Unintended Consequences

By Mark D. Roberts

October 9, 2015

Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!’ But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.”

Genesis 16:5-6

Photograph of a portrait of a woman
Our decisions and actions have unintended consequences. This is especially true for leaders. Though we have done our homework and tried to think through the implications of our decisions, inevitably things happen that we did not expect, things that may be quite unwelcome, in fact.

This certainly happened to Abram and Sarai in the story related in Genesis 16. Because God had promised an heir to Abram, and because Sarai was beyond childbearing age, she suggested to Abram that he impregnate her slave-girl, a practice that was acceptable in that culture. Indeed, Hagar, Sarai’s slave, became pregnant by Abram. But then Hagar “looked with contempt on her mistress” (16:4). Surely, Sarai did not expect or intend this result.

Similarly, Abram thought he was doing the right thing, the thing that, in fact, had been suggested by Sarai. But when Hagar looked down on Sarai, she became angry with her husband (16:5). When he gave her permission to treat her slave-girl as she wished, Sarai “dealt harshly with her,” so much so that Hagar “ran away from her” (16:6). Abram certainly did not intend for Hagar to run away into the wilderness, where her life and the life of Abram’s offspring would be in great danger.

So far, the unintended consequences in Genesis 16 have been negative. But then the narrative turns in a surprising new direction. “The angel of the LORD” visits Hagar while she is alone in the wilderness (16:7). The angel delivers both bad and good news. The bad news? Hagar should return to Sarai and submit to her. The good news? Hagar will bear a son, from whom will come a multitude of descendants. This multitude, however, would not be numbered among the children of Abram, who become God’s own people. Yet, later, they would be included in God’s family through faith.

From the story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis 16, we are encouraged to consider carefully the possible results of our decisions and actions. Yet, no matter how hard we might try to predict the future, inevitably we too will face unintended consequences. The best news from this story is that God, who is present to us and gracious, will work his will even through our mistakes and misjudgments. Nothing is too hard or complicated for God to redeem.


When have you made decisions that led to unintended consequences?

When have you experienced God’s grace at work in unintended consequences, making right what was wrong and using it for his purposes?


Gracious God, sometimes I think that I can figure out all the consequences of my decisions. I can become overly impressed with what I perceive to be my strategic vision and analysis. Forgive me for my hubris, my arrogance, my foolishness.

Yes, I do ask you to help me think clearly when I need to act as a leader. But, at the same time, I pray that you will give me humility before you, realizing that I cannot fully predict, much less control, the future.

Thank you, Lord, for the times when you redeem my mistakes, when you take the unintended and work it into your grand intentions for the world. Thank you for being a God who sees us, who is present, and who is ever merciful and gracious. Amen.


Photograph of Portrait of Emy (1919) – Karl Schmidt-Rottluff via CC2.0 by JR P.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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