Open Your Bible
Genesis 17:15-22, Genesis 18:1-15, Genesis 20:1-18, Genesis 21:1-7, Philippians 1:6
My backyard garden is an unrealized dream. A few months ago we sowed and scattered seeds with the haphazard helping hands of my four-year-old daughter. Despite multiple warnings not to do so, she dumped an entire container of bird seed alongside my hoped-for flowers. In addition, the sod we ripped up to make room for the garden left rows of roots that like to pop up, and no matter how many times I rip them out, they always seem to show up again.
Now I cannot tell weeds from future blooms, and the hours I spent trying to cultivate a beautiful cut-flower garden seem fruitless (or, flowerless). I know that eventually, the real flowers will bloom, and then I can root out the weeds that have grown.
Sarah’s life was marked by a root of bitterness, a weed that made her scoff at God’s promise and treat Hagar with contempt and cruelty. Bitterness was born out of her perceived injustice: her husband fathering a son with her slave (Genesis 21:9–10), her own inability to have children (11:30), and the seemingly-impossible promise God made to her (18:10).
If you told me today that in two months, my garden would be bursting with zinnias, peonies, snapdragons, and gardenias, I would probably laugh. My track record, like Sarah’s in childbearing, is sparse. I have nothing on which to base my hope of a bountiful flower harvest.
What did Sarah have to fight back against her bitterness? She had a promise, a word spoken by the Author of promises. But still, she laughed.
Thankfully, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah did not rest on her. God did not bless her with a son, Isaac, because of her attitude. It was not a reward based on piety, or character, or anything other than His word. And His word is always good, no matter the shape and bent of our hearts.
Bitterness has deep roots in my own heart, and daily I have to push against its influence. I think, You deserve this. You’ve earned it. And then I compare my circumstances to someone else’s, reasoning, What has she done to get that thing (job, house, vacation, experience, complexion)? I am just as worthy!
The problem with this false narrative is this: not only is it deeply baked in privilege, but it feeds into the merit-based culture we live in. Entitlement begets merit, which begets more entitlement, and so on. The culture of God’s kingdom is anchored neither in merit nor in entitlement, but rather in the goodness and faithfulness of God.
Sarah had neither merit nor entitlement. She seemed to have bitterness where faithfulness should grow. But what she did have was the promise, and so she became the mother of the promise by God’s grace alone.
On bitterness, poet and hymn writer Anne Ross Cousin said this in her poem, “In Immanuel’s Land”:
Soon shall the cup of glory
Wash down earth’s bitterest woes,
Soon shall the desert briar,
Break in to Eden’s rose
I stand upon His merit,
I know no other stand
Not e’en where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.
The things I long for are chaff and weeds, distractions from the best promise ever made: the eternal presence of the Lord Himself. Like Sarah, I have no merit to cling to as I wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises. But I have Him, and His Word, and His merit alone.