“And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” Genesis 17:18
Abraham and Sarah had waited a very long time on God’s promise. Abraham’s impatience caused him to commit adultery with Hagar, bringing him his firstborn son, Ishmael. Though not in the will of God, Ishmael still qualified for the blessing promised to Abraham’s seed. The Lord honored his word, even when Abraham and Sarah’s lack of obedience did not.
Like any excited, new dad, Abraham, the “Father of Multitudes,” took great care over his (then) only boy. He, I’m sure, taught him how to behave like a man, how to work, and how to use a bow (Genesis 21:20). I’m sure Abraham was a good father when it came to praying for his son, (as he had for Lot, Genesis 18:33) and training him (as he had his servants, Genesis 14:14). Abraham had 13 years to grow attached to his son.
Hagar, we trust was a good mother, hiding from her son the hardships of her motherhood through Abram’s sin. She stayed in the household by the reassurance of an angel, to “Return… submit… I will multiply thy seed exceedingly.” (Genesis 16:9-10) Though a lowly handmaid, she bore her burdens never more alone, for, “Thou God seest me” (Genesis 16:13) –the name she called the Lord–had spoken directly to her. She would have encouraged her son to be loyal, to listen, and to follow Abraham. “Now, son, do as your father tells you,” she would instruct him. She had been blessed, despite the circumstances, in that household, and her main wish and desire for her boy was that he could grow up to be like his daddy. They were right where God intended for them to be.
Until God decided it was time for a change.
“I am the LORD, I change not.” (Malachi 3:6) proved as true for this patriarch as it ever was for Malachi. God had not spoken to Abraham since the fortuitous day that Ishmael was born. Thirteen long years had passed, years of adjustment to fatherhood, years of coordinating a ‘dysfunctional’ family, years filled with getting used to it. But God had not changed his mind, and it was Abraham who would learn that God who does not change requires a man to be willing to change if he expects to walk with Him.
Abraham’s attachment was part of the test of his emotional strength: whether he would love God, believe God, and obey God, or not. God did not send Hagar back to Sarah with the intention that Abraham be cold and uncaring toward his son. God sent them back, because it was the right decision, and it stands to reason that God also intended the results of His direction. The attachment Abraham felt solidified his resolve to follow GOD, instead of his HEART, though it probably felt like it was being pulled in two.
Watchman Nee in his book What Shall This Man Do? put it this way, “In the last of his letters, Paul writes to Timothy of the perils of the ‘last days.’ He warns them that grievous times will come, when men will be (among other things) “without natural affection.” (2 Timothy 3:1-3) Here is a danger of the last days of this age–that men will have no feelings, no natural sensitivity, no human affections. This is of course a non-Christian state of affairs. Yet these verses to Timothy are written for Christians, not unbelievers. It may be so… that men will come to the place where they disclaim responsibility for parents, wives or children, and think that in so doing they are being good Christians. (Emphasis his)”
He continues, “Of course, it is true that the Lord Jesus said: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Yes, He said that, but He certainly did not say, as some even in our day have seemed to think, that only those who rejoiced to leave (them) could be disciples of His. In the name of service to the Lord, people have deserted their own kindred and dependents out of sheer heartlessness, and not out of love for Him.”
He concludes with a profound statement, that describes Abraham perfectly, “True spirituality is to care, but yet to let the cross of Christ deal with the things that stand in the way of the will of God. It is a fairly safe rule that if there is no cost in going forth for Him, something is wrong and the move is not a spiritual move.”
Abraham’s covenant with God, so clearly described in Genesis 15, would be the only thing that could move him. God allowed thirteen years of a relationship so that he could prove the sincerity of Abraham’s resolve and love for Himself. As James challenged, “I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) Unproven, Abraham’s true affection would have remained a mystery to all.
Abraham’s wish for his firstborn would go unanswered (in the way he desired), yet I am thankful it did not go altogether un-prayed. It is the exclamation of the paternal instinct, the precedent for all God-fearing fathers to pattern their prayers. David would cry years later for his wayward son, with tears that went unwiped, and pleas that went unheeded. Why? Must there be hurt like this?
I echo the sentiment of Brother Nee: Yes. Yes, because God knows how hypocritical we would all be if there were no sacrifice in service. Yes, because God understands that true love goes beyond words, it must be lived out in life. Yes, because we are not yet conformed to his image, and “until my change come” (Job 14:14) we must be constantly “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) The Scripture and all the saints testify, “Yes.”
Let us examine lastly Abraham’s yielding. God had not done anything as Abraham expected he would. Nor would God ever, for the rest of Abraham’s life, go according to man’s plan. No, not for the rest of history would God follow a humanly predictable path. May I interject that He has not done everything good in my life, either: He has always, always done better.
And only by yielding would Abraham learn just how much better. In Ishmael Abraham knew that “the LORD hath heard” (Genesis 16:11), but in putting his faith in a promise yet future, Abraham would discover, “God hath made me to laugh.” (Genesis 21:6) Abraham had learned saving grace in Ishmael, but he would experience abundant life in Isaac. You won’t long for Heaven until you’re ready to leave the world. That is how God wants to change us.
“From glory to glory he’s changing me
He’s changing me, He’s changing me.
His likeness and image made perfect in me:
The love of God shown to the world!
For He’s changing me, changing me,
From earthy things to the Heavenly!
His likeness and image made perfect in me,
The love of God shown to the world.”
The question is: are we willing to let go, and let God? It’s not just a cliché; it’s a qualification for closeness to God.
Are you so used to your daily routine that there seems to be no extra room for God? CHANGE! Are you so attached to your comforts that you can’t think of losing them to serve God? CHANGE! Are you so dulled to your sin, that it doesn’t appear to be such a big deal anymore? CHANGE! Sure you will miss them: CHANGE! Sure, Auld Lang Syne will bring his sentimentalities to cloud the eyes and tighten the throat: CHANGE! For the singular love of the Lord Jesus Christ, let go of Ishmael, despite the broad array of human pathos, and CHANGE!
Yield yourself to God, and come alive to Him like you never have before. Change… and live!