Recently I posted about the goodness of God – how knowing He is good can help us to rediscover the true joy of Christmas. But it can be hard to find faith in this: when we see those around us suffer, when we feel our prayers have not been answered, when we feel forgotten as we look at others who seem to have blessing upon blessing while we stand at the sidelines. These kinds of circumstances can profoundly affect what we believe about God without us even realising.
There are a few stories that help me with this, though:
*The first, a story about a girl called Hagar. The people in her life – people of God, sadly – treated her pretty terribly. It all started when Sarai and Abram, desperate for a child of their own, and striving to make God’s promise of descendants a reality, decided to make Hagar, their slave, a surrogate. Abram slept with her, and when she fell pregnant, the friction between her and her mistress became unbearable for both of them. Abram told Sarai she could do what she wanted with Hagar, and her ill-treatment led Hagar to flee. She must have felt pretty alone, a young pregnant girl in an empty, lifeless desert – but God spoke to her there, encouraging her that he would look after her future child. ‘You are the God who sees me‘, she said, and these words have stuck with me since I first read them. Hagar must have felt like no one cared what happened to her – she must have concluded that God was turning a blind eye to Abram and Sarai’s cruelty. But He was not, and she now realised this. He saw her. He cared. When I’m tempted to feel like God has not noticed my sadness, I repeat her words in my heart and feel comforted. Later, Hagar would find herself in a similar predicament, again in the desert, without water, when she thought she and her son would die, but an angel told her ‘God has heard the boy crying…’ He sees and hears us in our hardship, and He wants to speak to us and encourage us.
*The second, the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were another couple who thought they would never be able to have children. They, too, were getting old when God finally delivered on the thing they most longed for. Zechariah was also visited by an angel, and one of the first things the angel said was ‘your prayer has been heard.’ Elizabeth miraculously became pregnant with John the Baptist, who would impact many lives and prepare the way for Jesus. The story goes that when the pregnant Mary came to stay, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy at the presence of the unborn Christ. Elizabeth and Zechariah may have wondered why God had appeared to ignore their prayers, why others all around them fell pregnant while their home was left empty of children. They could easily have assumed God just didn’t love them, or that he wasn’t good after all. But in the end they were blessed with a very special child, one who would prepare the way for God’s Son and be remembered forever. Sometimes we don’t understand why God appears to leave our prayers unanswered or allows us to go through heartache or pain, but He could be working out a plan we would never have thought of or teaching us something we would never have learnt. Even if we never understand the suffering we go through, we can trust that God remains good and that his love for us is real.
It does sometimes take real trust to believe that God is good when we feel like there isn’t much evidence of it, but stories like these can encourage us that God is working for good even in the difficult times in our lives. Christmas is a time when we get to remember many stories which reveal this. After all, the Jewish people had waited centuries for the Promised One who would draw them close to God, and they must have wondered if he had forgotten about it. But Mary’s words in her pregnancy perfectly encapsulate the joy that comes from knowing that God is there, bringing good to a troubled world, never forgetting us in our pain:
‘My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me –
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’