Emotional pain in its relationship to prayer poses an enigma. Pain often leads to prayer, to a crying out to God as we sense that no human help will do; but it can just as easily pull the plug on prayer, shutting the heart down so that the will to pray withers and dies; the same experience pressures the human heart one way or the other. Hannah, 10th century mother of the prophet Samuel, knew such pain, the kind of pain that goes on so long that one is tempted to give up on prayer. But she also knew, or came to know what it meant to keep on praying, even when her heart was near to broken with the seeming silence of God.
Hannah’s lessons for us are three-fold, but before we take them up we must set the context just as does the narrator in the ancient text.
As in all biblical narrative, the story line is unadorned, the crucial facts set forth simply. The first wife of her husband, he takes a second when she proves barren and it is this barrenness that is at the heart of the story. We can imagine the young bride, her husband’s first wife, eager, as would have been the norm in her day, for the bearing of children; we recognize in the lineaments of the story the disappointment that must have crept in as the years went by without any child; we watch the disappointment turn to pain as her husband takes another wife to supply her lack; we cringe as the rival wife, fecund, turns to mocking the wife who had no children. And the mocking hurt all the more for it took place at the yearly festival of worship, that time when every clan and every family had come together to seek God. A lack felt apart from God is one thing; a lack felt in His very presence another thing all together. And she felt it—she felt it keenly—to the point that we find her in the narrative, weeping bitterly and praying to the Lord at the very doorstep of His temple. But why now? Why at this point does she commence praying? The provocation had gone on for years. The narrator tells us that. Why then is it only now that we find her before God in bitter weeping and prayer?
The answer, I believe, is that a new conviction had formed in her heart, a conviction stated in the narrative, though not from the mouth of Hannah. It is found in a gloss by the narrator. “The Lord had closed her womb,” he says. And a verse later he says it again. It requires an inference to put the same thought into Hannah’s heart, but it is an inference that is merited by everything that follows, merited because given Hannah’s situation the narrators gloss is the only possible foundation for the renewal of prayer.
It’s counter-intuitive. We might think that seeing God as the actor who had brought all of this upon her would push her even further from Him. And yet as I reflect on the narrative, I cannot help but conclude that it had the opposite effect, drawing her finally to Him. Her reasoning must have gone something like this. “Better to have had God present than absent, even if His providential act seems gut-wrenching hard. Absence implies indifference. Presence implies engagement and God’s engagement implies hope.”
This is where we find things the most difficult. We do not see how a presence that does not lead to immediate relief or transformative action can be counted as a means of hope. It is often the opposite for us. We find it harder to think that He might have been there and yet seem to have done nothing than to think that He wasn’t there at all. But we only think that because we have no conception of the horror that His real absence would imply. And this is Hannah’s first lesson for us. God’s presence and God’s action, even when inexplicable form a basis for hope and the renewal of prayer. Find Him present in your difficulty and you will be able to truly pray once more.
But then, for what should Hannah hope? To what end should she pray? The narrative here surprises us. We might expect that Hannah’s sole concern would be for the birth of a child that she might be able to push back against the mockery of her rival. It would have been a prayer that aimed solely at relief and revenge. But that is not what we find. Oh, yes, she does pray for a child but not to this end. Rather the purposive intent of her prayer is now focused beyond herself and this makes all the difference. She prays not just for herself but into the larger purposes of God.
The evidence for this shift towards God’s wider purpose comes in the vow that Hannah makes. “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.”
Two key convictions enable this shift in Hannah’s life. One, that God had a purpose in the hard thing He did. And two, close on its heels, that God’s purposes are always good. As Hannah got a hold of these two perspectives they compelled her to search for the larger purpose of God in and through her troubles. And thus her prayer, (and I paraphrase here), “Lord, give me a son and I will give him right back to you to be your man and to serve your ends in the world.”
In this Hannah teaches us her 2nd and 3rd lessons: God, in whatever difficulty you face, has a good purpose and the most fitting thing you can do is to pray into and towards that larger purpose. Initially you may not even be able to see it, but the very spirit of such a prayer will draw you into a larger awareness of God’s ends and as your awareness grows so will the specificity of your prayers and the concrete nature of your service to ends much greater and more significant than what you would have planned for yourself.
Yes, pain may indeed shut down prayer, but not necessarily so. Banking on the presence of God and the good purposes of God it may serve to draw us in to some grand adventure in which we come to serve ends much greater than ourselves.