“But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?“
1 Samuel 1:5-8
M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled wrote in the first chapter of the aforementioned title “Life is difficult”. This seems like an obvious statement, but Peck’s position is that we must come to accept the difficulty of life before we can make progress as human beings. One only has to turn on the news or go through middle school (ugh) to learn that life is difficult and at times, quite unpleasant. So how do we handle pain and difficulty? I wouldn’t know how to counsel a non-Christian. I am sure the answers would be interesting and helpful. My question is how we, as a believers in God, handle the difficulty, struggle, and pain when our Bible tells us we have a God who is faithful, compassionate, and gracious?
I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I think the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel provides a fascinating perspective into these difficult questions.
Hannah was one of two wives of a man named Elkanah. (Has there ever been a situation where having two wives was a good idea?) Hannah was barren because “the Lord had closed her womb,” while the other wife had no problem bearing children. (Note that the author of this story mentions twice that God had closed Hannah’s womb. Note also that God was seen as dictating the circumstances in Hannah’s life which contributed to her difficulty). In those days a woman’s significance and meaning hinged greatly on her ability to bear children. As a barren woman Hannah would be seen as substandard. She couldn’t bear sons to take care of the livestock, farms, etc. The same sons would also be the ones to care for Hannah in her old age, there being no Social Security or IRAs in those days.
Now the other woman in the relationship, (never a good thing), would taunt and provoke Hannah because Hannah could not bear children, while she could. “So it went on year by year,” (1 Sam. 1:7). Consider the weight of those words. Hannah had to live with this nasty and cruel woman who would irritate and mock Hannah repeatedly. The Bible says in two different places that this provocation went on “year after year”. Here is Hannah, who is already in grief about her barren condition and has to endure the scorn of a the other wife who is able to conceive for their husband. For years she has to endure this mockery and scorn.
What is Hannah to do? Well at least she has an understanding and compassionate husband, right? Wrong. Like all men, Hannah’s husband tries to help but only ends up stepping in a big pile of poo. His attempts to console his wife only made things worse. He says, “Cheer up darling. Aren’t I better than you having ten sons? You may be barren, but at least you got me!” Open mouth, insert foot. The fact that Hannah has a loving husband can’t change her empty womb or the mocking she receives continually from her rival. I feel bad for Hannah’s husband, because I’ve said my share of insensitive things at one time or another, but I feel even worse for Hannah. Not only is she barren, but she’s got Fertile Myrtle in the next room with her own children. Not only is the other wife fruitful, but she’s arrogant about it and mocks Hannah constantly. If that’s not enough, her husband can’t understand the pain she is in so as to offer her some appropriate words of comfort. And above all these thing, Hannah has to live with the knowledge that God is sovereign over her circumstances and could alleviate her pain at any time, but does not.
Where is God in all of this pain and difficulty? Where is God while Hannah suffers the mocking and contempt of a wicked woman? Where is God while Hannah cries out for God to enable her to have children? Where is God while Hannah suffers year after year? God is right there in the midst of the story. It says so, “The Lord had closed her womb,” (v5), “because the Lord had closed her womb,” (v6). God is right there at the center of the pain this poor woman is experiencing. God is, to some degree, the architect of this difficult situation, a situation that went on year after year. It was a situation where God, the loving, compassionate, merciful, and gracious God, stood by and permitted difficulty, pain, and sorrow in Hannah’s life.
It is a hard thing for a believer to process that there is a sovereign God who loves me but is allowing, permitting, and even directing difficulty into my life. We’ve all heard it said or even said it ourselves, “If God is good, why doesn’t he take away suffering?” “Why doesn’t he intervene?” “Why doesn’t he DO SOMETHING?” The believer lives with the knowledge of a good and loving God who will withhold intervention in our lives, even if it means prolonged suffering and heartache.
In Hannah’s case, her story was not over, it was still being written. God ultimately opens her womb and blesses her with a son, Samuel. Not only is Samuel a faithful high priest before God, but he is a foreshadowing of the kind of high priest God would one day provide in Jesus. “And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever,” (1 Samuel 2:35). After Samuel was born Hannah sings a song of thanksgiving and praise that gets recorded in the Bible. Mary, the mother of Christ, would use some of Hannah’s language in her own song of praise when she was told she would be the bearer of the Christ. Hannah went from a place of humiliation and scorn to exaltation and blessing before God.
This is one rambling in a possible series of ramblings on pain and suffering. (I know you’re all thrilled). So what do we take from this story?
– God may direct suffering in difficulty in your life but your story is still being written. Like Hannah, he may work through the pain and heartache to accomplish something incredible.
– The Lord’s purposes sometimes mean bad people will temporarily gain the upper hand, (see also the nasty wife Hannah had to live with), but that’s not the end of the story.
– Our call, difficult though it may be, is to endure and trust. (I would rather get a root canal than hear those words). We are called to trust God, his character and his plan, over what our eyes can see.
I know this is a bit heavier than some other blogs, but this story has been percolating around in my noggin for a while now and needed to come out. I hope it might be of some blessing to anyone who reads it. God bless, and Happy Monday.