It is now our eighth lap around the great stadium track on which we are surrounded by tens of thousands of onlookers, a great ‘cloud of witnesses’ who have been cheering us on in the race of life. One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down from the stands to run with us, and to encourage us as we continue our journey. Approaching us now is a young woman who asks us to slow down and walk with her. “My name is Hannah,” she says, “and I’ve come to assure you that while pain is part of the journey, it’s not your destination.”
She reminds us of her story in 1 Samuel, chapter 1, that she carried the stigma of being barren in a culture where a woman’s value was measured by her ability to bear children. That being childless was felt to be a curse by God and an embarrassment. She recalls how hurt she was when her husband married a 2nd wife who could bear him children, even though it was the custom of the day. “The rivalry that developed between Peninnah and I was bitter and painful,” Hannah tells us. As I think about this rivalry I can’t help reflecting on the wisdom of the original biblical model, that “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” It's little wonder that Hannah responded to her pain like many of us would: she compared and despaired (7-8). Why can’t my life be like Peninnah’s? If only I had a child, then I would be truly happy. If only I had his girl friend, her job, his money, their house, different friends...then I’d be happy. “Perhaps you too have experienced regret, pain, and bitterness,” says Hannah. Let me share some things that I have learned…
“First, this road, marked ‘pain and suffering,’ is a major highway. We read in v. 7, “So it went on year by year; as often as [Hannah] went up to the house of the LORD, [Peninnah] used to provoke her. Therefore, she wept & would not eat.” Year after year, Hannah reminds us, she would travel with her husband and his second wife to worship at Shiloh – the religious center of Israel 300 years before Jerusalem became its capital city. As Hannah traveled there year after year she did so weeping, because God had not answered her prayer.
Hannah did not travel this road alone. She was not on a rabbit trail…she was on the 405 Northbound on Friday at 5:00pm! She had plenty of company! In fact, there is no man or woman of God through the ages who has not traveled this road…Moses in the desert, waiting 40 years for God to deliver his people. Elijah hiding in a lonely cave, fearing for his life from Jezebel. Jeremiah lowered down into a dungeon well by his enemies. Mary keeping her lonely vigil at Golgotha. And yes, Jesus knew human scorn in his life, but especially on the cross. Be assured, if you are traveling this road now, there are countless others who travel it with you, who have traveled it before you, and who will travel it after you! You are in royal company. Sometimes, just remembering that can give us courage to take another step, to walk with Hannah on the road to Shiloh. Hannah continues,
“Secondly, we can’t predict when we will travel this road or for how long.” Sometimes when we are in pain, the people around us can’t completely understand why; and may wish they could end it for us, or move us through it faster. After all, being around people in pain can be painful. So Elkanah asks his wife, “Hannah, why…why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons” (1:8)?
The truth is, there is no pre-set timetable when we travel on this road. We can’t predict when or for how long we will be on it, nor are we exempt from traveling this road simply because we have known the Master longer. Indeed, it is the nature of human beings to go through what Lewis called “the trough periods”. Knowing this may also encourage us to be gracious to one another. Elkanah, gave Hannah “a double portion” at the table because he loved her and because the LORD had closed her womb (5). The person who is suffering (like Hannah) needs extra grace, patience, love …and those who are doing the caring (like Elkanah) need extra grace as well, because their reserves become quickly depleted. Fathers, like Elkanah, there are times when you wonder why you’re wife can’t see things like you do, but you have the power to give her and your children a double portion anyway, to go beyond what is expected…to give twice as much grace and patience and sacrificial love; and that blessing will come back to you.
“Thirdly, try to remember that this road is not a punishment.” Just because we are experiencing hurt, heartache or disappointment does not mean God is displeased with us. Hannah seems to have had a very close relationship with God before she entered this desert of frustration and pain. She was a woman of prayer who cried out to God even in her darkest moments. We read in v. 9 that “after they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh [having endured again the mocking of her rival], Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD” (1:9). She may have felt like God was punishing her, but it is clear from the story that this was not the case. Of course, there are times when we bring pain upon ourselves…or experience suffering because of the actions of someone else. It’s not very difficult to figure out if we are hurting because of something we have said or done, or because of something that has been said or done to us.
Yet there is another category of hurt that is simply the result of our fallen world. A couple desires a child and cannot conceive, a person suffers from a long term illness, another has difficulties with a subject at school despite her best efforts; we experience unexpected set backs and failure, or a dear family member has died. These are not punishments, they are part of life. But, we may ask, doesn’t verse 5 say that “God closed Hannah’s womb”? Doesn’t this mean God was punishing her? Not at all, but it does mean God was close to her! In general, you have to be close to close something. God was not punishing Hannah, but he was close to Hannah… intimately involved for the good in her situation in ways we cannot totally comprehend. God was very close, as he is when you are hurting too!
Hannah looks at us now in the eyes, “This road is a road of purification.” She reminds us that she “…was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly (1:10); that all her life she had wanted a child; that year after year she had prayed for her situation to change, thinking that if only she could have a son, her embarrassment and shame would be turned to victory. But this year was different. This year Hannah rose, this year she got up from the table and went to the temple to pray…but this prayer was different from those she had prayed in the past! This year, Hannah turned over her bitterness and jealousy to God. This was no barter with God, it was a total surrender: She didn’t say, “I’ll give myself to you if you give me a child” but “I’ll give you everything, even the child I so desperately want!” Friends, these kinds of prayers rock the world! This was the prayer of Moses who said, “Lord, please send someone else,” and then went anyway; the prayer of Isaiah: “Here am I, send me!”; the prayer of Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”; the prayer of Jesus: “Not my will, but Thine be done!”
Which is why we can call this the road of purification…because it purifies us from the things we think we need but really don’t! Consider that on this road…God purifies us from the need to control Him. I realize now that when I say, “Jump!” God does not ask, “How high?” I finally see that I cannot conquer God but that, in reality, God has conquered me. Because God and I are in a real relationship… I come to see that God too has the freedom of action and inaction. Next, God purifies us from our self-absorption. Hannah, in her prayer in 1 Samuel 2: 7-8, rejoices in God’s care for others: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” I would argue that Hannah through her own affliction experienced more awareness of the needy around her, and more compassion, which ain’t bad! Finally, God purifies us from a dependence on what he can do for us. We begin to realize that we love God more than the gifts God brings. Like Hannah, we are ready to surrender it all to Him and like Job to declare, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him (Job 13.15 NIV).”
Christian psychologist Larry Crabb tells a story of a time when as a 3 year old he locked himself in the bathroom and began to scream, “Get me out of here! I want to play!” Minutes later, his father went around the house opened the bathroom window…and then, after climbing in, turned the lock and opened the door. “Thanks Dad!” Larry said, as he ran out the door to play. “That’s how I thought the Christian life was supposed to work,” writes Crabb. “When I get stuck in a tight place, when my life feels lonely or scary, I scream, ‘God, get me out of here!’ and God comes in and rescues me so that I can go out and play. But what Crabb found is that when we cry for help, the Father does come in to that little room, but then (instead of opening the door and letting us out) he often sits down on the floor with us and says, “Come sit with me!” God seems to think that what we need most is not always to be rescued but to sit down with him in the midst of our troubles… and get to know him better.
As we come to the end of our walk with Hannah, her eyes light up as she shares one more thing with us: “This road has joy as its end point” she says. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Ps. 30.5).” Hannah reminds us that after she prayed to God, and received the blessing of Eli the priest, “[she] went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer (1:18). Why was Hannah no longer sad? Why did she end her hunger strike, sit down at the table and enjoy the feast that had been set before her? Was it because Eli prayed for her? Was it because she knew that she would have a son? She had prayed many times before with no results…why should this time be any different? I imagine Hannah saying this, “My joy returned, not because I was assured that I would have a son, but because I had offered up my heart’s desire to God, and decided to rest in the rightness of his plan for my life, no matter the outcome.”
The testimony of Hannah’s prayer & God’s answer after years of barrenness is so awe-inspiring, that her husband personally participates in what must have been a difficult act -- that being, to dedicate this child to the Lord for his entire life (1.21). According to the Law, Elkanah could have invalidated any vow made by his wife (You’re nuts if you think I’m leaving this child at Shiloh) -- but instead he affirmed her vow to the Lord. My Dad says, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you let it turn you.” Elkanah chose to respond to this challenge not with cynicism but faith and solidarity with his wife, and because of that this husband and father not only blessed his family, but blessed a nation. Like Hannah and her husband, we too can have renewed faith in God’s plan even in our pain; believing that God works all things together for good not only because Hannah rose to pray, but because his Son rose on the third day.”
As Hannah prepares to leave us, we know that this walk has done us good…that our Lord is not only the God of the strong and the quick, but the weak and lowly…the God of those who must walk or who cannot walk at all. May I pray for you, she asks? We are eager to have her do so, because each of us, in our own way…need his healing touch as much as Hannah did. “El Shaddai, God Almighty, bless my friends today. May they know that pain is part of the journey but not the destination; that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning. Bless them with strength and hope that they too shall rise up…in this life and in the life to come, just as you rose again for us. Amen.”