You can’t judge a prayer by circumstances

I was recently thinking on the time Abraham sent his son Ishmael away with Hagar who was the boy’s mother and Sarah’s maid. I believe Abraham loved Ishmael greatly and only capitulated to Sarah’s demand that the two be sent away because God said, “Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named.” (Genesis 21:12. Interesting to note this solution brings to mind the source of the problem with Hagar where “Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2) even as Adam listened to the voice of his wife (Genesis 3:17).)

If I were as rich as Abraham and sending out a son, I would send him out with a great deal of wealth. Perhaps part of listening to the voice of Sarah was listening to her refusal that Hagar and Ishmael should be sent out with anything except some essentials. Certainly sending people out into the desert wilderness with limited resources had great potential of leading to their death. But God had said to send them out as Sarah demanded. God would have to make sure they were okay. And so they were sent out with bread and a skin of water into the wilderness of Beersheba. (Genesis 21:14) Since Hagar carried the water in a skin on her back, there must not have been much more than a day’s worth of water. They could make it away from camp which is all that Sarah apparently cared for. But they would have to be searching for food and water as they traveled. It seems they went out without having a plan or a destination.

Hagar had experienced God’s rescue previously in Genesis 16:7-14. And in the fifteen or so years that she had lived with Abraham, she must have learned much about the God who is there, the Lord God of Israel. I imagine she would pray as she and her son traveled away from Abraham’s camp. When I imagine myself in her place, I imagine very sincere prayers and the hope or even expectation that God would lead us to food and water. But I also imagine the anxiety and even fear that my son and I would end up dying in the wilderness before we found food or water. The prayers and anxiety would grow as the water supply was depleted. And then I cannot imagine what Hagar experienced as any remaining hope was extinguished as her son was near death from thirst. Leaving him under a bush for its meager shade, she went out with a comforting word to him that she was going to find water and be back shortly. But she went about fifty yards away and sat weeping the prayer of a despairing mother, “Do not let me see the boy die.” (Genesis 21:16)

At life’s darkest moment, God again spoke to Hagar and affirmed his blessing on Ishmael. Her eyes were opened and she saw a well of water. (Genesis 21:17-19) There within sight of where she sat expecting death, was the well that would nourish their life. But she couldn’t see it until God spoke and opened her eyes. She filled the skin and gave Ishmael a drink. The wilderness that almost took their life became their home. And God fulfilled his promise to them.

There are many interesting insights in this passage. But what stood out to me this time as I read it was that their prayers were being answered by an experience which said that their prayers were not being answered. They must have prayed much for water and did not find it. And in the end they only found water when they had given up looking for it having come to an end of their own resources, abilities and efforts. Hagar would not have sat down where she was if she had not been trying to be away yet not too far from her dying boy. It was her very hopelessness that brought her to a place that hope could be realized!

None of us would want to go through the valley of the shadow of death, especially through that valley with the shadow of death falling on our child. But sometimes it is only the darkest circumstances that can be used to accomplish God’s best for our lives. In the end, the answer to their prayers came from the very circumstances that seemed like a denial of their prayers. Sometimes you can’t judge a prayer by the circumstances.


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