And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” … [Hannah] 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.” (1 Sam 1:8-11)
Affliction; this is the word Hannah uses to describe her childless state, her barren state, as she prays to God (actually, it’s more like pleading and begging). Hannah is afflicted with grief and sorrow. She is distressed and she weeps bitterly. She can’t eat, she laments (the deeper connotation of the word translated as “weep”), and she is not merely “sad” as a “feeling of blueness” as we would casually say, “I’m sad today.” It would be better to render the question from her husband, “why is your heart sad?,” as “why is your heart broken?” Anyone reading who has suffered a broken heart knows that this feeling breaks through the floor of sadness into a realm that effects both the mind and the body in painful ways. A broken heart is described as such because the heart actually feels broken; there’s an ache or a piercing pain that seems to ricochet through the fleshiness of the heart muscle–it’s not merely metaphorical. Hanna experiences this depth of broken-heartedness.
A longing and a desire gone unmet.
Hannah is barren; she is without a child. Hannah isn’t over-reacting about her childless state. The way the story is told seems more like a snapshot of her life at this one moment of her distress over being barren rather than a wholistic picture of what Hannah has been suffering–Hannah’s story practically opens the book of 1 Samuel. In v. 5 there is the mention that the Lord had closed her womb. And then from there, we jump right into her peaking distress and broken heart. In this way–the way the story is told–we miss out on the beauty that is the climactic point of Hannah’s distress and weeping. She is wholly consumed by hope deferred; hope deferred doesn’t merely occur because hope has been deferred once…but over and over and over again. Hannah has been pushed to the brink of the cliff that leads to despair, to death.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Prov. 13:12)
Hope deferred makes the heart sick and this sickness steals life from the victim. Hannah has spent who knows how long longing and yearning for a child. Think of the numerous months coming and going, each one delivering it’s “no” and “not this time” to Hannah’s heart–hope sprung, hope dashed. And the deferral of her hope has made her sick: she can’t eat, she can’t stop weeping bitterly, she is inconsolable. This is a picture of a woman who is not well, who is suffering intimately with the brokenness of a very fallen world. When hope has been deferred for so long and dashed against the rocks so many times, one begins to long for not-hope. The deferral of hope can make one so sick that they wish for hope to take flight and to vanish, never again to alight on the heart–for, to the suffering soul, to live a life vanquished of hope seems better than to have hope yet once again only to have it dashed…yet once again.
And so it is with those of us who have suffered with infertility or loss or both. In both infertility and loss there is a hope, a real, tangible, hope that blossoms and the real hope that is shattered into what seems like shards upon shards. And each time this hope is dashed, there is a death. And it is this death that leaves the woman a different creation the next day. Out of all the experiences surrounding fertility and birth, it is those who suffer from infertility and loss who get the one two punch of Gen 3–the curse rears it’s head both in the inability to get or to stay pregnant (pain increased) and the all to alert awareness that death still marches about the earth creating casualties, leaving scars. These are the women who will enter into the battle that wages to bring forth life (my life for this one), who will face death, and who will exit the battlefield marred.
And yet, out of this real encounter with death, with “no,” with “not this time,” there is life: for she is a new creation out of this death–never to be the same again. For it is she who has suffered death that knows what life is; it is she who has not born new life who understands–on a deep and visceral level–just how miraculous new life is; it is she who has wept bitterly and cried out for relief who knows from Whom joy and comfort come; it is she who knows the failure of the very thing she was uniquely gifted to do who finds her very person not in the sum of her working or not-working parts, but in the totality of The One who has born the brokenness of the world (and of her body) in His body and who has dealt death a death-dealing blow. And while she has not brought forth new life quantified in onsies and diapers, she is the epitome of new life, for it is she who declares even in this darkness: life.