God’s Heart for Those Hurt by the Church

The story of Hagar in Genesis 16 is a tragic recounting of a woman taken advantage of by God’s people. Abraham, so often treated as an exemplar of faith in the New Testament, together with his wife, Sarah, mistreat Hagar through their lack of trust in God’s promise. Impatient with God’s timing, Sarah offers up Hagar to Abraham as a kind of surrogate mother. The act not only conceives a child but also creates tension between Sarah and Hagar (Gen. 16:4). As the story unfolds, Sarah begins to treat her maidservant harshly (v. 6).

The word used in verse 6 to describe Sarah’s treatment of Hagar is quite strong. In Genesis 15:13 it was used to describe Israel’s future affliction in Egypt. There’s a strange role reversal in the text. Long before the Hebrews are afflicted by the Egyptians, Hagar (who happens to be from Egypt) is afflicted by this Hebrew couple.

Hagar is an example of someone used and abused by the church, and there are many Hagars around us today. Pollsters tell us that the increasing number of “de-churched” people—those who used to attend religious services but no longer do—point to negative experiences in the church for why they’ve left.[1] How does God feel about them? How does he feel about you, if you’ve been hurt by the church, and have fled into the wilderness like Hagar did?

Jesus Pursues You

In Genesis 16:7 we read that as Hagar was on the run, “The Angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.” This is the first explicit mention of the “Angel of the LORD” in the book of Genesis. Many biblical scholars believe that the angel of the LORD is none other than a preincarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God (compare v.10 to Gen. 12.2; & v.13).[2]

Meditate on that. The first explicit appearance of the Angel of the LORD isn’t to Abraham, it’s to Hagar. This Egyptian woman, afflicted by the people of God, is pursued by God. Isn’t this so very much like Jesus? Jesus is the savior who leaves the 99 to go searching for the one sheep that has wandered away (Luke 15). You may feel spiritually lost after a bad experience in church, but Jesus doesn’t stop pursuing you.

Jesus Knows You

When the Angel of the LORD meets Hagar in verse 8, he calls her by her name, “Hagar.” This doesn’t seem too special, until you realize that up until this point Abraham and Sarah have only referred to her as the servant.

The first job I ever had was doing yard work for a neighbor. Each day after school I’d go to his house and rake leaves or trim trees. It was a fine first job, but my neighbor never quite knew my name. When I told him my name was Adriel, he heard “Pedro.” For an entire year he called me Pedro, and while I tried to correct him during the first few weeks, he was hard of hearing and my name never really registered. It was pretty clear that he wasn’t interested in me personally, but only in the job I did.

Abraham and Sarah are only interested in the job Hagar can do, as though she were an object to be used. They’re impersonal and harsh toward her. But when the Angel of the LORD greets her, he says, “Hagar….” In their commentary on Genesis, Bruce Waltke and Cathi Fredricks say, “This is the only known instance in Ancient Near Eastern literature where the deity addresses a woman by name.”[3]

God’s people let us down sometimes. They can treat us impersonally. But Jesus never does. He knows your name!

Jesus Hears You

In verse 11 the Angel of the LORD tells Hagar, “Behold you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction.”

Perhaps you remember USA Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, who assaulted over 150 young girls and women. The pain of this horrific news was aggravated by the fact that he should have been stopped much earlier. The structures over Nassar ignored years of warning signs and claims of abuse, leaving a wake of destruction. One of his first accusers, Rachel Denhollander, said, “No one believed because no one listened.”[4] Too often the cries of the afflicted get swept away in society and in the church.

It seemed as if Hagar’s cries were going to be swept away too. Abraham and Sarah didn’t seem interested. Abraham didn’t go searching for Hagar, and Sarah was probably glad to see her go. While they failed to listen, God didn’t. He heard her cries, and he hears your cries. The Psalms say, “He does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Gen. 9:12); and “O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted, you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that the man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.” (Ps. 10:17-18)

Jesus hears you even when others shut their ears, and he will bring about justice for you.

Jesus Sees You

“So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.’” (Gen. 16:13) Hagar feels cared for, looked after even. Christ has pursued her and extended his promise to her. He blesses the very one Sarah had afflicted.

Jesus doesn’t just see the afflicted like a spectator. He isn’t rubbernecking at our suffering, standing aloof. He sees you as one who can truly sympathize with those who have been hurt by God’s people. The Angel of the LORD who came to Hagar would one day clothe himself in human flesh and experience affliction at the hands of “God’s people” (Heb. 2:17-18). Those mistreated and afflicted by the church have an advocate in Jesus because he knows exactly what it’s like. Jesus was silenced, lied about, mocked, stripped down. There were cover ups and backroom conversations about him. He suffered at the hands of the children of Abraham, the Jewish priesthood and religious authority of the day. Those who have fled can find a friend in Jesus because he can relate to them better than anyone else. And he didn’t just suffer to relate to us—he suffered to redeem us! In Christ we find a protector, and a deliverer. A sympathizer, and a savior!

There was no excuse for Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, and there’s no excuse for the affliction people sometimes experience in the church today. Like Jesus, churches today need to pursue, know, listen to, and see the victims of abuse around us. May Jesus gather them back to himself, and into faithful churches. 


[1] See https://www.barna.com/research/millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain/

[2] For an in-depth study on the Angel of the LORD that supports this conclusion, see: The Angel of the LORD by Matt Foreman & David Van Dorn.

[3] Waltke and Fredricks Genesis pg. 254

[4] https://apnews.com/article/64d3fa5c8a0a4fb585a8a82e6033a16b

Photo of Adriel Sanchez

Adriel Sanchez

Adriel Sanchez is pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he also serves the broader church as a host on the Core Christianity radio program, a live, daily call-in talk show where he answers listeners' questions about the Bible and the Christian faith. He and his wife Ysabel live in San Diego with their four children.

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