Waiting. A theme I have tried my hardest to get around.
A few months ago (seven to be exact), I wrote a blog entitled Sam’s Mama. At that point, I was in a very discouraging and unsure time in my life; the storms of my personal winter were weighing me down more than I cared to let on to anyone around me. In the midst of that, I was asked (*ahem*…TOLD) that I would have to teach the Adult Bible Study class in my father’s absence and I had nothing – spiritually or emotionally – to give to such an opportunity. It was at that time when God allowed the passage in 1 Samuel 1 to come alive to me in a real way. The lesson didn’t give me what I thought I needed, which was an answer. It gave me hope in a barren season, which proved to be more beneficial than an answer. As I’ve discovered, in life you can receive answers to questions and still not be satisfied.
MBC’s Fall Revival was last week and our guest preacher, Dr. John Kinney of the School of Theology at Virginia Union University, gave us much to think on, grow in, and be encouraged by as usual. On Wednesday night, he preached out of the text in Luke 1 and I found myself being intimately reintroduced and unshakably connected to yet another barren woman in the Bible.
Elizabeth – the mother of John the Baptist; the cousin of Mary, mother of Jesus. Her name means “my God is an oath.” Hmm.
The Bible tells us a little bit about Elizabeth in Luke 1 – she was a descendant of Aaron, she was married to the priest Zachariah, she was old, she was barren, she was blameless (she walked upright in the sight of God).
Unlike with Hannah, we are not intimated with the grief that Elizabeth was experiencing as a married yet barren woman, though we can be almost certain that grief was something she experienced. Again, barrenness in that time was looked down upon, as a woman’s ability to produce progeny was greatly connected to her worth in her home and in society. What we do know is that bearing children was something that her and Zachariah desired. In fact, the angel Gabriel made it a point to specifically say “the Lord has heard you” when he appeared to Zachariah in the Temple.
What has struck me in a painfully self-aware way about both of these stories is that both of these women were blameless and yet barren. Dr. Kinney emphasized this point in a great way in his sermon. Hannah and Elizabeth were not perfect but they walked upright; their ways pleased the Lord. However, they were both barren. Realizations like this violently clash with my learned presuppositions that if I do right and if I live upright, I will see unprecedented blessings and favor over my life. One plus one will always equal two. My good plus my good will always equal the good life.
(photo cred: patricialawless.com)
So I had no problem being the good girl. I had no problem doing well in school, being overly involved in church, being a decent person, and endeavoring to remain relatively stable in comparison to my peers. For most of my time growing up, the good girl syndrome worked in my favor. I stayed out of trouble, people looked up to me, I received awards and accolades, I received opportunities to do things and go places that I had only hoped for, God favored me. But somewhere in my understanding, suffering/pain as an integral part of the Christian lifestyle was totally lost on me. I learned of Job and his astronomical losses, I heard of Paul and his immovable thorn, I read of Naomi and Ruth’s disconsolate story. But in my education of these and other stories, I, in retrospect, see a theme of rushing to get to the “good” part. This is because we love comfort, even in faith which is not designed for our comfort at all. We love to jump to Job 42, and to Ruth finding Boaz, and to *in my best Baptist preacher voice* “eeeeaaaarrrr-laaaayyy Sunday morning” (the story of Jesus’ resurrection). And while those victorious endings are very important, they are powerfully victorious largely because of the darkness that preceded them.
I didn’t learn, nor did I realize, that there is such thing as blessed barrenness. These two stories had less to do with Hannah and Elizabeth’s physical conditions as it has to do with the gems of maturity that hard times produce. If God has a purpose for your barrenness (which it seems that He always does), in whatever shape or form it may come, the purpose will be eventually seen but it will not be rushed. Zachariah and Elizabeth being upright before the Lord did not stop them from experiencing the pain of barrenness, the discouragement of circumstances, nor did it rush God’s timing in sending an overt answer to their prayers. Hannah’s devotion to God did not stop her from grieving her loss, bearing the brunt of taunting at the hands of others, nor did it rush God’s time in sending an answer.
So being good and upright does not exempt one from life’s struggles and pains. It’s crazy because no matter how much I know this in my head, my actions and my expectations are wired differently. The world around me tells me that if I put good out there, good will come back. I’ve heard in church over and over again that God rewards faithfulness and that if you live right, God will bless you. And I’m not saying that this is not true; I’m saying that there seems to be a process of pain that gets you to that good sometimes. The principle of sowing and reaping is real, but we must also recognize that even in nature, there is a process between the sowing of the seed and the reaping of the harvest. There’s rain and sunshine and a little bit of in between.
I know that if I base my faith or my actions on just the tangible good that I can get out of it, my faith will always be shallow, immature, and powerless. It won’t be able to move mountains, molehills, or me. So my personal barrenness may or may not be a denial but I must consider that it may be a blessed delay. And God never seems to be shy about making us wait for greater over giving instant mediocrity.
We must not mistake barrenness always as a denial of the things we asked of God or the things we are seeking to come to fruition. What Hannah and Elizabeth have shown me is that blessed barrenness produces more than you asked for. These women simply wanted children; what God allowed them to birth respectively were two of the many heroes of our faith. Samuel – “God has heard”. John – “Yahweh is gracious”. From beginning to end, from heartbreak to healing, these stories serve as holistic reminders to good girls like me. As a result, it wasn’t just them who rejoiced; we rejoice with them. And so shall it be for us who dare to stubbornly hope like Hannah and avail ourselves to what God is doing regardless of circumstances like Elizabeth.