Hagar's Unhappiness Helps Me Parent Fragile Kids
You're reading the English translation of the winner of Christianity Today's second annual essay contest for Christians who write in Indonesian. Learn more about the competition and CT's multilingual work, and check out the winning essays written originally in Portuguese, French, Chinese, and Spanish.
At its core, life is a challenge. A challenge that requires people to have the mental equipment to either face it or avoid it. (Rhenald Kasali, Strawberry Generation , 2017)
Several years ago, economist Rhenald Kasali wrote about the current cohort of young Indonesian people that many of have referred to as the "strawberry generation." The fruit metaphor has become popular as a way of expressing both this cohort's beauty and propensity to bruise easily. Currently experiencing far greater prosperity than their parents and grandparents and often praised for their creativity, the strawberry generation has also been criticized for wilting in the face of adversity, being overly sensitive, and hunting for quick ways to achieve something.
As a father of two children, one of whom is a teenager, I have come to suspect I may have "strawberries" growing in my household. My concerns have become compounded by an increasingly sophisticated digital world and a pandemic that has forced my children to live online for the last few years.
In searching for wisdom on how to best parent my children in the coming years, I've turned to Genesis, a book full of stories of imperfect patriarchs. Specifically, I've returned multiple times to the story of Hagar (Gen. 16) and learned that sometimes God allows his people to endure hardship so they can understand his beautiful plan.
Hagar, an Egyptian woman, had been taken as a slave by Sarai, Abram's wife. When God commanded Abram and Sarai to leave their homeland, he promised to make their descendants into a great nation (Gen. 12:2). However, after roughly ten years without becoming pregnant, Sarai gave Hagar to Abram. (At the time, it was a common practice in Mesopotamia for a barren wife to give her female slave to her husband to bear children for her.)
Hagar soon became pregnant, which is where the story's conflict begins. Hagar despised Sarai now that she was carrying her master's child. After expressing her jealous feelings to Abram, Sarai made life difficult for Hagar. Unable to bear living under her mistress's oppression, Hagar ran away, an action that corresponds to the root meaning of her name in Hebrew: "to flee."
Amid her escape, an angel appeared to Hagar and expressed three things to her--directions that I believe offer wisdom to those experiencing parenting dilemmas today.
1. "Go back to your mistress and submit to her" (Gen. 16:9).
At first glance, it may seem a little strange when the angel orders Hagar to return to Sarai. Instead of relieving Hagar's suffering, the angel commands her to endure the abuse at the hands of her mistress. It calls to mind the Javanese idiom Kuthuk marai sunduk (lit., "A chick approaches a skewer"), which roughly means, "Why go somewhere if you know you'll be in danger there?"
Through this strange command, the angel teaches Hagar that she must recognize and address the problems within her before dealing with anything else. Hagar struggles with the tendency to flee from difficult situations. She may justly feel like life has not treated her fairly. After all, she has been living as a slave, impregnated (presumably without her consent) by her master and bullied by her mistress. Indeed, other people have been making her life miserable. But the angel does not see this as a valid excuse for her to run away.
Many of us in older generations have been critical of what we see as the strawberry generation's tendency to avoid dealing with problems. But part of this tendency likely started with us as parents. According to Kasali, parents these days often excessively hover over their children and tell them what they should do. Their anxiety about possible challenges or problems their children may encounter makes parents overprotective.
If he wanted to, God could instantly eliminate all the problems in our lives (Luke 1:37). However, as we have no doubt experienced, God often allows us to deal with our myriad challenges. Why does he do this? God's ultimate goal for our lives on earth is not comfort but character development, as pastor Rick Warren has written. God wants us to grow up spiritually and become like Christ. The story of Hagar's escape teaches us that God wants his children to face their problems, not run away from them.
Because they have had no physical interaction with their teachers and peers during the pandemic, my children have issues with social skills, lack discipline, and tend to give up when faced with challenging tasks--all behaviors that fall under Kasali's strawberry-generation categorizations. This is a concern for my wife and me primarily in relation to our second child, who has almost never stepped inside a school building.
The angel's directions to Hagar have encouraged us to stand back and watch our daughter overcome problems independently on occasion. For example, we don't always help her with schoolwork. Sometimes this makes her sad because it means she may not get the grades she wants. Other times, we push her into interacting with new friends at church.
Her days spent doing school online have made her reliant on her older brother and parents. However, we know that our children need to learn to face difficulties for their good (Rom. 8:28). For it is precisely through these challenges that our children will be forged into mature Christians (James 1:3-4), ready to accept God's call when the time comes. As parents, we do our best to explain our reasoning to them, as we do not want our children to suffer unreasonably; we want them to work through these hardships to mature them.
2. "I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count" (Gen. 16:10).
The angel promises that Hagar will have many children. Is this not a great relief for her? Because of God's promise, Hagar no longer has to feel like a victim of circumstances. The child she carries is not the result of an "accident" but a gift from God (Gen. 17:20).
This understanding gives Hagar the strength to deal with life's challenges under Sarai's oppression. Hagar also shows this strength by calling the Angel of the Lord El Roi, which means "the God who sees" (16:13). She realizes that she has experienced an encounter with God (which is why the Indonesian Bible Society uses capital letters when referring to the angel in this chapter).
Most likely, when Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai, she also brings good news, reminding them that God is still present and will not forget his promise. We, the readers, come to see that Hagar's hardships are neither tragic nor meaningless.
In early 2022, our family was called to missionary service to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This has extended the online school period for our children, as they still need to finish their school year in Indonesia. We currently live in a high-rise, and our children struggle to play with the local kids because of the language barrier. We frequently see them sad when they can only watch from their computer screens as their friends--who have all returned to normal life--have fun together in the classroom. In the early days of our move, our children often asked why we had to live this way.
We don't want our children to easily bruise. Yet the story of Hagar's escape reminds my wife and me to teach our children to see God's grace and plans behind every challenge they experience. God has given them the opportunity not only to live in a foreign country but also to learn a new culture and hone their English skills, as most Indonesian children in our church are born in Cambodia and attend international schools.
It is also an opportunity for them to witness firsthand the necessity of service to people who have not yet become acquainted with God. In conversations with my children, their gratitude for God's grace and awareness of God's plan have been apparent and this gratitude has profoundly changed them. Besides their newly emerging appreciation for life in a foreign country, they often enthusiastically tell their friends in Indonesia about what missionary service and the people's lives are like.
3. "You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery" (Gen. 16:11).
The angel gives the name Ishmael, meaning "God hears," to the child in Hagar's womb. Now, Hagar will always be reminded that God unfailingly pays attention to the misery of his servants. Not a single incident in the lives of his servants escapes God's attention (Matt. 10:29-31). This is the case not only for Ishmael, "God hears," but also for Immanuel, "God with us" (Matt. 1:23). Christ's sacrifice proves all.
My children are digital natives and are very proficient in using information technology. What's more, they were raised in Indonesian culture, which is very active on social media. (According to 2022 reports, almost 70% of Indonesians engage in social media and use it for an average of 3 hours, 17 minutes a day.) Used to searching for everything on the internet, my children tend to use social media to escape when they have problems. Unfortunately, significant misinformation about the Christian faith circulates on social media, and the platforms can also easily enable unhealthy peer comparison and bullying.
The story of Hagar's escape has taught me to instill in my children that they have a God who is always ready to hear their hearts' cry. I have realized that no matter how strong they may be in the future, there will always be situations that can bring them down. They need to have the faith that only God's help is reliable (Ps. 46:1). They also need to learn that while their friends can easily unfollow them on social media, they have a God whose faithful love will endure, even if the earth may be destroyed (Isa. 54:10). From God alone, the true strength originates.
I hope that the story of Hagar's escape will inspire you, as it has me, to educate our children so they do not grow into a strawberry generation. Like the rest of us, they will forever be fragile clay vessels. But it is precisely through that fragility that they can radiate the abundant power of God to those around them (2 Cor. 4:7). They can experience God in their life challenges as Hagar did: "I have now seen the One who sees me" (Gen. 16:13).
Tomy Handaka Patria is an ordained minister from Gereja Beth-El Tabernakel. He currently serves at Khalibre, an IT business as mission in Cambodia that develops Crosswired, a secure portal and social learning community for mission organizations. During his spare time, he is actively developing digital ministry through studibiblika.id and contributing as a volunteer writer for Got Questions Ministries.
Translated from Indonesian by Adam Mele.
[ This article is also available in Indonesian. ]