by Mary Dunham
She had nothing that was exclusively hers. She shared her husband with another woman: his name, his love, his bed. She had no children of her own to keep her company during the long nights when he was with her, no one to take her side during the days of sizzling tension. There were no little ones laughing or squabbling at her dinner table, no one who called her “mother.”
What Hannah wanted most in the world was a baby. A husband could leave, love another woman, be too busy with his work. But not a child. A child would love her first and forever, because her heart would be beating in his breast, her blood flowing in his veins.
It was a simple desire, a pure dream. But no matter how much she prayed, how good she determined to be, how hard she tried, she couldn’t get pregnant. She woke up in the morning and went to bed at night with the same heavy rock in her heart. What had she ever done to deserve this kind of life?
The kicker was that Peninnah, the other wife, had not one but several babies. What Hannah went to bed crying for, woke up praying for, was an automatic, effortless achievement for other people, so why not her?
Just because her story is recorded in the Bible (1 Samuel 1) doesn’t make her a saint. She was a woman who lived with a pain that didn’t go away, a day-in-day-out kind of anguish that evolved into a year-after-year kind of suffering. Heavy with sorrow, Hannah cried, refused to eat, refused to be comforted. No easy fixes here, no quick answered prayers, no indication that God knew who she was or what her life was like.
“Come on Honey,” her husband cajoled. “Don’t make such a big deal of all this. Don’t I make up for everything you don’t have?”
Easy for him to say, this man with not one, but two women loving him and children who called him Daddy. What could he know about this gaping hole in her heart?
Her dreams of what her life was going to be like weren’t happening and it was useless to try to tell her to be thankful for what she had.
No. Quite simply, he wasn’t enough.
She was trapped, isolated in a grief that was misunderstood by her husband and provoked by the other woman. We’ve been there, done that.
When Hannah mourned her pain at church, her pastor, Eli, was shocked. The gushing torrent of pent-up anguish coming through her swaying body made her a repulsive spectacle. She had no pretty prayers to offer, no feminine charm, no acceptable performance. The heart-cry reached her lips but found no voice, making her look like a babbling drunk.
Emptying our souls
“Shame on you! Put away the bottle!” Eli judged her. He mistook her mourning as sin. Unspiritual. Unacceptable.
Raw brokenness is seldom attractive on anyone and often makes people around us uncomfortable, causing them to give answers quickly. “You should . . . why didn’t you . . . just be thankful . . . choose to be happy.” Their solution is as inappropriate as their conclusion.
What all of us are loath to understand — Eli, Hannah, you, me — is that our bent posture speaks of the deep purging that often accompanies pain. Emptying the bucket of un-shed tears that leaden our spirit is a cleansing in the deep places of our being, carrying the pollutants of our past. We feel lighter, cleaner after the raging torrent leaves our body.
It is in this raw mourning that our own sins are loosened from the carcass of dead expectations. The river flowing from our gut to the pillow contains residue from selfishness, secret sins, ugly habits that are loosed and emptied in the flow. Tears, we discover, are the antiseptic of God.
This process is where the seeds of our transformation lie, and to birth them we must labor alone. It is appropriate that few understand our dilemma, because we are forced to run to God alone. It may require a stronger discipline, a quieter maturity. But the pay-off is in a gentle serenity that comes from emptying our souls in prayer to a God who gave us tears and the ability to mourn in the first place. He is hardly offended. Mourning is His prescription for pain.
Hannah’s response to the man of God misjudging her speaks of the serene beauty that suffering had already worked in her:
“Ah no, my Lord,” she gently responds. “I am a woman in deep anguish.”
Simple facts. No more fighting, defending, explaining. No need to manage an image anymore. She is too broken to care what other people think, what they say. This thing is between her and God, and He alone will vindicate her anguish. Humility has replaced indignity.
Creating space for bigger dreams
Small at first — ever so small and hidden, the space we create through mourning our pain begins to grow, getting ready to incubate brand new seed-dreams. But before that happens in us, we must release the old.
It’s not that Hannah’s dream of being a mother was wrong. It was just way too small. She simply wanted a cooing, gurgling baby. She was thinking about play schools, and diapers, sticky kisses, and chubby arms around her neck. They were dreams about her, for her.
God, on the other hand, was dreaming about Samuel the prophet — the boy he wanted to train for Himself. He was thinking about someone who would anoint future kings, change a nation’s destiny, establish His word in a famine of righteousness. Eternal things. But he needed a pure womb, one without strings attached. It seems they are hard to find. Even for God.
We love control and are used to managing our circumstances by negotiating the power of our femininity. Sensitivity, nurturing, beauty, sex, intuition: They all can be cashed in for what we want. When we finally come up against a foe that won’t respond to our best efforts, we are broken and baffled. Ironically, it is here at this broken place that we have the opportunity to be deeply healed.
Maybe you’re like my friend whose husband left her for a younger woman. Maybe you go to bed at night with a silent mate feeling deeply alone, or maybe losing youth and good health is a loss too bitter to bear. Perhaps it dawns on you that your child is never going to be what you intended.
It is at this awful, ugly, and gruesome place that an alter is most appropriate.
“God,” Hannah sobs in 1 Samuel, “if You give me a son, I’ll give him back. He’s really Yours. You can have my womb, my dreams.”
“God,” we pray with her, “I give up. I give this dream back to You. It’s really Yours. I can’t change my circumstances. Only You can create, change, and heal.”
Finally. Quiet release. Letting go. Giving up. We are no longer responsible to make life turn out right.
In this letting go, in giving our secret, most cherished dreams to God, we unleash the divine energy that creates new life. Our shriveled, dried-up wombs are transformed from being a graveyard of aborted dreams and disappointments into a fertile pocket where new gifts, new talents, new life keep growing.
Ironically, the letting go was how Hannah got her baby. But perhaps the greatest miracle was not the new life in her womb, but the change in her. In abandoning herself to God’s way of working, being willing to endure, allowing her soul to be scraped clean from bitter selfishness, she was changed.
She was more rooted now. Knew what she knew. Was no longer afraid of loss, cared more about the eternal, loved God more.
We can learn from Hannah, you and I. The loneliness we are so afraid of is actually an invitation from God to enjoy a deeper intimacy with His heart. In this secure, safe nesting place we are healed and grow strong and create again: a new vision, a new ministry, a new career.
God and us. Birthing brand new dreams together, creating life where there is none now. New possibilities we never thought of before are suddenly happening. The darkness we thought was forever turns out to only be a night.
But it requires a cleaner womb, scraped clean from our sin disease. No more self-pity. No more self-righteousness. No more claiming how good we were, how we didn’t deserve it. No more trying to control people and situations, changing them so they will make the pain go away. No more grasping for what isn’t ours, ike husbands and children and another’s decisions and destiny.
Have you ever read the end of Hannah’s story? She kept having more babies after Samuel. She almost died, was re-birthed, and grew larger.
You will too.
The secret is in not giving up. Holding on to what you know is true. And letting go. Releasing everything that is not yours.
This article appeared in the July/August ’97 issue of Leah’s Sisters. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author
Mary Dunham is the founder and editor of Leah’s Sisters.