The God Who Sees

One of my favorite Bible stories is about Hagar and Ishmael. It feels strange to say that it is a “favorite” story, because it really quite troubling. Most stories in the Bible are. Hagar was the servant of Abram and Sarai (before they were renamed Abraham and Sarah). When it looked like they were not going to be able to have children of their own, Sarai and Abram decided to take control and Sarai gave her servant, Hagar to Abram as his wife. When Hagar found that she had become pregnant, Genesis 16 says that she began to despise her mistress. I don’t know if this means that Hagar was angry with Sarai for using her or if it means that she taunted Sarai because she was able to conceive and her mistress wasn’t. Either way, we can agree that Hagar was objectified and used as a tool for Abram and Sarai. She was seen only for how she could be useful to her master and mistress, and had no value in their eyes beyond that. Because Hagar despised Sarai, Sarai complained to Abram about her. He responded that Hagar belonged to her, so she could treat her however she wanted. Sarai abused her so much that Hagar ran away. And here is why this is one of my favorite stories. When Hagar was in the desert, on her flight from Sarai, the angel of the Lord came to her. He asked her where she was going, and she responded that she was fleeing from her mistress. The angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her …I will make your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” After this encounter, Hagar said, “You are the God who sees me. I have now seen the God who sees me.”chagall_hagar-ishmael-in-the-desert

Now there’s a lot in this story that is hard to wrap my mind around. There are points when I question God. Why would he allow Hagar to be used in this way in the first place? And why, after she had been so mistreated, would God tell her to go back into slavery? Why not deliver her somehow and provide for her in a way that she wouldn’t have to go back? Later, after Hagar’s son Ishmael was older and Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah, Hagar was sent away again. Again God came to her and provided for her, and repeated His promise to make Ishmael into a great nation. So there is part of me that wonders why God didn’t just provide for her in the desert the first time. But what strikes me the most is that Hagar doesn’t seem to have these questions. She is, above all, encouraged by her encounters with God. She comes away feeling valued — she has been seen. Even though she was one of the least valued people in her community — a woman, a foreigner, a slave — God valued her. She was a person who was used to being seen only for what service she could provide for other people, and yet at her very lowest and least “useful” she was seen by God.

God sees the unseen. He hears the silenced. Jesus touched the untouchable. And we are called to imitate Him.

So here is the challenge for us as followers of the God Who Sees: Who is it that we are not seeing? Who are the Hagars in our lives? Who are the ones who are objectified? Who are the ones who are stripped down in your mind to the most narrow and objectionable versions of themselves? If you are a follower of Christ, your God sees them. He doesn’t see them as “what’s wrong with the world.” He doesn’t see them as disappointments or people who are somehow less-than. He doesn’t see them and then quickly look away because it is too hard to try to understand their pain. And He doesn’t just see the surface of who they are. He sees their struggles, their pain, their hopes. Yes, He sees the sin in all of our lives. But I truly believe that His response to sin is not anger and dismissiveness. I believe our God, the God who sees, responds to our wandering with compassion and grief at our distance from Him. He is ready to welcome us home with open arms. So we cannot be flippant about turning a blind eye to the parts of humanity that we don’t want to see.

There are some we refuse to see because we don’t know how we can help. There are some we refuse to see because we know what must be done and we don’t want to do it. And there are some we refuse to see because we don’t believe they are worthy to be seen.

If we are going to become people who see, we will have to do some rearranging in our hearts. In order to really see the unseen in our lives, we have to be willing to get rid of the idea that things are black and white. That people are bad or good. Even that a certain perspective is completely right or wrong. No, I’m not denying that there are moral absolutes. I am not saying that there’s no such thing as right or wrong. What I’m saying is that there may be people with whom we disagree, but who also have integrity in their motives. There may be people whose perspectives we don’t understand because their experience of life is so far removed from our own. And we are often really bad at empathy. It is hard to understand, for example, that there is systemic racism in this country if you are white and haven’t seen or experienced this for yourself. It is also hard to understand how people could be so chained by addiction that they neglect or abandon their own children, if this is not something you have personal experience with. It is especially hard to understand and see people who have hurt or threatened us or those we love. We like to call these people disgusting. We like to push them as far away from us as possible. And yes, it is terrible and tragic when anyone is abused or neglected. It is terrible and tragic when people respond to oppression and violence with more violence. But these people — the people we see as wrong, or disgusting, or despicable, or ignorant or hateful — are people who are made in the image of God. They are people that our God sees. The people we often want to push away are people our God longs to embrace. When we see things in black and white we miss all the beautiful and complicated greys and colors around us. It is easy and convenient to categorize people. It is painful and rich to see them.

Does this mean we do not work for justice and do what is needed to keep the innocent safe from those who would hurt or neglect them? No. But it does mean that we also work to realize the humanity in every person.

Once we begin to see the unseen, the next step is to take action — to do what we can to help and let them know their great value in the eyes of God. I am not trying to put unnecessary guilt on us (see previous blog). We cannot do everything. Each of us as individuals are only capable of so much, especially if we want to do it with passion and excellence and dedication. But I do believe that there is a specific call for each of God’s people to begin seeing those who are marginalized in our communities and cultures. If we begin to really seek out who it is that God would have us see, individually, we could show so many their value in Christ.

And there is another thing I want you to take to heart: you are seen. Not only does God see the poor, the oppressed, the addicted, the angry, etc., but He also sees you. He sees your secret pain. He sees the confusion and the questioning in your heart. He sees your grief when it feels like those around you have tired of it. He sees the ways in which you may have been dismissed or undervalued. He sees you and He hears you and He wants you to know.

Let us live knowing that we are valued and valuable. Let us live in a way that shows others that they are valued and valuable. And let us do the hard work of opening our eyes and reaching out our hands.

  • Charles Wolf

    Thank you for this relevant and “nicely blunt” perspective – as sacrificing Christians in a dying world, we do indeed need to see and care for those whom the world (or our own selfish biases) would have us shun out of hand.

    Please keep sharing Megan,

    Charles