If you would rather listen to than read the content of these sessions, you can find them on audio here.
What do we do when life doesn’t turn out the way we had imagined?
This was Hannah’s experience. Her identity? She was the wife who couldn’t bear children.
Here is how we are introduced to her: ‘But to Hannah he (Elkanah, her husband) gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb’ I Samuel 1:5. Hannah was probably Elkanah’s first wife and, because she couldn’t have children, he took a second wife because failure to produce an heir was a major problem in the ancient near East (cf Abraham and Sarah who couldn’t have children until the Lord gave them Isaac).
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah, who is described as Hannah’s rival, ‘provoked her grievously to irritate her’. This is reminiscent of Hagar’s attitude to Sarah after Hagar became pregnant (‘And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.’ Gen.16:4).
Hannah had several things to deal with:
- the great personal disappointment of not being able to have a child;
- now she was also rejected by her culture because she had not produced an heir for her husband;
- and to add insult to injury, she was provoked by her husband’s second wife.
Disappointed, rejected and provoked.
Hannah was disappointed
What do we do when life doesn’t turn out the way we had imagined? I remember when I lost my first baby, lying in hospital wondering if I ever would have another one. It had taken me a while to conceive and I so desperately wanted this baby. Now I was grieving the loss, and didn’t know if I would ever conceive again. But at the same time, I was almost overcome by a sense of God’s love for me and the certainty that, in the midst of the tremendous sense of loss and grief, God loved me and always would. Although I couldn’t understand what had happened, God had allowed it in love. Nothing had changed that. I was secure in His love, even though my circumstances had changed so painfully.
There is a God of awesome grace who meets his children in moments of darkness and difficulty. He is worth running to. He is worth waiting for. He brings rest when it seems like there is no rest to be found. Paul David Tripp
What was Hannah’s reaction? She ‘wept and would not eat’. It is normal for us to respond emotionally as well as physically – weeping and not eating. We cannot short circuit our reaction to great disappointment in our lives. That’s why it doesn’t work when someone just gives us a Bible verse. First we must work through the sense of loss, the grief, the disappointment. Eventually we need to get to the truth of God’s Word – but it’s a process.
Hannah was also rejected – not by her husband but by the culture
She had failed to produce an heir and she would have been seen as a failure. Elkanah still loved her, but his emotional support was inadequate because he didn’t understand the depths of her despair.
Hannah desperately wanted to have a child and her disappointment that that had not happened was very profound. Some of you have probably been there and know what it’s like to wait expectantly every month, only to be disappointed again. We see every mother with a baby as we walk down the street, we notice every happy family in church, it seems that all around us there are reminders of our disappointment. and so it must have been for Hannah.
Every day she was reminded of her failure. Every day she sensed the rejection of those around her. Did she ever question God? Did she ever ask why? The sense of rejection is a very difficult one for us to deal with. We were made for relationships and we feel it keenly when we are rejected.
How many Psalms are cries of the heart, cries of pain and anger and confusion? That is why we identify with them so easily. God wants us to be honest like the Psalmists were. He knows the cries of our hearts anyway. What do we do when we are rejected? Again, we take time to process the pain, to allow ourselves to grieve the loss and to get to the point where we can begin to let the Lord heal us and to speak His Word into our lives. Always we are working towards being able to receive the truth of the Word of God and to allow the Redeemer to transform our hearts and our minds.
Hannah was provoked
Peninnah, who is described as Hannah’s rival, ‘provoked her grievously to irritate her’.
Can you imagine that, day after day? Not only was Hannah nursing her own disappointment and her feelings of rejection, but now she was provoked day after day by her rival. This added insult to injury. She was taunted, made fun of, teased.
I don’t know if you have ever been provoked in this way by anyone. Some of you will have had this experience, when there has been someone in your life who seems to have gone out of their way to provoke you, to irritate you, to make fun of you, to tease you or taunt you. Others of you will at least have known people you find it hard to get along with – people who always seem to irritate you without even trying, people who just ‘rub you up the wrong way’. And all of this can happen in your family, in your neighbourhood and even in the church.
But often it is the very things that cause friction and tension among us which God uses to help us grow. That sister in Christ who is like a fly in the ointment; that brother in Christ who constantly and consistently irritates you – have you ever thought that God might have permitted them to be in your church to allow you both to grow in grace?
Just as God used the painful situation in which Hannah found herself with Penninah to cause her to run to the Lord for help, so He wants to use our difficult relationships to help us to grow in Him.
Hannah was disappointed, rejected and provoked.
We have a Redeemer who has suffered all of these things – for us.
He was disappointed
He said to His disciples: ‘Oh ye of little faith!’; He asked the three closest to Him to stay with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane and when they had fallen asleep He asked ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’
He was rejected
Isaiah tells us that ‘he was despised and rejected; He was a man or sorrows and acquainted with grief’.
He was provoked
The Roman soldiers stripped Him of His own clothes, put a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns on Him and taunted Him, saying ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Bystanders at the cross taunted him ‘He saved others! He cannot save Himself!’
He went through all of this – for us.
Unable to share the depths of her sorrow with anyone around her, Hannah goes to the temple and pours our her heart to the Lord. ‘She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “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.”’ (v.10-11).
She took her distress to the Lord and poured it out to Him. She knew that only the Lord could give her what she wanted so much. Eli gives her his blessing: ‘“Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” (v.17).
As Hannah leaves the temple, she is a changed woman: ‘Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.’ (v.18). Her appetite comes back and she is no longer sad. She has left her problem with the Lord and trusts that He is going to answer her prayer.
This is a very good example of Phil.4:6&7: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
Hannah brings her prayer and supplication to God, she tells Him her request, and she receives the peace of God. Now she is able to join the rest of the family; she is able to eat again; and she is no longer sad.
The next morning, ‘They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord’. Hannah is able to join the others in worshipping the Lord – and this is before she is pregnant. She worships the Lord because she trusts Him and knows that she has left her problem with Him and He is in control.
It is easy to worship the Lord when He gives us what we ask of Him – but not so easy when we are still waiting for the answer to our prayers. That is when we need to trust God, to recognise that He is in control of all of our circumstances and to know that, whatever happens, however He chooses to answer our prayers, we can worship Him – a bit like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who said ‘our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’ (Dan.3:17-18). They were still going to worship God, no matter what – even if it meant they would be thrown into the fiery furnace.
God’s grace doesn’t always come in comfortable forms. But it’s still grace, and it’s still evidence that He loves us. Paul David Tripp
Hannah waits until baby Samuel is weaned and then she brings him back to the temple, where she leaves him with the old priest Eli, as she had promised she would do. In I Samuel 2 we have her prayer – a beautiful prayer of praise to God, much like the prayer of Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-56). Far from being a song exulting over her rival Peninnah, her prayer has been described as a ‘hymn to the God who reverses human fortunes by his mighty power, the Creator beyond all human understanding who protects the faithful’.
This is the kind of women we want to be. Hannah is a woman who:
- is honest about her struggles;
- doesn’t minimise her pain;
- brings her problem to the Lord, believing in His sovereignty and trusting in His goodness
- is able to thank God as she brings her petitions to Him, knowing that her requests are safe with Him and that He is good all the time.
- personifies the truths of Philippians 4:6.
We will look at this verse in context – Phil 4:4-7.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Joy is a theme of this letter. Paul is calling the Philippian Christians to an attitude of joy, so that they replace anxiety with expectant, grateful prayer. How is this possible? Because our joy is ‘in the Lord’, as we have just seen with Hannah.
It is not possible to rejoice in the inability to have children or in miscarriages or in other kinds of losses or in illness or in any kind of human suffering. But it is always possible to rejoice in the Lord, which is why Paul can say ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ to his audience of believers who were enduring suffering at the hands of the Roman empire. This is key to this passage and to how we handle anxiety.
Let your reasonableness (or gentleness or gentle forbearance) be known to everyone. Reasonableness is crucial to community. It is that attitude that seeks what is best for everyone and not just for oneself. We can all think of people who are ‘reasonable’ in this sense – and what an example they are to the rest of us. It is something for us all to strive towards, for it makes such a difference in a Christian community.
But Paul means for it also to be something which is displayed by us towards others – it is to be known ‘to everyone’. Thus he is calling on the Philippians Christians to display this ‘gentle forbearance’ to one another but also to those who are opposing them and making them suffer cf the example of Jesus as described in I Peter 2:23 ‘When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.’
The Lord is at hand. The meaning of this sentence is unclear. On one hand, it could refer to the fact that Jesus is coming back again. As such, it is a word of encouragement and affirmation. The Philippian Christians were suffering at the hands of those who proclaimed Caesar as Lord but Paul is reminding them that the true Lord is near. On the other hand, it could mean: ‘Because the Lord is always near, do not be anxious about anything, but let your requests be made known to God’. Perhaps Paul intended both meanings. In any case, both meanings are biblically true.
Then we come to Phil 4:6, Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. It is one of the best well-known verses in the Bible. We quote it to each other and we remind ourselves of it often – yet I wonder does it have a ring of encouragement and exhortation to us or do at least some of us hear in it a ring of challenge and rebuke?
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. This is an echo of the verses we have already looked at in Matthew 6 in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. We are not to be anxious but to entrust ourselves into the hands of our loving heavenly Father. We are to tell Him all of our needs – in our requests, prayer and supplication. ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything…’ Don’t be anxious about anything but pray about everything.
But another element is introduced here – thanksgiving. This returns to the exhortation in verse 4: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. We may not be able to thank the Lord for what we are going through – but we are always able to thank Him for who He is, in the midst of our suffering.
Paul’s own life was accentuated by thanksgiving and for him it was one of the marks of a normal Christian life. Thanksgiving acknowledges that everything we have is a gift from God and is a verbal expression of our dependence on Him, as well as of His generosity and goodness.
I have found that, in a very practical way, an attitude of thanksgiving relieves anxiety. For it gets our focus off the thing which is making us anxious – which is normally something we can do nothing about anyway – and gets our focus on to the Lord, who is the one who is in control and who loves us as His own children. It also helps us get things in perspective – for there is always something we can be thankful for.
Thanksgiving is a powerful antidote to worry. We cannot underestimate it. It will change our attitude instantly as we choose to turn from the circumstance which is causing us anxiety and concentrate instead on the things for which we can thank the Lord. In my experience, an attitude of thanksgiving also adds to the enjoyment of whatever it is we are being thankful for. When I pause for a moment – just in my thoughts – to thank God for something which I am enjoying, whether that is a meal with my husband or a coffee with a friend or a chat with a colleague – it adds to the enjoyment in that moment, as well as giving glory to God.
Pray about everything; worry about nothing; and be thankful. I recently used this verse in a counselling session with a woman who is recovering from depression. She came back 3 weeks later greatly improved. No doubt there were several factors but she said, ‘Well, you told me to pray about everything; worry about nothing; and be thankful – and that’s what I’m doing’. The very practical use of this Scripture had really helped her on a daily basis.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
It is called ‘the peace of God’ because God is ‘the God of peace’ (v.9). He dwells in total shalom (wholeness, wellbeing) and He gives that shalom to His people. ‘The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding’ could mean it is ‘beyond all human comprehension’ but more likely it means that this peace ‘totally transcends the merely human, unbelieving mind’ which is full of anxiety because it cannot think higher than itself. His peace totally transcends our merely human way of looking at the world. Peace comes because prayer is an expression of trust and God’s people do not need to have it all figured out in order to trust Him!
As we thank God for His gifts to us, we will experience the peace of God – which surpasses all understanding – guarding our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. Perhaps he was chained to a guard. And Philippi was a Roman colony with a military garrison. But it is not Roman soldiers who guard believers: it is the peace of God Almighty – the One who is in control and who is our heavenly Father to whom we can bring all of our requests in an attitude of thanksgiving. That peace will be God’s garrison around our hearts so that we do not fall into anxiety. It will also guard our thoughts – it will protect our minds from those very thoughts which lead to fear and distress and which keep us from trusting prayer.
This peace is not only an individual thing but also a collective thing for Paul. It is something which should characterise the community of God’s people, wherever they are found. Even for the Philippian church, who were going through opposition, Paul encourages them that together they can know the protection of God’s peace in the midst of that conflict. And as they have been urged to ‘have the same mindset’, the peace of God will protect their thoughts as they live out the gospel in Philippi.
In a post-modern, post-Christian world, this kind of spirituality can be the key to evangelism. There is so much to fear in our everyday lives and our non-Christian friends and neighbours don’t know the peace of God. They are perhaps not likely to come into our churches to hear the gospel. They maybe won’t ask us why we believe what we believe. But they may well wonder what it is that gives us peace in our daily lives when we are surrounded by the same anxiety-producing things which surround them. They get bad news from the doctor or they don’t know what to do with a rebellious child. They have a relative who dies or someone close to them loses their job. Every time they listen to the news there is more to make them afraid.
Our privilege is to live out the gospel of true shalom, wholeness, and to point our friends and neighbours to its source. It is only the God of peace who can give us this peace. What would it mean to become known as a community of Christians who know this kind of peace? How would it affect how you reach out to your friends and neighbours when they are in distress?
What steps would your church have to take to become this kind of community? How can you reach out to those around you who are anxious?
What about your neighbours or your work colleagues? When someone is having a hard time, where do they run to? Is your house or your office known to be one where they will find a listening ear, a cup of tea, a shoulder to cry on, someone to listen to their worries and ultimately to lead them to the One who has promised to take all our worries and give us His peace?