How many times have we asked for something in prayer, only to never have it? How much have we ever wanted something, so that when we asked for it, we were willing to sacrifice whatever it took to get it? A more important question is this: do we even actually, truly believe that God– the God that Christians insist exist– can and will give us what we ask for?
There is that point of desperation, where we finally accept that there is really nothing more we can do that we’ve already done. We’ve tried this way, and that way, and every other which way that everyone’s advised. Then, after everything fails, after our faith in everyone in our life fails, comes that moment of despair.
Sadly, most people reach that point and never go any further. They settle in the mud, they cover themselves in ashes, they mourn and they weep and they give up, and in so doing, they bury themselves deeper and deeper into the pit that they have slowly dug around themselves.
Little do they know that if they had only taken one extra step, they could have moved forward into something greater, easier, lighter, and fuller. Desperation can be good sometimes, because it opens our eyes to the unchanged truth that when we can no longer, only God can ever.
It is in knowing this truth that we truly reach out, beyond human hands: human hands that seek to reach out to us but really cannot help us enough; human hands that have good intentions but can only grasp the surface of our deepest griefs, pain, woes, and sufferings. We instead reach out beyond those human hands to a God that we must start to believe exists, because we have no other hope in anything else in this dark, miserable, and empty life.
Hannah, a Jewish woman from thousands of years ago, experienced being in that direst point of woe and anguish. Oh, I believe she prayed regularly to God, as a Jewish woman. She’d been taught, I’m sure, ever since she was a little girl, to pray for rain upon their crops, for protection from their enemies, for good health for her family; to thank God for the food on the table and victory from their enemies. But what made her finally sink to her knees in desperation?
Perhaps she was nearing or already beyond the end of her child-bearing years, and still childless.
Perhaps every time she would walk to the markets, in their small town, people would stare and whisper “Cursed” under their breaths, because they believed that children are blessings from God, and if Hannah couldn’t have any, maybe God didn’t want to bless her, and worse, maybe God had cursed her for something she must have done.
Perhaps that beautiful little boy she saw playing on his mother’s lap reminded her of what she didn’t have. Perhaps that young man tenderly embracing his mum goodbye at the door showed her the future she could never hope to experience.
The Bible doesn’t tell us. What it does say is that her husband’s second wife’s taunting and bullying had become too much for her: the second wife did, after all, give their husband children and Hannah could not.
The curtains of Act Two in the life of Hannah opens with her determinedly and purposefully walking to the Temple. Speed-walking, perhaps, eager to get to her destination. Eager to reach a place where no one can see her. Eager to fall prostrate, to let all the pain, anger, and sorrow out. Eager to let all the tears that she had been keeping in flood out.
Whatever circumstance had recently happened in her life, we only see in the book of 1 Samuel (in the Bible) that Hannah finally reaches her breaking point, and finally understands now that only something superhuman could ever give her what she longed for. With all her desperation, and yet all the faith that rises from the sense of nothingness and loss, she bargains with God the exact same one thing she had always been so desirous to have: her not-yet-existent son. A child she wasn’t sure she would ever have. She bargains to give him back to the Lord, to be for God’s use, for the rest of his life, if He would only first grant her the joy of being called a mother.
Here we see deep, sincere, and heart-felt prayer. Here we witness the final unleashing of the faith that she had to have as she prayed all those years, uncertain of when and if she would ever receive what she had for so long asked for. This one last prayer—the prayer in which she threw herself and her desire fully into the arms of God in full desperation, recognizing that she had been defeated in her own efforts of conceiving—was the one in which Hannah recognized that only God could save her now, from all the shame and grief and pain. This one last prayer was a prayer acknowledging defeat. In a world and time when victory mattered, she surrendered.
Hannah went home, after obtaining the blessing of the priest Eli. I’m sure she was at peace. I’m sure that her heart was settled and calm. I’m sure that the pain lingered in the form of a quiet sadness. But I am also sure that within her was now the knowledge that God would take care of her. I’m sure she hoped again, that God might not be so passive as she might have started believing that He was.
It was shortly after this, the Bible tells us, that Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son, Samuel. A woman whom they called barren finally had a son. Hannah kept her end of the bargain as a woman of faith and character. She gave him back to God, and God used Samuel mightily.
Perhaps Hannah did not really think God was real until after God had made the seemingly impossible happen. Perhaps “God” had become nothing more than a concept, a culture, a practice, a routine, or just religion to her. Perhaps the idea and reality of God had settled in the background of her life as nothing more than a comfortable noise, a reliable back wall she could call upon whenever she needed the extra reference.
Perhaps God wanted Hannah to realise His reality, for her to allow God’s full reality to integrate into every corner of her life. Perhaps God wanted her to learn that having an idea of the “idea of God” is not enough. Perhaps God wanted Hannah to realise that God is someOne Who, though unseen, is real, and that she must learn to let His being and His will permeate every inch and crack of her life to make her whole again. Perhaps Hannah had to be broken–fully, utterly–for her to realise that she had never been whole in the first place.
Perhaps her barrenness and subsequent un-barrenness was a lesson in humility, too. Humility that she could do nothing with her hands, humility to remind her decades later that her son, who would become one of the greatest prophets of Israel, did not become great as any result of how she raised him. Perhaps she had to learn the lesson of surrender first, to continually remind her that it was not she who “created” who Samuel was to become, but that he was only lent to her of God.
How often have we prayed to God, and gone away to plan out how we can work around our circumstances to get what we want regardless of whether “God” answers or not? This is perhaps why in our own lives, we rarely see God as clearly moving as He has in time past. We ask Him, “Please do this,” and we go do it our way anyway, straightaway.
There are is a problem with this: we heap up consequences long-term that we could never have foreseen, consequences that never would have come if God had been the One to move.
In our doing things on our own, we likewisethen deny ourselves that wondrous pleasure of pointing and declaring to all of nature, the world and ourselves, “That wasn’t me. That was definitely God.”
Maybe we would not need to bargain, and maybe we would not have to be added on to the list of ex-barren women miraculously having children. To witness God’s hand doing great things through our lives is a miracle enough in itself.
We freak out when we do not have everything under control. But God demands full trust. He demands faith and surrender. He has nothing against desperation. He requires abandon. He demands to work for you, and only then can He work through you.
God demands a full pouring out of our desires to Him, and full-on faith with an attitude of humility that says, “I cannot make this happen; only God can. And if He needs me to give everything for it, I will.”
For Hannah’s full story, click here. Or read the Bible if you’ve got one (1 Samuel 1). 😉
I wrote this article originally in the early morning of the 22nd of August, 2013, for one of my classes in Sydney Bible Baptist College, as a rushed assignment. Back then, I was stuck in desperation and pain, uncertain that God was really even real. But I was living it, and living through it, and I denied its affecting me. So at its first writing, this article had only a little smidgeon of hope in it, romanticised mostly by pain that “demands to be felt (quoting John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars).” I simply made a real-life story sound even more sensational, and I basked in the drama.
As I rediscovered and rewrote this article again a few days ago, however, I realised that it could become something more…something poignant, something beautiful. The past’s grief, which used to be a shadow, has become the present’s solid ground.
With the sensationalism of pain as a context and with grief as the underlying tone, I am given deeper, heavier, and sturdier roots to build on. It has given solidity, when once all I had were wisps. I realised that the living I was doing back then was not really living…I was really just surviving.
It has been exactly three years, and since then I have taken an “extra step out”…thrice. And my life has never been the same.