As a point of reference - you may want to read the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael in the Bible. Quite aside from what you believe about the Bible itself, this is a compelling tale.
It has classic elements any veteran married couple will recognize. We all start out with our preconceived ideas of how things will go, based on the stories we’re told. Is it fair to guess Sarah grew up thinking she’d become an ordinary wife and mother, doing the ancient equivalent of raising a family and making her contribution to humanity? Abraham probably thought he’d take over his father’s farm one day and pass down skills to sons of his own.
These two lived in a part of the world that is now in the plains of central Iraq - far from where they ended up (modern Israel). But if they started out with modest goals, it’s fair to say they lived in a story much smaller than the one that consumed them over the course of their lives.
Forgive me for getting real here. If you’ve been married for any length of time, you already understand. All the fluffy pre-marital notions of romance and good feelings soon give way to a much more mixed reality. All new relationships do this to some extent; our mastermind groups online even have a “honeymoon period” where you’re just meeting new people and getting to know them. Then the hard work of living in authentic community begins.
One of the most fateful decisions in human history befell these two, and not when they were young newlyweds either. They faced a choice of believing for a miracle - a child in their old age - or not. This might not seem so bad in 2020, but in the time of this story, couples (and especially wives) felt all kinds of shame and self-reproach for being unable to conceive a child. Our attempts to rewrite the way women are wired hasn’t got rid of this desire either; we meet people deeply hurt and scarred by infertility all the time.
Having written themselves off as failures, Abraham and Sarah took it a step further and attempted to make the promise come true on their own. Sarah was the instigator. Offering one of her servants, an Egyptian woman named Hagar, she gave her husband a “sanctioned” affair. Against all sound judgment, Sarah volunteered to live in an “open marriage.”
As a Christian life coach, may I just stop here and say, “Please don’t ever do anything like this”?
Failure to Failure
There’s no question Sarah succumbed to pride. But most Western ears in 2020 think of pompous braggarts and loud-mouths when they hear the word “pride.”
I want to suggest something much more subtle. And I’m not making this up, because I’m guilty of it too. It happens all the time in our mastermind groups. “Pride” in this context is simply insisting on going your own way. It’s making rash, impulsive decisions without accountability or transparency. It’s giving in to the temptation to go outside of the promise or vision and “force” things to happen.
Leaving aside the historical implications of what happened, we have sufficient detail from the text to know the decision they made had extremely painful consequences.
Hagar became pregnant, which created new problems Sarah didn’t anticipate. Her dignity in Hagar’s eyes began to diminish, and got replaced by scorn. Hagar began to hold the “power cards” in the relationship. Only she could bring to life the child Sarah desperately wanted. This led to a very difficult conversation with Abraham, where Sarah blamed her husband for her own misfortune.
So Sarah sent Hagar packing, with Abraham’s permission … but Hagar did not go away. She soon returned, and gave birth to Abraham’s son, Ishmael.
For his own part, Abraham could have replied, “I’m sorry, honey. We’ve been promised a miracle child through our own bodies. I’m not interested in any other direction.” But he did what I fear a great many men would do - he was given carte blanche to sleep with a younger, more fertile woman, with his wife’s full encouragement and endorsement. He took it.
Fast forward about fourteen years, and now Abraham had to take a turn casting away both Hagar and Ishmael. By this time, the couple’s miracle baby, Isaac, had arrived. But Ishmael, conceived in pride, began to act out in pride as well. He became a terror and a nuisance to Isaac, such that they could not continue to live with him. So they cast the two out into the desert.
Do you think Abraham and Sarah learned some hard lessons, going through such emotional torment? Perhaps, in their advanced years, they could see just enough to know this: no matter how hopeless it seemed, trying to force things to happen in their own strength was not a suitable alternative.
If you calculate the period of time these fateful decisions and their consequences took to transpire, we’re talking a couple of decades. Does that give you some idea of the sentencing guidelines we’re subject to when we let pride take us for a spin? It’s like studying criminal justice, if you ask me - and pride is like a second- or third-degree murder sentence.
If you’re single, pre-marital or newlywed, I want to stand among the few who refuse to sugar-coat things. You will face your own version of this, and it will most likely creep up and catch you off-guard. That’s how it works. If you’ve been married a long time, maybe you’re “on parole” from sentences for prideful decisions! Whether you were the instigator or the enabler, active or passive, you own your part in decisions you made (or refused to make).
The good news is, there’s a long line of married couples who have stuck together long after their bad choices. They’ve emerged on the other end with a healthy marriage, full of closeness and loyalty that is far more difficult to break. They have a testimony to share, and a much greater expanse of vision for what is possible in their remaining years together.
Our online mastermind groups take direct aim at these coordinates. Between Iron Sharpens Iron Men’s groups and our new ISI Women’s groups, we’ve found a suitable channel for all the forceful energy Abraham and Sarah misused.
It’s hard to know the purpose stored up inside any man or woman, but what we can see clearly is the intent for us to transcend our current limitations. To mature, grow and become better versions of ourselves. Not perfect versions, of course, but better. In eight years of business coaching services and mastermind groups, I have yet to see it fail for anyone willing to adopt our culture. Growth simply happens faster and more accurately when we agree to walk in harnessed strength.
As a friend of mine recently said, “A rut is a coffin with the ends kicked out.” We should not willingly subject ourselves to decades of getting stuck in ruts because of pride. I don’t pretend we can avoid or bypass this reality, but neither should we simply resign ourselves or ignore it. There’s a hidden country reserved for you, a place of trust, joy, intimacy and shared history no one else can begin to understand. It’s on the other side of the mountain you’re climbing now.