Molly McGarvey is 65 years old. She comes home from work every day and collapses on the couch because she’s so exhausted. When she goes to bed for the night, she usually only sleeps for an hour or so before she wakes up and can’t fall asleep again. Most nights, she ends up sleeping in the bathtub. It helps her relax. In her words, “It’s the only way I can make it through the night without going insane.” “There are some nights I want to end my life,” she says, “it’s that bad.” She was probably closest to ending her life after “it” cost her her marriage. Do you know what “it” is? “It’s” the same thing that a woman named Julie Vaughn is talking about when she says, “I’d rather give birth again than experience it.” “It’s” the same thing that wakes up a woman named Donna McLellan every morning at 3am and compels her to either hop on an exercise bike, start running up and down the stairs, or take a long walk outside. “It” is RLS. Molly, Julie, and Donna all suffer from Restless Leg Syndrome, a neurological condition in which, basically, you have an irresistible urge to move your legs. People who have it describe the feeling in their legs as a creeping, itching, pulling, or gnawing sensation. Picture trying to fall asleep with spiders crawling up and down your leg while, at the same time, a dog is gnawing on it.  

With most conditions, doctors tell you to get a lot of rest, but with RLS, when you’re at rest is usually when the symptoms are the worst. You feel better when you hop on a bike, or go for a walk, or just do something that puts your legs in motion. No matter how desperately your body needs to rest, RLS simply will not allow you to be still and do nothing. RLS affects roughly10% of the people in the United States. But there is one form of RLS that affects far more – and that is RLS of the soul. 

There is no official diagnosis for this, but it’s not difficult to tell when you’re dealing with it. In general, it’s any situation in life when your soul has a hard time finding rest. It can happen at the beginning of a new year, if the change of the calendar didn’t magically erase the regrets or problems of the past, or if the new year’s first few days didn’t give you even a moment to breathe before new challenges started coming. It can happen if a relationship doesn’t give you joy as well as you think it should or as regularly as it once did. It can happen when you’re struggling with your life’s purpose, an important decision, or a challenging situation, even though you’ve prayed for wisdom, but God has yet to give you any clear direction. RLS of the soul takes place whenever you’re waiting for something you know is good, but you don’t know if it’s ever coming.

That was partly the case for Sarai in today’s sermon. She was waiting for something good, but God promised her it was coming. 10 years before what we’re about to read, God had promised her husband Abram that they were going to have a son; and not just a son, but descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky on a beautiful, clear, peaceful night. Sarai was now 75 years old. Abram was 85. And it was just as unusual for people of that age to get pregnant back then as it is today. After 10 years of waiting, Sarai could not sit still and wait one more second. The gnawing pain in her soul compelled her to get up and take action.   

I’m going to warn you, the action she took doesn’t make her or Abram look very good. Genesis 16, however, does a good job reminding anyone who has ever wondered, “How long? … Why me? … Where is God?, or, has he forgotten about me?” why we don’t need to be afraid of the moments in life that makes us feel restless, uncomfortable, desperate, or uneasy.   

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” 6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. 7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. 9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” 11 The angel of the Lord also said to her: “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… 13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 

A four-year-old was riding in the car with his mom and constantly asking, “When are we going to get there? When are we going to get there?” Finally, mom gets so irritated that she screams, “We still have 90 more minutes to go; don’t ask me again when we’re going to get there.” The boy was silent for a long time. Then he timidly asked, “Mom, will I still be four when we get there?” 90 minutes seems like an eternity to a bored child. But to an adult, who has more experience with waiting for time to pass by, it doesn’t.

A similar difference exists between us and God. To God, “a thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years,” the bible says. Because God has experience with eternity, having Abram and Sarai wait 10 more years for a baby doesn’t seem all that long to him. But because we don’t have that eternal perspective, we can get like the little boy in the back seat and impatiently keep asking God, “When?” When is it going to get easier? When am I going to catch a break? When will life slow down? When will I find some help? When will things turn around? “When will God do what God promised me,” Sarai thought. “Am I still going to be able to bear children when we get there?” Sarai couldn’t wait anymore, so she tried to help God along. And her brilliant solution was to tell her husband to sleep with another woman, which produced the type of results you might expect in that situation – biting words, bitterness, broken hearts, hurt, blame, and a pregnant woman out in the desert running away. It’s one big Old Testament soap opera. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our Israelites.

As foolish as her idea was, there are at least two reasons why Sarai thought this might be wise. Firstly, what she did was normal in the countries around them. A woman’s value in those days was often determined by their ability to give their husband children, so newlyweds in those days would often have a marriage contract drawn up (like a prenup) in which the bride would promise to give her husband to one of her maids if she was unable to produce children for him. What Sarai was doing here was not only culturally acceptable, it was the cultural norm. But whether or not it was normal to the culture, it clearly crossed a line established by God who, from the beginning of creation said that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,” with no other flesh ever getting in.

The second reason Sarai may have thought this was a good idea is because she was desperate, and when we’re desperate for something, we’re more likely to give ourselves permission to cross lines we otherwise wouldn’t. Now, it’s not wrong to feel desperate. In a broken world, in fact, we should expect it. In your job, it’s not unusual at all to feel desperate for a word of thanks or for some encouragement because not everyone is good at giving those things. As you go through your day-to-day, it’s not unusual to feel desperate for good news as bad news keeps coming, and sometimes so repeatedly and quickly that you wonder how much more you can take. If you’re married, you will sometimes feel desperate for love, because you married someone who will never show it as consistently as God does. If your loved one is in heaven, you will feel desperate for their companionship until you see them again in heaven. It’s not wrong to feel desperate. 

In the case of Abram and Sarai, God wanted them to feel desperate. He gave them this remarkable promise that a child would come from their own family, and then he made them wait because he wanted to see where they would go in their desperation; if they would still trust him even if they had to wait for him to keep the promise. And at first, they did. But after a couple years went by and nothing happened, and the friends they had told about the promise stopped coming by because they didn’t know what to say to them, and Abram and Sarai grew distant from each other and stopped trying to have a kid because it obviously wasn’t working, Sarai, in her desperation, believed her only option was to hook Hagar up with her otherwise faithful husband. But she was wrong. She had another option. There is something else she could have done. She could have done exactly what God tells us to do in Psalm 27. “Wait for the Lord,” it says. “Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” Sarai didn’t. She took the situation into her own hands, which means, of course, that she was taking it out of God’s. She no longer trusted God. She wanted to be God.

It’s a mistake God didn’t want Hagar to make. When he found her in the desert, he asked her two questions: “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” And notice that Hagar only answered one of them. “I’m running away from my mistress,” she said. And where was she going? She didn’t know. She only knew she wanted to get away from what made her feel restless. We understand that. A couple I know, while waiting for God to answer their prayer for help, both lost their jobs, their home, and because of cancer, their son. But whatever the reason we feel restless, however long we ever have to wait for something good to happen, our desperation can only take us in two possible directions. Either we will continue to trust God, faithfully following whatever guidance his Word gives in that situation, and stay close to him, which might sometimes mean waiting longer than you were hoping; or we will take our lives out of God’s hands and eventually discover what it’s like to go through life, and maybe even death, without him. In our desperation, it’s important to know which way we’re going.

That was the case for a man from Utah named Kaden. This past August, he went hiking with some family in the Montana wildnerness. On the first day, as they were pretty deep into the wildnerness, his brother’s horse went lame. Because Kaden had hiked there before, he gave his horse to his brother, told them to keep going and said he would meet up with them by the end of the day. But when the end of the day came, he was obviously lost and unable to get in touch with anyone. By the end of day two, he was so desperate for water and food that he was convinced he was going to die very soon. And he may have, if he didn’t remember what his pregnant wife said to him before he left. “Promise me that you come home safe,” she said. “I will,” he promised. So he found some berries and ate them. Once he ran out of berries, he ate grasshoppers. For five days, he stumbled through the wildnerness looking for any drop of water, while twice search helicopters passed over and never saw him. But he made a promise, so he didn’t give up; and eventually stumbled into another family’s campsite barely alive. But he came home alive, because he knew he had a reason to keep going. He knew he had a place to go.

God wanted to give Hagar the same thing. He wanted to give her a reason to keep going. He appeared to her in the desert because he wanted her to see that he knows how desperate this world makes us for so many good things. He knows how restless our souls can become as we try to survive in its brokenness. He even knew Hagar’s role in this soap opera situation, just as he knows the choices we make in our desperation and the weakness with which we fight against temptation. He knows how lost we can feel in this wilderness. He knows, because he came here himself to save us from it.  

He made a promise, and he didn’t give up, even though he knew that keeping this promise wouldn’t keep him alive. It would kill him as he hung on a cross and offered his life as a sacrifice that would guaranty that you do not have to wait one more second to hold onto a promise that God already forgave you for all the times you haven’t trusted him, that God is with you wherever in this wilderness you happen to go, and that God himself will one day get you home to the people who are eagerly waiting for you to find perfect rest for your soul. 

And God is so certain it is coming that he told Hagar to “go back” to the people and the place that had sent her running. Not because he wanted her to suffer again. But because he knew she didn’t need to be afraid of them. And neither do you. I’m not saying you always have to stay in your place of pain. Sometimes there are many godly ways to deal with something. And you should escape it if you can. But if you’re stuck right now, you can leave here today and go back to the place or the people who are making you feel that way without being afraid. Because the God who saw this lost, fearful, restless, wandering soul and treated her with grace has promised to treat you the same way. 

You might not always know when you’ll see that grace, you might sometimes wonder how it’s coming, which means you might need to spend a lot of time looking at the cross of Jesus to remember how determined God was to make sure that it always is. But then look again at Abram and Sarai’s situation and remember that God did eventually keep his promise to them. He just didn’t make them wait another 10 years for that to happen. After these 10 years of waiting, he only made them wait another 15 before they held their son. And as far as we know, after this incident, they never again doubted that they would. Hold onto God’s promises. See the gracious hands your fragile life is already in, and, in the middle of all your “why’s” and “when’s”, you will find the strength to make it through anything.