The story of Sarah and her maid Hagar is a poignant illustration of God's ability to peel back the layers to see the brokenness at the core of any bad behavior. God understands that which we have no words to explain. And he meets us with his love in the deepest part of our souls, to heal and empower us.
Sarah had grown impatient with God's promise to give her and Abraham a son, so she decided to help God along by giving Hagar to Abraham as a wife. As soon as Hagar conceived, she started acting superior to her infertile mistress. Sarah responded by treating her so harshly that she ran away. But God met Hagar with kindness in the wilderness, by promising to bless her descendants and telling her to go back to Sarah and submit to her authority. Hagar said, "You are a God who sees," and returned to Sarah.
The friction between Sarah and Hagar never ceased, however, and eventually Sarah told Abraham to get rid of the maid and her son. Abraham was sad about sending his son Ishmael away, but God told him to do whatever Sarah said because he would take care of his son. God kept his promise by providing water in the wilderness when Ishmael almost died of thirst.
This story shows God's compassion in so many ways. First, what was Hagar thinking when she provoked her powerful mistress by belittling her in the most hurtful way possible? Hagar was probably asking herself the same question while running pregnant in the wilderness. But God surprised her with his gentleness. I don't know exactly what Hagar meant by saying, "You are a God who sees," but given the circumstances, she may have felt truly understood for the first time in her life, even though she deserved to be judged.
Second, Sarah disobeyed God when she gave her maid to Abraham as a wife, but when it backfired, she was angry with her husband. That doesn't seem rational, but it makes perfect sense from an emotional standpoint. When she spawned her plan she was probably just in an "Oh, Abraham, all that matters to me is your happiness" mood. He wasn't supposed to actually take her up on it! And even if she did mean it, how could she have foreseen that such complicated emotions would arise out of a pragmatic, culturally acceptable decision like that?
When Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, Abraham turned to God, who could have replied by saying, "You're the head of the household, man! Besides, this was Sarah's idea to begin with. Did you remind her of that? It's time you tell her who's boss!" But God showed compassion to Sarah because he understood her pain. And he gave Abraham yet another opportunity to act in faith.
This story is so compelling not just because it shows God's compassion, but because it demonstrates his deep understanding of our emotions. God does not condemn us with a broad brush, like we tend to do to each other. In all our motivations, he will filter out and satisfy our true needs when we let him. He meets us where we are, lost in the wilderness, and his kindness leads us to repentance. (Romans 2:4)