the son, he does have many, many descendants, and there is what almost feels like a throwaway comment at the end, that she finds a wife for her son in Egypt. She was an Egyptian. It appears that after all the trauma, and all the pain… God lets her go home.

It would be lovely right about now if I had decisive answers about Hagar, about why God told her story the way He did. I don’t have that. So instead, here are my humble (yet bullet pointed!) offerings of thoughts… for whatever they are worth.

  • God was still just. As tempted as I may be to grieve the unfairness of it all, to rail against the unbelief of Sarah and the weakness of Abraham, I cannot get around the fact that even when we do not directly cause our own suffering, God is not wrong to let us suffer. Hagar was a sinner too. She suffered at the hands of others… and no matter how badly that hurts, God is still God. We are not. No suffering we face is “unfair”.
  • It was in the wilderness, blinded with tears running from the harshness of Sarah, that Hagar sees the God who sees her. And she marvels. Encountering God is sufficient to give her the strength to return to that harsh mistress. Encountering God leads to strength to obey… even when obedience might break your heart.
  • Hagar forgot God’s promises when her and her young son are chucked into the wilderness, but her failure to remember did not keep God from staying true to the promises He had made her. We are faithless… and God is still faithful.
  • What I currently cannot shake from my mind is that it appears God waited until things were quite dire before He shows Himself again to Hagar. She has tucked her son under a bush, walked away lest she see the pangs of death seize her beloved son. God waits til the last minute to save her from her trial, to relieve her of her suffering. Does my waiting look any different?

He is the God who sees… who sees me. Every trial I am facing today is sent to me from the hand of this Lord. With Him, I can take up space, I can cry out, I can plead with Him to keep His promises and my doubt cannot invalidate His promises. He can handle my sorrow… He gave it to me on purpose, in love. There is no telling how long He will leave me in the wilderness, but there is absolute certainty that He will keep His word and in Christ, I will be blessed. He is kind to bring me into the wilderness… it is in the wilderness that I see the God who Sees Me.

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