By Leslie Colaw
Are you familiar with the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 1? There’s not a lot about her in the Bible, just one chapter and a little bit of a second, but her story is one worth mentioning.
Hannah was a woman who desperately wanted a child. In her time, as a woman, bearing children was everything. And for whatever reason, she couldn’t. Can you relate? Any pressing desire in your heart, a hunger for something that will not cease, no matter how much you try to reason with yourself?
It’s a hard place to be when you have a deep persistent desire that doesn’t line up with your reality, and you don’t know if it ever will.
This must be how Hannah felt. Her desire for a child was at the point of desperation. To make Hannah’s situation worse, verse 6 tells us that her rival, the other wife to her husband Elkanah, provoked her greatly, harassing her over the fact that she had the ability to bear children and Hannah didn’t. (Sounds like a sweetheart, doesn’t she?) This happened until Hannah “wept and would not eat.” Her husband, who loved her and actually favored her over his other wife (the mystery of why she’d provoke Hannah suddenly becomes less mysterious) says, “Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” Have you been there? When you are overwhelmed with heartache and people around you try to talk you out of it? Doesn’t do much good does it?
Hannah went to the house of the Lord to pray. Verse 10 says, “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly.” Oddly, I really like this part of the story. It reminds me where I can take my deep anguish. When it seems no one else understands or truly sees the depth of my heartache, God sees. He listens, he knows my pain. My bitter tears do not shock or unnerve him. There is no better or capable place to bring my sorrow.
But sorrow is not the end of the story.
She continues praying to the Lord and the priest, Eli, happens upon her. He actually mistakenly assumes she is drunk (again, another example of when people JUST don’t get it) and tells her to lay off the wine. She tells him of her deep trouble, that she has been pouring out her soul to God. He says to her, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
This was good enough for her. She goes away, eats something, and her face was no longer downcast. She takes the word of the priest as a promise from God, and sure enough, Hannah ends up pregnant with Samuel, one of the great prophets of the Old Testament.
Something about her story really strikes me. Verse 6 tells us that “the Lord had closed her womb.” God closed her womb, prevented her from conceiving a child. So essentially, God broke her heart. Hard pill to swallow, isn’t it? It seems so harsh and unfair. Doesn’t seem like something a kind and loving God would do. And yet we have to admit that is what it says, we have to accept the reality that sometimes the breaking and crushing of our heart is part of God’s journey for us.
Why doesn’t he just grant her heart’s desire? And of course we ask, why doesn’t he grant ME my heart’s desire? We know he can, so why doesn’t he?
When Hannah goes to the temple to pray, she tells God that if he will give her a son, she will give him back to God. Because of her anguish, because of the low point she has been brought to, it drives her to God in complete surrender.
You hear that? Her anguish, her heartbreak, drives her to God in complete surrender.
She has been brought so low, her heartbreak so complete, she has nothing left but her faith in God. In her emptiness, she turns to God in total trust.
It was the breaking and crushing that purified her heart and prepared her to be the vessel God needed to accomplish his purpose. This is often what separates the faithful from those who turn away…a willingness to accept the task God has for them, however painful. A choice to blame God in anger, or yield to him in complete trust.
God had closed her womb. That’s how the story reads. But as we will see, it wasn’t for nothing. If God shuts us out from what our hearts most desire, it is for a greater purpose, and we will be able to look back and be glad, to see that it was worth it. There is always a bigger picture.
We see the same with Job. This guy gets one piece of bad news after another. He lost it all – his livestock, his servants, his house, his children – and what did he come up with as far as how to make sense of it? “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). That’s it. It doesn’t feel like much, but sometimes that’s all we have to hold onto…and it can be hard to hold on.
But what we see with these examples is the things that were developed in them. Greater strength, perseverance, character, and faith. The process of these things being developed is often apparently fairly unpleasant. But from their stories, we hope and trust that it will be worth it. “For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
Perhaps one of the hardest things is to do what Job did, praise the name of God in the face of complete loss. But it must be done. Because it is our purpose and because he is worthy. And perhaps if we worship him in the loss it will make our worship of him in the good times all that much sweeter.
We don’t know how long Hannah waited for God to give her the son she was waiting for. The Bible simply says, “in due time Hannah conceived.” In due time…isn’t that just like God? But God kept good on his promise, and so did she. When Samuel was born, she gave him back to God. “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:27-28).
God had closed her womb…and he opened it when it was time, when she was ready to give all back to him, when she could fully recognize that all she had was never hers to begin with.
If it hadn’t been such a struggle for Hannah to have children, would she have recognized that Samuel belonged to the Lord? If things hadn’t played out for her the way they did, would she have been willing to give her son back to God?
Samuel was instrumental in God’s story, and therefore I think so was Hannah’s heartbreak.
But heartbreak wasn’t the end of her story. It was never meant to be. She goes on to worship the Lord in chapter two, “My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted in the Lord…The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.”
She comes to a place where she recognizes her heartbreak, her season of barrenness as a gift, and it becomes an instrument for singing praise. But it happened with a perspective shift, it came after complete surrender, and ultimately she stayed in that place of surrender, recognizing the gift of her child as something that belonged to the Lord before his conception.
Her heart exulted not in her son, but in the Lord…the only thing that brings true, lasting joy, that nothing and no one can take away.
In the pressing, crushing, breaking, and rending of the heart, God is producing something good. We cannot usually see it in the midst of our suffering because our pain blocks all else from view. And so we put our faith in a promise, in what is hoped for and not yet seen. We trust that in all things, God’s vocation is redemption. If God is who he says he is, our heartbreak points to hope.
“In the pressing, in the crushing, you are making new wine
In the soil I now surrender, you are breaking new ground
And so I yield to you and to your careful hand
When I trust you I don’t need to understand
Make me a vessel
Make me an offering
Make me whatever you want me to be
I came here with nothing
Than all you have given me
Jesus bring new wine out of me.”
(New Wine by Hillsong)