Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hope and Suffering

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology and
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling at the Charlotte campus

When I used to think of Hannah, I used to think of God’s blessing in her life, the provision of the son, Samuel, for whom she had begged God. I used to think of the other sons and daughters he gave her to give her joy in her life. But I have a new perspective.

It started with revisiting the book of Ruth and seeing Naomi. She had many years of grief and suffering before she saw the blessing of God. She and her family were devastated by a famine. So devastated that her husband uprooted the family and moved them to a foreign country outside Israel who worshiped false gods. She must have been devastated watching her husband try to survive the drought, planting only to see it shrivel up and die. Finally, to move, to leave all her family and friends, her home and neighbors, and move to a country where she would be a stranger and would be surrounded by those who do not know the God of Israel. After uprooting her and moving her and her sons to Moab, he dies, leaving her alone. Her only resource was her two sons. While there, her sons married Moabite women. Did this bring her joy? Unlikely - they married women from outside Israel who did not worship God. They would be a temptation to her sons to lead them away from the one true God. In the ten years they were married to these women, they did not produce children. Both sons were childless! Then both her sons died. She felt worse than abandoned by God. She felt that God had dealt with her bitterly. When she returned to Israel, she urged her daughters-in-law to return to their families and not stay with her. Naomi had lost all hope. "Don’t come with me. You can expect nothing from me. My life is pretty much over and I have nothing left to offer." Orpah left. Ruth refused to leave her. She had become a believer in the God of Israel - how? Naomi? Her sons? When she returns to Israel, she is still impoverished. Her only means of survival is the grain that Ruth was able to glean in the fields - was Naomi so old at this point that she couldn’t even glean? It is at this low point that God turns things around. Boaz comes into the picture, marries Ruth and produces the grandson for Naomi that her own sons did not. And, she and Ruth are a part of the story of the coming of Jesus.

What did Naomi gain from all the misery in her life, before God turned it around? Naomi was so focused on what she lost that she failed to see what she had: God had blessed her and provided for her in Ruth, who loved her and cared for her so that she did not die nor have to beg to survive.

When I used to read Hannah’s story, I read either about how she dealt with her depression by having faith in God’s promise, or I saw the promise of God in that he blessed her with a child in her old age. But, I looked again after reading about Naomi and seeing her story in a new way. Hannah suffered unbearably for many years before she received God’s blessing. She was childless, so her husband took a second wife to produce heirs. She produced "sons and daughters." Hannah was more beloved of Elkanah than Peninnah, but this served only to embitter Peninnah against Hannah. Peninnah tormented Hannah - probably over her childlessness. This had to go on for years: If Peninnah had only 2 boys and 2 girls, and weaned them at 3 years old, she would have had to been Elkanah’s second wife for at least 12 years! It was in all likelihood much more than that. All the while tormenting Hannah. No wonder she was depressed!

She was depressed because her expectations for marriage had failed - she had not had the children her culture had taught her were a blessing to women. She believed the lie that barrenness was a sign from God of judgement. She had not been able to fulfill her responsibility to produce heirs for her husband, who loved her. She experienced the bitterness of the disruption of her marriage by the addition of a second wife, which she probably blamed on herself for being childless. Peninnah’s fruitfulness made her believe that it was "her fault" that she was childless. Something was wrong with her . . . God had closed her womb because of something in her.

To add insult to injury, Eli accused her of being drunk when she was in the Tabernacle praying to God for deliverance from this tormented life through provision of a son.

When Eli offered a blessing, however vague his understanding was, something changed in Hannah - she was no longer depressed by the circumstances of her life. She had not yet conceived, Peninnah still tormented her, but she was no longer depressed.

What happened? What did Hannah learn?

In her prayer she expressed the following truths:
The Lord God is holy and He is the only God
She learned to rely on God alone
God is the one who gives or takes away anything we have in life
God is the one who gives children
God’s favor is what brings joy, not the things of this life that society tells us we must have
God has the power of life and death, to give wealth and poverty, children and barrenness
Those who oppose God will be overthrown and judged

What had she learned before she conceived that enabled to overcome her depression, even before God gave her the son? Were these truths expressed in her song the things she learned? God brought Hannah to the place where she was able to give her son to God. If she had had children in the normal course of life, she would probably have not given Samuel to God. But she became willing to do so.

Did God give these difficult years to these two women to build character? What kind of women did they become? They were dependent on God for their comfort and sense of worth. They developed patience, no doubt. They became the kind of women who could raise sons like Obed, the grandfather of David, and Samuel, the prophet of God. They became Chayil women.

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