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Divining the Voice in My Head

I often hear the expression (used rather glibly, I must say): “God told me.” The words are typically the preamble to a description of some strongly held conviction. But the expression leaves me uncomfortable.
For starters, just how did God tell the person? Was there a booming voice from heaven that all in the room heard? Was there an actual voice, but audible only to the person? Or was it just a strong conviction—a moment of clarity—that came at a crucial point in the person’s mental wrestling?
It seems to me that we’d better be absolutely sure that our thoughts are truly of divine origin before we attach the name of God to them. There’s a commandment that prohibits taking the name of the Lord “in vain.” In other words, connecting the name of God to something that doesn’t merit having God’s name attached to it.
It’s one thing to say “I feel,” “I think,” “I believe,” “My study of the Bible has convinced me,” “I’m convicted.” It’s quite another to say, “God told me.” I’m not saying God doesn’t literally speak to people. I’m just saying that making such a claim is a loaded expression that should be used only when all other explanations have been ruled out. It’s kind of like an atomic bomb: very powerful. So it should be used with the utmost reserve.
Anyway, as I read the scriptures, I wonder if maybe the people in Bible times weren’t given to the use and misuse of the “God told me” expression just as we are now. Maybe even more so. “God told” people a lot of things back then, it seems. And judging just from the context and the ethics of the advice given, I think it possible that there may have been times when God gets the credit for something that came from other sources. I’ve come across some prime examples recently while preparing sermons. Let’s look at just one right now.
Hagar, an Egyptian maidservant, was presented by the barren Sarah to Abraham as a possible surrogate child bearer. It seemed a good idea at the time. But it didn’t work out quite as planned. And it seems it didn’t work out in part because Abraham, who was supposed to involve himself in a purely clinical manner in this exercise, got into the spirit of it just a little too much. I’ve come to that conclusion—not because God told me, but—because it seems to fit.
Apparently, the once-cooperative Hagar became a little uppity once she realized she was pregnant. At one time she had envied what her mistress had that she didn’t. Now she knew that her mistress envied what she had. Hagar decided to milk it for what it was worth. She became insolent. She developed a superior attitude. What Hagar lost sight of was that Sarah still held most of the trump cards. And hell hath no fury like a woman scorned—be it by a servant or a husband. Or both.
“You’re responsible for the wrong I am suffering,” Sarah exploded to her husband (emphasis mine). “I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant she despises me.” Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines, but the fact that she specifically mentioned Hagar being in Abraham’s arms, and the fact that she blamed him so vociferously, suggests to me that she was faulting him for getting into the exercise too enthusiastically—which in turn was seen to have caused Hagar’s uppitiness. At least that’s I how interpret it.
Skipping over many years and much turbulence, we finally come to the point where Sarah has her own baby, born miraculously in her old age as the fulfillment of a divine promise. But Hagar’s son, an early teen by now, mocks Sarah’s precious little Isaac. And it all becomes too much to bear. So again she explodes to Abraham.
“Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” It was an ultimatum. But not one that was easy for Abraham to accommodate. “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son,” the Bible tells us (emphasis mine).
And so it should have distressed him. Ishmael was indeed Abraham’s own flesh and blood. And Hagar was his wife. At least that’s the word the Bible employs at the time the intimate relationship commenced. As a father and husband, Abraham had certain obligations—both to the woman he’d impregnated and to the child she’d borne. Yet here his prime wife was demanding that both be banished.
Abraham was caught. He needed peace with Sarah. He also wanted to fulfill his fatherly/husbandly obligations. And the two seemed mutually exclusive. He wrestled with his dilemma. And then his moment of clarity came! Suddenly he saw a way to have his cake (not feel like a total heel for abdicating his deeply felt responsibilities) and eat it too (keep Sarah happy). How did this come about?
“God said to him, ‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’” Abraham suddenly had an epiphany! Clearly he had been overly sensitive, overly righteous, overly concerned.
Since Isaac was the one through whom the divine promises would be fulfilled, his perceived obligations toward Ishmael were just that: perceived. His conscience and sense of duty had been too finely tuned. He realized he could do exactly what Sarah had demanded.
Throughout this process, there has been an ongoing devaluation of Hagar and Ishmael. First, Sarah refers to Hagar as “that slave woman.” It’s the first reference to her slave status. Earlier in the story, she was described as a “maidservant.” And it was Sarah herself who gave Hagar to Abraham to be his “wife.” Now Hagar is nothing more than “that slave woman.”
And Ishmael, who caused Abraham such consternation because Sarah’s demand “concerned his son” (emphasis mine) is reduced to merely being “the boy” once Abraham begins to entertain actually banishing him.
The story is as heart-rending as any we’ll ever encounter in the Bible or in life around us. The decision once made—because God “told” him to do it—Abraham acts. “Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.”
Remember, Abraham was a wealthy man. He had flocks and herds and other valuables in abundance. He could have sent her off with an escort and plenty of money to ensure that she would want for nothing. He could have made sure that she was appropriately set up elsewhere, even if her presence in his household was no longer viable. But God had “told” him that it was OK to listen to his prime wife. And Sarah would never have allowed such generosity toward “that slave woman”—who was in the predicament she was in because Sarah had taken advantage of her, just as Abraham had. In Abraham and Sarah’s household, Hagar was a dispensable commodity, and her usefulness was well and truly past.
As if the send-off weren’t sad enough, the tragic saga continues: “When the water in the skin was gone, she [Hagar] put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.”
I find it fascinating that we attribute actions to God that, if they were engaged in by any human, would call down the strongest of denunciations. Yet we commend God for them. If, for example, any humans had caused another to suffer as Hagar was suffering there in the desert, we would find their role despicable. But we never even blink when suggesting that God told Abraham to take steps that were going to bring such pain to another human. Why?
Why do we have such relatively high standards for human behavior and such relatively low standards for divine behavior? And why do we drop our relatively high standards for human behavior whenever the Bible suggests that “God told” humans to behave badly?
Fortunately, in the Hagar-and-Ishmael story, God comes to the poor woman’s rescue. He not only provides water but likewise gives her much-needed encouragement: Her son will also become the father of a great nation. But why did Hagar have to go through such horrendous emotional trauma? Why didn’t Abraham take steps to spare her that pain?
Could it be that it was because Abraham too willingly attributed his own thoughts to God? Could it be that if Abraham had removed the “God told me” phrase from his vocabulary, he would have been forced to ponder more deeply and more critically the thoughts that were running through his mind? Could it be that he would have behaved in a more moral, more ethical, more loving manner if he knew that he personally had to accept responsibility for his actions and couldn’t hang the blame on God?
And could it be that we today need to face up to that same reality?

James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Longwood, Florida.

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