Bible Study | May 1, 2017

When good intentions are not enough

I don’t think it was coincidence that the Sunday after I read Bob Bowman’s Bible study from the April Messenger someone quoted one of his helpful scriptural interpretations during our congregation’s regular time for responses after the sermon. It wasn’t just any helpful interpretation, either: It was a clear, paradigm-shifting insight that this person had heard from Bob 35 years ago. It had been so transformative that this person remembered it across the decades.

I have long appreciated Bowman’s scriptural commentary and knack for shaping our denominational reading of scripture. But I found “Sarah, My Sister” problematic. Bowman follows a reading of the Genesis 16 text by Cat Zavis, a contemporary Jewish commentator writing in the magazine Tikkun, to explore the relationship between Sarah and Hagar. Zavis and Bowman contend that perhaps Sarah’s attempts to give Hagar to Abraham as a “wife” and not a “concubine” indicate Sarah’s good intentions, an attempt to change the inherent injustice in the relationship of slave and slave-owner.

There are two problems with this reading. First, the scripture itself does not support it. Sarah’s actions—giving Hagar to her husband as property, forcing her to bear a child, eventually casting her out into the wilderness as the single mother of a defenseless infant—are not the actions of someone invested in a relationship of mutuality. When Hagar does return to Sarah, she does not do so in order to participate in a utopian sisterly ideal. Verse 9 clearly reads that Hagar is to return to the woman who owns her and “submit” to her. Focusing on Sarah’s “good intentions” obscures the overarching unjust and oppressive context of slavery: one human being owning another.

Second, and more importantly, reading the story this way obscures our own discipleship. Good intentions are not enough. A life of discipleship involves what the New Testament authors call metanoia. We read this word in translation as “repentance,” but the Greek word actually means a “total transformation of mind and heart.” If we act on our own good intentions and simply regret that they do not produce good fruit, this is not true metanoia. This is not the way toward the transformation offered in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

When we realize that our own good intentions are not enough to change broken relationships, unjust systems or a fallen world, it is not enough to simply shake our heads, return to our old patterns, and ignore the larger realities that shape our behavior. Sarah did not seek metanoia. She remained oblivious to the ways her power and privilege were direct causes of Hagar’s pain. When her good intentions failed her, she retreated into her stale and broken worldview, content to live comfortably in her own power and privilege instead of acknowledging and allowing Hagar’s pain to change their relationship for the better.

We Brethren are a people of very good intentions. We know that we are called to witness and to serve. We have lived this way of service for so long that our good intentions have obscured opportunities for our own metanoia. Too often, we are like Sarah, resting on our own good intentions and refusing to acknowledge the pain of the other. When our actions fail to enact healing or justice, we say “well, we meant well,” and refuse to turn our regret into true repentance.

This is especially true when it comes to racism and power. As a denomination with historical and demographic roots in white, well-off, and privileged communities, we have barely begun to wrestle with the ways our good intentions might actually be perpetuating systems and structures of harm and injustice.

Instead of reading the story of Hagar and Sarah as a way to let ourselves off the hook—again—for failing to question the larger systems and structures that perpetuate relationships of inequality, we could begin to practice true metanoia. Instead of immediately identifying with the privileged Sarah in the story, we could begin to listen to Hagar’s perspective, to allow Hagar’s pain to penetrate our walls of self-deception and self-righteousness.

In the same way, we might begin to set aside our own good intentions and self-assured action in order to listen to the perspective of sisters and brothers of color, to allow their pain to penetrate our stubbornness, to seek—and genuinely desire—a true transformation of our relationships and our systems.

Dana Cassell is pastor of Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren in Durham, North Carolina. She also writes at