God’s Good vs. God’s Best

Genesis 21:1-21

June 16, 1996 | Ray Pritchard

Have you every wanted something very badly and waited a long time for it to happen, only to discover that when it did, things didn’t work out the way you thought they would? Most of us have had that kind of experience at least once, and some of us have been down that road many times.

Perhaps you spent years saving money to buy a new house, only to discover that the foundation is cracked and the wood has termites. Or you finally got that new job you were dreaming of and six months later lost it because the company was downsizing. Perhaps you prayed for a mate and later wished you had waited a little longer and prayed a little harder. Or you got married and found that he really wasn’t perfect and he found out the same thing about you. Or you finally got accepted at the college you wanted to attend only to find out you didn’t have the money to go there. Or you got there and discovered that you couldn’t stand your roommates. Or you were homesick and hated it from the very first day. Or you gave birth to a child with a serious physical problem. Or your friend who wanted to go into business with you double-crossed you in the end.

The longer you wait for something, the greater the possibility of disappointment. As you wait, you begin to think about how good things will be when your dream finally comes true. And if you wait long enough, your expectations will be so high that you will almost inevitably be disappointed because nothing could ever be that good.

The Lessons of Disappointment

As difficult as it is to deal with disappointment, we can learn some positive lessons anyway:

1. Disappointment teaches us humility.

2. It turns our focus away from the world and back to God.

3. It teaches us to appreciate what we already have.

4. It liberates us from the bondage of having to have our own way.

Disappointment is a natural and normal part of life. The Scottish preacher George Morrison said, “The Christian life is a land of hills and valleys.” Solomon expressed the same thought when he said, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Every hill also has a valley beside it.

This is particularly true of family life because the people closest to us can also bring us both joy and sorrow. Our homes can be happy one day and very sad the next. Things change so quickly.

In our study of the life of Abraham, we have come to an event that should have brought only joy to Abraham and Sarah. But while the birth of Isaac brought joy, it also brought its share of pain and sorrow.

Our text contains two parts—the birth of Isaac (vv. 1-7) and the expulsion of Ishamael (vv. 8-21). Each one has valuable lessons for all of us to consider.

I. What Abraham Learned From The Birth of Isaac

“Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (vv. 1-7).

A. He Learned That God Keeps His Word.

The most important verse in the whole chapter is verse 1. Here is what it says in the Living Bible: “Then God did as he had promised, and Sarah became pregnant and Abraham a baby son in his old age, at the time God had said.” Did you notice where God is in that verse? He’s at the beginning at he’s at the end: “Then God did as he had promised” … “at the time God had said.” That’s why Sarah got pregnant and why Abraham is now changing diapers at the age of 100.

B. He Learned that God’s Timing is Always Perfect.

Approximately 25 years have passed since God first spoke to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees. During that time Abraham had many adventures and many spiritual ups and downs. Sometimes he fervently believed God, but often he doubted. Time and again God appeared to him to remind him of his promise. I’m sure he often wondered why God was taking so long to keep his Word.

God is never early and he is never late.

Let the story of Isaac’s birth remind you of this truth: God is never early and he is never late. He’s also not in a hurry and he doesn’t work according to our timetable. How often do we fret and fuss and fume when God delays his answers to our prayers. How much better to say, “Lord, let your will be done in your own time in your own way.”

C. He Learned that God’s Power is Unlimited.

This is Paul’s point in Romans 4:21, where he says that Abraham believed God’s promise because he was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”  To use Paul’s terms he wanted both Abraham and Sarah to be “as good as dead” physically so that when the child was born, only God could get the credit. No one could say to Abraham at the age of 100, “Oh, you rascal!” because Abraham did nothing but believe what God had said. When Abraham held little Isaac in his arms, he knew that nothing was too hard for the Lord.

D. He Learned That God Can Turn Sorrow Into Joy.

In Genesis 17 & 18 we are told that both Abraham and Sarah laughed in unbelief when God promised that within a year Sarah would give birth to child. But when the year had passed, Isaac was born. His name means “laughter.” It was both a statement of total joy and a reminder that God’s promises are no laughing matter.

Has God made a promise to you? If so, you may be sure that he will keep it. You may waver, but he will not waver. You may doubt but that will not stop God. This morning your eyes may fill with tears, but remember the word of the Lord: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm126:5).

II. What Abraham Learned From the Dismissal of Ishmael

This is one of the strangest and saddest portions of the Bible. Verses 8-9 set the scene:

“The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Sarah’s words are harsh and bitter and reflect the lingering resentment she felt toward Hagar ever since Ishmael was born. By now Ishmael is 15 or 16 years old, and perhaps Sarah felt she had had enough teenage insolence so she asked Abraham to get rid of the boy and his mother.

There is a world of pain and sadness in verse 11: “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.” In order to please Sarah he had to get rid of the son he loved. Every parent can imagine the pain that ripped his heart. How do you say to your own flesh and blood, “Be gone! And never come back.” But that’s what Sarah was asking him to do.

And God agreed. He spoke to Abraham and said, “Do what Sarah has asked you to do. Don’t worry about Ishmael, I’ll take care of him and his mother. In fact, I’m going to make a great nation out of him because he is your son. But he must leave because Isaac is the son of the promise.”

So the next day Abraham gave Hagar and Ishmael food and water and sent them away. They wandered into the desert, ran out of water, and nearly died. Then God miraculously appeared to Hagar and promised to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink” (v. 19).

Ishmael grew up in the desert, became a skilled archer, and later married a woman from Egypt. He did indeed become the father of a great nation. To this day many of the Arabic peoples trace their lineage back to him.

As you look at this story, it’s sobering to realize that once Abraham sent Ishmael away, he never saw him again. The deep rupture in the family was never repaired. Sarah and Hagar never became friends. And as far as we know, the only time Isaac and Ishmael ever met again was at the cave of Machpelah when they buried Abraham.

Of all the things that Abraham learned from this sad event, two stand out above the rest:

A. He Learned That Choices Have Consequences.

No one made him sleep with Hagar 15 years earlier. True, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but his motivation was wrong. He wanted to please Sarah and he wanted to “help God out.” But Sarah was wrong to suggest the idea and Abraham was doubly wrong to act on it. If he had been the proper kind of spiritual leader, so much heartache would have been avoided.

Choices have consequences.

Here is a lesson that our children must learn early in life. Choices have consequences. You can’t turn left and right at the same time. You can’t get married and also stay single. You can’t move away and also stay where you are. You can’t take Algebra and French during the same class period.

I’m sure that Abraham never dreamed that sleeping with Hagar would lead to so much heartache and confusion. In fact, I’m sure he justified it in his own mind as the best way to make his wife happy and also to “help” God keep his promise. But it didn’t work out that way.

When we compromise our standards, lower our convictions, or when we try to take a moral or ethical shortcut, it never works out in the end.

Choices have consequences. Abraham learned that the hard way as he watched his son Ishmael walk down the lonely road toward the desert.

B. He Learned That the Good Must Go in Order That the Best May Come.

Many people reading this story have wondered about the fairness of God. On one level, it’s easy to understand why Sarah and Hagar didn’t get along and it’s also easy to see why Ishmael and Isaac probably wouldn’t grow up to be best friends.

But why would God literally order to Abraham to cast off Ishmael and Hagar in such a seemingly cold way? There are two answers to that question. One is that God knew something Abraham didn’t know. He knew he (God) was going to take special care of Ishmael out in the desert. God never intended to see Hagar and Ishmael die in the hot sun. The other answer is that God wanted to protected Isaac because he was the promised seed of Abraham. That’s the reason God gives in verse 12. As long as Ishmael remained in the house, he would be a threat to God’s plan. He had to go, even though it meant hardship and deep sorrow and even though he and Hagar probably never understood why it happened. They felt rejected by Sarah and Abraham—as indeed they were.

The Olympic Games

The spiritual meaning of all this is clear. In our walk with God, sometimes the good must go in order that the best must come. Recently I’ve been reading some articles about the athletes who will be competing in the Olympic Games in Atlanta in a few weeks. One fact stands out in my mind from the stories I read: If you want to compete at the highest, you must sacrifice everything else in your life. Here are little girls who started practicing gymnastics at the age of two or three. Now in their teens, they spend six to eight hours a days on the balance beam or practicing their floor experiences. The same is true for the kayakers, the hurdlers, the swimmers, the weight lifters, the marksmen, the tennis players, the volleyball players, the badminton players, and the bicyclists. All of them began years ago learning how to one thing better than anyone else in the world. They spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars learning to be the best. In the process they gave up any semblance of a normal life. They get up earlier than normal people do and all they long they work at perfecting their athletic skill. They exercise, train, diet, lose weight, gain weight, lift weights, bulk up, slim down, practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more. Day after day, month after month, year after year.

Sometimes the good must go in order that the best must come.

Why? So that in a few weeks they can go to Atlanta and compete with the very best athletes from around the world. All in hopes that for one brief shining moment they will be the very best at what they do, better than anyone else on this planet.

It’s true in every realm of human endeavor. This week the best golfers in the world are competing in the U. S. Open. And this weekend the best basketball players in the world have come to Chicago for the NBA Finals. How do you get to be the best? Talent counts, surely, but the streets are filled with talented people who never live up to their potential. And sometimes people with relatively little talent rise to a level of excellence no one expects.

Giving Up the Good

To accomplish anything in life you’ve got to give up the good in order to achieve the best. That means that some good things have to go in order that better things may come. This touches so many areas of life—how we spend our time, especially our leisure hours. It ought to cause us to examine our habits and the friends we hang around with. Some things may not be wrong, but they just aren’t good for us. And some friendships may not be bad, but they keep pulling us in the wrong direction or they us from going where we want to go.

Sometimes we simply have to obey without having full understanding.

This principle certainly applies to the “hidden” area of life, the part of your life that no one else ever sees. If you want to grow as a Christian, the good must go in order that the best may come. Sometimes God says, “I want that thing to go, because I have something better in mind for you.” Often times when God says that we won’t understand the reason and God won’t always explain it to us in advance. We simply have to obey without having full understanding. That’s what trusting God is all about.

III. What We May Learn From Both These Stories

A. About God

Our text contains two parts that seems at first to be completely different. The birth of Isaac is filled with joy while the dismissal of Ishmael speaks of sorrow, pain and human failure. Yet God is intimately involved in both stories. He is the One who brought forth Isaac after a 25-year wait. He is the One who ordered that Ishmael be cast out and then took care of him in the wilderness.

He’s the same God in both cases.

–He’s the God of great promises.

–He’s the God of great patience.

–He’s the God of great wisdom.

–He’s the God of great mercy.

That God is our God today. The God who made and kept the promise is the God we worship this morning. And the God who cast out Ishmael and then protected him is the same God who watches over you and me.

If you want it in one sentence, here it is: He is the God who works out His own plan in His own time and in His own way.

B. About Salvation

You may not know that the Apostle Paul made reference to our text in Galatians 4 where he draws an analogy between Sarah and Hagar and between Ishmael and Isaac. The women, he says, represent two covenants. Hagar stands for Mt. Sinai where God gave the law. And Ishmael represents everyone who is trying to get to heaven by keeping the law. Sarah stands for the New Covenant, which comes down to us from heaven. Isaac therefore represents true believers in Jesus who are saved entirely by God’s grace. Listen to the words of Galatians 4:31, “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.”

There are only two ways to get to heaven: The way of Hagar and the way of Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael stand for all the lost people of the world who think they can work their way back to God. Sarah and Isaac stand for true believers who are trusting Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

On the basis of this story, I need to ask the question, are you a child of Hagar or a child of Sarah? Are you a modern-day Isaac or a modern-day Ishmael?

Will Dennis Rodman Go to Heaven?

Earlier this week I happened to watch an ESPN interview with Dennis Rodman. It took place, by the way, back when the Bulls were still winning basketball games. In his recent book Rodman talks about his preoccupation with suicide and death. The reporter asked him about that and Rodman basically said that he planned to end his own life sometime in the future at a time of his own choosing. Then came the logical question: What happens after you die? “Assuming there is a heaven and hell, where do you think you will go?” “I think I’m right on the line between heaven and hell.” Stumped, the interviewer asked if he meant that he would to purgatory for a while to atone for his sins.

To his credit, Dennis Rodman was refreshingly frank. “No, I think I’d go to hell. If you added up the good things I’ve done and compared it with the bad things I’ve done, the bad would outweigh the good.” Then he added, “But I’m trying to get that turned around. I hope someday I’ll be floating on those white clouds of love.”

God bless Dennis Rodman. You have to know two things in order to go to heaven and he has already figured one of them out. He knows that he’s a sinner who deserves to go to hell. It’s rare to find anyone honest enough to admit that fact. I’m sure many people look at his antics and think, “Well, he’s right. He’s done some strange things, and after all, it looks like his hairdresser lives in hell.”

But that misses the point. Dennis Rodman isn’t going to hell because he’s got Pearl Jam symbols in his hair. That has nothing to do with it. Dennis Rodman is going to hell because he is a sinner just like everyone else in the world.

Apart from Jesus Christ, the bad will always outweigh the good.

But there’s something else Dennis needs to discover. That’s the truth that when you stand before God, he’s not going to compare the good with the bad because apart from Jesus Christ, the bad will always outweigh the good. Not just for offbeat basketball players but for everyone from Billy Graham to Mother Teresa. When it comes to salvation we’re all in the same boat. We all deserve hell but Jesus Christ died to open the door to heaven. His blood paid the penalty for Dennis Rodman’s many sins.

Of all the doctrines of the Bible, the hardest to grasp is the free grace of God. The mind of man struggles against that because we want to believe that we have a part to play in salvation. “How can God save me from my sins if I don’t do my part?” Good question. The answer is, the only “part” you play in salvation is to commit the sin that makes salvation necessary.

You’ve already done your “part” and I’ve already done mine.

And Jesus did his part 2000 years ago when he died on the cross and rose from the dead.

So let me ask you one more time: Are you an Isaac or an Ishmael? Are you saved by grace or are you like Ishmael and Dennis Rodman, trying to be good enough to cancel out your sins and go to heaven? It didn’t work for Ishmael, it won’t work for Dennis Rodman, and it won’t work for you.

C. About the Choices We Make

I’ve already pointed out that this story teaches us the difference between the good and the best. Jesus set the same challenge before his disciples in Luke 14:26-27, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” These are strong words because they challenge us to consider our closest and dearest family relationships in light of our devotion to our Lord. What can Jesus possibly mean when he says that if we do not “hate” our father and mother, we cannot be his disciple? This is certainly a strange word for Father’s Day.

It is the language of hyperbole. You must love the Lord Jesus so much that your love for your parents will seem like hatred by comparison. For some of us, that may mean following the Lord’s calling over the objection of mother and father. It may mean that those closest to you will simply not understand why you do what you do. They may, like Hagar and Ishmael, mock you to your face. They may tempt you to keep quiet, to not be so radical, to stop sharing your faith. They may even threaten to disown you if you follow the Lord.

What will you do then?

Ishamael Must Go!

Ishmael must go! The good must go in order that the best may come.

Think about my words. What is God saying to you in these moments? What is the “good” in your life—your habits, your dreams, your cherished friendships, your secret thoughts—that must go? I do not know the answer, but God does. And by his Spirit he speaks the truth to your heart.

One final word. What if we give up the “good”? How can we be sure that we will then receive God’s “best”? Our Lord did not leave us to wonder about that question. Hear his words in Mark 10:29-30, “I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them persecutions)—and in the age to come, eternal life.”
God will be no one’s debtor. You’ll never regret anything you give up for Jesus. Not in this life or in the life to come. But the saddest people in the all the world are those who cling stubbornly to what they have because they dare not give it up for God.

I do not know exactly how God wants to apply this message to your heart, but if you are open and honest I believe he has something to say to you. Just remember this: God never takes away anything we hold dear without giving us something better in return. He never takes away Ishmael without also giving us Isaac. I challenge you to choose God’s best.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?