I Samuel 1:1-20
We brothers are sometimes given the privilege of being in the company of people who are willing to share with us their pain. No doubt many of you have been given this privilege as well. I say this is a privilege because it is an occasion to be with someone in a moment of great vulnerability. They are revealing themselves to us with great transparency, admitting their poverty, allowing us to see and touch their deepest wounds, inviting us to share with them the painful losses, disappointments or unfulfilled longings that have broken and shattered their hearts. We sit in awe before them, feeling a sense of wonder at their courage, their perseverance, and their desire to find God in this place of pain.
We are being given that privilege tonight, as we hear and ponder the story of Hannah. We should approach her story with awe, cherishing the privilege of witnessing her vulnerability and her courage.
Hannah’s prayer arises out of her deep pain and despair. In a culture that valued children as a sign of the Lord’s favor, Hannah was barren – and because of this she was perceived as cursed by God. We know how the judgment of others can deform us, and how so often the things we hear about ourselves become the things we believe about ourselves. We have only to witness the effects of parents who belittle their children, or young people who bully their peers, to see how such treatment demoralizes and destroys the soul. Even though Hannah is much loved by her husband Elkanah, she still experiences her state as shameful. Her rival, Peninnah – Elkanah’s second wife – takes full advantage of Hannah’s misery. We read, “[She]used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb” (v.6). “So it went on year by year,” the writer tells us, layers of pain and humiliation, sapping her confidence and self-esteem, and weighing her down with hopelessness and despair.
Can you remember a time in your own life when you experienced this kind of acute pain?
Perhaps it was a deep longing, like Hannah’s, for something you never had…
for a part of you that was never given an opportunity to grow or be expressed,
or for something you deeply desired for yourself or others that simply never came to be.
Or perhaps yours was the pain that comes with great loss – the death of a loved one or the loss of your home or your career or your reputation.
Something you valued was taken away from you.
Or maybe you were despised or ridiculed by others because
of who you were or because of how you looked or acted, and these
wounds have stayed with you for a very long time.
None of us are exempt from suffering. It is part of the human condition and we cannot escape it, no matter how hard we try. It will always find us. Even Jesus knew suffering.
From this place of deep pain and despair, Hannah prays. She cries to the Lord with such earnest desperation that she attracts the attention of Eli the priest. When he questions her, she replies, “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord” (v.15). She has no other resource, no other hope. In the Hebrew scriptures there is a word that describes such people. They are called anawim. The anawim are God’s poor, those who know they cannot help themselves and are completely dependent on the mercy of God. In the psalm we read tonight, Psalm 123, we hear the cry of the anawim: “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us” (Psalm 123).
There is a special place in the heart of God for the anawim. God hears their cries. It is the anawim, God’s poor, that Jesus has in mind when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.5:3). They are blessed because they know their poverty, the limits of what they can do for themselves; because they know their need, and that their only hope is to put their complete trust in God. They are blessed, Jesus says, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We are likewise blessed, when the circumstances of life compel us to recognize our poverty and need and turn to put our whole trust in God.
It is one of the great paradoxes of life that the times of suffering that we experience can actually become gifts. The English journalist and author, Malcolm Muggeridge, once wrote:
“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”1
Times of great suffering can become gifts, especially when they prompt us to lean on God and to “cast all our cares on him” (I Peter 5:7). I came across a quotation recently from a man named B.M. Launderville. I have no idea who he is, but the metaphor he uses is fitting. He writes,
“The vine clings to the oak during the fiercest of storms. Although the violence of nature may uproot the oak, twining tendrils still cling to it. If the vine is on the side opposite the wind, the great oak is its protection; if it is on the exposed side, the tempest only presses it closer to the trunk. In some of the storms of life, God intervenes and shelters us; while in others He allows us to be exposed, so that we will be pressed more closely to Him.”2
Hannah cries out to God from this place of poverty, pain and despair, and God hears her.
Hannah’s prayer is an honest prayer, and God invites this kind of prayer from us. The psalms are filled with the cries of those who long for salvation and are desperate for deliverance: “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet. I have come into deep waters, and the torrent washes over me. I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God” (Ps 69:1-3). Often our most authentic prayers come from the depths of our beings, prompted by our suffering. It is a sad thing if these are the only times we pray, but we should not be afraid to pray in this way – with honestly, authenticity and utter transparency. Express to God the deep desires of your heart and your real emotions. Tell God of your trouble, even if you have had a hand in bringing it about. Honest prayer is a mark of intimacy. It is a characteristic of a relationship that is authentic and real.
Notice that Hannah’s prayer includes a promise: If God will give her a son, she will dedicate him to God’s service. This is not a bribe, a way of enticing God to give her what she wants. It is instead an act of selfless devotion. She is willing to give back to God what she will receive, and to offer up to God this child that has been the object of her longing for so many years.
I find this deeply moving. It prompts me to wonder whether we take enough time to imagine what we will DO with the blessings God gives us in answer to prayer.
When we pray and God heals us, what will we do with our restored health?
When we cry out of our need and God meets that need, what will we do with the resources that have come to us in answer to our prayer?
When we look upon the world’s need and ask God to help us meet it, what will we do with the wisdom and strength God gives us in response to our prayer?
If we follow Hannah’s example, we will offer these gifts back to God to be used for God’s purposes on earth. We will dedicate them to God’s glory and ask that God take and use them to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.
Will we escape suffering in this world? No. Can we bring this suffering to God? Absolutely. And the God who loves us more than we can ever love ourselves, will take and use this suffering for our greater good, and use it to bless us and the world. “Do not be afraid,” God says to us. “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
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