Several years after Jimmy Cagney had become famous portraying gangsters in Hollywood films, he and his wife were getting into a car in New York when he saw a man standing across the street. "Do you see that fellow over there?" Cagney told his wife. "His name is Nathan Skidelsky. He sat next to me in school." "Prove it" Cagney's wife told him. "Go say hello."
Cagney took the challenge. He made his way across the street, had a brief conversation with the man and then got back in the car. And sure enough, the man really was Nathan Skidelsky. Cagney had remembered correctly. The only problem was that Nathan Skidelsky didn't remember Jimmy Cagney.
I hate it when that happens. And I'm sad to say, it seems to happen a lot. A while back, I was navigating my way through aisles at Wal Mart when I nearly collided with a woman. When she saw me, her eyes lit up with a look of recognition. "Hi!" she said. "Hi!" I said, desperately trying to remember where I had seen her before. She started to show me some of the bargains she had found while shopping, and just then my wife came around the corner. The woman smiled at my wife, then gave me one of those, "Well, aren't you going to introduce us?" kind of looks. But by now, I had forgotten what my wife's name was.
I still don't know who that woman was. The woman with the shopping cart, I mean, not my wife. I hate it when that happens. I hate to forget people. I hate it even more when people forget me. But have you ever wondered whether God might forget you? Have you ever felt as though God has forgotten you? After all, this is a big world, populated by millions and millions of people. It's easy to think that we have gotten lost in the crowd.
That's why I am thankful for the story of Hannah here in 1 Samuel 1:120. Hannah's story shows us three circumstances where it is important to know that God remembers.
God remembers us when our hearts are broken.
That's because there are times in the believer's life when God seems to withhold from us the one thing we want the most. For Hannah, that one thing was the dream of being a mother. We learn that in verses 12, which set the scene for Hannah's story. They tell us about "a certain man from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah." Verse 2 says: "He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none."
That's a simple enough statement. But those of you who have shared Hannah's experience know that it speaks volumes. It can be hard enough to rejoice when a friend, a sister, or a neighbor has children, when that blessing has been withheld from you. But imagine what it would be like to have a rival wife to deal with. You see, in Hannah's day, it was legal for a man to have more than one wife. In fact, an inability to conceive was one of the major reasons husbands took a second wife.
You have to wonder if Hannah ever looked at Peninnah and thought to herself, If had been able to have children, that woman wouldn't be here. Then there were those family vacationseverybody piling into the mini-van once a year and taking a trip to Shiloh for the sacrificial meal. They did this year after year, and every time it was the same thing. Hannah had to sit and watch as her husband served Peninnah and her children first.
But when he came to Hannah, he gave her a double portion. Maybe it was because he felt guilty. Maybe it was because he felt sorry for Hannah, sitting there solitary and alone. Maybe it was because he wanted to show Hannah that she was his favorite. Whatever the reason, it didn't make Hannah feel any better.
If anything, it made things worse because then Peninnah would start in, doting on her children with a smirking grin and making cutting remarks to Hannah. She would say: Oh Hannah, I know you're disappointed that you haven't been able to have children. But really dear, it's a blessing in disguise. I mean after all, I have so many. I just don't know how we will feed them!
Verse 7 says that "This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat." And then according to verse 8, Elkanah would step in and try to fix things, in his typically male way. He would say: Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?
Now, if I were a motivational speaker, I might tell you that "disappointment is just different clothing for opportunity" and that "failure is the back door to success." If I were your father, I might tell you to "look on the bright side" and "think of all that you have instead of what you don't." If I were your friend, I suppose I might tell you not to lose hopeto keep trying. I might even buy you a book on infertility.
But if I was God, do you know what I think I would say? If I was God, I don't think I would say anything. If I was God, I would know that slogans and formulas and pat answers don't really help. That's because God knows what it feels like to have a broken heart. Believe it or not, God even knows the special pain of childlessness. This is a great mystery and hard for us to understand. But the Bible tells us that while Jesus Christ was on the cross bearing the sins of the world, the Father poured out on him the wrath for sin that you and I deserved.
For a terrible moment that carried with it the weight of all eternity, the father turned away and knew what it was like to lose his only son. He was willing to do that so he wouldn't have to lose you. God hasn't forgotten you when your heart has been broken. He knows what it feels like to lose what you cherish most.
But while that is a nice thought, what are we supposed to do in the mean time? I mean, so God knows, okay, but here we are still waiting for our dream to come true. What are we supposed to do now?
God remembers us while we are praying.
That's when it is important to know that God still remembers us while we are praying. You see, there are a lot of ways we could respond to disappointment. We might complain about it. You know what they say about miseryit loves company. We might make it our mission to make sure that everyone around us feels our pain. Or we could go the opposite route. We could clam up about it.
You married people know what that looks like. You're driving in the car with your spouse and you can just tell that he or she is upset. The air is so thick with tension that the windows are starting to fog up. Finally, you can't stand it any more, so you say (against your better judgment, I might add), "What's wrong, honey?" "Nothing ." Now there's frost on the windows, and it's not because of the weather!
Or maybe we could try to take it out on everyone around us. You know how this works. The boss yells at you at work, you come home and yell at your spouse, your spouse spanks the kids, the kids kick the dog, and the dog bites the boss when she comes over for dinner that evening.
We could do any of these things. But Hannah shows us a better alternative. Hannah prayed about it. Now, wait a minute before you tune out on me. I know what you're thinking. Or at least, I know what I would be thinking if I were you. "Oh great here he has reminded me of this huge disappointment in my life and all he has to say to me is, 'Pray about it.' As if I didn't already know that!" I know you know that. And I am going to tell you to pray about it.
But it's the way Hannah prayed about it that I want you to notice. Look at verses 910: "Once, when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the Lord's temple. In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord."
Hannah prayed "in bitterness of soul." Hannah didn't hold anything back. Hannah wept and poured out her disappointment to God. I want you to notice what Hannah did not do. First, Hannah did not complain to her husband. It would have been alright if she had. I mean, what good are husbands for, if they can't bear with a little complaining now and then? But I think Hannah knew better! Elkanah's well-intentioned but misguided remarks had already demonstrated that he just didn't get it.
Actually, there is a biological reason for this. A few years ago Time magazine did a cover story about the differences between the male and female brain. After extensive studies (and I am not making this up), scientists discovered that women use both sides of the brain. This is trueit's science, not feminism. Scientists discovered that women use both sides of the brain and men, amazingly, don't use either side! It's a mystery! I think that Hannah didn't complain to Elkanah because she knew he just didn't get it. Even if he had, what could he do?
Second, notice that Hannah didn't try to get back at Peninnaheven though she really deserved it. Again, I think Hannah knew better. The worst Hannah could have said would not have changed the fact that Peninnah had children and Hannah had none. In fact, it would only have given Peninnah a chance to put the needle in one more time.
Third, interestingly, Hannah didn't even complain to the priest. Which is just as well, because it didn't take long for Eli to show that he was just as clueless as Elkanah. Verses 1114 say that Hannah was deep in prayer, making a commitment to God promising that, if he would give her a son, she would give him back to the Lord. Eli is sitting in his usual spot watching. It says: "As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, 'How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.'"
How is that for pastoral compassion? She is so broken hearted that she can barely get the words out and he says: Go home and sober up!
Well, I suppose he had his reasons. After all, this was a festival. There was plenty of food and wine around. If Hannah had been drunk, I don't suppose she would have been the first drunk worshipper Eli had seen. But Hannah isn't drunk, so she defends herself in verses 1516: "'Not so, my lord,' Hannah replied, 'I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.'"
Now, just stop and think about this for a minute. Not one of the people who should have comforted Hannah gave any sympathy. Not one of them understood her pain. And every single one of them said something that must have hurt her deeply. Now, consider this: two-thirds of them did it unintentionally.
Here is another hard lesson that we learn from Hannah's story: Often the people we expect to understand in a time of great disappointment don't. Often, the people we expect to sympathize with us just turn away. And most of them don't have a clue that they have hurt us. We expect our enemies to abandon us. But our friends?
Have you been misunderstood like Hannah? Have you gone to a friend, a spouse, or a pastor for comfort, only to find that they were too consumed with their own affairs to sympathize with you? Or maybe they offered you a pat answer for your complex problem. Did they give you a Bible verse, a pat on the back, and then send you on your way? Did you become bitter as a result?
Listen, if anyone might have been expected to leave Shiloh bitter, it was Hannah. But something happened. Verses 1719 describe the change that came over her: "Eli answered, 'Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.' She said, 'May your servant find favor in your eyes.' Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast."
What a change. Remember, verse 7 says that this cycle of disappointment had gone on for years. What has made the difference? The answer is simple. Hannah prayed. In fact, I find it striking to note that the first time we hear Hannah's voice in this story is when she is speaking to God. When everyone else seemed to have forgotten Hannah, she knew where to turn.
My mother had a habit that I found annoying when I was growing up. When she would get sick, she would moan. Loudly. "Ohhhh Ohhhh Ohhhh." I could hear her groans echo all through our house. Frankly, I found it disturbing. So one day I asked her, "Mom, why do you make so much noise when you're sick?" She said, "Because it makes me feel better; I don't believe in suffering in silence!"
Well, I don't believe in it either. So if you are suffering, go ahead and make some noise. But make sure that you include God in the circle of those who hear you. How do you handle the bitterness that comes when your dreams don't come true? Hannah would say that you take your case to God and leave it in his hands. You don't have to put on airs. You don't have to try and sound pious. You don't have to hide your disappointment.
As a sidenote, sometimes I hear worship leaders start the service by urging the congregation to leave their troubles outside. I disagreebring them in with you. Take them right up to the altar! Hannah prayed and wept in "bitterness of soul." Go ahead, take your complaint to God. You won't shock him. Plead with him to intervene in your situation. And while you're at it, ask him for his grace as you wait for the answer. Because, frankly, the wait can be long. And sometimes the answer is not the one we had hoped for.
God remembers us after our prayers have been answered.
That's why the third circumstance where its important to know that God still remembers us is after the answer has come: We need to know that God remembers us, even after our prayers have been answered.
God answers prayers in his own time and in accordance with his own purposes. In Hannah's case, the answer was yes. Look at verses 1920: "Early the next morning, they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, 'Because I asked the Lord for him.'"
The Lord remembered Hannah. And in the course of time, in due time, she conceived and gave birth. Why did it take so long for Hannah to get what she had asked for? It was because Hannah was part of a larger plan. We become so anxious about the concerns and desires of our own lives that we forget we are part of a larger plan.
Why did Hannah have to wait? It wasn't because God was being mean, although I'm sure that's what it felt like. It wasn't because God had forgotten, although I'm sure there were times when she wondered if that weren't the case. It was because it wasn't time yet. And when the time was right, God moved in response to her prayer. In the same way, when the time is right, God will move in response to our prayers.
But it is equally important to know that when the time is right, God will only move in a way that is consistent with his plan. And sometimes, the answer that is most consistent with God's plan is "No!"
Pastor Randy Frazee tells that when his mother lay dying, he went to God with a special request. In fact, it was a request that Frazee made exactly 50 times. He knew the number because he had counted. He had prayed 50 times because he had been studying Jesus' teaching on prayer and had read Jesus command to keep knocking at God's door. From that, Frazee concluded that if he asked continuously, God would eventually grant his request.
Frazee's request was a very specific one. He asked God give his mother 18 more years of life. He chose that number for two reasons. One was so that his mother would live long enough to see Randy's newborn niece graduate from high school. The other reason was because he had been reading about Hezekiah's prayer in 2 Kings 20.
While on his deathbed, Hezekiah asked God to spare his life, and God granted him 15 more years of life. So Randy Frazee prayed and prayed again. He prayed until he had asked God 50 times to give his mother 18 more years. And God answered Randy's prayer. He granted her 18 more hours.
Afterwards, Frazee said this: "I had to ask myself the question: What's that all about? Does God not love me? Have I not served him like Hezekiah did? Did he not see my tears when I turned my face to the wall and wept bitterly? Why did God come through for Hezekiah and not for Randy Frazee?"
Well, Randy Frazee is not alone. Someday it would be worth doing a study of all those in the Bible who heard God say "No" in answer to their request. The list would be impressive. It would include Moses, when he asked God to allow him to enter the land of promise. "No." David, when he begged God to spare the life of his first son by Bathsheba. "No." Elijah, when grew so tired of his ministry that he asked God to just let him die. "No." Paul, when he asked God three times to remove the thorn in his flesh. "No." And, most amazing of all, Jesus, when he asked that, if at all possible, the cup of suffering be removed from him. "No."
Sometimes the answer that is most consistent with God's plan is no. And although it may not feel like it right now, God's "no" may actually be more loving than a "yes." In Matthew 7:711, the passage that impacted Randy Frazee, Jesus says: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"
God will never give his child a stone when he asks for bread. But have you considered that he might give us bread that looks like a stone? God will never give his child a snake when he asks for a fish. But it is possible that the fish that he gives may not look very appealing to us at first glance. God hasn't forgotten you. Even when the answer is "No."
Some years ago, I read the story of author Marshall Shelley's fourth child. When it was born, it suffered from a condition that the doctors described as being "incompatible with life." "I was with my son his entire life," Shelley writes, "two minutes." The loss was made doubly bitter by the death several months earlier of Shelley's daughter Mandy.
So Marshall and his wife Susan chose very carefully when the time came to select a name for the boy. "His name is Toby," Susan said to one of the nurses. "It's short for a biblical name, Tobiah, which means that God is good."
Shortly after the Shelleys buried Toby, a strange thing happened. Their seven-year-old daughter, Stacy, told them that she had heard a voice in the middle of the night telling her: "Mandy and Toby are very busy. They are building our house and they are guarding our throne." Marshall was puzzled by this. His daughter had never heard voices before.
The experience prompted him to begin studying what the Bible has to say about heaven. During the course of his study, Marshall found the answer to the one question that had plagued him about Toby. Shelley writes: "Why did God create a child to live two minutes? He didn't. He did not create Mandy to live two years. He did not create me to live 40 years (or whatever number he may choose to extend my days in this world). God created Toby for eternity. He created each of us for eternity, where we may be surprised to find our true calling, which always seemed just out of reach here on earth."
Don't worry. When your dreams don't come true, God still has dreams for you. And God's dreams are better than your dreams. Nathan Skidelsky might forget his boyhood chum Jimmy Cagney. I probably will forget your name. But God will never, never, never, never forget you.
In his own time. In his own way. For your good and his glory, God will remember you!
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.