We live in a weary world– weary of war, weary of chaos, weary of worry, and weary of sin and its consequences. From the time the alarm rings to the time we finally lay down our weary heads, we are bombarded by stress, misunderstandings, distractions, disappointments, questions, harsh words, harsh images, demands, doubts– I’m tired just listing them…
Even so, we are surrounded by promises (mostly false) of peace and rest, satisfaction and success. “Buy this!” “Try that!” “New!” “Improved!” The voices call out, offering temporary bliss, or temporary escape from the weariness all around. “Jingle Bells!” “Happy Holidays!” “Tidings of Comfort and Joy!” It is tempting to let Christmas become just like all the other worldly distractions–shiny, loud, stressful and fleeting, full of promise, but leaving us empty and cold in the end.
But Christmas IS different, because it doesn’t celebrate what the world has to offer. The celebration includes lights and bells, songs and gifts, food and friends and family– but at its heart, Christmas celebrates something “out of this world!” Jesus came to a weary world long ago, and no matter how weary the world was, or is, or will be, Jesus brought all the hope and healing of Heaven in the small package of a tiny infant child in a crowded town in a conquered land.
On that Holy Night, God crashed the party– He did more than watch from a distance, more than speak from the skies above or send angel messengers–He arrived, actively participating in the struggle, the bone-weariness, the hunger and thirst and chill and stress of living among His fallen and fractured creation.
And the weary world rejoices–can you hear it? Above the bustling noise of people shouting, and car horns blaring, and advertising slogans, and piped-in Christmas songs…Can you feel it–beyond the comfort of a warm blanket and hot cocoa, beyond the hugs of friends or the smiles of strangers or gifts from loved ones? Can you see it–beyond the glare of city lights, undimmed by the darkness of hatred and greed?
The lights and songs will fade away, but the Love, Joy, and Peace of God that came to the world that first Christmas is for all time!
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices, ‘O Night Divine. O Night, when Christ was born. O Holy Night!'”
1 I love you, Lord, my strength. 2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 3 I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. 4 The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. 5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. 6 In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. 7 The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. 8 Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. 9 He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. 10 He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him— the dark rain clouds of the sky. 12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. 13 The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. 14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. 15 The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. 16He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. 17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. 18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. 19 He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.
Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.
Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.
This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus. “Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”
As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!
“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.
Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.
It is not popular to write about weakness. We all have moments when we feel weak, overwhelmed, defeated, and depressed. Sometimes, we are just physically exhausted, and emotionally drained by the piling up of little stresses and routine tasks. Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by loss or grief, guilt, or worry about situations beyond our control.
We want such feelings and situations to go away, to be replaced by peace, comfort, and contentment. And while well-meaning people tell us that “this too shall pass,” or “God has a plan,” or “you will get through this– I’m here for you,” we are still weak, weary, and worn down by the struggles of the day.
Jesus gave some incredible and inexplicable advice to people who would follow him. He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 28-29 from the Christian Standard Bible via biblegateway.com)
The first part of his advice offers great comfort– “come to me…and I will give you rest.” But then, without even a breath, Jesus tells us to take up his yoke! A yoke does not seem to offer rest– I want the burden to be GONE–I don’t want to put on a yoke like an ox or a plow horse. How could this be comforting or restful?
But this is the promise of God– not to make all our burdens disappear (though he often chooses to give us total relief from a particular burden)–instead, He asks us to put on his yoke. He will share the burden with us, and He will teach us how to make the load bearable, even lighter, by following Him.
And, though we have moments of exhaustion and setbacks, God’s purpose is not for us to give up or be defeated by our circumstances, but to be victorious over them, and turn to Him. In order to “take up (his) yoke” we must take the burden off our own shoulders and give it to Him. He will distribute the load, direct our path, and set the pace. And not only that, He will take our hand and speak words of wisdom and peace as we carry the load together. And THAT is truly comforting!
The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is filled with priests. Her husband, Elkanah, is of the priestly class, and regularly goes to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Chapter one quickly mentions Hophni and Phinehas who were the resident priests there. And of course, there is Eli, their father, the High Priest at that time. Hannah has access to counselors, spiritual guidance, and men whose ancestral calling is to bring people closer to God. Yet none of them can bring Hannah out of her anguish and offer comfort.
Hophni and Phinehas are noticeably absent in this story. The mention of their names calls attention to this absence. They were supposed to be the acting priests, but they don’t interact in any way with the grieving Hannah, or her husband, Elkanah. Further reading reveals that they were very wicked and due to be judged for abusing their priestly role. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A12-36&version=NIV
Eli himself is an indifferent priest. The first mention of him is as the father of the wicked Hophni and Phinehas. Next, we find him sitting in a chair at the doorstep of the tabernacle. He is not serving; he is not overseeing; he is not doing anything. When he first observes Hannah, he jumps to a wrong and judgmental conclusion– that she is drunk and raving. He doesn’t go over to see if he’s right in his assumption. In fact, there is no mention in the passage that he ever rises from his chair. We might gloss over this passage, without grasping the importance of this detail. Nowhere in the long lists of a priest’s duties was there an option of sitting at the door and just watching people go in and out. The priests all had duties– some were in charge of the sacrifice (as Elkanah sometimes was). Others were in charge of the lamps, the incense, the care of the utensils and tools, offering prayers, singing, playing instruments, reading from the books of the law, and keeping the tabernacle clean and in good repair. None of them required sitting. Eli isn’t busy doing the work of the Lord; he is literally sitting down on the job. In short, Eli is not a spiritual giant– he offers a standard blessing after Hannah pleads her case for not being a drunken disturber of the peace, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of true comfort or counseling. His first words to her are to “Go in peace.” The blessing seems to be almost an afterthought. Still, Hannah goes away encouraged, and comes back the next day to worship before returning home.
What can we learn from this encounter and these details in Hannah’s story?
One possible reaction is to become critical and dismissive of the clergy. I think this is the wrong reaction, but I want to address it in this context, because it can keep us from finding help and blessing if we let it. I know countless people who have walked away from the church because of one disappointing encounter with a minister, pastor’s wife, deacon, or fellow parishioner. Eli was not a stellar example of Israel’s priesthood; he was a flawed human. He had rebellious sons, and was likely depressed or anguished over his own troubles. Yet, he was still faithful to turn Hannah’s attention to the One who is always able to bring comfort and strength. Hannah could have chosen to focus on his rude and judgmental assumption about her, but she chose to focus on the hope he was able to offer. I have gotten dismissive, even bad, advice from people in the church. I have been hurt, judged, and ignored by those who are supposed to be serving God. But just as God provides grace to cover our own failures and mis-steps, He asks us to extend forgiveness and grace to those–even those who serve Him.*
Having said that, I think there is a warning here for those who serve the Lord. Eli ends his days in tragic fashion, his family legacy in ruins, because of some of the details we glimpse even in this short passage about Hannah. Eventually, her son, Samuel, will be tasked with the job of delivering the fullness of God’s judgment against Eli and his sons. Eli’s priesthood was not a cushy position of sitting at the door of God’s tabernacle enjoying an afternoon breeze. He was in charge of setting the tone of reverence and worship for the nation. His sons were corrupt; everyone knew it, including Eli, but nothing was done about it. He sat there, and let evil happen around him. Church workers, pastors, and priests who do evil and abuse their positions may get away with it for awhile, but God will not hold them guiltless. Nor will he hold those guiltless who cover up or deny the guilt of those around them. No matter how high the position, no matter how much “good” they have done, unless they repent of their actions, they will face God’s wrath over their evil acts.
Finally, we need to see Hannah’s response. Regardless of how evil the sons of Eli were, or how spineless Eli was as a parent and a High Priest, Hannah found faith– not in the priests– but in the God they served. She had seen the dedication of her husband, Elkanah. He served God with reverence, and he served his family with love and honor. She saw that Eli, even sitting down on the job, was still aware that hope and healing come from the Almighty.
Hannah’s response to Eli, and the God he served so imperfectly, deserves another look– one we will take in the next post.
I pray that today, we will be grateful to God for the faithful servants he sends into our lives, and for his grace when we or others “sit down” on the job of serving others and showing Him the reverence He deserves.
Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name. Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.
As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.
Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.
In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.
Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite. Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.
But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.
I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.
Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 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. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
We don’t normally spend much time studying Samuel’s father, Elkanah. Yet the story of Hannah and Samuel begins with this man. Not only that, but it begins with a lesson in his genealogy and heritage. We learn that Elkanah was from Ramathaim (a town in the hill country of the tribal lands of Ephraim). As a Zuphite, however, Elkanah (and thus his son, Samuel) were also descended from the Kohathites, and were of the Levitical priestly line.
Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. We don’t know why Elkanah had two wives, but we know that the other wife, Peninnah, had children; likely several (see verse 4). Hannah, however, was barren– and this was “because the Lord had closed her womb.” There is nothing to indicate that this a result of any sin on the part of Hannah or Elkanah–there is no reason given for God’s decision to keep Hannah from becoming a mother. There is also no reason to believe that Elkanah was angry or disappointed or embarrassed by Hannah’s condition. In the society of that time, a man could divorce his wife for minor offenses; in this society, barrenness would be seen as a major defect, a stigma, and grounds for divorce. Hannah faced the possibility of rejection, abandonment, and condemnation from her husband. Yet Elkanah loved Hannah, and honored her with a double portion for their yearly offering.
Even with a loving and supportive husband, however, Hannah is inconsolable. And it is here that I think many of do a disservice to Elkanah. The Bible tells us that Peninnah taunted Hannah and drove her to tears. When she would not eat, Elkanah asked some basic questions. Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? and the one that always makes me cringe– Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?
These questions always bothered me. It seems to me that Elkanah is either clueless or in denial about the bitter rivalry going on under his very roof. And his questions seem to underline his ignorance.
A closer look at the context, however shows that Elkanah may be more a victim of our modern cultural understanding than a victim of his own deficiencies as a husband. It says on the day that Elkanah was to sacrifice– an indication that he was inside the tabernacle and on duty –that Peninnah was taunting Hannah. If Elkanah was ignorant of the torment Hannah faced, it may very well be that it was being kept from him by Hannah herself. As a woman, I’m also guilty of expecting that my husband will “pick up” on non-verbal clues, or otherwise intuitively “understand” why I am depressed, or tired, or angry. Husbands, as loving and attentive as they may be, are not mind readers, and I have been guilty of making mine play a frustrating guessing game as he seeks to offer help. Men are also more likely to start by asking questions to “get to the root” of the problem, when we are seeking comfort and understanding, before we seek a solution. Elkanah and Hannah are no different in this respect than most of us today. Hannah is not a superwoman–she cries at the party and won’t eat. Elkanah is not a superman–he can’t “fix” Hannah’s sadness, nor can he feel the total depth of her despair. Finally, Elkanah asks a question that gives us a window into his own secret anguish. “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” I want to rest here for a minute. I think we tend to get caught up in the words, and miss the heart of this plea. What is he really expressing? I don’t think Elkanah is trying to exaggerate his worth, nor is he trying to minimize Hannah’s desperation. But there is a heartfelt cry to be “enough.” So many times, when we face infertility, miscarriage, or the loss of a child, we focus on the mother’s feelings of loss and emptiness. In this story, we look at Hannah as being an outsider in her own family– the wife who “can’t”–the one who is in distress. Elkanah’s question may even seem insensitive and arrogant. Listen to it again, though, and you can hear the broken heart of a man who loves his wife, even as she is pulling away and allowing her grief to consume her. “Don’t I mean more to you?” “Am I not enough to keep you from despair?” Yes, Elkanah has children with Peninnah, but he longs for happiness and fulfillment in his relationship with Hannah. The Bible never says how many children Peninnah had, but it seems clear that in Elkanah’s eyes, Hannah was worth far more than “ten sons.”
I am broken as I think of times when I have been so consumed in my own grief and “neediness” that I have pushed away those who love me most, shutting them out, and making them question their own worth.
How many times have I done the same to the Lover of My Soul?
How many times do I focus on the one thing I don’t have, or the two annoying people in my life, and ignore the blessings God has poured out? When was the last time I made an extra effort to communicate to my husband how much he DOES mean to me, instead of leaving him to wonder? How many tears have I poured out with my face turned away from my Loving Father?
Hannah’s husband asks some leading questions– they lead Hannah to collapse before the only one who can bring healing and joy. Hannah’s prayer comes from a point of being broken– far more than needing a child, Hannah needs the love and understanding her husband longs to give her, and the joy and blessing her Heavenly Father has been waiting to offer.
We know the end of this story– God opens Hannah’s womb, giving her and her husband a son who will go on to play a key role in Israel’s history and God’s story of redemption. He continues to bless Hannah and Elkanah with other children, and, hopefully, a renewed relationship of joy and commitment.
May our prayer journey today lead us toward the Love of our Good Father– whether from a place of brokenness, need, confusion, joy, frustration, or victory.
One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.
Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date. It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well. But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.
Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey. George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life. His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear. While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father. He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter. Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough. The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll. When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates. After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown. In desperation, he prays. It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst. It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”
What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him. We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers. And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George. But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.
Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer. He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab. Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at. Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.
While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view. Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive. But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.
And so it is with our lives–all the “might have been”s and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness. And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”
There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.” George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s. But George’s choices, while “right” were not in his own immediate best interest. What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life. What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices! God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life. But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment. George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.” But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.*
God answered George’s prayer. And He answered the prayers of his friends and family. But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect. In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw. But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself. God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000. He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful. But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”
For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death. God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine. Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..
My mother and I shared a wonderful morning shopping and enjoying the spring weather. We both arrived home, only to be greeted with the news that one of our extended family members had died in an accident. Just the day before, another member of our family had passed on at age 94. Both of them left a legacy of faith, hope, joy, and kindness that leaves us grateful, but grieving their loss.
And it is a loss– even though both of them were Christians, even though we have the great hope of being reunited with them in Heaven, even though both of them led full lives–they were unique on this earth, and everything that made them special and irreplaceable to friends and family is now absent; a gaping, aching hole, lined with teasing flashes of memories, echoes of laughter, and unanswered questions.
Some days, the hits just keep coming– an unexpected expense, a misunderstanding at work, a fender-bender during the commute, a plumbing nightmare, a migraine, the phone call with bad news. Each new pain rolls over us, throwing us off balance, and trying to drag us under.
“Even so, it is well with my soul.” The story of this favorite hymn has been told many times, but it bears repeating. ( It Is Will With My Soul. wikipedia.org ) The author of these words had lost everything– his only son had died; shortly afterward, he lost almost all his money and property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A friend, knowing of his troubles invited him to bring his family to England for an evangelistic campaign. Mr. Spafford (the above-mentioned author of the hymn) had to stay behind and sent his wife and four daughters ahead. Their ship, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another vessel and sank. All four of the daughters were drowned, and only his wife survived to send him news of the tragedy. As he made the heartbreaking voyage to rejoin his wife, he passed the place where his daughters had most likely gone down. At that moment, Mr. Spafford felt a welling of peace and hope beyond human understanding, which led him to pen the words that have given comfort to so many in the years since:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Nothing can prepare us for the sorrows that sweep over us at unexpected moments. Nothing can stop them, and though we know they will come, no one knows how high they will rise, or when they will crest and break around us. No one except the one who set the boundaries of the sea, the one who has walked on its waters, and the one who can calm the storm.
God doesn’t remove the sorrows or tragedies from our life or prevent them from washing around and over us. But for those who trust in him, there is a promise that we will not be consumed. We may be in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of a raging sea, but at our faintest cry, Jesus will walk on choppy waves to be by our side and bring comfort. He will teach us to be in awe of him as he commands the winds and waves to obey him. He will teach us to trust him in the good times and the bad. He will teach us to say, “It is well with my soul!”
It can be a dog-eat-dog kind of world out there. Every day, I hear of people who are facing difficult and trying circumstances– health issues, loss of a job or home, loss of a family member or close friend, depression, oppression, harassment, rebellious or estranged children, abuse, academic failures, exhaustion from being provider, caregiver, etc.– even just daily stress. It can really take a toll. But it becomes even more difficult when we isolate ourselves.
When I get stressed, I tend to withdraw. I don’t want others to think of me as a failure, or to think less of me in my struggles. But this is one of the worst things I can do. First, it means more worry and stress because I’m bearing the burden alone! Second, it forces me to cover up my level of anxiety or depression be pretending that things are fine then they aren’t. That would all be bad enough, but it gets worse. Isolating means my focus turns inward– my problems become bigger, not smaller; I’m so close to the problem, I’m not able to “look outside the box” for solutions, because my box keeps closing in on me. I can’t see beyond my circumstances to understand if they are temporary, or if they necessitate some life changes on the other side of whatever crisis I’m dealing with. And, worst of all, the only voice I listen to is my own, rehearsing and reminding me of the difficulties or failures I’m facing.
We all need an encouraging word now and then; a voice telling us that we are not alone; that all is not lost; that there is hope. I have been blessed with wonderful family, friends, and neighbors who are great about encouraging me, even when I try to shut them out or pretend that everything is grand. Sometimes that encouragement comes through conversation; sometimes a card or text message or a shared piece of scripture; sometimes it comes through prayer. I may not even know who prayed, or what words they used until days or weeks later, but their faithfulness in praying has become a lifeline when I feel isolated and overwhelmed.
This does not negate my need to pray and ask God for wisdom, healing, or strength for myself, nor does it suggest that God doesn’t answer my prayers. Instead, it shows a pattern– God often answers our prayers by incorporating and using those around us. God’s goodness and his love are shown best in teamwork. We run the race to win, but we race together as teammates, not competitors. We share sorrows, struggles, and joys. We come alongside; we lift others up, and they lift us up in return.
Encouragement does so much, we sometimes underestimate its power. In a world of sniping, criticism, name-calling, and finger-pointing, encouragement does the following:
It lets someone know that they are seen and heard– that they are being noticed, thought of, and valued. This shouldn’t be uncommon, but in a world where we are connected to so many be technology, and to so few face-to-face, it is HUGE!
It give us perspective to realize that we are not alone in our problems and not unique in facing difficulties.
It reminds us that hope and help are gifts to be shared, not something we must earn.
It gives us a purpose and a mission to be part of God’s redemptive work– Jesus gave encouragement and hope to those who needed it most, not to those who “deserved” it.
It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there, but we are not dogs. We are children of the King. Let’s send out some encouraging words today!
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Proverbs 25:11 (ESV)
Also see James 5:13-16 on praying for one another.