Generally speaking, I don’t love to play games.
When game nights are organized sometimes I will participate because it is a fantastic way to be social, but immediately I feel my heart begin to race and I question everything I say or do from the time I accept the invitation till the game night is over. It’s exhausting, like fighting a battle you know you can’t win.
I tell people it’s because I am not competitive and so competition makes me uncomfortable, but the more I think about it the more I realize that’s not actually true.
Truth is, I am actually very competitive. Not in the shout in your face, aggressive kind of way, but in the silently-beat-yourself-up-if-you-don’t-come-out-on-top kind of way. So I don’t love game nights, not because I need to win, but because I hate who I become: a prisoner.
The truth is, everyone is competitive. Since the fall of Eden, it seems every human is out to prove they are better, stronger, or smarter than everyone else…or at least than someone else. Although she may have had every right to feel self-righteous, Hagar allowed competition to transform her as well. As Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar had little choice in how she lived her own life. Subject to her mistress’s whims, she lacked control over most aspects of her life, but even she had an internal drive to prove she was better.
The first mention of Hagar is in Genesis 16, when Sarai has gotten tired of waiting on God’s promise and tells Abram that God must have left something out in their conversation: it’s a child from you, not necessarily from me. So, she says, sleep with my maidservant and we will raise that child as a fulfillment of God’s promise.
Modern 21st century women (and hopefully men) immediately hear the warning bells of competition start to chime. This woman who has been submitting to the authority of another woman whose name literally means princess suddenly has a chance to shine. Hagar gets pregnant immediately and then in verse 4 we see that attitude shift—that transformation that comes with the catalyst we call competition: Hagar looks down on, looks with contempt on, lightly esteems, or my personal favorite, despises her mistress.
What an ugly transformation.
And it didn’t do much for Sarai either. She immediately does what humans do: gets rid of the competition. In Genesis 16:5 she blames Abram for all the trouble between the women in the household, failing to see that the fault is not with any one individual but the culture that has been created through this one-upping lifestyle. Because when we place too much value on what we can accomplish and how others see us, we fail to acknowledge the one who created us. The one who formed us in His image—all of us—not to be better or prove ourselves (that’s how Satan was cast out of heaven, btw), but to love one another as He first loved us.
In a vain effort to restore peace to his charged home, Abram does not instill discipline or build community among his family, instead he taps out, giving Sarai free reign to treat Hagar in whatever way she wants (Genesis 16:6).
Let the rule book free games begin. And we all know how that ends. Rules exist for a reason in every competition: without them there will always be bloodshed.
Sarai does whatever it takes to put Hagar back in her place: maidservant made servant.
The point of competition is always the same: we want to be seen, loved and acknowledged for being good at something. For being the best. We thrive on the tangible affirmations, and Hagar is no different. She flees from Sarai’s abuse (after dishing out some of her own) to the desert in Genesis 16: 6-13. What’s interesting is the interaction with the angel of the Lord in this quiet place. The angel found her—she didn’t go looking for him, he came looking for her. He pursued her. She felt unwanted, unloved and unseen. He asked her where she was going, and it’s this moment of emotion that she subconsciously acknowledges she doesn’t know. I’m running away. Is all she responds.
What happens next is a little hard for me to understand and swallow, as a 21st century American woman, and yet I can still learn something valuable. That’s what I love about the Bible—I don’t need to understand everything, I just need to learn something about God who will then teach me something about myself. because the Bible isn’t about us! It’s about God. So, here’s the skinny:
- Running away never solves the problem. Not that I blame her, but when Hagar ran, she didn’t solve the problem. She actually created more problems: Where will I sleep? What will I eat? Where will I find safety? How will I care for my infant son? Running away seem like the easy solution, but instead of solving our problems, we usually just create more
- God requires submission from all of us if we are to live in his purpose. The word submission carries so many negative connotation that we balk at the word. The truth is, submission doesn’t mean powerlessness, it simply means obedience. God requires our obedience, which is why the world is set up in a kind of hierarchy. It mimics God’s purpose for us. The angel of the Lord sent Hagar back, maybe because she needed to learn the most valuable lesson of all: submission to authority. Sarai was mean to her, but Hagar was also responsible for this. Instead of gratefulness at her pregnancy, she chose contempt and created a climate of competition. Learning to submit is never easy when our sin nature demands us to be the greatest (isn’t that why Eve and Adam ate that fruit? They wanted to be equal with God?), but it’s the only way we can live in alignment with God’s will & purpose for our lives.
- Being known is more important than being the best. Often we think that we have to be the best or the greatest to be known, but the truth is those who love us best are the ones who have seen us at our worst.
In order to move forward, Hagar had to go back. I don’t think this means we have to live in the past, but I do think God requires us to deal with our past if we are going to build any kind of future with him. Hagar responds with gratefulness to the Lord who took the time to see and know her. Sure, the instructions were probably not what she would have chosen herself, but they were clear and given out of love. God didn’t promise her she would be the best, nor did he promise that her son would be the best, but He promised her hope and a future, as he does for each of us.
Hagar spent a little over a decade in Abram and Sarai’s home as a maidservant and mother to Abram’s first born. So, in Genesis 21 when Isaac is born to Sarah and when Abram had become Abraham, Ishmael was about 14 years old. By this time , Ishmael might have been living under the delusion that he would be the child of the covenant and God had maybe changed his mind or something. After all—14 years had past and no baby had shown up. Abraham loved Ishmael. But then in an interesting twist, just like Hagar, Ishmael feels a certain amount of competition with this new baby. As the first born he feels he has the right to the promises and inheritance of Abraham, but as the son of a servant he has very little legal recourse. And so, he transforms into something ugly too…
He mocks a toddler.
The Bible doesn’t tell us why he is mocking the toddler, but I suspect it has something to do with just how close Sarah keeps Isaac to her—even in Biblical times a momma’s boy wasn’t exactly the tip top of the social pyramid. When the competition heightens, people get hurt. Sarah demands the pseudo family gets sent away.
Abraham loves his son, but he listens to God who tells him to send Hagar and Ishmael on—and so Hagar is forced to move on. Ishmael had to be around 16 or 17 by this point, but the language of ‘boy’ gives the impression he is much younger, and the fact that Hagar is still very much the one in charge and accountable speaks to the fact that it is she to whom God is speaking, not ‘the boy’.
When she thought she had it all together, there was no room for God. When she thought she had won in the competition with Sarah, there was no room for God. When her son mocked his half brother in a false sense of security, there was no room for God.
When she as at the end of her rope, feeling hopeless and helpless God shows up. Only then does he lead her into a new life and breathes life into the boy and his future.
And that’s when he shows up for us too—not when we are on top, or striving to prove ourselves, but when we humble ourselves and recognize that our place is at his feet, submitting to his will.