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Published Date: December 5, 2005

Published Date: December 5, 2005

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Harriet, a Modern-Day Hagar

Harriet had conscientiously served the ministry’s leaders, Rev. and Mrs. Smith, for twenty-five years. The Smiths were a godly couple, and their work for the Kingdom had flourished over the years. Theirs was a model of a faithful marriage, and they were seen as blessed by God.

Working for the Smiths had not always been easy, but Harriet was deeply committed to the ministry. She had left once, but God made it clear that she was to return. God promised her that he understood, and that he would allow her to birth a project of her own that would be of value to the Kingdom.

Not flashy or world-renowned, Harriet’s network of care to women in ministry offered both financial and spiritual support to isolated women around the world. Rev. Smith gave his blessing to her work, as long as it didn’t interfere with her job as his wife’s administrative assistant. Harriet found great joy in the hours she spent weaving her web of connection among these amazing women.

Somehow, the local religion editor heard about Harriet’s ministry, and she did a sensitive feature for the Sunday paper about the ways Harriet’s work had impacted women. Harriet read the article with a hesitant pride, realizing how God had used her to bless others, just as he promised. She was so grateful that her small idea had reached so many, enriching her life as well.

When Rev. and Mrs. Smith asked to see her Monday morning, Harriet entered the office basking in the reporter’s glowing words. Indeed, her ministry-child was flourishing, even if it paled in comparison to what God was doing in the Smiths’ international ministry.

She was blind-sided by the attack. “How could you draw attention to yourself like that? You are a traitor to our ministry. You’ve compromised what we’ve worked so hard for. We’ll ship your personal items to your apartment this afternoon. Go — now.”

Mrs. Smith did the talking, while Rev. Smith sat stone-faced at her side. Harriet turned to him to save her. “You knew I was involved in this — you were the one who gave me the courage and inspiration to begin in the first place.” Sheepishly, he turned to Harriet and said, “I’m sorry — it just has to be this way. We will give you two weeks salary, but you must leave.”

Paralyzed by Pain

Betrayal. The slang says it all: Harriet had been stabbed in the back, sold down the river because of someone else’s envy. Harriet’s story is more common than we’d like to admit. (See Hagar’s story in Genesis 21 for an ancient version of Harriet’s tale.) It takes many forms: A trusted assistant begins a new church in the next town, and takes half the congregation with her. The denomination announces the pastor’s next assignment, and everybody knows that it’s payback for standing up to the bishop. A pastor’s wife sacrifices for many years for her husband’s ministry, and then is abandoned for a woman who understands his needs better (and who is ten years younger).

The pain from such a betrayal stings like a slap in the face. And it was supposedly done in the name of God. At first, you can’t believe that it has happened, and you know that God will surely have to step in and right the wrong that has been done in his name. Yet nothing happens. The betrayer gets away with the Judas kiss. You vacillate between an anger that seethes from your bones over the injustice that has been done, and an ache so raw that it can’t stand to be touched.

Failing to Forgive

If you’ve been wronged like this, it helps to read the Psalms and realize that David experienced similar emotions.

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?
(Psalm 43:1–2, NRSV)

You keep reading: “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me, let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling” (43:3). — Yes, God, this is what I want — your light and truth — bring me to a holy response to what has been done to me. — And then you turn to the pages of the gospels in your morning reading, and the words of Jesus leap off the page:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ — Yes, that’s the way it should be — she deserves to suffer just as I have. — But I say to you, Do not resist an evil-doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek…

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (Matt. 5:38–39, 43–45)

Then Peter came and said to him [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:21–22)

I can’t. I cannot do this. I cannot forgive this betrayal. And that is true. You can’t forgive this. Not yet. Not fully. Not on your own. But if we are to be serious about the instruction of Scripture, we must move in the direction of forgiveness. For forgiveness is much more a process than one specific action.

Finding the Path to Forgiveness

We stand at the place of the offense and we have a choice. We can move in the direction of mercy, or we can move in the direction of bitterness. Each step we take away from the place of offense leads us in one direction or the other. We can choose the way of Christ, or not.

But his love is greater than all our hate, and he will not rest until Judas has turned to him, until Satan has turned to him, until the dark has turned to him; until we can all, all of us, without exception, freely return his look of love with love in our own eyes and hearts. And then, healed, whole, complete but not finished, we will know the joy of being co-creators with the one to whom we call. (Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, pg. 215)

But how? Much has been written about forgiveness in recent years. In his book, Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving, Everett Worthington Jr. teaches that we can climb the pyramid of forgiveness by recalling the hurt, empathizing, offering the altruistic gift of forgiveness, committing to forgive, and holding on to forgiveness.

Paul Coleman describes five phases of forgiveness: identifying the hurt, confronting the hurt, having the dialogue to understand, forgiving, and letting go. According to Coleman, “Forgiveness comes first as a decision to act lovingly, even though you are justified to withhold your love” (Exploring Forgiveness, ed. Enright and Frost, pg. 79). We must choose to move toward forgiveness, often on an hour-by-hour basis, and these models can help us determine the next step.

Hope for Hagar

But there remains a sense in these deep, deep areas of betrayal that forgiveness is beyond our power. Jesus experienced this from the cross. He didn’t say, “I forgive you for betraying me and for killing me.” No, even Christ had to draw upon the forgiveness of the Father; “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

In our absolute hopelessness of ever being able to forgive, we can learn from Hagar’s response, for she too found herself without hope (Gen. 21:15–19). It’s doubtful that she is thinking about forgiving Abraham and Sarah as she sits waiting for her son to die. She is desperate simply to survive.

In her desperation, she comes to the realization that she can do absolutely nothing to change the situation. She has no food, no water, and her son will die (as will she). Yet in the midst of her extreme helplessness, waiting for the death of her child (a direct result of the betrayal she has suffered), God shows up.

He hears. The narrative doesn’t indicate that Hagar called the Lord; in fact, the angel of God tells her, “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” It is as though God has heard the pain that resulted from the betrayal, and he responds to it.

God then opened Hagar’s eyes. It is amazing how much an act of betrayal can blind us to what we know about God and his kingdom. When we are in the midst of it, we just cannot see. And so God must come and open our eyes to the path he has for us through the desert of betrayal. And when he opened Hagar’s eyes, she realized that he had provided the water she needed.

This is my Father’s world,
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
(Maltbie Davenport Babcock)

Keep Drinking from the Cup

Yet it is still up to Hagar to move. She must get up, lift up the boy, and drink. And so it is for the Harriets of the church world. Grieve this loss. Name it for what it is. Do what you must do to keep this from happening to another. But don’t stop there. Get up, lift up what you have birthed, and drink.

At first, it will be a cup of sustenance, but in time, it will also be the cup of forgiveness through the precious blood of Jesus. If you faithfully drink of the cup, a time will come when you will have forgiven. Coleman describes the experience like this: “When you forgive, you do not forget the season of cold completely, but neither do you shiver in its memory” (Exploring Forgiveness, ed. Enright and Frost, pg. 79).

You are my servant. I have chosen you and not cast you off; 
do not fear, for I am with you do not be afraid, for I am your God
I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
(Isa. 41:9–10)