As I hope you know, Ryan and I are active members at Grace Toronto Church, which is a source of joy for us. Every church is imperfect, of course, but in four short years, Grace has profoundly shaped who we are as followers of Christ. I am so grateful for our pastors and staff members, and I’m also privileged to know many, many gifted women in my congregation.
One such woman is Sue MacDonald, our head pastor’s wife. She co-founded Grace with Dan and is actively involved now in the church, serving, teaching, discipling, and sharing her home with others. Sue spoke this past weekend at our women’s brunch on the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1, 2) and the subject of unfulfilled desires. It was such a blessing to me and the other women there that I asked if I could share it with you here.
As it was a 30-minute talk she delivered, it’s quite a bit longer than a normal blog post would be. But I would encourage you to find time today or this week to sit down with Sue’s words. In whatever disappointments or delays you may find yourself, you can begin knowing more intimately the goodness of God.
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This morning, I want to take some time to look at this idea of unfulfilled desires and expectations.
Tim Keller says – “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.”
Keller is simply saying what is true. We live in a world that is broken. Everyday we are met with unfulfilled desires and expectations – either in ourselves or in others. No matter where you are in your journey of faith, this reality is inescapable.
One of my earliest memories of coming face to face with the power of unfulfilled desire was when I was 9 years-old. My dad and mom had decided to move us from India to the Philippines. All I wanted to do was stay where I was. I did not want to move. I did not want to leave my life in India. I was adamant. But all the pleading and complaining did nothing to stop my parents from making the move. And for the first three months of our lives in the Philippines, every time we would leave the house, I would throw up! Yes, throw up! I did not want to be there. I desired to be home!
Since then, I have desired much. And along the way, there have been many unfulfilled desires – things that have ruined my otherwise “well-constructed” life. Some are simple desires like hitting 40 and noticing the effects of gravity on my body. Every time I look in the mirror, I desire the body I had in my 20’s. Some unfulfilled desires are more powerful than others and leave a more defining mark on you. The death of my mom created a series of unfulfilled desires. She wasn’t at my wedding. She wasn’t there when Shaila was placed in my arms.
How about you? Unfulfilled desires are powerful. What do you do when you are faced with them? How do you deal when something ruins your well put-together life?
I want us this morning to take a walk with Hannah. She was a woman who dealt with unfulfilled desires. Through her life and words in 1 Samuel 1 and 2, we will see the root of her pain, the shape of her pain, the response to the pain and the change promised in pain.
Firstly, the root of Hannah’s pain.
Here the story of Hannah begins with the author setting the scene. The scene opens with a brief description of Elkanah – who he was and where he came from – which is significant because it sets up the lineage of Samuel – one of the great deliverers of Israel.
And then, we learn he had two wives. One was named Hannah and the other Peninnah. The order of them introduced seems to indicate that Hannah was most likely Elkanah first wife. Peninnah, his second. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
To understand the root of her pain, we must understand the object of her desire.
Hannah desired to be a mother. She desired children. Hannah desired a good thing. The Bible tells us desire is a good thing. The Psalms is filled with songs of desire. If you want to read more about desire, I commend to you Jen Michel’s book, “Teach Us To Want.” It is an excellent book that explores the concept of desire. But what I want to note in this text is that the object of Hannah’s desire was good. Most of the objects of our desires are good!
You may be here and desire to be married. That is a good desire. You may be here and desire to get a good education. That is a good desire. You may be here and desire to have a good job and career. These are all good things.
Hannah desired that which was good! Therefore, the root of Hannah’s pain, was a legitimate desire withheld. When good desires are withheld, there is real pain and sadness.
I know what it is to be barren. It is the days that have been numbered in my life. I feel Hannah’s pain as a woman. Dan and I had talked about having 6 kids, early on in our marriage. I agreed to birth only three, by the way. If we were going to have 6, we would have to adopt the rest. We had desires and expectations – good desires and natural expectations. To this day, there are times I wonder what our children would have looked like, what it would be like to feel a baby’s kick. There is a sadness that I will most likely live with the rest of my life. There is a grief that I will carry with me.
If you are here this morning and you are struggling with unfulfilled desires, you are not alone. Your pain, sorrow and sadness are legitimate if you desire a good thing.
Secondly, the shape of Hannah’s pain.
If you were an original reader you would have understood the importance of women having children in that culture.
In Hannah’s day, a woman’s success was determined by the number of children she had. Women found their purpose and future secured by their kids. It was what they expected of themselves and what their culture expected. To not have children, would be devastating – personally and socially. A woman’s day was spent taking care of her children. It was her work. It was her career. It is how a woman made her mark on her world. It was how her culture defined the “ideal” woman – the “successful’ woman.
Hannah’s pain not only stemmed from a legitimate desire but was shaped and intensified by external forces – in her case her family and culture.
As women of the 21st century living in Toronto, we may have slightly different ways of defining the ‘ideal’ woman. But our culture shapes and intensifies our desires as well. In our city, the ideal woman is one who is fit, fashionable, educated and successful. I must say in my city-neighborhood, throw in – married to an equally successful man and two children – preferably one of each gender – and now we have the ideal, successful woman!
For Hannah, her barrenness was not just a private sadness and grief but a very public one. And in the shape of her pain, we see the transformation of a good desire into an ultimate desire. Let’s look what happens in the story:
Hannah’s husband, who we are told “loved her”, took another wife because she could not bear him children. I can only imagine what that must have communicated to her. Her private sadness – a very legitimate pain – now became a very public shame. Elkanah’s own desire to have children was greater than his love for Hannah.
On a side note, it must be said that the Bible does not ever endorse polygamy. Every time there are multiple wives involved, it is never a good thing. The consequence of breaking the marriage covenant speak for itself through the devastating carnage it leave in families. And Hannah’s story is no exception.
To make things worse, his second wife, Penninah, was jealous. We are told she considered Hannah a rival. The ironic thing is that Hannah wanted what Penninah had – children. Penninah wanted what Hannah had – the love of her husband. Both desires were good. But a good thing became the ultimate thing in both their lives. And now the object and intensity of their desires corrupted their emotions, actions and relationships. Is that not what happens to us as well when we make good things our ultimate things?
We are told Penninah, provoked Hannah in order to irritate her.” That word “irritate” means to grieve her. It was like pouring salt on an open wound. Hannah’s pain was magnified by the constant reminded of her unfulfilled desire by Penninah. And all it did was condemn her.
We are told, in no uncertain terms, in verses 7 and 8 that her anguish over not having children became her everything. She wept. That word “wept” means to moan with grief. She refused to eat. When you refuse to eat you are saying pretty much, “I just want to die! I can’t bear it no more. Life is not worth living if I do not get what I desire.”
We see, in the shape of Hannah’s pain, what happens when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing. Hannah was never meant to wrap her identity around having children. The good thing was never meant to define her. It could not carry the weight of her desire.
Is this not what happens to us? Good desires withheld are legitimately painful. But so many times, the pain of our unfulfilled desires begin to change shape when a good desire become an ultimate desire we cannot live without.
I can resonate with Hannah.
It was March of 2006, and my phone rang. It was my sister-in-law, my older brother’s wife. She and I had journeyed together in our infertility for over 10 years – grieved together, supported each other. Though we prayed that God would bless us with children, I was not prepared for what I was about to hear. She said, “Sue, I am pregnant!” I felt a ton of bricks fall on me. I knew the right thing to do… so I went on autopilot and said, “Binc, I am so excited for you! Praise God!” When in my heart, all I could say was, “Oh, my God!” By that evening, I was in no place to see people or talk to anyone. I climbed into the shower, turned the water on – scalding my skin and wept. Wept like I had not wept before. I felt like I was going to be undone. I still remember that day! I still remember that shower.
What are your unfulfilled desires? What cultural expectations drive those desires? Where, on the spectrum of pain, do you find yourself? Are you at the beginning, where you are grieving a good desire or are you where we find Hannah, where the object of her desire consumes her every waking moment?
The shape of her pain revealed that she no longer desired a good thing – for that good thing had become the ultimate thing.
So what now? What do we do when we find ourselves in this place?
Let’s look at Hannah’s response because in her response we see three things:
Firstly, Hannah moved towards God.
Three words in verse 9, indicate Hannah’s initial response. “Hannah stood up.” After years of weeping and at times refusing to eat because she could not imagine how she could continue to live, “Hannah stood up.”
These are seemingly abrupt words in the narrative. And I believe Tim Keller is right, when he says that the author of Samuel put in this detail not by accident but to show us a turn in the story – a move to action. Something has changed in Hannah.
We are at a climax in the story in verse 8. It can go either way. Hannah can go about doing what she has been doing year after year and spend the rest of her days in misery and anguish or she can make a change.
Look with me at verse 7. It seemed that Hannah had gone to the house of the Lord before but we were told that Penninah provoked her to grief. In other words, she kept hearing the condemnation of those around and allowed it to define her. And all it did was condemn her – leaving her in anguish and pain.
Here’s the thing we learn, the world will condemn us when we don’t meet their expectations. And the more we look to the world around us to affirm us, the more we find ourselves condemned when we fail.
But Hannah had enough of the condemnation that she felt. Not only had her body failed her, her husband had failed her and her culture was relentless in reminding her of her failure. It was in the midst of all this, that she “stands up” and decides to move towards God.
Secondly, Hannah came as she was.
Hannah did not clean herself up. She did not get her emotions in order. Note verse 10. Hannah came to God in “deep anguish.” She came “weeping bitterly.” She was in such pain and anguish that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk.
So often we think we cannot come to God with our deepest pain. We feel that he won’t hear us unless we have it all together. Hannah’s story tells us that we can come to God with our deep hurts, even our anguish over making an idol of our desires.
It was in that same shower, where the scalding water was now taking it’s toll on my skin, that I poured out my pain, anguish and hurt to the Lord. Thank God for a flat-rate water bill that year!
Thirdly, Hannah came in submission.
We see her posture of submission in the way she makes a vow with God.
Two times we were told in the first 8 verses, that God closed Hannah’s womb. I don’t know about you but does this make you uncomfortable? It should. Really at this point, you and I should be saying, this is all God’s fault! How could a loving God withhold something good? And not only something good, but in this case something He created Hannah to desire? What kind of God is He?
Do you desire to be married? Is that good? Yes! Then why would God withhold it? Are you out of work? Is it good to work? Yes! Then why would God withhold it?
Two truths about God that Hannah submitted to.
Firstly, God is the Almighty, Sovereign God.
For the first time in the Old Testament, God is introduced as the Lord Almighty in verse 3 and immediately we encounter a God, who exercises his power by closing Hannah’s womb. And in verse 11, she begins with the words, “Almighty God…”. –that is not a coincidence.
Hannah was confronted by her autonomy and God’s sovereignty. I am sure in those days, even though they did not have fertility treatments like we do now, there were most likely things that the women in her village made her do that they thought would make her pregnant. And she probably did them all. But she was still barren. And we are told that God made her so.
Hannah’s, very act of standing up, going to God, and addressing Him as the Almighty God, was an act of submission – a laying down of her autonomy and acknowledging God’s Sovereignty.
John Frame, in one of his writings, Believing in God in the Twenty-first Century, writes, ”Believing in the biblical God and believing in one’s own autonomy are absolutely contradictory, totally at odds with one another. You cannot do both. The God of the Bible is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. He will not permit himself to be found by a human intellect that shakes its fist in pride and says, “O I will be the final judge of truth and right.” No two views can be further apart than believing in the biblical God and believing in human autonomy.”
We see Hannah’s doctrine of God’s Sovereignty fully developed in Chapter 2, in her prayer of praise – verses 3 and 6.
“Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance for the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed…The Lord brings death and makes alive; he bring down to the grave and rises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth, he humbles and exalts.”
Hannah’s heart had come to delight in the sovereignty of God – not just submit to it..
When our doings have failed us and our desires remain unfulfilled, when the world condemns us and we find ourselves at the end, we come to the Sovereign God of heaven and earth. And when we fully understand what it means that he is Sovereign, like Hannah, we will delight to submit to him. It will become a song of praise.
Not only did Hannah submit to a Sovereign God but secondly, Hannah submitted to a merciful God.
Note her prayer in verse 11, “If you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant.” These are the words of a subject in a King’s court pleading for mercy.
Hannah came to realize only God could deal with the enormity of her situation and if he was not merciful then she would be undone. We now, on this side of the cross, have a greater confidence that God is merciful because His mercy was demonstrated in the gospel.
Hebrews 4 – “For we do not have a high priest (Jesus, God) who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
I don’t know how long I stood in that shower weeping but at the end of pouring out all my anguish I sat down in the tub and finally said these words, “If you don’t hold me, I will be undone Lord!” These were words of submission. These were the words that cried, “Do not forget me! Remember me! Because I will not survive, if you don’t!”
We have looked the root and shape of Hannah’s pain and her response. Now, finally, let’s take a look at Hannah’s change.
Her response began a change that was life-transforming.
In verse 11, she asks for a son. She says, “But give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
At first glance it looks like nothing has changed. She still wants what she wants. But let’s look closer.
I am sure, year after year, when she went up the house of the Lord she asked God for a child. I don’t think this was the first time she pleaded with God. But this time she does not just ask for a child. She is specific. She wants a son. And not just a son, but a son she will give back to the Lord. A son who will be a Nazarite – “no razor will be ever used on his head.” A Nazarite was one who as soon as he was weaned would go live in the temple and eventually be trained to be a priest.
This meant, she would not hold him or watch him grow. She would not be able to sing to him or cuddle him. Everything you do as a mom would not be hers to have. Do you see the change? She no longer needed a child to fulfill her – to give her a purpose or identity. The object of her desire had become another. God Himself. And her good desire, having children, was put back in its rightful place.
What a change! What freedom!
In verse 18,”it says that she went her way and ate something,” and her face was no longer downcast. Another translation reads, “no longer sad.” What a contrast to verse 7 where she wept and would not eat. Her unfulfilled desires no longer defined nor consumed her. She did not know if God would give her a son at that time. She knew if he did give her a son, then she would give him back to him. Her good desire had met her true ultimate desire – God Himself – and it freed her!
That night in my shower was a defining night for me. It is one that will be seared in my mind forever. It was the night that God, in His grace, simply spoke to the deep place of anguish and pain and said, “I am enough! You will not be undone.” There was no promise of a child given that night but there was a reminder of a Son who was given for all time!
In the course of time, Hannah did have a son, Samuel. Hannah brings him to Eli and says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked him for. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life will be given over to the Lord.”
Then she prays this beautiful prayer of praise in chapter 2, a foreshadowing of the redemption of God, where he will make right all that is wrong. He will do it by turning everything upside down.
“The bows of the warriors are broken and those who stumble are armed with strength. Those who are full hire themselves out for food, but those who are hungry are hungry no more. She who is barren has borne seven children but she who has had many sons pines away….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 honor.”
A long time later another woman, who carried another child, would pray a very similar prayer. Like Hannah, she too had a son. And like Samuel, this Son was going to deliver his people. And in His deliverance is THE PROOF that our God is totally sovereign and totally merciful.
Both Samuel and Jesus came to deliver God’s people. Samuel did it by ruling over the nation of Israel. Jesus did it by laying down his life and delivering God’s people from their real enemy – sin and death. And in doing so Jesus put to death any ideas that God does not care for us when he withholds our desires, that God does not feel our pain. Isaiah 53 says,
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our grief’s and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.”
In Jesus, we will never be undone because He was undone. In His undoing He bore all the wrath of God so that all the mercy and love of the Sovereign God could be poured upon us.
In Jesus, we can lay down our good thing because He laid down the good thing, his life. So that for all eternity, we can enjoy the ultimate thing – God Himself.