Childnessness + the Gospel (joint post)

Glen preached on 1 Samuel 1 this morning, which includes the story of Hannah’s longing to conceive.  This is something of a live issue for us, as we’d love to have kids – but it may not be possible. I’ve been recovered from anorexia for a good few years now, but this may be an area where the damage can’t be reversed. If you’re struggling with some of these issues, this is a great incentive to seek help early on. But it’s hard for me not to turn in on myself with all sorts of guilty, self-accusing thoughts.

What I’d like to do is hide away – especially from church, which seems filled with babies and families.  You will know your own limits.  I know for myself that, much as I’d like to, I’m not always able to help with the  mums and tots group at church.  Sometimes seeing bouncing babies  just rips the heart out of me.  But equally sometimes, (like this morning teaching Sunday school), as we do the hard things, we find comfort and strength in being with others.  As I taught those kids, I was reminded of the same gospel my heart so desperately needed.

Being real doesn’t mean updating the prayer meeting on your hormonal status.  Some things are too painful to talk about with more than one or two friends –  squishy areas where well-meaning comments leave heavy footprints. But wrapping pain in darkness isn’t the answer either.  The gospel is about walking in the light and in truth.  Church is a place where I’m free to be myself and to bring all that I am – not just the shiny bits. And I also need to have Bible balm applied to those areas where I hurt most.

So what does 1 Samuel 1 have to say on this issue?

There are three main characters in this chapter:

Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Penninah.

This is a love triangle that was never meant to be.  Given that Hannah is listed first we’re probably meant to think that Hannah was his first wife and Peninnah came afterwards.  If that’s the case then it’s not much of a stretch to imagine how it all came about.  It’s a good bet that Elkanah was emulating old Abraham’s dubious tactics.  When his first wife couldn’t conceive, he took another woman, even though he didn’t love her.

And so we have:

Hannah who can’t have the kids she craves (v10).

Elkanah who can’t console the wife he loves (v8).

Peninnah who can’t enjoy the blessings she has (v6-7).

Hannah envies Peninnah for her children.  She’ll be tempted to think: If only I have kids I’ll be happy.  Of course, Peninnah’s own unhappiness should disabuse her of that notion.

Penninah envies Hannah for her relationship with her husband.  She thinks, if only I have the love of my husband, I’ll be happy.  Again, Hannah’s own despair should show that a husband’s love won’t satisfy either.

Elkanah has brought trouble on himself.  Perhaps he felt the pressure of his own fruitful tribe (‘Ephraim’ means fruitful and was the most fertile of the 12 tribes). Feeling left out, he’s pursued progeny more than the wife of his youth and now he reaps the trouble it’s brought.  He longs to reach Hannah and console her (v8), but it’s simply not in his power any more and all his approaches will only exacerbate the problems.

Let’s focus on Hannah.  If she presented to her GP with these symptoms, what diagnosis would she receive:

Verse 7: constant crying, loss of appetite.

Verse 8: “Downhearted.”

Verse 10: “Bitterness of soul” and much weeping.

Verse 11: “Misery”.

Verse 15: “Deeply troubled”

Verse 16: “Great anguish and grief.”

With those symptoms, you’d be surprised if, these days, she didn’t get a diagnosis of depression.

But what does she do that helps?

1)    She avoids the blame game.

Hannah has to face up to a very difficult truth, but it’s liberating all the same.  She faces up to verse 5 and 6: “The LORD had closed her womb.”

The issue is not her partner.  The issue is not her (how tempted she’d be towards self-recriminations).  The issue is the LORD.  He has closed her womb.  For now anyway.  This is a hard truth, but it frees us from the blame game.  Hannah is not being punished and she doesn’t have to get her act together.  It’s simply that this door, for now, is closed.

This doesn’t make things any easier.  There’s still weeping and bitterness of soul.  But it’s not about her striving or lack of it.  It’s safe in the hands of the God who is ultimately for her.

2)    She knows the LORD’s pattern

In chapter 2, Hannah sings about the way of the LORD and it’s all about God bringing life out of barrenness:

6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour.

When the LORD closes a door, He’s not finished yet.  This dark night will – in this life or the next – give way to a stunning dawn.

3)    She gives the LORD her deepest desires (rather than demand them)

In verse 11, Hannah actually offers God her firstborn son (if He should grant her one).  This is stunning.  If it’s hard to be childless, how much harder is it to hand over your son once you’ve given birth and nurtured him?

But this is what Hannah does.  She offers to God her deepest desire.

And on that very day “her face was no longer downcast” (v18).

Hannah is transformed before she falls pregnant.  This isn’t about praying for infallible blessings.  No, her spirits lift not by getting her deepest desire from God.  She is changed when she offers her deepest desire to God.

This is the way to a supernatural peace which the world will not understand.

Elkanah had said to Hannah “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”  He had no right to say that.  But Jesus does.  He’s the God who works in and through darkness and despair.  And He raises the needy from the ash heap to sit with Him on the throne.  He says to us today: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

12 thoughts on “Childnessness + the Gospel (joint post)

  1. Thanks Emma for your post. I was wondering if you have an tips for a pastor (me) who would love do a better job at looking after couples who want to but can’t have children. No pressure to reply. :)

  2. Glen and Emma, thank you for sharing what I know is a very personal struggle that is constantly made public. My husband and I have lost two, possibly three, babies through the years and I know the pain and desire to blame (someone, anyone!) that can be almost overwhelming at times. I remember days where I could think of nothing but my empty womb. Hanna’s honest anguish and plea to the Lord is such an example to us, no matter how empty or full our quiver. Thanks.

  3. Caroline

    Thank-you for your own honesty – I can’t even begin to imagine how that must feel. Praise God for a Saviour who does. x

  4. Hi Liam

    Thanks for your comment. I’ll chew over your question and maybe come back to it later in the week.

  5. So beautifully, honestly & insightly written Emma. I love your insights on precious Hannah, she has so much to teach us.

    I concurr with you, in this gut wrenchinly difficult struggle. There is only one way. And it’s the way of honesty, about the pain you feel to God & the people God shows you, are safe to share this intimately with. And it’s the way of surrender to God’s plan. (The pain of a loss of something you have never had, can equally be as painful as something you have had & lost – it’s another often unrecognised form of grief.)

    Hannah surrended in an absolutely amazing way. But equally so did Jesus & his surrender to the will of God looked very different. Think of Jesus sweating tears & blood in the Garden of Gethsamane.
    But the prayers are the same ‘not my will, but yours’. That’s when we really give up our desires, when we really surrender what we want to the divine God – who wants only the best for us.

    My husband & I found it to be the only prayer that held any comfort, in the face of being told we couldn’t have children. It took many months of struggle to get too. It didn’t take away the pain & longing, but it showed us that we desired God’s will in our life even over our desperate desire for children.

    My heart goes out to all those childless couples reading this. May God comfort you in your pain & may you find His way to be a place of peace x

  6. Thanks so much for posting this – incredibly helpful reading – comforting and challenging. Infertility is so much more widespread than people think.

  7. Dear Faith Hope Love

    Thanks for your honesty, your wisdom and for the reminder of our Saviour who says ‘not my will but yours’ and who suffers for us.

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