Hannah’s story is one that fills us with pity. She doesn’t have the one good thing she hopes for: a child. She is forced to share her husband with a cruel co-wife who rubs her infertility in her face. And yet she prays, silently and fervently, so fervently in fact that she is mistaken for a drunk woman mumbling to herself. Amidst all this sadness and pity, however, Hannah’s story ends in goodness. And it’s because of this, I’m afraid Hannah’s story isn’t only pitiable, but one of those Biblical stories ripe for bad theological takeaways.
Takeaway 1: Pray fervently (the more drunk you look, the better) for what you do not have, and you will get it.
Takeaway 2: The more hardship you endure from a spiteful enemy, the more likely you will be rewarded in the end.
And perhaps the worst one,
Takeaway 3: If you want God to fulfill his promises, you must first make a promise to him. Or, less theologically stated, if you want something good to happen in life, you need to make it happen yourself.
The last takeaway comes so naturally to us. I grew up hearing, "You don't make deals with God," yet I still find myself doing this all the time - explicitly and implicitly.
Unlike Hannah, who wanted to get pregnant and couldn’t, I'm currently pregnant, eight months pregnant, to be exact. And I can find signs of my wheeling and dealing everywhere:
- If I eat three dates a day, I'll go into labor at precisely the right time.
- If I do ten specific exercises every day, I'll have an easy delivery.
- If I spend enough time with my two toddlers now, they won't hate me or the new baby later.
- If I pray for the baby every night, God will give me a peaceful infant.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting these outcomes, working towards them, or praying for them. There is nothing wrong with bringing your hopes and desires before God. But problems always arise when we attempt to connect our actions to outcomes in an unequivocal and formulaic way. For the Christian, this is what leads us to assume we can cajole God into doing our will. It's what leads us to believe our plans set the tone for God's plan. And it's also what leads us to despair when things don't go our way because we suddenly only have ourselves to blame.
But as we already have seen this week, when God remembers, he doesn't do so based on our actions. God's remembrance isn't a reward for our faithful behavior, promises, good deeds, or intentions. As Chad Bird said, "God's remembrance is an act of divine mercy," which means it's not done based on any measure (or lack) of our human will or exertion (Rom. 9:16). Instead, God's mercy flows out of his goodness, his faithfulness, and his never-ending love for his wayward people.
God didn’t need Hannah’s plea and vow as a tap on his divine shoulder, reminding him to remember. He does this just fine without us.
I'm not sure what Hannah thought when she promised, "O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head" (1 Sam. 1:11). But, I like to think she knew her God well enough to realize deal-making wasn't a game he played. She isn't saying, "If I do X, then you’ll do Y," instead, she's appealing to his goodness. She's referencing the promises God has already made and the character he's already displayed to show compassion to his people - regardless of their sadness, despair, successes, or failures.
Think of her prayer, "Don't forget your servant," as the prayer, "Remember me so that I may see the loving, merciful action of the God I have faith in," or in other words, "Remember me to remind me." What a prayer! One that takes our eyes off our offerings and places our eyes on who God has said he is and who he has shown us he will continue to be.
God didn’t need Hannah’s plea and vow as a tap on his divine shoulder, reminding him to remember. He does this just fine without us. This shouldn't negate Hannah's faithfulness, need, or suffering. Instead, it should further support the reality that, as James reminds us, "Every good gift and every perfect gift comes from above" (James 1:17). In every perfect gift God gives, he remembers us, starting, of course, with the gift of Jesus himself: given to us so that we might have forgiveness and righteousness. He is a habitual remember-er, not a businessman looking for the most favorable transaction, so he gives and gives and gives with the only intention being to remind us of his love.
This is why when God gives us good gifts, we can't help but give back to him. We may not always spot it, but God's gifts always unleash a flood of joy. That's what his goodness causes. That's what Hannah shows us. Lord, remember us to remind us, that we may know all good things come from you.