Doing the Right Thing in the Wrong Way
May 5, 1996
This week my friend David Puckett was in town. I have known David ever since our days at Dallas Seminary. After we graduated I took a pastorate in California and he entered a doctoral program at the University of Chicago. Our paths crossed again a few years later when he attended the church I pastored in Garland, Texas. He recently became a professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. I hadn’t seen him in two years so I was delighted when he called to say he was in town for a conference this week. He ended up spending Friday night with us.
On Saturday morning we had bagels and cream cheese and discussed the theology of the Reformation—his specialty. In the course of our conversation he related a famous quote by Martin Luther. It is, he said, central to Luther’s view of the spiritual life. It is one simple sentence filled with meaning.
“The whole Christian life is a life of repentance.”
As I thought about those words, I could not find anything to quarrel with. But they seem strange to modern ears. Repentance is not a concept we like to think about. It implies guilt, which we would rather not admit, and it speaks of changing our ways and reforming our habits, which in the best of times is not easy to do. And perhaps some of us have been taught that repentance happens only once—the moment you become a Christian.
Four Biblical Answers
So why did Luther say that the whole Christian life—every part of it—is a life of repentance? I can think of four answers to that question.
1. Sin remains a problem in the Christian life.
Although some people would like to deny this, both the Bible and common sense unite to teach us that as long as we live in this fallen world, we will struggle with sin to one degree or another. But it is not just the fallen world, it is our fallen nature that also remains with us. This point is debated in various ways in evangelical circles, and since this is a sermon and not a theological treatise, I don’t want to enter that debate. However, it seems to me that in some sense our basic sinful nature remains a part of us even after we are born again. The words of Michael Horton are helpful at this point:
We will always struggle with sin.
All Christians are “simultaneously justified and sinful,” righteous before God because of his imputed righteousness, but sinful in themselves. Sin is dethroned by Christ in the beginning of the Christian life, but never eradicated in this life. No believer is victorious over sin, known or unknown, in this life and the process of sanctification is incomplete until we arrive in God’s presence glorified.
The fact that sin remains with us till the day we day should not discourage us in the least. Only those who have mistakenly believed the claims of sinless perfectionism will be disappointed to discover that no one is sinless in this life. In the words of Anselm of Canterbury, one of the greatest of all the medieval theologians, “You have not yet considered how great your sin is.”
2. The only way to grow is to take full responsibility for your actions.
This should be an axiomatic statement but unfortunately there has arisen a theology today that seems to deny personal responsibility. In its eagerness to stress our “identity in Christ,” it seems to downplay the reality of sin and the believer’s responsibility for it. Scripture clearly shows that believers sin and must take responsibility for their own thoughts and actions. I do not believe it is helpful to say, “That wasn’t me” or “That wasn’t you” when sin occurs. Nor is it helpful to suggest that the devil comes to us with temptation primarily through “first-person pronouns” (i.e. “I am angry” or “I want to look at pornography”).
We must admit that we choose to sin.
One writer goes so far as to say regarding thoughts of depression, impurity, selfishness and covetousness, “They are not my thoughts, they are from the Power of Sin, who is also the one condemning me.” Whether intended or not, such teaching shifts responsibility for sinful behavior away from the person and to some vague “power of sin” operating within us. It also misrepresents Paul’s teaching in Romans 7.
It is far better and far more biblical to say, “I sinned and I take full personal responsibility for all my thoughts, words and deeds. I cannot blame my circumstances, my friends, my loved ones, the world, my flesh, the power of sin within me, or even the devil. I must admit that I chose to sin and I confess it. I did it, no one else made it me do it. Now I must face the consequences.” Any teaching that moves away from direct personal responsibility for sin must be resisted as less than truly biblical.
3. Even though we are saved and in Christ, our sin still brings negative consequences we must face.
To say this is to say nothing more than that sin has consequences. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. We dare not infer that because we are completely forgiven by the blood of Christ, we therefore are freed from consequences of our sins. Sin always brings pain and suffering. Personal sin must be taken seriously and must be admitted honestly. Unless we confess our sins, we will not prosper (see Proverbs 28:13), our prayers will be hindered (Psalm 66:18), and we will suffer in every area of our lives—personally, physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually (see 2 Samuel 12:7-14; Psalm 32:3-4, Psalm 51:1-12; Matthew 6:12-13; Matthew 18:21-35; I John 1:9).
Years ago I heard Dr. Preson Phillips use the following illustration. You can shoot an arrow and while it is in the air, you can say, “Oh God, please forgive me,” but the arrow will still come down. You confession won’t make the arrow disappear. It’s going to land somewhere.
4. Daily confession and repentance open the door to spiritual growth.
These acts of the soul produce three positive benefits: First, they develop humility and kill pride. Second, they create a deep desire for the grace of God. Third, they force you back to the cross for the power you need to walk in obedience to God.
Seen in that light, Martin Luther’s comments make perfect sense. “The whole Christian life is a life of repentance.” Martin Luther. This is not negative but positive, because our repentance forces us to go back to God’s mercy for the forgiveness we need.
Abraham is a case in point. In an earlier sermon I pointed out that sometimes smart people do very stupid things. This is true not only of us as individuals but also of the great men and women of the Bible. Although Abraham is the premier example of living by faith, that does not absolve him from doing some very foolish things. We saw it earlier in that shameful episode in which he lied about Sarah on their ill-fated trip to Egypt (Genesis 13). But that wasn’t the most foolish thing he ever did. The story in Genesis 16 probably is.
I. A Very Human Mistake (v. 1-6)
Although God had promised Abraham a son, the years had passed and no son had been given. Verse 1 tells us that Sarah had “borne him no children.” What do you do when God has promised something but the fulfillment has not taken place? Some people might give up on God, but Abraham was too strong a believer simply to walk away from the promise. Yet Abraham now is about 85 years old and Sarah is 75. Both are so far past normal childbearing years that it is simply not feasible to believe a child could come through the normal means.
But perhaps God intends them to be creative. If so, Sarah is certainly up to the task.
B. The First Solution (v. 2-3)
“So she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her’” (v. 1). As strange as this may sound to modern ears, it apparently was not unusual at all in those days. The NIV Study Bible calls this “an ancient custom … to ensure the birth of a male heir. Sarai would herself resolve the problem of her barrenness.”
Well, now, Sarai certainly gets high marks for creativity and boldness. She also scores well for facing the problem resolutely. Moreover, Genesis 16 tells us that Abraham immediately agreed with Sarah and when she brought Hagar to him, he slept with her.
That raises an interesting question. Why did Abraham agree to Sarah’s scheme?
1. He wasn’t getting any younger
2. God didn’t seem to be moving very fast
3. God hadn’t said who the mother would be
4. This was a common practice.
5. It was Sarah’s idea!
As a husband, I am sure the last reason weighed heavily on his mind. What man wouldn’t want to make his wife happy by giving her a child? And if he can’t do it through the normal biological means, perhaps her suggestion would work perfectly. To say it another way, I don’t think Abraham would ever have considered going to Hagar on his own. Sarah had to suggest it first or this whole story would never have happened.
A few years ago I traveled with John and Helen Sergey to the world-famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. One large section of the museum contains painting by the Dutch masters, including several works by Rembrandt. As I was wandering through the rooms, I happened upon a small painting based upon this very scene in Genesis 16. It showed a very virile Abraham in bed watching with some alarm a very ugly Sarah brings him the very beautiful Hagar. If you study the expression on Abraham’s face, it seems as if he is saying to his wife, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
The artist got one thing wrong and one thing right. He was wrong about Sarah’s looks because we know she was a very beautiful woman. He was right in that it was her idea in the first place.
Living Without Scheming
There is more that needs to be said, but let’s stop at this point and say clearly that Abraham is no longer living by faith. Both he and Sarah have decided “help God out” by concocting this scheme. But 2 Corinthians 5:7 tells us that “we walk by faith not by sight” This week I ran across a wonderful definition that applies to this story: “Faith is living without scheming” That’s good, isn’t it?
In his commentary on this passage, Warren Wiersbe shares four signs you are walking by faith:
1. Willing to wait
2. Concerned for the glory to God
3. Obeying God’s word
4. Peace and Joy within
Abraham and Sarah failed on all four counts. They weren’t willing to wait, they weren’t concerned for God’s glory, they weren’t obeying God’s Word, and they had no peace and joy within.
At first it may have seemed that their plan worked. But in the end, whatever we do on our own must come to a bad end eventually. Scottish novelist George McDonald put it this way: “In whatever man does without God, he must fail miserably, or succeed more miserably.” Abraham is about to miserably succeed.
C. The Second Problem (v. 4)
Now Hagar is pregnant. Immediately she begins to despise Sarah. Who can blame her? After all, it’s clear that Sarah is merely using her to get a baby for her husband. In the first place, the very act that brought the child into existence drove a wedge between husband and wife. Was it adultery? Yes, even though it took place at Sarah’s instigation. No husband can sleep with another woman without driving a stake into the heart of his marriage.
So now Abraham has a problem on his hands. He’s got an unhappy, pregnant maidservant. But things are about to get worse.
D. The Second Solution (v. 5-6)
In these verses the clever plan begins to blow up in his face. During those long months of pregnancy every relationship begins to unravel.
1. Hagar despises Sarah
2. Sarah mistreats Hagar
2. Sarah blames Abraham
3. Abraham throws in the towel
Nothing good can happen now. Talk about a dysfunctional family situation. Please note. This happened because of the deliberate scheming of a husband and wife who couldn’t and wouldn’t wait for God. Because they felt they had to take matter into their own hands, Hagar (who was basically an innocent bystander before this all started) and Sarah can’t stand each other. And now Abraham is caught in the middle between two angry, jealous women—a place no man wants to be.
Who is at Fault Here?
Let’s stop for a moment and ask a simple question: Who is wrong here? There are many answers to that question.
1. Sarah for dreaming up this bad idea
2. Abraham for going along with it.
3. Both of them for not trusting God.
4. Hagar for despising her mistress
5. Sarah for mistreating Hagar
6. Abraham for trying to wash his hands of the whole affair.
7. Hagar for running away
There is plenty of blame on all sides. Everyone is guilty of something here. But the greatest sin was Abraham’s.
–He was the head of the family
–God had spoken directly to him
–He could have and should have said no in the first place.
–No one made him sleep with Hagar.
Consider the words of Scripture:
“Be sure your sin your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).
“Do no be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7).
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).
The chickens are now coming home to roost. Abraham and Sarah made a bad decision that is about to blow up in their faces. Sleeping with Hagar was not God’s will. Waiting for the promised child was. But a child has been conceived and there will more trouble to come.
II. A Divine Intervention (v. 7-16)
In these amazing verses we discover a world of truth about God’s character. Hagar has been used and abused by Abraham and Sarah. In desperation she flees into the desert, all the while carrying Abraham’s child in her womb.
Alone with her fear and anger, she encounters a divine visitor—the angel of the Lord.
A. God Speaks to Hagar (v. 7-12)
It’s worth noting that the angel of Lord finds her and not the other way around. This is yet one more picture of God’s grace reaching out to those in need. When the angel asks where is she is going, Hagar blurts out the truth, “I am running away from my mistress, Sarai” (v. 8).
At this point the takes a surprising turn. We might expect the angel to commiserate with Hagar and to assure her of God’s protection as she travels. But instead the angel gives her some instructions that must have been hard to hear: “Go back to your mistress and submit to her” (v. 9).
There are many reasons why Hagar might have disobeyed:
1. Fear of further mistreatment
2. Unresolved anger toward Abraham
3. No desire to submit to an unkind person
4. Doubt about God’s will
To make matters worse, there is no explanation given. Just go. Either you obey or you don’t.
I pause to say that God’s will often like that. Sometimes the Lord leads us to make decisions that—in the short run, at least—involve personal pain and suffering. Sometimes God stays “Stay!” when we’d rather go. Sometimes he says “Go!” when we’d rather stay.
But if we disobey, things will only get worse.
Portrait of a Wild Donkey
Then the angel offers a prophecy about Ishmael in verse 11: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of you misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” Focus on one phrase: Ishmael will be a wild donkey. This is not a compliment!
From the angel’s words we may sketch a brief portrait of Ishamel: Independent … Rough … Prone to fight … a Troublemaker … Filled with anger … Not voted “Most Popular” by his graduating class. But he will be voted “Most likely to go to prison.”
God knew him and loved him and had a plan for him!
His very name means God hears.
To this very day there are essentially two lines in the Middle East—the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael. They still struggle against each other after 4000 years.
B. Hagar Responds in Faith (v. 13-14)
At this point in story Hagar does something few people have ever done. She gives God a name. She calls him “El Roi”—the God who sees! “I have now seen the One who sees me.” He is a personal God who attentively watches over all his children all the time. In this case, it is a reminder that even though she is out of Abraham’s sight, God has never taken his eyes off her. He can be trusted—even in the desert.
C. Hagar Gives Birth to Ishmael (v. 15-16)
The final two verses tell us that Hagar went home to give birth to Ishmael. This speaks volumes about her faith in God. Why would she dare to go home after Sarah had mistreated her?
1. She believed she could trust God in spite of her circumstances.
2. She concluded that God’s goodness outweighed Sarah’s hostility.
3. She knew that if God had called her, he could take care of her.
You have heard it said before, but I will say it again. The safest place for any Christian is in the center of his will. Strange as it may seem, it was safe for Hagar to be under Sarah’s cruel mistreatment in the will of God than to be out on her own and out of God’s will.
I remind you that she had no guarantees as to how Sarah would treat her. Perhaps the mistreatment and snide comments continued for years. I tend to think they did. Human nature being what it is, it’s easy to believe that Sarah’s deep jealousy would continually provoke conflict.
Here is a simple application to ponder: We never solve life’s problems by running away. Most of us have tried that route at one time or the other. It never works. Most of the time growth comes only as we face our problems head-on.
Finally, I find it instructive that Sarah and Abraham took her back. I’m sure Abraham wanted her back. After all, she was carrying his child. And I’m just as sure Sarah didn’t want her back. Nevertheless, they took her in.
Did God have time for a poor servant? Did he care about a slave-girl’s baby? Would the God of Israel care for an Egyptian slave-girl? Yes, Yes, Yes!!!
Hagar’s presence was a stinging rebuke to both of them for their sins! They couldn’t look at her without being reminded of their folly. “The whole Christian life is a life of repentance.” Even the name Ishmael served as a constant voice from the past, reminding them that God had heard the cries of the despised servant girl.
III. Lessons From Both Sides of the Story
A. A Warning About Impatience
Abraham and Sarah wouldn’t wait and then suffered the consequences of sinful impatience. More than that, the world still suffers because of their impatience as the nations of the Middle East—descendants of Ishmael and Isaac—quarrel with each other to this very day.
Psalm 27:14 reminds us to “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” A few days ago I performed the wedding ceremony for Beth Tanis and Bob Novak. At one point I quoted from words Beth and Bob wrote for their guests: “It’s worth waiting for God’s will and God’s best. We don’t regret the time we’ve been single, even though we rejoice in our marriage. Having grown in the Lord as singles has better prepared us for marriage. The most important thing is to follow the Lord—first and foremost—whatever His plan includes.”
B. A Promise About God’s Sovereignty
The name Ishmael means “God hears”; The name El Roi means The God Who Sees. What a rebuke to Sarah. What a comfort to Hagar. God hears our words and sees our hearts. Even though Isaac was the son of the promise, he also loved Ishmael and his eyes were watching Hagar in the wilderness.
Psalm 139:7 asks, “Where I can flee from your presence?” The answer is nowhere. If you go to heaven, God is there. If you sleep in hell, he is there. If you flee to the ends of the earth … or even to the flophouses of Austin, he is there. You cannot escape his presence because as soon as you get to your destination, he is already waiting for you.
C. A Reminder About Leftovers
In our focus on Abraham and Sarah is easy to forget about Hagar. She was a “leftover” and so was Ishmael. Sarah didn’t want her around and Abraham couldn’t afford to keep her around. So off she went into the desert with her rejected son by her side.
Yet God spoke to Hagar and blessed Ishmael. This is a mighty truth. God reveals himself to the “leftovers” of the world. In 1 Cor 1:27 Paul tells us that God has chosen the “weak things to shame the strong.”
We like strength, God chooses weakness. We like wisdom, God blesses the foolish things of the world. He loves all the Hagars of the world.
An Empty Cupboard and 28 Cents
Earlier this week I happened to catch a few moments of You Need to Know. It was a show featuring Ron Hutchcraft talking about the challenge of raising godly children. At one point David Mains stopped and said, “Ron, you’ve made it sound almost too good to be true. How do your words apply to a single mother struggling to raise her children without any input from their father?”
God loves the underdogs of the world!
Without batting eye Ron Hutchcraft gave two answers. He said that because God loves the underdogs of the world, he will enlarge your capacity so that you can do more with less—like the miracle of the bottomless pitcher of oil in 2 Kings 4:1-7. Second, he reveals himself in a special way to orphans, widows, the poor, the needy, the homeless, and the hurting. They see a side of God that comfortable people never see.
This point came home to me with great force a few days later when I chatted with one of our single moms. Recently she invited a friend over for supper. After work, she came home, made dinner, set the table, and then sat down with her friend for meal. At that moment she realized that the cupboards were bare and she had 28 cents in her pocket. Her friend couldn’t understand how she could remain so calm with children to feed, no more food and no money. “I’m not worried. I get paid tomorrow,” she replied, “and anyway, God takes care of me.”
As we come to the end of this amazing chapter, let’s use the words of Romans 5:20 as a fitting summary: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more!” Abraham and Sarah paid dearly for their foolish mistake. For Hagar, humiliation was followed by blessing from God. And years later, Isaac the true son of promise would be born.
There is warning and hope combined in this story. Detours do not mean dead ends.
God sees and God hears. Those who wait on him will never be disappointed.