Hannah wanted a child. She was loved by her husband Elkanah, yet he did not understand the depths of her desire. He made vain attempts to cheer her by questioning why his love was not enough. Her husband did not see this infertility as a weakness but Hannah did. Perhaps Elkanah did not see infertility as a weakness because he had another wife, Peninnah, to provide offspring for him. Yet year after year, Hannah went to make sacrifices at the temple of the Lord, and year after year, she did not conceive.
On one trip to make sacrifices, the priest, Eli sees Hannah and assumes she is drunk and goes to reprimand her. But Hannah is not drunk. She is weeping bitterly and praying so fervently she appears to be going crazy. And all along, her co-wife Peninnah continues to ridicule Hannah because of her infertility.
I hesitate to call Hannah’s infertility a weakness because of the weight such a word carries. Weakness has connotations of shame that I do not want to put on Hannah or anyone else who has suffered from infertility. So often, we see weakness as something we must overcome. But while Hannah’s story may identify a weakness, it is not meant to be a prescription to overcome our own weaknesses.
Oxford gives three definitions for the word with slight variations depending on the context the word is used in. The second definition states, "a quality or feature regarded as a disadvantage."
Defined in these terms, I have no doubt Hannah would agree that she viewed her infertility as a weakness. She may have also carried the extra weight that the word weakness brings as so many of us do. We do not all struggle with infertility but we all have something we would regard as a disadvantage. We all have weaknesses. We all have things that bring shame, things we would love a prescription to fix, or things that make us feel less than or put us at a disadvantage.
But what do we do with our weaknesses?
Do we embrace and love them?
If we embrace and love our weaknesses, we run the risk of putting ourselves in danger. If our bodies are giving out does that mean we love the disease that is stripping us of our strength? No. We do what we can to fight against whatever is weakening us.
Must we find a way to overcome them?
Someone who suffers from a disease such as Lou Gehrigs can not simply eat right and exercise to strengthen their muscles. Hannah is not the only woman in the Bible to struggle with infertility. Rachel witnessed her sister Leah have one child after another while she tried to overcome her infertility. She bargained for mandrakes and gave her husband over to her servant. Paul prayed and his weakness was never taken away from him, yet his ‘thorn in the flesh’ remained. More often than not, we cannot be the heroes of our own stories.
What if we simply ignore the weakness?
Perhaps ignoring a weakness or attempting to disregard it is possible, but many of us may find ourselves in the same position as Hannah. If Hannah would have been able to ignore or disregard her infertility, Peninah would have been sure to remind her.
There is no simple solution to rid us of our weaknesses. We all have them and would all like to be rid of them. But while we may not be able to overcome nor ignore our weaknesses, we are not left without hope.
What happened with their weaknesses was completely different. What they boasted in was identical.
Paul writes about one of his weaknesses in a letter to the Corinthians. We do not find out what this particular weakness is but we do know that he prayed for it to be taken away and it was not. Instead of constantly attempting to overcome it, or embracing it, or ignoring it, Paul boasts of his weakness.
Paul writes of when he pleaded with God to take away this weakness – this ‘thorn in the flesh’ – God responded not with taking away the weakness but by saying: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Because of the sufficiency of Christ, Paul declares “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Hannah did not embrace, attempt to overcome, nor ignore her infertility. Instead, she did as Paul did. She fervently prayed. She prayed so desperately it appeared she was drunk and incoherent. Hannah prayed her infertility would cease and she could have a child. And in this instance, God granted her petition. She gave birth to a son, Samuel, who would anoint David as king of the Israelites. Even after fervent prayer, Paul continued to endure his thorn in the flesh. What happened with their weaknesses was completely different. What they boasted in was identical.
While Paul proclaims the power of Christ is seen in his weaknesses, Hannah proclaims the same goodness of the Lord in her song:
“My heart exults in the Lord;
My horn is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
Because I rejoice in your salvation
There is none holy like the Lord;
For there is none beside you;
There is no rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:1-2)
We do not have a prescription to rid ourselves of weakness. What we do have is the same as Paul and Hannah: a promise that God will hear us and be with us no matter what those weaknesses are. A promise to save us, ultimately, from sin, death, and the devil.
We can fervently pray just as Paul and Hannah did and regardless of if our weakness is removed, we can gladly boast of the power of Christ that rests upon us.