Today I’m thinking about Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth: three miracle stories of barrenness, babies, and answered prayers. I know the anguish of longing for a child, yet being unable to conceive. My path to motherhood was ultimately fulfilled with the gift of two adopted children, but not without years of grief and longing. And as much as I adore my now grown-up children, I still wonder who my biological children might have been. Who would they look like? What affinities and quirks would they have inherited from me—and my husband? Would we have liked the same books, the same movies? To this day, the four of us find it nearly impossible to agree on a shared movie! But I know God gave me the children He wanted us to love and nurture.
In my years of waiting, I related to Hannah, eventual mother of the prophet Samuel. So great was her anguish that every year she wept and prayed at the house of the Lord in “bitterness of soul”, until the day Eli the priest promised her prayers would be answered (I Samuel 1: 1-18). His words immediately calmed her: that’s faith. And so profound was her gratitude that she dedicated her baby to the Lord, giving him to Eli as soon as he was weaned. This sacrifice blows my mind! She had no way of knowing that God would bless her with five more children. And no way of knowing what kind of father Eli would be to her son. (His own sons, Hophni and Phineas, were a disgrace, but Samuel did well.) Hannah simply trusted—and honored—God. Her song of praise was a model for Mary’s Magnificat upon meeting with Elizabeth, both babies in womb (I Sam. 2:1-10; Luke 1: 46-55).
Sarah, eventual mother of Isaac, and Elizabeth, eventual mother of John the Baptist, waited much longer to conceive. Sarah was in her nineties! Elizabeth was “well along in years”. We don’t get glimpses of their private pain as decades passed and they failed to get pregnant. But we know they lived in cultures where childbearing was a woman’s ultimate calling, and other career options weren’t available. (Except, maybe, in the case of Deborah, who got to be a judge.) But I imagine they both wrestled with God over their barrenness before surrendering to His will. If they passed through seasons of bitterness, as both Hannah and I did, they didn’t stay there. Both women were faithful to God into their old age, where the blessings secretly waited.
Here’s our hiking passage for today:
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Heb.11:11-12)
Although this passage focuses on Abraham’s faith, I can’t help thinking of Sarah. We know she laughed when she overheard the Angel of the Lord foretelling her pregnancy. She seems to have an ironic sense of humor: “After I am worn out, and my husband is old, will I now have this pleasure?” (Gen.18:12) Whether her initial response was a sign of unbelief or merely stunned incredulity is debatable. Perhaps it was the startled outpouring of a heart that had made its peace with unanswered prayers.
Sometimes we do that. We’ve prayed and prayed for the desire of our hearts, only to watch as years pass and our dreams remain dreams. We might even stop praying for certain things. But remember: nowhere in the Bible does God promise every earthly blessing to every believer.
Yes, some folks seem to have it all: happy marriages, faithful children, adorable grandchildren, physical and mental health, financial prosperity, fulfilling careers, strong relationships… you name it. Or at least that’s how it looks on Facebook.
Then there are those of us who could trump each other at a Blessings Version of “I’ve Never”: I’ve never had a spouse/given birth/owned a house/traveled the world/functioned without limitations and medications/stopped worrying about my troubled child/had a fulfilling marriage/had money to spare/been outwardly successful…and so on.
Although we enjoy every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph.1:3), we’re bound to be disappointed if we think we’re entitled to every earthly blessing. What God has promised His children are troubles, trials, and suffering in this life. These hardships are gifts to strengthen us: by testing our faith, drawing us to Christ, and keeping our hearts from feeling at home in the world.
My friends, we need to share our unanswered prayers and secret longings with each other. Not only to ask for spiritual support and encouragement, but to underscore the point that none of us has it all. And to do this, remembering that we possess everything in the life to come.
Abraham and Sarah were among the most blessed couples on earth. Their promised baby would make Abraham the father of nations, with descendants as uncountable as sand on the seashore. Abraham also enjoyed a vibrant relationship with God as he sojourned through life. Yet for most of their lives, they lived childless, without a permanent home, without a stake of land or a scrap of citizenship. Still, when Abraham was a very old man, after burying Sarah at the age of 127, the Bible says simply: The Lord had blessed him in every way (Gen.24:1).
Which reminds me of what Paul wrote of himself and his fellow apostles, whose lives were full of hardship, struggle, and poverty: having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Cor.6:10).
What I’m getting at is this: If we remain faithful to God, we’ll be able to look back at our lives and declare God has truly given me the desires of my heart. Maybe not yet. For many years, I couldn’t truly say this. There were holes and gaps in my life that felt like burns. Now, at 64, I can still list earthly blessings I haven’t received from God. And share a brighter list of so many blessings He has bestowed. And a prayer list of yet-to-be-answered prayers that still concern me.
Yet as I was hiking down the mountain yesterday, under gorgeous spring skies in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, I rejoiced in reflecting how God HAS given me the ultimate desire of my heart. Because my true desire is to be content in the life God has given me, and to trust that every longing of my heart is already answered in Him.
And that, my friends, is more than enough.