LIFE IS MESSY. No one likes it that way. We do our best to keep life tidy and organized, but as soon as we get everything in order, something happens to make it messy again. Sometimes those messes are the result of a predicament, a no-win scenario in which any choice we make will create a mess. In those situations, the only thing we can do is try to discern which choice will make the smallest mess.

Take, for example, an occupational dilemma. You have a job in Texas. You’re fairly well paid. Your family is settled and content. Then you’re offered another position that would pay a lot more money. It’s yours for the taking, except . . . the job requires that you relocate to Nome, Alaska. Now you have to decide between two extremes: –40-degree winters or 110-degree summer days. Does the increased income offset the difficulty of uprooting your family to start over in a new community? Will the new situation help or hinder your children? You’ve got yourself a dilemma.

Or what about an academic dilemma? You started a PhD program, and you’re excited about the opportunity to learn. But you have small children who need your attention—a lot of it. So what do you do? Pursue the degree knowing that if you postpone it, chances are slim you’ll get another chance? Yet you really want to spend time with your kids and be fully present during their formative years.

Or maybe you have faced a romantic dilemma. You’re single and not getting any younger. You’re dating an individual who would love to marry you, but there are some things about him or her that give you pause. Nothing huge, but significant enough factors to make you uneasy about taking the step of marriage. Should you continue despite your misgivings? Or do you put off an engagement and risk losing the relationship?

At some point almost everyone faces financial dilemmas too. You have a budget to work within. It’s tight, but it works. Then you find the perfect house or car or gift, but it’s much more expensive than your financial plan allows. Do you dip into your savings? Do you go into debt to buy the item? Or do you stick with that crummy budget and keep looking?

All of us face life dilemmas—and as believers we also face spiritual challenges. Do you keep on waiting and waiting for the Lord to move? Or do you embrace the questionable adage “God helps those who help themselves”? Why not jump in and take care of things myself? you think. After all, you’re reasonably bright. You’ve been around the block. You know how to solve this situation. Before long, you’re running ahead of God, hoping He’ll approve of what you do or at least help you clean up whatever unforeseen messes you encounter.

In a perfect world, no choice makes a mess. No decision has a drawback. We never experience dilemmas because, as the old expression goes, “We can have our cake and eat it too.” And it’s nonfattening! We wish we didn’t have to choose between the lesser of two evils. But we don’t live in a perfect world. God remains in control of our world, but life is far from ideal on planet Earth.

Abram’s Dilemma

Heroes of the Bible weren’t exempt from dilemmas. In fact, many seemed to move from one dilemma to the next. One of the more famous examples for Abram and Sarai was the difficult choice put to them concerning their childlessness. God had promised Abram that his heir would come from his body (see Genesis 15:4, NIV); the boy would carry his DNA. The Lord even sealed His promise with a solemn covenant ceremony (see Genesis 15). But Abram was now advanced in years, and his wife would soon pass through menopause, if she hadn’t already.

At this point in Abram’s faith journey, the couple had waited for years, but there was still no pregnancy. The predicament became increasingly embarrassing for Abram, because he had surely described his divine encounters to others. Most likely, his community knew about the promised heir. So with each passing day, the question “Any news?” grew tenser.

Finally Sarai got tired of waiting. The pressure to produce a child became too strong, so she devised a way to escape their predicament. Years ago, as you will recall, she and Abram had run to Egypt during a famine. Abram claimed Sarai was his sister to save his own skin, and Pharaoh proposed to marry her. To gain Abram’s favor as her supposed brother and guardian, the king gave him “sheep, goats, cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels” (Genesis 12:16). Among the Egyptian servants was a young woman named Hagar. Now, many years later, “Sarai said to Abram, ‘The LORD has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her’” (Genesis 16:2).

Take note of Sarai’s rationale. She couldn’t bear children, but Abram could still “father a nation,” regardless of his age. After all, God had said, “You will have a son of your own who will be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). He hadn’t stipulated that Sarai would necessarily be the mother. Perhaps waiting any longer wouldn’t be wise. If they waited until they were too old, they wouldn’t have the energy to rear the boy. Maybe God expected them to pursue His promise rather than wait for things to happen. What if this was some kind of test to see how much they wanted God’s promise?

Abram faced a major dilemma.

Today we have the benefit of knowing how history unfolded, so we can’t fully appreciate Abram’s dilemma. From our comfortable vantage point, it’s easy to see what he should have done. But before we cluck our tongues or deride Abram for trying to fulfill God’s promise for Him, think back to your last big blunder. Why did an irrational choice appear so rational in the moment? Think about some of the messes you’ve made because you allowed your emotions to do your thinking, or because you let your desires put your body on autopilot.

I think it’s good that Abram’s wife felt the freedom to suggest a creative solution. It says a lot about the closeness of their marriage. Her thinking isn’t really that far outside the box; a legal custom of that culture permitted the husband of a childless woman to take her servant as a second wife. One biblical scholar explains it this way: “The child born of that union was regarded as the first wife’s child. If the husband said to the slave-wife’s son, ‘You are my son,’ then he was the adopted son and heir.”[16]

The biggest problem is that throughout the discussion, no one sought the Lord’s input. Sarai didn’t pray. Abram didn’t sacrifice at one of the altars he’d built. How much better things would have been if Abram had gone out under the stars and said, “Lord, we’re getting old, and the wait gets harder with each passing year. Our longing has become almost unbearable. We thought of a way to have a child. We wonder if You approve.”

While the custom of the day might have been socially and legally acceptable, God often repudiates social traditions. Besides, this was to be no ordinary birth. This birth, this heir, would become the first step in unfolding a marvelous, divine plan for the world! This was not a time to cut corners or do something half right.

Abram could have responded to Sarai gently by saying, “You know, sweetheart, you get an A for creativity, but real low marks in theology. I appreciate your idea, and even though our community would encourage us to have a child this way, I know it’s not right. The Lord knows everything, and He gave me you before He gave me the promise.”

Tragically, however, “Abram heard the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2, my translation). “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan.) So Abram had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant” (verses 3-4).

The biblical record doesn’t preserve Abram and Sarai’s dinner conversation after Hagar showed signs of conceiving. But I know how rationalization can go. To rationalize is “to devise a self-satisfying but incorrect reason for one’s behavior.”[17] I imagine the old couple saying, “Isn’t it amazing, honey, how the Lord blessed our decision? He never would have allowed Hagar to conceive if He didn’t approve.” It’s easy to find signs of God’s approval in anything when we want it badly enough.

Charles R. Swindoll, Abraham: One Nomad’s Amazing Journey of Faith (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014).

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