“Sometimes God answers yes when I pray. Sometimes God answers wait when I pray. Sometimes God answers no just because he loves me so, but I know God always answers when I pray.”
We sang this song at “Good News Club” as children, and it’s stuck with me through all these years. Its message is so simple and so true. Yet so often forgotten.
Christmas is coming, and the world is focused on the newest iPhone and the latest fashion. But for Hannah, a woman who, in my mind, was one of the very first “prayer warriors,” the thing she most wanted couldn’t be purchased. Hannah’s story makes up only two of the thousands of chapters in the Bible, and her son Samuel (the last of the judges, the first of the major prophets, and the one who anointed King Saul and King David) is probably more well-known than his mother. But Samuel would never have been born if it weren’t for Hannah’s unwavering petition to God for the gift she desired most.
You see, it all started when a Hebrew man named Elkanah decided to marry two wives. How could that ever be a good idea, Elkanah? Didn’t he know what always happens when two women fight over one man? Anyway, while one of his wives Peninnah had many children, his other wife, Hannah, had none. As we’ve mentioned before, the ability to bear children in Hebrew culture was a woman’s highest honor; if she was unable to be a mother, she brought shame upon herself.
Like it always goes when two women are competing over a man, conflict ensued. The Bible says Hannah’s “rival” Peninnah “kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year” (1 Samuel 1:6-7). Can’t you just imagine being teased for years and years about something like the inability to have a baby? Girls are mean enough to each other when life’s highest honor isn’t on the line.
Through Hannah’s years of sadness, Elkanah tried to comfort her to no avail. She didn’t find peace in her husband’s kindness, but she did ultimately take comfort in God. Now, I don’t know if she neglected praying for all those years and finally, in her desperation, came to God, or if she’d been praying faithfully with no answer. But regardless, by the time the Bible picks up Hannah’s story, she has turned to God for comfort. First Samuel 1:10 says, “In her deep anguish, Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly.” I don’t know about you, but praying is not usually my first go-to when I’m in “deep anguish.” If I have a bad day at work, I go crying to my husband. If some girl is mean to me, I go running to other girls to create a posse against her. But how often do we run to the Lord in our pain before we run to humans?
Prayer has such power, but we neglect it far too often. Usually, I manage to make myself wake up in time to read my Bible, but that’s about as far as I get in my time with God; I end up rushing off to do other things instead of taking the time to pray. I think that’s because prayer can’t really be “checked off” a to-do list. Read a chapter of the Bible? Check. Write in my journal? Check. But pray? It’s hard to tangibly put that on a to-do list. That’s like putting “talk to a friend” there. What constitutes “talking?” A “hi” in the hallway? A coffee date? It’s hard to put prayer into a concrete, black and white, “yes I did this” or “no I didn’t,” which is why I think we often neglect it in the midst of our rushing and our busyness.
Hannah didn’t neglect prayer, and God blessed her with what she wanted—a child—but also with so much more than she knew she wanted. He gave her a child who would go on to be a world-changer. You see, when we pray, God can surprise us. God does surprise us. It may be the yes we were hoping for. It may be a “yes, and also this.” It may be a no with something better instead. But as Hannah’s story and Samuel’s birth shows us, lives are changed by prayer, even if no one is praying but one broken woman. Families are changed by the prayer of one broken woman. Nations are changed by the prayer of one broken woman.
Let’s enter this Christmas season expectantly, waiting to see what God will do. Because much like Christmas presents, the gift may be just what we asked for—or it may be the thing we never dreamed we wanted, picked out by someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. Let’s wait expectantly for the greatest surprises imaginable from the One who loves us more than anyone else.