“God seems cruel,” said Angela over dinner.  While agitating, poking and moving her food around the plate she clamored, “I don’t like that story. I just don’t like waiting.” Angela, a female physician seated next to her husband and across from me, began shifting in her chair uncomfortably. “I don’t get it. Why did God make Sarah wait so long?”  Angela and her husband’s childless marriage collided with Sarah’s story and resonated with her own painful struggle.

When I began to teach a Bible class on Abraham and Sarah, I was also surprised how often God requires his chosen ones to wait.  Typical was Angela’s reaction to Sarah’s interminable waiting (she was 90 and post-menopausal) to have the child she desperately wanted years earlier. How many years did she wait? The Bible doesn’t say, but women typically married before 20 in the ancient world. Most likely she married earlier since Abraham was 10 years older and her half-brother. For example, if she married at 20, she waited 70 years. When she was 40, I would assume Sarah’s longing was intense. If so, she waited another 50 years – until she was 90.

What did God want from Abraham and Sarah? They packed all of their things, left their country to go to a place God said, “I will show you.” This appears a substantial test of faith for a couple God called out of idol worship.  Many think this “wait-decades-for-a-child” test was simply too much.  Unlike the disciple’s fearful facing of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Sarah did not have an acute crisis of faith that lasted an hour. Sarah had a long, painful, day after day faith journey as months, then years… then decades passed!

Consider some of the things that would have made it difficult for Sarah to wait for a child:

  1. Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister – same father but different mother. Likely the daughter of a concubine, not a first wife. Therefore, Sarah didn’t have the same legitimacy status as Abraham. She would desire to seal her worth by having a child.
  2. Abram means “Exalted Father” while Abraham means “Father of Nations. Certainly this irony was not lost on their friends, neighbors and visitors. The first thing guests would have noticed was the absence of the signs and sounds of children. Did people judge Sarah for not fulfilling the promise of Abraham’s name? Sarah was probably accustomed to feeling shame whenever a visitor arrived.
  3. If Sarah had a child, she would not have been asked by Abraham to “say you are my sister” and play the game of being “single and available” on two different occasions.  This humiliating charade landed her in a harem both times. Surely she was tormented by negative thoughts and feelings as she entered the harems. She thought she would never see Abraham again. Had she been fertile, she would not be in a harem. Why did she play Abraham’s game? In a word, shame. Perhaps she thought she deserved it.
  4. Abraham twice receives valuables in exchange for Sarah as she enters a harem, where she was taken to live out her days as another man’s wife. Abraham never expects to see her again. In those days, women never left a harem alive. When confronted, Abraham claims to have done it to save his own life. Is he honestly afraid for his life, or is he trying to get rid of her because she is barren, or perhaps both? Even the King of Gerar is dumbfounded and asks him, “What did you see here that would make you do such a thing?”
  5. How was the dinner conversation in Abraham’s tent the night Sarah came home from the harem? Did Abraham ask, “Did they feed you well?” Did he say, “We all missed you around here.”? The degradation of Sarah is unmistakable. The motives of Abraham questionable. Many of our motives are multifactorial. While I think fear played a part in Abraham’s charade, I think there were other factors involved. Thankfully God intervenes to return Sarah to Abraham. After the embarrassing expulsion from Egypt, Abraham tries the same trick in Gerar. Abraham is persistent to trade Sarah’s life for his own. Is it only fear? When Sarah dies at 127, Abraham, who is 137, marries another woman and fathers 6 more children. Is it possible that part of his “sister scheme” motive was to find a fertile woman?

While I cannot answer the question of why God requires waiting, I know that God is not cruel. God is love. Cruelty is not in His character. When I don’t have a satisfying answer to “Why?” questions, I like to ask, “What?” questions. What did God plan for Sarah to do all those years while she was waiting for a child? How could she have used the time to know God better? Perhaps more importantly, what does God want us to do while we are waiting?

Consider some things Sarah could have done:

  1. Help Hagar. God gave Sarah a child but not the way she wanted and not in the package she wanted. He gave her a sassy slave named Hagar. Hagar was totally vulnerable and had no one looking out for her interests. Sarah was the closest thing Hagar had to a parent.  All the time they were together, Sarah never saw Hagar as anything but property. Hagar didn’t want Sarah’s husband, she wanted her own. Hagar didn’t want to bare Sarah’s child, she wanted to bare her own. What if Sarah had poured love into harsh Hagar and allowed her to have what Sarah wanted for herself – her own children. Abraham had 318 men “born in his house.” Sarah could have arranged for Hagar to marry and have her own children but she didn’t. She kept Hagar single year after year, like an ace up her sleeve. When the time came, Sarah played her ace and used Hagar as a “baby machine.” Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a “wife” but without the rights of a wife. Hagar couldn’t sleep with Abraham after she conceived and she couldn’t have her own husband now that she was Abraham’s “wife.” Is it any wonder that Hagar was spiteful toward Sarah? Sarah treated Hagar the way Sarah had been treated by Abraham. That is, in a self-serving, relationship-wrecking, faithless manner. It would have delighted the heart of God if Sarah had been able to give Hagar a husband and be happy for her, trusting God to provide the promised son in time. But this would require great faith and self-control. What if Sarah decided to NOT use her position to get her way?  Had Sarah stopped her scheming she would have saved herself – and Abraham – a mountain of misery.

Who is your Hagar? Is there someone whom you can bless and give the very thing for which you wait? You may have dismissed this person because, like Hagar, they may have a difficult personality, they are wounded. There is no greater faith than blessing another with the very thing for which you are waiting, knowing that you serve a God of abundance. Could God be calling you to supernatural faith?

  1. Pray and listen. God’s desire is for relationship with all His children. We have no record of Sarah praying for a child, no evidence of her moving toward God with her desire. We do read that Abraham’s son Isaac prays for his wife Rebekah and she conceives after 20 years of barrenness. Rebekah also goes to “inquire of The LORD,” which demonstrates that it is possible in that culture to query God and receive an answer.
  1. Seek out a man or woman of prayer.God also desires that we engage in relationships with others who worship Him.  It is possible that Melchizedek was in the area. It takes humility to admit that the problem is serious enough to ask others to pray.  Find people with wisdom and make them aware of your struggle, especially those who have been through similar circumstances.
  1. Focus on God’s promises.God gave Abraham the promise of a son. But how easy it is to forget God’s promises when the situation looks unfavorable. To keep the promise fresh Abraham and Sarah would need to talk about it regularly. They could remind each other weekly, monthly, yearly. They could sing songs about the promise and perhaps even cry over it.  They could continually remind one another of the promise of God and help each other fight against doubts, especially as time passed. Do you keep God’s promises before you to bolster your faith? We, as Abraham’s spiritual heirs, have God’s good and precious promises.

Like Sarah in the Bible and Angela the physician, most of us are waiting for something. Waiting is work. But like a waiter in a restaurant – waiting can be very active. Nobody drifts to the top of a mountain; it takes planning, discipline and effort to climb. There is much to be done while we wait for our dreams and God’s dreams for us. Sarah’s desire was fulfilled at 90 and she spent 37 years with her own miracle son, Isaac. (Sarah lived to 127.)

If you focus on your pain while waiting, you will develop bitterness and miss the joy when the blessing comes. You will respond, “It’s about time” and not be in a mood to rejoice. (I address this subject further in the YouTube lecture “When Your Formula Doesn’t Work”)

For many people, waiting makes them feel entitled, deserving, arrogant, and not closer to God. When I see Him face to face, God will not apologize to me for not fulfilling my expectations or desires, be it marriage, money or children. Instead, He will ask me, “Did you enjoy any of the blessings I gave you?” And I don’t want to say, “No, I was only focused on what I wanted, why didn’t you give it to me?” Indeed, when I focus on the “big things” I want, I tend to take for granted and miss the daily blessings God sends me. When I focus on gratitude for what I already have, and look for the blessings that arrive daily, I find myself living with more joy. And joy is contagious.

Can we wait and rest in God’s timing?  He is capable to perform miracles if necessary to accomplish His plans for our lives.  Can you imagine the sweetness of celebration as Sarah held her child – born through miraculous means – to the praise of her glorious God?  Only years of waiting could have produced such joy!  And I imagine after all those years she would say, “God can be trusted!”

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