God created us with eyes. That simple fact alone suggests that we are designed to want. We see people, opportunities, and things that we believe would please us – and we want them. Advertisers know this: some years ago there was a commercial whose theme song was, “I want it all! I want it all! I want it all! I want it now!” That song is indicative of the fundamental urge that drives our personalities. We want what we want! Why do you suppose grocery stores place a display rack of candy by the counter of check-out lines? Because they know that all little kids’ eyes will fall instantly upon the goodies and go “I want!” The stores know that 50% of all mamas — and 100% of all dads — will give in to junior’s desires as the price of preserving the public peace. I suspect that is why we have a day dedicated to the celebration of mothers, for mothers have often been the ones most attentive to that primal cry within us, “I want! I want!” Good mothers teach us when is the right time to want something, when is the right time to want something else, and when is the right time to accept the word No. The best mothers teach us how to want what we want.
So this morning we look to a mother named Hannah whose life is a paradigm of spiritual heroism. You can leap to the end of Hannah’s story, which has a happy ending, but if you do so you will miss comprehending her pain, her anguish, and the depth of her spiritual courage. For you see, Hannah was married to Elkanah, and Elkanah was a bigamist, though in that culture and era where women had no economic, social or legal protection, perhaps the system had something to commend it. One thing I am sure of, however neat it might have sounded in theory, Elkanah found that having more than one wife didn’t make his home-life easier. This family had a built-in imbalance. One wife, Peninnah, whom Elkanah surely called Penny, was as fertile as a rabbit, producing child after child with assembly-line regularity, which greatly pleased Elkanah. But Hannah was accounted barren, considered in that culture an abject failure, divinely cursed. Every year, Hannah would necessarily accompany the whole family on its annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, where everyone would enjoy a great thanksgiving feast, and Elkanah would lavish gifts upon Penny because she had borne him so many children. Penny would then thoughtfully describe Elkanah’s generosity in great detail to Hannah for fear the young woman might not know what she was missing. What a miserable existence!
Hannah has eyes. She sees what Penny has, and she wants it for herself. Not the material stuff that Elkanah has lavished on Penny, Hannah cares not a flip for that. But she sees the joy of bearing a child and wants to know that joy for herself. In fact, she wants to bear a son. And Hannah has a plan, and she has a prayer. One year, while the family is feasting in Shiloh, Hannah slips away to the holy place and utters the deepest prayer of her heart unto God: “Lord, having a baby boy is my sincerest ambition. I beg you, please give me what I want. For if you will do so, I will make a promise to you. Give him to me, and I will give him back unto you, because I know that he is solely your blessing. My desire is to glorify you, and if you grant me this baby, I will give him back to you to be raised in your house and to serve you the whole of his days.”
The hard truth is, wanting what we want can often foster great bitterness within us. We can become so frustrated over the inability to make our dreams come true that our existence becomes a great weariness, a ceaseless nightmare of disappointment that filters out any experience of goodness. Hannah can teach us here. She refuses to give into bitterness. She teaches us our first lesson in how to want what we want: she turns the matter of her wanting over to God in complete and absolute trust. One year I took the time to read D. H. Donald’s magisterial biography of Abraham Lincoln, then followed that with a reading of Douglas Southhall Freeman’s classic four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee. I found that both Lincoln and Lee put their participation in the Civil War in theological perspective. Ironically, both men came to the identical conclusion: ultimately, God alone is sovereign, and ultimately God shapes history in accordance with God’s ultimate purpose and design. Neither Lincoln nor Lee saw God’s sovereign will as absolving them of responsibility for their actions. But both came to the same conclusion: humans are God’s agents. God is not humanity’s agent. Both saw themselves as instruments of God, rather than God as an instrument of human desires.
Part of learning how to want what we want starts with realizing that God is not a cosmic genie designed to grant us our wishes. Pray though we might, implore God though we must, call upon God to grant us as our needs as we are bid by our Lord to do, we are always meant to couple our requests with the phrase that our Lord Jesus attached to his own earnest utterance in Gethsemane: “Not my will but Thine be done.” To pray, “Not my will but Thine be done,” is a phrase of absolute surrender unto God’s purpose. Hannah expresses the exact same sentiment when she says, “Lord, grant me this child I want, not as an expression of my worthiness, but as an expression of your goodness. And to show you that I really mean it when I say that I have turned this matter over to you completely, if you give me this child I will give him back up to you.”
Comedy intrudes. High priest Eli sees Hannah slumped over in his empty church during a holiday and assumes that she is drunk, or at least sleeping off a hangover. (He would not be the last preacher to look upon his congregation on occasion and wonder that!) Hannah says, no, she is pouring out her anguish to God. Hannah shares with Eli her prayer and her pain, and he assures her that he will intercede for her. He sends her away in peace. The Scriptures add this comment, “Her countenance was no longer sad.”
Spiritual heroism is often manifested in the ability to summon the power of joy amidst circumstances that are not joyous. Sometimes there is no better indicator that someone has their desires in proper perspective than their ability to maintain a cheerful countenance amidst their own pain. Some in their misery want everybody to know of their misery, and they want to make everybody else miserable, too. But Hannah, having truly left this matter unto God, lives at peace. Her countenance is no longer sad. She taps into the power of joy even amidst disappointment. To be capable of such a feat, one must remember the wisdom of an “old wives’ axiom,” the one that says, “A watched pot never boils.” Theologically, that means if you want something and fixate all your time and energy focused only on getting whatever it is you want, you will turn your life into misery – for seldom does what we want come to us instantly. Sometimes the way to look and hope for things to happen is to stop looking and hoping they will happen. Sometimes the best way to look and hope for things to happen is to not fixate on your want, but rather to lose yourself doing something else, simply trusting that God will take care of the matter in God’s good time. So Hannah stops worrying about getting pregnant. She chooses to trust God, and she goes home in peace. Then she gets pregnant. Life is often structured in that ironic fashion. A watched pot never boils. Often we find that we receive what we want only when we stop obsessing about what we want.
Of course, for many of us, it is not failure that undermines our spiritual maturity, it is success. Hannah gives birth to Samuel – “Sam-u-el” – “asked of God,” and she must wrestle with this question: “Did I really mean what I said? Must I really keep my end of the deal?” After wrenching soul-searching she decides that she must. When Samuel was old enough, she travels to Shiloh on the next pilgrimage, hands her child over to Eli, turns around and heads home, back to central Judah, back to obtuse Elkanah, back to smirking Penny, back to being childless.
Why? Why make a deal with God to receive what your heart most desires, only to give it back to God? Why indeed! Because in so doing Hannah, with clarity of vision, recognizes what are the proper means and what is the proper end in her life. To keep a clear vision of what are our means and what are our ends is one of life’s greatest challenges. What exactly do I mean by this statement? Hannah has stated that the purpose and end of her life is to glorify God. Birthing a baby boy that she could give back to God would be a means of achieving that end. But if she had kept Samuel for herself, then she would have made her baby her end, and undermined the stated purpose of her life. Then Samuel would have become her god, and not God.
My late father had a friend in Birmingham who when he was a young man started a construction company. When he started his business he said to God, “Lord, my goal in life is to glorify you with this business.” Plenty of young businessmen make similar claims. But my father’s friend went one step further. He said, “Lord, since you and I are partners in this business, half of the profits this business makes are yours.” Of course, at first, that was half of nothing. Then it became half of a hundred thousand dollars, which was not much, but it was all he had. Then it became half of a million dollars and then half of five million dollars, eventually half of a multi-million dollar business. This man came to run the most successful construction company in the city. At that point the businessman could have said, ‘Wait a second, I am the one earning all this money through my sweat and energy, it’s really all mine.’ But he realized that such an attitude would be looking at the matter all wrong. His stated purpose was to glorify God. If he started keeping more of the profits for himself, then the profit became his end, rather than the means for glorifying God.
In order to learn truly how to want what we want, we have to practice a holy carelessness. What do I mean? We have to realize that not all of our wants are equal. Hannah wanted a baby. That was important. The businessman wanted to make money. That was important. But Hannah and the businessman also wanted to glorify God. Both of them recognized that one want took precedence over the other. Not all of our wants are equal in importance. In satisfying their desire to serve and glorify God, Hannah and that businessman practiced the holy carelessness of giving that child and surrendering half those profits to God. They practiced a holy carelessness about their lives and surrendered what they valued as a way of making their chief ambition the honoring of God. That, my friends, is a costly type of faith. Do you think it didn’t hurt Hannah to hand Samuel over to Eli? At one level it ripped out the heart of her being. But she trusted that God would nurture her even in her despair. Part of going through life wanting what we want is trusting God to nurture us in our despair. But once Hannah reached home, she became pregnant again – and again – and again – and again – and again! Finally, Hannah had to ponder the wisdom of another old wives’ axiom: be careful for what you wish for, you just might get it.
Yet I suspect Hannah didn’t mind too much. By the time her sixth child came along she realized that to nurture and to be nurtured was the very purpose of her existence.
We are made to want. Our desires fuel our lives. But we don’t want to be people who waste our lives discounting the value of our existence because we don’t get what we want in the way we want it. That great hymnologist Mick Jagger put the matter succinctly: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, that you get what you need.” Mother’s Day testifies to the importance of nurture in our lives, whether that nurture is provided by a mother or by somebody else. But the best nurturers do not always give us what we want, rather they give us what we need. The best nurturers teach us when to want, when to want something else and when to accept the word “No.” These are the lessons that the Spirit of the motherly God tries to impress upon us. In the end, if we are fortunate, we learn the lesson that Hannah learned: a dream given over to God is a dream that will be achieved. It might be a dream achieved in a manner different from how we expected it. It might be a dream that is achieved differently from how we desired it. But a dream given over to God is a dream that will ultimately be achieved. For in giving our dreams, our desires and ambitions over to God, we find that in the end, what we have ultimately given to God is ourselves. And that, my friends, is the whole point of our faith and our spiritual pilgrimage.