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How to Handle Perceived Blessings

Hagar and Ishmael

Have you ever received a gift and found out much later that what you thought was a blessing ends up a curse? Have you ever been deceived by a bad thing masquerading as a good thing? Have you ever put all your eggs in the one basket with the broken handle?

Max Lucado, in his 1991 “In the Eye of the Storm” relates the following story:

Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before; such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength.

People offered fabulous prices for the steed, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “It is a person How could you sell a person? He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend?” The man was poor and the temptation was great. But he never sold the horse.

One morning he found that the horse was not in the stable. All the village came to see him. “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. We warned you that you would be robbed. You are so poor. How could you ever hope to protect such a valuable animal? It would have been better to have sold him. You could have gotten whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people contested, “Don’t make us out to be fools! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact is that your horse is gone is a curse.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy. They had always thought he was a fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse and lived off the money. But instead, he was a poor woodcutter, an old man still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty. Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool.

After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.”

The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of a phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?

“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word. All you have is a fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. No one knows. I am content with what I know. I am not perturbed by what I don’t.”

“Maybe the old man is right,” they said to one another. So they said little. But down deep, they knew he was wrong. They knew it was a blessing. Twelve wild horses had returned with one horse. With a little bit of work, the animals could be broken and trained and sold for much money.

The old man had a son, an only son. The young man began to break the wild horses. After a few days, he fell from one of the horses and broke both legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man and cast their judgments.

“You were right,” they said. “You proved you were right. The dozen horses were not a blessing. They were a curse. Your only son has broken his legs, and now in your old age you have no one to help you. Now you are poorer than ever.”

The old man spoke again. “You people are obsessed with judging. Don’t go so far. Say only that my son broke his legs. Who knows if it is a blessing or a curse? No one knows. We only have a fragment. Life comes in fragments.”

It so happened that a few weeks later the country engaged in war against a neighboring country. All the young men of the village were required to join the army. Only the son of the old man was excluded, because he was injured. Once again the people gathered around the old man, crying and screaming because their sons had been taken. There was little chance that they would return. The enemy was strong, and the war would be a losing struggle. They would never see their sons again.

“You were right, old man,” they wept. “God knows you were right. This proves it. Your son’s accident was a blessing. His legs may be broken, but at least he is with you. Our sons are gone forever.”

The old man spoke again. “It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this: Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”[1]

          Yes, only God knows. But I believe we can be far better prepared to find out if we keep the following points in mind. 1. Not all perceived blessings come from the same source. 2. A perceived blessing is no more than an opportunity. 3. How we respond to that opportunity, in the end, determines whether it will truly be a blessing or become a curse.

          Look with me this morning at a familiar story, but a story that has more importance under it than on the surface reading of it. Genesis 12:10-20 relates the story of Abram and Sarai on a vacation in Egypt. When their rest is over and they leave Egypt, they leave with more than what they came with and have no idea how their future decisions with these added possessions will impact their lives and shape the future of the Middle East even in our very day.

10Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 

11It came about when he came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; 

12and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. 

13″Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you.” 

14It came about when Abram came into Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 

15Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 

16Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels. 

17But the LORD struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 

18Then Pharaoh called Abram and said, ” What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 

19″Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and go.” 

20Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him.

          Verse 16 tells us the blessings that Pharaoh gave to Abram for Sarai’s sake, which included male and female servants and verse 20 says they escorted Abram away with his wife and all that belonged to him.

          Let us go to Genesis 16 and continue our story. Verses 1-6 tell us,

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar.

We can be fairly certain that this trip to Egypt was the occasion for Hagar to become a servant in Abram’s household. 

2So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 

3After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife.

4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight. 

5And Sarai said to Abram, ” May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me.” 
6But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence.

          Already we see there are problems. In Christian theology, the world, the flesh, and the devil are portrayed as the three enemies of our soul. Jesus was confronted with each of these as he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness directly after His baptism. And I believe we can see, in these first 6 verses of Genesis 16, how these same enemies of the soul, in the form of perceived blessings, manifested in the lives of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar.

          When we look at the types and shadows in the Bible, Egypt is most often associated with the world system. Abram is given gifts “for the sake of Sarai.” In other words, Pharaoh is paying off Abram for the pleasure of adding whom he thinks is Abram’s sister, to his harem. And Abram is fine with it because his lie worked and he wasn’t killed for Sarai’s sake. So, Hagar, as well as the other servants and animals come as blessings of the world.

          Next we’ll look at Sarai. Sarai wants a child as the means of an heir for Abram as well as to bring completeness to her sense of womanhood. But at this point the Lord has not opened her womb.

It was the custom of the time that, if the man’s wife was barren, another woman could have a child for the wife. In a desperate attempt to solve the problem of her barrenness, Sarai offered her handmaiden to Abram to conceive a child. This was in accordance with the written Code of Hammurabi in 1700 BC, the law of Mesopotamia at the time of Abram. The child would be delivered on the lap of the first wife so that the child would, symbolically, be hers.[2]

          This blessing to Abram, was a solution sourced of Sarai’s flesh. And Abram was fine with it. A younger woman as a second wife, most likely a virgin, and an opportunity for an heir to fulfill the promises the Lord had given him.

Now back to Hagar. Her flesh rises up now that she is carrying Abram’s child and she begins to treat Sarai with contempt. Sarai is understandably upset and asks God to judge between her actions and Abram’s. Abram is passive and puts the responsibility back on Sarai. Who is to blame here both for the unrest in the camp and Hagar’s fleeing to the desert?

 In these first 6 verses we see weakness of leadership in Abram which indicts him for this horrible situation. Abram is a man of the world. Even though at this point he had believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6), perhaps his head grew a size or two because of the promises he had believed. Perhaps the promises became more important to him than his relationship with the promise giver. This would be tested much later on Mt. Moriah. But in his current situation, I believe Abram fell under the influence of not only the world, but his flesh, and the devil in the following ways.

1. Abram was a passive husband not a loving leader. What a time this was for Abram to lead, stand firm on the basis of Genesis 15:4, but instead he passively followed the instructions of his wife. Abram did as he was told. He got the heir that Sarai wanted but not the heir that God had in mind. 2. What an opportunity for Abram to love his wife. He should have taken his wife in his arms and presented her before the Lord, asking Him to meet her needs and to help them both to understand what God had promised. Abram should have promised security and leadership when she was living with her heartache and sickness of spirit, but he did not. 3. Sarai cried out in her heartache to Abram. She laid her burden before him and made what seemed like an excellent suggestion under the circumstances. She made it to the right person, not just because he was her husband but because he was Abram, the man who spoke directly with God.[3]

          I believe Abram failed in his leadership in much the same way Adam had in the garden. Abram had opportunities to support his wife, to wait on God for further instruction, to discern what was happening on the home front. Yet, he took the easy way out. We will continue the story of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar in a later sermon, with the addition of Ishmael and Isaac to the cast of characters.  

We have thus far seen how the world, our flesh, and the devil can trip us up if we are not careful and mindful of the sources of blessings, the opportunities of blessings, and our responses to those opportunities. Even an authentic blessing of God can be compromised if we are not in tune with how our enemies might be working against us.

          To bring this lesson home to where we live, I came up with a list of eight perceived blessings I want to share with you as we apply what we have learned so far. I want to plant these in your thinking as things that 1. Can have the world, the flesh, the devil, or God as their source. 2. Have opportunities associated with them, and 3. How our responses to these opportunities help determine whether they remain blessings or become curses.

1. Hobbies. Hobbies are wonderful things. They provide opportunities for recreation, creative outlet, social interaction, and a host of others. But as Benjamin Franklin said, “Beware of hobbies that eat.” Now I suppose he might have been referring to horses, but hobbies eat other things besides oats. Our improper response to the opportunities hobbies create can make them obsessions in our lives, eating away all our extra time, money, and energy. The hobby then becomes a curse rather than a blessing.

2. Success. Success, in any arena, can become a motivation in our lives. An excellent job review, a project done well, overcoming an obstacle we were not sure we could. There should be celebration of our success. But as the somewhat successful Bill Gates says, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” When success breeds arrogance, it blinds us and becomes a curse, rather than a blessing.

3. Friendships. Friendships are some of the most valued relationships we have as human beings. As the American columnist Walter Winchell once said, “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” We are meant to be friends and to be befriended. Real friendships should make us feel alive and worthy of good company. A proper response to friendship creates a healthy give and take of time, ideas, and growth. But when a friendship grows toxic and draws us away from our spouse or family, it becomes a curse rather than a blessing.

4. Knowledge. Knowledge is a God-given capacity in man. Knowledge can be a tool for good as well as a tool for harm. Knowledge created a vaccine for polio as well as the nuclear bomb.  Noted English preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.” Knowledge becomes a curse rather than a blessing when it makes the knowledgeable think they are above everyone else. As the American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez said, “The end of all knowledge should be service to others.”

5. Dreams and visions. Dreams, visions, aspirations are important to the well-being of human beings. As American poet Langston Hughes once said, “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” But the pursuit of dreams, if not held in balance by responsibility and reason, can lead to a weighty discontent that hangs over our here and now like a menacing storm cloud that blocks the view of the very dreams we were dreaming and they become a curse rather than a blessing.

6. Traditions. Traditions, the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, are important markers in our lives. How we spend holidays, how we celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, the things that make our lives our lives, and give us a sense of nostalgia for what was and anticipation for what will be. Traditions also speak of how cultures respond in unique ways to the broader aspects of living together. But just because something is a tradition or custom is no guarantee it is moral, lawful, or good. Bad traditions abound. The opportunity for Sarai’s plan to produce an heir for Abram through Hagar may have been a custom of the day, but was it right? When we succumb to traditions that counter the will of God, they become curses rather than blessings.

7. Money.  Money is a tool of opportunity. John Wesley famously said concerning money, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Wesley was living on £30 pounds a year as a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, which, at the time, was a good income for a single man. Under conviction, one year he managed to live on £28 and was able to give £2 to the poor. As his writing and publishing ministry flourished and his income increased, he maintained himself with £28 a year, even in the year when he made the enormous sum of £1,400. He gave out to charity as quickly as the money came in. The way he responded to the opportunities of his wealth were a key to his blessing, and the blessing of others.
        Today it seems the mantra is make all you can, spend even more, and create an unsustainable lifestyle that requires your very soul to maintain it. Here is an illustration of the trap we can fall into when our response to financial opportunities is skewed.

A wealthy businessman was horrified to see a fisherman sitting beside his boat, playing with a small child.

“Why aren’t you out fishing?” asked the businessman.

“Because I caught enough fish for one day, “replied the fisherman.

“Why don’t you catch some more?”

“What would I do with them?”

“You could earn more money,” said the businessman. “Then with

the extra money, you could buy a bigger boat, go into deeper

waters, and catch more fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. With the nets, you could catch even more fish and make more money. With that money you could own two boats, maybe three boats. Eventually you could have a whole fleet of boats and be rich like me.”

“Then what would I do?” asked the fisherman.

“Then,” said the businessman, “you could really enjoy life.”

The fisherman looked at the businessman quizzically and asked, “What do you think I am doing now?”

For that businessman, and for many of us, there is never enough money, and money becomes a curse rather than a blessing.

8. Influence. We may not have the opportunity or desire to take the famous “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” course, but we all want in some way to be an influential person. Whether that is with our children, our business associates, or with friends and neighbors, we want the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something. Henry Ward Beecher, the 19th century Congregationalist minister, said, “The humblest individual exerts some influence, either for good or evil, upon others.” The American inspirational author, Orison Swett Marden, reminds us, “The man who practices unselfishness, who is genuinely interested in the welfare of others, who feels it a privilege to have the power to do a fellow-creature a kindness – even though polished manners and a gracious presence may be absent – will be an elevating influence wherever he goes.” But the opportunities influence brings can be used in horrific ways to turn a country, a culture, or an individual toward the ugly side of human nature while making it seem beautiful. It is then that influence becomes a curse rather than a blessing.

Proverbs 10:22 tells us, “It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, And He adds no sorrow to it.” It is God’s good pleasure to give us blessings and He desires that we treat the opportunities His blessings afford us with care, so that they remain a blessing in our lives and a curse of self-inflicted sorrow is not added to them.  

Heavenly Father, we pray that you would give us discernment about the perceived blessings that come into our lives. We ask that we clearly see which are from you, which are from the world, which arise from our flesh, and which are from the devil. Then Lord, show us how to handle the opportunities available to us that we might redeem them. We pray that even if from the world, our flesh, or the devil, that you would give us wisdom to turn what was meant for evil into good things for your kingdom and for your glory, which is for ever and ever. Amen

[1] In the Eye of the Storm by Max Lucado, Word Publishing, 1991, pp. 144-147


[3] Abram and women Gen 16.doc


Published by doctorpaddy

An ordained minister, Christian communicator, and educator.

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