Hannah is in my countdown because she experienced a very real pain that many women feel. Hannah was ridiculed, demeaned, and shamed because of her inability to have children. This was a common experience in the biblical narrative. In fact, each of the matriarchs of the Hebrew faith – Sarah, Rachel, and Rebecca – experienced this struggle. What can we learn from their courageous lives?
[This story is taken from 1 Samuel 1:1-20]
Hannah had a lot going for her. She was a strong woman. She was from a good family. She had a caring, loving, supportive husband, Elkanah, who tried to help her (even if he was a little clueless).
Elkanah to Hannah: “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8b)
Hannah to Elkanah: Blank stare. [i.e. Ummm … let me think about it … NO.]
Poor Elkanah. He was trying. It’s interesting that all the characters in this story – Elkanah, Peninnah, and Eli – are portrayed as being clueless. If you haven’t experienced it, you just can’t understand. Let me preface the rest of my thoughts by stating the obvious: I’m a man. I’ve never come close to experiencing infertility. I can be sensitive but I have no idea what you’re feeling. I’m clueless.
I just want to point out a few things I see in Hannah’s case (and every case of infertility is different) in the hope that it might help someone who is going through it or is trying to help a loved one through it:
1. Acknowledge your feelings.
One of the most striking aspects to the biblical story is that there is never any doubt about how Hanna feels. She is in pain and she doesn’t even try to hide it. She is the most real – the most transparent – the most spiritual character in the entire story.
Elkanah is shallow. Penninah is pretentious. Eli is insensitive. Hannah is real. What you see is what you get. I love this about her. She openly acknowledges her pain. She owns it. And in the shame-based world she lived in, that’s astounding.
2. Share your questions and fears with a community.
Year after year Hannah’s family would make the pilgrimage to worship at the temple at Shiloh. Year after year Hannah would pour her heart out to God. We are not privy to most of those conversations, but if they are anything like the one we are privy to, they were raw and honest and real.
It’s important to have a community that you can be real with and share your questions and fears. You are not alone in this struggle. Others are going through it too. It’s important that you NOT isolate yourself during this very difficult time.
3. Allow yourself plenty of time to grieve.
We are told that Hannah had been trying to have a child for years. The passage of time is portrayed in the narrative with the repeating of the phrase, “year after year” (1 Samuel 1:3, 7), and the phrase “in the course of time” (1 Samuel 1:20). This was a long process that Hannah had to go through.
The narrator says, “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the LORD, weeping bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). You have to give yourself permission and space to grieve. You deserve it.
4. Take care of your body.
Food plays a prominent role in this story. Hannah didn’t want to eat. Elkanah’s concern for his wife was mainly motivated by her health. He would give her the double-portion of the meat to try and make up for her pain (the first comfort food?).
Infertility is a long and hard struggle. Because you’ve spent so much time, energy, and money on infertility treatments, you may have neglected your general health.
In addition, fatigue contributes to feelings of depression and impacts your eating habits and general health. You may even begin to resent your own body. All these factors can make everything worse. It’s so important for you to take care of your body.
5. Fight through feelings of shame.
There is no doubt that a big part of Hannah’s pain came from feelings of shame. She lived in a patriarchal, shame-based culture that valued a woman for her reproductive abilities. In that culture, her primary job in the world was to produce male sons.
The story shows the pernicious nature of this cultural shame by having a female character, Peninnah, be the one who is perpetuating the shame-based standards.
According to the shame-based culture Hannah is incomplete, a failure, and even sinful because she cannot produce the results essential for the survival of the culture. And it is another woman who will never let her forget it.
This, of course, is antithetical to the love of God (which is the point of this story and others like it in the Old Testament). I don’t know much about infertility, but I do know something about the things that Jesus valued and here’s what I want you to know about that:
- You have infinite value to God exactly the way you are – even if you never “produce” anything (Rom. 5:8).
- God created you for an amazing purpose that is unique to your own life story (Jer. 1:5).
- God loves you with an unconditional love so powerful that nothing can ever separate you from him (Rom. 8:38-39).
6. Separate yourself from negativity.
Peninnah is the negative voice of the judgmental, shame-based culture in this story. She is mean and insensitive to Hannah’s plight. She is self-serving and obviously jealous of Elkiah’s love for Hannah.
There will always be insensitive, judgmental, and sometimes down-right sick people in the world who are incapable of any happiness without dragging others down. My advice is to identify those people as quickly as possible and get as far away from them as you can.
On another note — Apparently, Peninnah was a baby factory. Even if Peninnah had never said a single word to Hannah, her fertility would have been a constant reminder to Hannah of her infertility.
There will be a time when even your best friends and family members will be a painful reminder of your struggle. It will be hard to be happy for others who are pregnant. It will be like fingers on a chalkboard for you to listen to your pregnant friends complain about morning sickness and food cravings associated with their pregnancy when all you want to do is scream!
In addition, some will try to be helpful and only add to your pain. If you are one who wants to be helpful please read this great article on what not to say —
You will be tempted to feel even more shame and guilt because you can’t be happy for these people or you might start isolating yourself from family and friends. Don’t feel guilty or ashamed. Everything you are feeling is normal. It’s not selfish. It’s not wrong.
7. Take it to God.
Ultimately, Hannah takes her situation to God. This is the only place she can find real peace with her infertility.
- Peninnah (the culture) only makes things worse.
- Elkanah (family and friends) tries but falls short.
- Eli (spiritual community) completely misunderstands (ill-informed?).
Only God can bring peace to her heart.
She makes a vow to God. This may sound like a bargain, but in her culture, it was actually the opposite. It was Hannah’s way of making a whole-hearted, no-matter-what, commitment to God. Hannah was saying – “This is how much I love you God – If I had a son, I would give him up for you.” Sounds like a God-kind-of-love (John 3:16).
Hannah leaves her intense prayer to God refreshed and at peace. She eats, washes up and is ready to live her life on God’s terms.
It takes more time … but eventually, God answers her prayer. The answer to her prayer is almost a Coda to the story. It’s not the main point. The main point is that Hannah belonged to God all along and the moment she acknowledged that God was all she ever really needed, she was at peace.
A Modern Day Hannah (and Elkanah)
Kelsie and Anthony are sharing the story of their struggles with infertility. This is what courage looks like.
ONE LAST PERSONAL NOTE
I have so much more to say about this. I didn’t realize how personal this is.
My sister is a year younger than I am. She has never had children. And what I want you to know is that she is one of the most brilliant, successful, caring, loving, complete, whole, nurturing, amazing human beings I have ever know. She would die for any one of her nephews or nieces. She is truly another “mother” to them, and she is a true Christian in word and deed. Thank you, Rachel, for being who you are.