But God said to Abraham, “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.”
At a glance, this might feel like a repeat of what happened earlier in Genesis. Sarah tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael and off they go. The difference is God’s presence. The first time, Sarah was angry at the consequences of her actions. This time, she is righteously indignant at the thought that a child not of God’s promising would inherit God’s promises to Abraham. I conclude this based on God’s input: “Listen to Sarah.” Last time, there was no mention of God in connection with what Sarah was saying or doing. This time, God endorses it. The first time, Abraham dismissed the whole thing and told Sarah to do whatever she felt like doing. He had no compunctions about the vindictiveness about to be unleashed on Hagar. This time around, Abraham is grieved by what is going on and troubled on behalf of both Hagar and Ishmael. Again, it is because God tells Abraham not to be distressed about Hagar and Ishmael that I conclude that Abraham was distressed. There’s no sense telling someone to stop being something they aren’t. The difference in all of this is God. God is consulted. God is involved. God is listened to. Which leads nicely into my next thought on this verse.
“But God” can be the most beautiful words in scripture. When Joseph’s brothers stand before him, he tells them that they meant to do evil things to him but God used it to save. Paul, I think, talks about who and what he was and transitions with but God. Those two words so often signal the transition from what mankind was trying to do into what God was doing; the transition from something that seemed irreparable and beyond saving into something that is glorious and saves many. Those words are a pivot on which turn the whole of reality. Man does what he wants, but God makes it fit into His plans just as He intended for it to do.
Those words can, however, be the fulcrum of judgment. Mankind mocks God, but God will not be mocked and what follows after those two words is a terrible thing to consider, let alone experience.
This round of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar interacting might have gone very differently, but God was involved; was consulted; gave instruction; comforted the distressed; provided for the needs of those who could not provide for themselves.
What about my life? When I look back and see the times these words can be applied, do I see beauty for ashes or ashes for palaces made of paper? Daniel was in a car accident that, by all accounts, should have killed him and possibly his two passengers as well, but God spared all of their lives and even went so far as to provide nurses to check them out after they had hiked through the mountains. The vast majority of times I can see those words applied to the narrative of my life, it is God giving beauty for ashes; life for death. There are times when I planned something and God checked. There are times when I rebelled and God caused my house of cards to come tumbling down. I can, without any hesitation, admit that I am faithless, but God is faithful. My track record is speckled and inconsistent, but God is consistent in His dedication to conforming me to the image of His Son.
Today’s application is this: There are two ways these words can appear in the narrative in my life. The first is the one I want, where something goes sideways through no fault of my own—or, at the very least, without me willfully rebelling—and bad things are about to happen, but God intervenes and switches the bad that was going to happen for something good. I might always recognize it as good at the time, but it is. The second is the one I prefer not to have, where I am willfully disobedient or make big plans without consulting God (I think He’s cool with me planning lunch or an outfit without a consultation, ’cause there are bigger things in life to deal with than food and clothing), but God flips everything around to make sure I am aware that He is still in complete control of everything. It should be the goal of my life to give God the opportunity to do as much of the first and as little of the second as possible. I want my life to be marked by the words but God in the best way possible