Head bent, tears splashing onto my cell phone screen, I rasped the only words I could manage.
“Please, God – no. I can’t bear this. I can’t.”
I had just received a text message with news of a sudden loss – only days after I’d experienced another heartache.
Two in a row, Lord? I thought. It’s not fair. This is more than I can handle.
Anger and confusion writhed within me, while one command pulsed in every nerve of my body.
I didn’t know where I’d run, especially at such a late hour. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be here, in this moment, in this pain. I wondered what it would be like to have the means to fly to Paris or Rome whenever life crushed your spirit. I wondered if Paris or Rome would be enough to dry my tears.
I didn’t flee the house, and reason quietly prescribed its usual remedies – deep breaths, a glass of water, prayer. Slowly, fragments of Scripture came to mind, and I remembered a woman in the book of Genesis who had felt as desperate as I now did – Hagar.
Both a foreigner and a slave, Hagar had reason to run. Her mistress, Sarai, had compelled her to bear Sarai’s husband Abram a child, since the couple had no heir (Genesis 16:1-4). God had promised Abram a direct heir (Genesis 15:4; Genesis 12:2), but frustrated by years of waiting, Sarai took matters into her own hands.
Once pregnant, Hagar clashed with her mistress, who resented the girl’s newfound self-importance. Sarai retaliated by mistreating Hagar so severely that the slave fled into the wilderness (Genesis 16:6).
And there, in the midst of thorns and thirst, something wonderful happened – “the angel of the Lord found her” (Genesis 16:7).
“Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” the angel asked (Genesis 16:8). When Hagar admitted she was in flight, “the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her’” (Genesis 16:9).
The command, which seemed like a punishment, included a divine promise: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” (Genesis 16:10).
Biblical scholars disagree on whether Hagar saw the Lord himself or his angelic messenger, but there was no doubt in the mind of the slave. “She named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are God who sees me’” (Genesis 16:13). Hagar retraced her steps and eventually gave birth to a son whom she named Ishmael, meaning “God has heard” (Genesis 16:11, 15).
Every time that she looked at her son or uttered his name, Hagar must have recalled that encounter with the Lord. You saw me. You heard me. Even when I was lost and hurt and frightened. Even though I was an outsider, alone.
As I wandered in my interior wilderness that difficult night, I sensed that the Lord was gently turning me back to face the very pain I wished to avoid. He knew quite well where I had come from, where I was going, and where I should be going. He saw my tears, and he heard my cries.
The Lord understood that submitting to the demands of my current situation wouldn’t be easy, but he assured me that I didn’t have to face this task without him. The fruit of that submission would, like Ishmael, remind me that he is the God who hears and sees.
And in case I found myself back in the wilderness, Hagar stood ready to encourage me. When Ishmael was older, the slave was again driven into exile by her mistress. Having at last given birth to her own son, Sarai (renamed “Sarah” by the Lord) regarded Ishmael as a threat, and ordered that he and Hagar be expelled from the household. Abram (now “Abraham”) complied, sending Hagar and Ishmael away with scant rations.
Hagar’s second trek through the wasteland was even more excruciating than the first. After running out of water, she laid Ishmael under a shrub and sat down a short distance away, “for she said to herself, ‘Let me not watch to see the child die’” (Genesis 22:16).
Not again, Lord, she may have thought. Two in a row? This is more than I can handle.
Ishmael began to cry, and once more the Lord spoke to Hagar. “Don’t be afraid; God has heard” (Genesis 22:17-18). The Lord then opened Hagar’s despairing eyes, and she saw a nearby well of water (Genesis 22:19). Strengthened, Hagar and Ishmael continued their journey.
In fact, they never completely left the wasteland; Ishmael ultimately made his home “in the wilderness of Paran” (Genesis 22:21). Yet “God was with the boy as he grew up” (Genesis 22:20) — the God who had been with Hagar, and the same God who was with me now.
There was no need to flee or to wander; only to walk in the ways of the God who sees, and to listen to the voice of the One who hears.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.