Sitting on my back patio with my coffee on a rare morning warm enough to be outside in Oregon, I read her story. It was probably not the first time I had heard of her, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. But this time, as I read, my spirit lept. I connected with her in a way that I did not fully understand at the time. Tears stung my eyes as I read this; “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
“You are the God who sees me.”
These are the words that would sometimes come into my head at the most painful moments of loneliness, isolation, grief, and hopelessness I felt as I recovered from spiritual abuse. “You are the God who sees me.” There were days where this was literally the only hope I had left to cling to.
When I read those words of Hagar in Genesis 16 that morning, I didn’t fully understand why I connected so much with her story. If I would have taken a stab at understanding why that phrase spoke so much to me, I would have said it was because I have spent so much of my life feeling invisible. I didn’t feel that way in my family, but I definitely felt it in school, in church, and in most of my relationships. So, it would make sense that this is why being seen by God would be so impactful for me.
This morning after dropping my kids off at school, I stopped at the grocery store for a few items. At the checkout counter, I noticed a magazine publication titled, “The Women of the Bible”. Intrigued, I grabbed it. Flipping through the magazine, I read again the story of Hagar, and I suddenly understood why I connected with her so much.
If you’re unfamiliar with her story, you can check it out in Genesis 16, but here’s a little synopsis. Hagar was an Egyptian slave girl who lived with Abraham and Sarah. God had promised Abraham years earlier that he and Sarah would be the parents of a great nation. But Sarah could not get pregnant. As time went on, the more hopeless and desperate Sarah must have been. Her blessing was not coming and she was doing nothing but getting older. So, she decided to take things into her own hands. She sent Hagar to sleep with Abraham, hoping that she would get pregnant. She did. But it caused more problems then it solved. Hagar was upset about her predicament. Sarah felt disrespected by Hagar’s anger and was probably jealous of her ability to get pregnant. Abraham’s basic response was, “Keep me out of this, it’s your problem, do whatever you want.” So Sarah began to abuse Hagar. Reeling from the abuse, and unfairness of her situation, Hagar ran to the wilderness to escape. It was while she was there that an angel of the Lord spoke to her, and she felt seen and known by a God who loved her.
It hit me afresh this morning why I connected so well with Hagar. Although thousands of years apart, living in vastly different cultures, with lives that don’t look alike in almost any feasible way, Hagar and I both understand what it is like to be abused by people who are in authority over you. We both understand how it feels to be taken advantage of by people who were supposed to love and care for you. We both understand what it feels like to be used to the advantage of another person. We both understand what it is like to be discarded and cast out when you have become ‘too much trouble’. And we both understand how it feels when people treat you this way, not because they’re bad people necessarily, but because they feel they are doing God’s work. They tell you that the abuse has God’s stamp of approval on it.
It is a feeling of such deep betrayal and loss, it is hard to even put into words. It’s devastating.
When I read this story so many years ago on that morning in Oregon, I had been experiencing spiritual abuse for a couple years, but I didn’t know it. I knew that I was hurting, but I didn’t know why. I distinctly remember feeling so overwhelmed with joy at the idea of “being seen” that I shared that moment via messenger with a group of close (at the time) friends. My enthusiasm was met with little response from most, but what stuck with me is the response from one friend. His response was that he felt jealous that I had time to read the Bible and have meaningful moments with God, and he didn’t. He was one of the elders of the church we attended.
It was a small interaction, but one that stuck with me. A small story that revealed a piece of the larger one. It is the same with Hagar. Her story is one that begins terribly. Slavery. Rape (can we assume that since she was a slave and was not able to consent to her authority that today we would call this rape?). Abuse. Isolation. Pain. Suffering.
But hers is also a story that ends with two things that I can cling to. Two things that give me hope, even in those moments when I get dragged back into the grief of abuse. First, in her moments of greatest suffering, Hagar gets an intense intimacy with God. God deals with her in such a compassionate and empathetic way that she feels deeply seen, known and loved. Her intimacy with God at that moment is so profound that she literally names him. No one up to this point in the Bible has ever named God before. Can you even imagine?
The second thing that gives me hope is that God redeems her pain. He doesn’t take it away, but he measures her grief and gives her an equal measure of joy. She and her son are included into the nation that God has promised to build through Abraham, and he promises to increase her descendants to more than she can count. We don’t connect well to this idea in the 21st century, but back then was like God deciding to pour out blessing upon blessing. Giving her more than she could have asked or imagined.
This is the thing with God it seems to me. Grief happens. It is an inescapable part of being human and walking around in our broken world. Once you’ve experienced grief, there’s no changing it. It embeds itself into our DNA and changes the trajectory of our lives and who we become. Grief does not get smaller with time, our lives get bigger and God steps in and makes joy grow. Perhaps grief is like the fertilizer for joy. It smells, feels and tastes like shit; because it is. But it’s what makes the flowers of joy grow in your life.
Since leaving that spiritually abusive church nearly 3 years ago, I have seen the joy begin to grow out of my own grief. It took a while. I remember feeling happy about something for the first time, probably months after leaving, and it surprised me. I had forgotten what it felt like to be happy. And even now, sometimes I’ll catch myself feeling a sense of joy, and when I do, a feeling of gratefulness passes through me as well. And deep in my heart, I think Hagar would understand.