I have a soft spot in my heart for individuals who grew up in muddled and chaotic environments. Not just because it was my starting place, but I genuinely empathize mainly because those who have grown up in such environments often come into the world with a deficit of tools and skills needed to help them thrive in our societies. Unless someone steps in and give them what they need to help rise above adverse circumstances and future pitfalls, they eventually learn later in life through their own struggles and consequences of their actions, from what some may refer to as, the “hard knocks” of life. Studies reveal that children who grow up in abusive, neglectful or otherwise, unstable and chaotic homes are more likely to experience various developmental delays, emotional instability such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicide attempts- along with engaging in risky behaviors (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016; Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, Hamby, 2015; Danese, Moffitt, Harrington, Milne, Polanczyk, Pariante, et al, 2009). I want to stress that although this is not the “end all be all” for every person who is born into the world with deficits, I am saying that these are typical barriers for children who do live in such environments. Nonetheless, such obstacles can be overcome if we choose to turn to God!
Let’s Look at Ishmael’s Life.
Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Sarah’s slave, Hagar, was born into a messy love triangle where his mother lived in contempt of her master after becoming pregnant with him. Ishmael was conceived out of an agreement between Abraham and Sarah that consisted of Abraham taking Sarah’s slave-girl, Hagar, as a wife to have a baby, which resulted in the conception of Ishmael (Gen. 16:4 CLASB). You would think that this would have made Sarah happy seeing as though this was her idea. Instead, Sarah grew distressed because Hagar’s attitude towards her changed when she found out she was pregnant. This same passage insinuates that Hagar grew haughty from her ability to conceive a child for Abraham and often forgot that her pregnancy was an arrangement, therefore, she was still under the authority of Sarah. Because Sarah grew weary of Hagar’s disrespectful and flagrant behavior, in return she used her authority to abuse Hagar. As a result, Hagar ran away. Although God found Hagar and told her to return and submit to Sarah’s authority, she returned home with the same attitude towards Sarah which allowed chaos to remain in Abraham’s household. Can you imagine being born into such mayhem? Although Ishmael was an only child for a while, I picture him having to grow up watching his mother cry bitter tears of resentment towards his father for being his mistress and his wife’s slave- while coveting Sarah’s authority of being a wife. I also picture him having to grow up, watching his father, Abraham, being torn between two women and being shown affection by Abraham, to the extent Sarah would allow. Ishmael grew up in a chaotic and emotionally unstable home. Unfortunately, as the text continues, we see that Ishmael becomes a product of his mother’s animosity towards Sarah.
By the time Ishmael was thirteen years old, he was sharing his home with his half-brother Isaac, who was finally conceived by Sarah. However, Isaac chose to follow in his mother’s footsteps of bitterness and resentment by taunting his little brother during a celebration. Sarah saw Ishmael and Hagar taunting Isaac. Sarah was used to Hagar’s spiteful gestures but when she saw Ishmael joining, she demanded them both to leave her home (Gen. 21:8-11 CLASB). Abraham reluctantly, yet agreed for Ishmael to leave his home where he wondered (and eventually settled), in the wilderness “aimlessly” with his mother (vs. 14). Instead of Ishmael, learning to trust in the God of his father, to direct his path and make sense of his life outside of his mother’s baggage, his behavior lead him to a place that was uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable- the wilderness.
Although it was not God’s will, He foreknew that Ishmael was going to be born into this world having to deal with the rejection of his father and the emotional instability of his mother and as a result, he would have issues with anger and violence while living in public hostility against his family members (Gen. 16:11-12 CLASB). However, Ishmael eventually settled in the wilderness, not because he was born into a family of turmoil, but because he chose to conform to his mother’s lifestyle of contempt.
Wondered, Grew Up, but Don’t settle!
I want to point some things out in this story that is vital for us all to take heed to: Being that Ishmael was only thirteen when he was forced out of his father’s house with his mother, we can conclude that he didn’t know any better. I believe he taunted his brother because he was only practicing learned behavior by his mother- It was personal for his mother but Ishmael didn’t know anything different. However, when he saw his father, the man from whence he came, pack his bag and sent him away with no certainty- life at that moment had just gotten personal for Ishmael! I can imagine Ishmael frantically pleading with his father, ‘How can you choose between me and my brother? My mother and I were just joking!… I’m your first-born child… Do you not love me like you love Isaac?… Please give me answers father!… Why am I leaving?… I am still young and my mother can’t teach me how to be a man… please don’t leave me impoverished… I love you father… do you not love us enough to give us another chance?’– with no response.
Often, we grow up not having the answers to why we were treated unfairly by those we love, why we were abused or abandoned, negatively labeled and the like- as a result, we often resent how we came into this world and find ourselves wondering aimlessly through life, trying to find someone or something to “fix” us. Yet God promises to give us beauty for our sorrows and he will cause us to overlook the shame and dishonor that is attached to our childhood and bless us when we look to him (Isa. 54:4; 61:3). When we don’t learn how to trust God to heal our past and direct our future, we may find ourselves not only wondering in the wilderness but growing up and settling there.