May 17, 2018

The God Who Sees

Gary Thomas — 

After having escaped cruel and harsh punishment, pregnant without any support from the father of her child, Hagar felt helpless and alone. She didn’t have a single earthly friend. Grown up enslaved, she had been owned, ordered about, abused and forced to have sex with a man she didn’t love in order to bear a child for a woman who had contempt for her.

This is about as low as life gets. It might seem a bit strong to call what happened to Hagar “rape,” except for the fact that she had no possibility of refusing her master’s and mistress’s orders.

If you’ve been owned, raped, beaten and abandoned, it’s not surprising that you would come out of that experience not just thinking that the world isn’t fair, but that God isn’t fair. At the very least, you might think he is blind or unfeeling.

So it’s touching and moving and profound when God visits Hagar, assures her of His own protection and blessing, and this simple woman responds by naming God “El-Roi,” the God who sees (Genesis 16:13).

Just knowing that God saw her gave Hagar the strength to return to her abusive mistress. “God sees me,” she surely said to herself, “So even when I am not treated fairly, I’m not alone.” God essentially told Hagar that while people plotted to make her miserable, He had plans to bless her beyond all belief. She felt powerless and forgotten, but God promised her she would be remembered and the powerful ancestor of a people so numerous “they cannot be counted” (Gen. 16:10).

In the same way, God may not remove all our difficulties. He may ask us to persevere in a deplorable situation or marriage without promising that the evil people in our lives will suddenly change (I’m not suggesting physically or sexually abused women are called by God to stay in their homes—Hagar’s was a different time and a particular situation. When women can get away from evil and toxic treatment, they should get away). His only promise may be, “I see what’s going on and I have chosen to bless you in the midst of their cursing.”

Will we accept God’s promise of blessing even when it must come wrapped with the hatred and mistreatment of others?

William Gurnall, the seventeenth century Anglican clergyman who wrote the classic, The Christian in Complete Armor, helps bearing the cross sound a little more realistic when he urges believers not to look at the cross but to look at Jesus who bids us to bear the cross. The beauty of Jesus overwhelms the ugliness of the cross.

In fact, Gurnall surprisingly gets a little earthier than that. When God bids us to pick up the cross, we should have the same attitude as a lover taking us by the hand saying, “Come with me.” Our love for God should be so strong that we would rather follow Him into a painful situation than live in comfort without Him.

If it is necessary for us to persevere in a situation in which others disrespect us, take us for granted or just plain ignore us, looking on Jesus is our best form of self-defense. If I think, “How can they treat me that way?” I’ll start to hate them. If I think, “Why am I putting up with this?” I may start to hate myself. If I look to El-Roi, the God who sees, I’m able to either endure the mistreatment with a holy spirit or grow the courage to confront and leave it. Either way, it’ll be because I’m responding to the God who sees instead of reacting to the person who hates.

Perhaps more than in any age in history, today’s church is plagued with “fair weather followers,” utterly devoid of any notion of even looking at, much less carrying the cross. Yet Jesus made it as clear as possible when he said there is no Christianity without the cross: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

In spite of this clear instruction, modern believers frequently assume that they have a “special contract” with God obligating him to remove all opposition and hurt, based in part on the verse I hear misquoted and misapplied more than perhaps any other verse except for “Judge not lest you be not judged”: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11).

Is the removal of all opposition and hurt a realistic request this side of eternity?

I said in a sermon once, “I wish I could stop everyone from being mean to you, but I can’t. But I can point you to the God who chooses you when others reject you, who loves you dearly when others mistreat you (c.f. Col. 3:12), and the God who sees you when others ignore you.”

God’s blessings are so rich, personal obedience is so powerful a force in the Christian’s life, the joy of fellowship with God is so real and animating, that just knowing God chooses us, sees us and loves us dearly is all we need to keep moving forward.

Can you survive in a lonely marriage? Can you keep parenting a rebellious child? Can you find joy with an apathetic spouse? Is there freedom when your vocational situation feels oppressive? The answer is “yes” if you know God chose you, sees you and rewards those who remain faithful, and if you draw your worth and fulfillment from the fact that God has called you to do this rather than someone else is forcing you to do this.

Keep looking at Jesus, not at the cross.

The key to living in a world with toxic people is relating to worshipping, and spending time throughout the day finding your refuge in El-Roi, the God who sees.

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32 responses to The God Who Sees

  1. I personally find it helpful to think of the others pain instead of my own, and the pain I might be inflicting on someone else, and I heard profound wisdom once that is life changing; “Lord, change me!”

  2. Thank you, Gary, for sharing that description of a small, yet powerful, section of scripture. I believe that even today God still sees all of what birthed out of Hagar and will hear them as they yield to turn themselves to Him through Jesus Christ. I know He is moving in all nations and wants to see them brought back to Him. For those who have felt the pain of Hagar and/or the rejection of Ishmael, I believe God offers answers to lead them to higher ground as He does with all. What you shared is powerful.

  3. Such a timely post, for me, but I assume many others! I literally wold up this morning with thoughts of how to continue in my current circumstances. In a very difficult marriage, no mutual relationship with Christ, little affection, 4 young kids one in a wheel chair, husband literally works constantly. I have done this for years and my faith has grown immensely, I would love to see our marriage more intimate, and seek my heart and actions in the mean time, but I wouldn’t change it, I love how it’s grown me. And I love the mornings that I wake feekibg lost and alone and see an e-mail reminder about how God sees me! But it can be so hard at times. I read inanotheg comment you recommmendec counseling. I stay at home with my young kids and do not bring in any income to our home. The counselor we saw in the past is very very expensive and I believe it would cause more of a division of I saw him and spent that kind of money on counseling. Do you have any suggestions on how to get good solid Christ focused counsleling without causing more of a problem in my marriage? We are also not attending a church, another story, and an even longer one, so don’t have a pastor or someone similar either. Thanks for the great reminder today!

  4. Thank you sir. This is what my Pastor has been talking about. Here on earth we face troubles, but that does not mean that God does not see us or has abandoned us but the issue is that we are focused on the cross and not the Lord . I always look forward to reading your mails. Thank You.

  5. Such confirmation for the journey I’m on. I will pass this on to a friend in similar situation. Excellent post ! Thank you!

  6. Here’s the link you asked me to post, Gary:

    Thank you for willingly gifting yourself to the body of Christ. Your ministry has profoundly touched my life over the last couple of years.

  7. I assume Jer. 29:11 is misinterpreted when God is REQUIRED to ‘prosper’ ALL financially, professionally, emotionally, physically, etc–in tangible ways humans recognize. Instead, God in His wise Providence, ‘prospers’ His CHILDREN in the ways HE sees fit and which may not be recognizable.

  8. Hi Gary,
    I also ask how is Jeremiah 29:11 misquoted? It is my wife’s most favorite verse, and one of my favorites. What is the true meaning of this verse? With that said, this lesson is a great reminder that God truly sees all, and that He loves and cares for each one one us, turning everything to good despite what may be going on in our lives, although we may not see the “good” at that time.

  9. Please forgive the lengthy post. I have lived in a marriage for twenty-five years that is full of empty promises and no empathy nor remorse. My husband has always been so selfish and does whatever he finds interesting, all the while ignoring any pleas to spend time with his daughter and me. He plays extreme mind games with both of us. I didn’t really recognize this until I was informed that I needed to be tested for an STD after he was diagnosed. I had absolutely no idea in my innocent,God fearing, start eyes mind! Thankfully the STD was one that was easy to treat. However, my heart not so much.

    That sitauation was eleven years ago. Many other things have occurred. All with promises to change and counseling. The change only lasts for two months at the most, and I look like a fool to friends and family for believing him again.

    What no one realizes is the fact that there is so much gaslighting, stonewalling, deflecting, evading, and flat out lies (even with proof in hand). This has caused me to question my sanity so many times. I’ve been told by so many preachers, counselors, marriage therapists and the like to pray harder, make myself more approachable, more available, etc.

    I don’t want to be a victim. I want to be a victor!! For the pst two months I’ve been in the spare bedroom. He is trying to act like everything is perfectly fine. He will try to talk to me about the weather or a tv show, but nothing about what is wrong or what to do. There is absolutely no remorse, and no desire for any resolution. I know he’s continuing to look at pornography. Im diligently seeking God, but I’m having a tough time hearing.

    • Rhonda, I’m so sorry. Feeling like you’re going crazy is often one of the clearest signs you’re dealing with a toxic person. You need to find a counselor who understands that, respects that, and can help you cart a new path forward

    • Oh, Rhonda. I am 4 years free of an abusive 17 year marriage. What you describe is all too familiar. I too pray you’ll find a godly counselor who will help you.

      I did not get the help I needed until I went to a Christian counselor outside of my church. If you are dealing with cluster B personalities, finding a professional Christian counselor is a must. The lay counselors in our church only made things worse. ( “You’re not allowed to get the mail? That’s ok! This is a great chance to submit and love your husband!” That was actually said to me in joint marriage counseling. No one ever even asked my ex-husband why I wasn’t allowed to get the mail!)

      Gary’s book Sacred Influence was helpful to me, along with pretty much all of Leslie Vernicks books.

  10. What a powerful blog! Thanks for sharing and connecting what happened to Hagar and God’s response to her. You spun up my mind on a few fronts. One is the blame game. All started with Adam and Eve. Not accepting responsibility for my sin and blaming others and even ultimately God. Next is I know in my heart God owes me nothing, but in our materialistic society it is easy to fall into a trap of expectations of God. The only good things will happen if I am faithful to you God, right? We live in a broken world and bad things, tragic things happen to God’s chosen, yet God sees and God uses these events to grow and bless us!!

  11. This echoed my own experience exactly! Thank you for writing it. It encouraged me to keep looking at the Lord and finding my joy in Him despite my circumstances. Your writing blessed me so much, your insight and compassion has helped me continue on.

  12. This is a great lesson for changing distorted thinking patterns. God sees and has a plan of Love that will not end even though the pain and disappointment may seem will never end. HE IS FAITHFUL TO COMPLETE LIFE!

  13. Hi, Gary

    How is Jeremiah 29:11 misquoted and how should it be used?

    • Susan, for starters the “you” is plural, given to a nation in exile. False prophets were telling the Israelites that everything would soon be okay and Jeremiah is challenging that somewhat. He’s promising that they will prosper, as a nation, but it’s going to be 70 years before God brings them back.

      Using this verse individually as a personal promise that God will make everything better soon (as it’s often used) is a huge leap. The real application is the awareness that God may allow us to endure a very uncomfortable exile for a long period of time in order to accomplish his purposes, but in the end, he will build and prosper his church

      • Gary, your explanation of how this verse is misused is so interesting, and I appreciate the clarification. I would find it fascinating if you could do a blog post sometime to elaborate on how this and other verses are misused by modern Christians, particularly with regards to marriage.

      • Daralyn Schafers May 21, 2018 at 7:02 pm

        I agree with Edith below, that would be awesome.

      • The Baby Mama May 22, 2018 at 1:14 am

        Hi, Gary

        I want to learn and grow and understand more of the word of God and how it applies. So, in that quest may I offer my opinion – I believe that all of Scripture is applied both to the collective, i.e. to the church, AND to the individual. God’s promises apply both to the collective and to me, as God’s daughter. Therefore, I do believe that Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse that can be quoted and applied to the individual and to whatever circumstance they are living through. However, this does not mean that we will see that prosperity now, or even in this lifetime.

        But, God will protect us, keep us from harm and He most certainly does know what His plans are for us – both as a collective and as an individual. And very often its the individual plans of each that move the collective forward. I don’t know how God does it, but He does. But, then, I don’t need to know, do I?

        When I read your response above, my immediate thought was to the Christians in Africa who have lived through terrible genocide (e.g. Rwanda, Sudan, etc.) God most certainly – for whatever His reasons are – did not provide physical protection for them. But, have you ever spoken to them about their faith? While I have not personally done so, I have seen documentaries on these displaced peoples of Africa and they have the most wonderful faith in God. A faith I think our Western Culture can learn from and learn how to emulate.

        So, how does Jeremiah 29:11 apply to them? I’m not entirely sure – but I do know this: they will see God honouring their faith in Him in mighty ways where they will live under His protection, His prosperity and His plans. But, this may only come to fruition in the next life time. And isn’t that what Hebrews 11:13 says – that they did not receive what was promised by they were commended by their faith?

        “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”

        And yet isn’t Jeremiah 29:11 applied to them (the fathers of our faith referred to in the passage of Hebrews 11) as well? I am asking because I genuinely want to know – I think the answer will tell us a lot about the character of God and who He is.

        Thank you!

  14. Wonderful! This is so helpful.

  15. Beautifully said. Thanks, Gary for helping us look past the ugly to Him who is altogether lovely.

  16. Randell Morrison May 17, 2018 at 5:41 am

    Profound exegeses~~~opened new perspectives of that passage. Bless you!!