Recently I was reading in Genesis. I saw an example of a useful principle concerning staying in or leaving a situation we find difficult. One lesson I saw was that we cannot create a fixed rule which says to stay no matter what. There is a time to stay and a time to go. True and useful counsel must combine the principles of God’s word with the insight from God’s Spirit for those particular circumstances.
In Genesis 16, Hagar ran away from Abraham’s house because of the harsh treatment she received from Sarah. The Lord met Hagar in the wilderness by a spring and sent her back and commanded her to submit to Sarah. In Genesis 21, Sarah was done with how Ishmael was treating Isaac, and she wanted Hagar and Ishmael sent away. This must have been very troubling to Abraham but God confirmed it was right to send his son, Ishmael, and the boy’s mother away. (Paul points out the spiritual lesson from this episode in Galatians 4:21-31.) There is a time to stay under difficult circumstances and there is a time to leave. In the first episode, God told Hagar to go back and stay. In the second, God confirms to Abraham that it is time for Hagar and Ishmael to go. When God’s timing is observed, there is blessing. Some people are quick to leave a church, others stay too long. There were valid reasons Hagar would want to leave Abraham’s household. But the timing of leaving was not decided by valid reasons to leave but by God’s direction. Ishmael was to grow up under Abraham’s tutelage. (Ishmael would have been late teens when he left.)
Going is hard, even when it is the right thing to do. All the provisions for life were found in Abraham’s camp. The wilderness is near barren of provisions. And relationships were lost by leaving. Life had an element of certainty before, but in leaving, nothing seems certain. And now, the second time Hagar leaves, it increasingly is evident that disaster seems certain. The difficulty of staying or leaving does not indicate which is right. But even when things were at their worst, God met them and gave a promise they experienced in their lives.
When I was in seminary, some friends felt I should just leave the denomination I was in. There was no way they would agree to ordain me because of my view of the inspiration and authority of God’s word — the denomination rules could not supplant the command of scripture. But I felt it was not not mine to leave, it was theirs to send me out. I held firm to what scripture says and was open handed with anything that was not based on clear command or instruction of the Bible.
When the committee on pastoral candidates met they affirmed my call to gospel ministry. Then they added that my ministry would not be in their denomination. Three things happened by staying to the point that they could decide my case: First, there was an appropriate submission to authority, and a humbling myself before those who were elders in the church. Second, the denominational leaders were forced to make a difficult decision which showed their commitment to things not found in the scripture and their rejection of things that are commanded by the word of God. And, third, quite surprising to me, they sent me out with a confirmation of my calling and a blessing. I did not expect this but I appreciate the significance in God’s economy of such blessings.
During the years I struggled with denominational policies and practices, it was difficult to stay. And all the more for I knew I would one day be out. Waiting on the Lord made clear the difference between the time to stay and the time to go.