In Genesis 16 Sarai (Sara) has a deep maternal desire to build a family. And this is not only a maternal instinct. Sara’s desire to build a family has a lot to do with her self-worth, her value, her status, her position in the tribe. Back in those days of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac & Jacob around 2,000BC) the worth or value of the wife of the head of the family was based on her ability to “build” or produce a family. To be more precise, it was about her ability to produce a son – an heir to the family business. This was how she understood her value in her own eyes… and in society’s eyes… and in the eyes of her husband.
In Sara’s case, a lot was riding on becoming a mother and bearing a son because of The Promise the Lord had given to Abraham in Genesis 12: that Abraham would be the father of many nations and all peoples on earth would be blessed through him. By this time, well in her 80’s, Sara knew there was no baby boy in her future! She’s emotionally distressed, barren & childless. It’s her misfortune. She can’t establish her rightful place as matriarch of the family. She’s just not doing her job. So it’s no surprise that she feels like a failure as a woman, as a wife, and as matriarch of the family.
By the way, how many of you have ever felt like a failure – that feeling that you’ve failed to do what everyone expects you to do? I know that feeling. Every pastor knows that feeling of failure. People have all kinds of expectations for how a pastor should be that no pastor can possibly live up to. My wife’s family expected her to be a doctor or lawyer, so she felt like a failure because she really wanted to be a teacher. So the family dissuaded her from that at the time. It’s one thing to feel like a failure to live up to the expectations people place on you, but it’s entirely different to fail to live up to what God desires. Sara was not failing God because of her inability to have a son. Where Sara failed God was when she took matters into her own hands (because of unbelief). She gave her handmaid, Hagar, to sleep with Abraham.
How do you cope when the very thing you’ve set your heart on – the very thing that you feel defines who you are – that thing is denied to you or taken away from you? Sara felt shame because of her failure to produce a family. Women throughout all generations have felt this tug, this desire for motherhood, and when that maternal need is frustrated and not met, that can produce an inconsolable amount of grief and loss. Maybe you’ve experienced that yourself or know of another woman who has. When we feel powerless, we are more prone to make bad decisions and poor choices. We want something to change… something to happen… we want to help things along… we want to control the outcome. Problem is, when it comes to God’s work in the world, we’re all powerless. Because God’s work is done by the Spirit of God working through us. Only God can do God’s work.