I was asked recently how I think God views me. Does he judge me? Does he love me? Does he accept me?
And I broke into tears as I took this question in and really tried to examine it.
Intellectually, yes. I believe that I am deeply loved by the God of the universe. I believe He accepts me. I believe there is no judgment or condemnation in His love.
But there’s another part of me, a bigger part, that can’t see how that’s true.
I grew up in an environment where I was told that I am inherently bad. I was often told that I wasn’t a good enough Christian. That on judgment day, I would have to stand before God and give an accounting for every action I made, every word I spoke, and every thought that crossed my mind. And then God would decide if I were holy enough to enter into Paradise.
I wrote about the spiritual environment in which I grew up being told that I am inherently unlovable because I am so depraved and it is only by the grace of God’s goodness that I can be saved.
I spent a lifetime being told by my parents’ actions that I was not worthy of love.
I spent a lifetime being abused by a sibling who hated me simply because I existed.
It’s easy to say I believe that God loves me, but when the environment that was supposed to reflect His love only reflected disinterest, hate, and judgment how could I understand on a soul level that I am truly and immeasurably loved?
This past week, I attended a Bible study through my church (online, of course) where we looked at Hagar’s story.
Hagar, you may recall, was Sarai’s slave-girl who was given to Abram for a “wife” (Old Time Bible-speak for sex-slave) so that he could have a child of his own in his old age:
16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2 and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. 4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.Genesis 16, NRSV
Here we have a girl (it is not until Chapter 21 that the language shifts and Hagar is referred to as a woman) who had zero agency. She had no one to look out for her. She was used physically and sexually and had no ability to advocate for herself or chart her own course in life. She was, by all accounts, an unloved girl.
Thankfully that isn’t where her story ends. Let’s continue.
After Hagar ran away, she found herself alone and in the desert. This is where God found her by a spring and told her to return to her abusive mistress (highly problematic). God also told her that she had conceived and would give birth to a “wild ass” of a man who would constantly be at war with his family and everyone else (Thats…um.. great, God. Real encouraging).
She was still tethered to her abusive life, unable to free herself. And the God who showed up did nothing to shield her. The God she knew at this moment represented someone who stood behind her abusers and groomed her to submit to their cruelty.
Her story continues on in chapter 21 where Hagar, finally a woman (v.10), has been cast out with her teen-aged son because Sarah felt jealous of her own child having to share an inheritance with this slave-woman’s child. Apparently time had not softened Sarah’s abusive tendencies. And so Abraham, though he was “distressed” (v.11) by the idea, agreed to do it. He gave her a skin of water and some bread to, one might assume, assuage his guilt. At least they wouldn’t starve or die of thirst right away. So that’s something.
Once again, Hagar wanders the desert. Only this time, her child was with her and Hagar had no way to provide him food, water, or shelter. Despair crept into her soul as she began to realize that they had literally been sent out to die.
Unloved and alone.
Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.Genesis 21, NRSV
Here, God seems to have changed. The first time He met with her, He had little to offer in the way of empathy. But now we hear a fatherly tenderness in his voice. He sees her. He sees her distress. He sees her fear. He provides water (a lot could be said here of the metaphor of living water), and He tells her that everything will be OK.
He loves her.
Hagar, who never had a friend or an advocate, finally had a concrete example of a God who not only saw her, but who showed her great love, compassion, and tenderness at the moment she most needed it.
It’s a messy story, I’ll admit. But isn’t everyone’s story messy?
I grew up in a system that told me that I was inherently unlovable. I was taught that God couldn’t accept me unless I conformed to a system of rules and behaviour that was deemed “righteous” or “holy”. My behaviour would prove my salvation. It would ensure my acceptance in both my religious culture and in my own family.
The God I knew commanded me to submit to my parents and to the system. A righteous girl or woman wouldn’t rock the boat. She would trust God has a purpose even when things seem to hit rock bottom.
Then I broke away. I defied the rules. I wandered into the wilderness, ready to die apart from my support system. And God met me in a whole new way I’d never envisioned could be possible. God became someone new to me. As I learned what healthy love was, my vision of who God was and what He expected of me changed. He no longer represented a future of hardship or judgment or possible damnation. He became my loving Heavenly parent.
This is Hagar’s story. Her first glimpse of God isn’t a kind God. I don’t see a God who is loving. I see a God who enabled terrible people. I see a God who sent a vulnerable girl back into an abusive situation without providing any form of protection for her from future abuse. I see a God who had no good news to share about her unborn child’s future.
But when she had no choice but to leave her abusive home, her only support system, she broke away into a new life. And God showed up in a whole new way.
It makes me wonder if Hagar knew what it meant to deconstruct. To strip away the old and unhealthy and find something new. Something redeemable. Something nurturing.
I also wonder if there was ever a part of her that struggled, as I do, to internalize the idea of a God who is unconditionally loving.
No requirements. No judgments. Just love.
(A lot could also be said about the matriarch and patriarch of three major world faiths being physically, sexually, and verbally abusive to the vulnerable. But I’ll save that for another day, perhaps)
Is your story also messy? Can you relate to meeting God one way and meeting Him all over again in the wilderness to find He has changed?