In the bustle of modern life, it is easy to forget just how good we have it. Comparatively, citizens of today's Western nations own more than even most of the richest people in ancient times, more than royalty possessed just a few centuries ago. The basics—food, clothing, shelter—are covered so abundantly that we rarely think about hunger, nakedness, and homelessness unless forced by charities asking for money to fund their third-world projects. Beyond that, many of us have more disposable income than may be good for us, as we spend it on silly things that soon end up in the trash.
Most of us have acquired so much stuff that our houses and garages are filled with it to overflowing, and some must resort to rented storage facilities to manage it. We own computers, televisions, microwaves, and cellphones, gadgets with abilities that were unthinkable just a few generations ago. We can travel anywhere on the globe in hours, communicate with people in far-flung regions instantly, and watch events all over the world in real-time. In just about every facet of life on earth, innovators are making it easier and cheaper for us to experience the good life, at least on a physical level.
The time of the fall harvest has traditionally been the season of the year in which people pause to consider their abundant blessings and thank God for them. Several nations, like the United States and Canada, have national holidays in the autumn for just this purpose. While God's called-out children should be showing Him their gratitude far more often, the Thanksgiving holiday is an appropriate time to meditate on what He has provided, as the apostle Paul says, "exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20).
We must begin by admitting that, realistically, we do indeed live well. For most of us, our complaints about not having enough are usually about things in our "want" column. In fact, we often think unrealistically about our situations because we are comparing ourselves to others who have more—and as Paul warns, comparing ourselves among ourselves is not wise (II Corinthians 10:12). In fact, it leads to envy and covetousness and then to all sorts of evil.
If a comparison is to be made, we would do far better to compare ourselves to those on the other end of the spectrum, to those who have less. When we do, we see that, honestly, we have nothing to complain about. Our lives are blessed by the oversight and providence of God, and knowing that should provoke in us daily, heartfelt thankfulness. But there is more for us to learn.
Consider Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. The biblical narrative suggests that, overall, she lived well for a woman of her time. She was the favored—and likely, the first—wife of Elkanah, a devout Levite (descended from Kohath; see I Chronicles 6:33-34) who had the wherewithal to support two wives and a large family, albeit all the children were the offspring of the other wife, Peninnah. This fact alone made Hannah's life wretched, especially since Peninnah, "her rival[,] also provoked her severely, to make her miserable, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat" (I Samuel 1:6-7).
In these days of aggressive feminism, Hannah's long-term depression over her barrenness may seem overly melodramatic. However, in the Israelite culture of the time, a woman's inability to bear children was considered a great shame. Like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel before her, Hannah could not produce an heir to carry on her husband's line and inherit his property, fundamental features of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Today's superwoman, like Australian feminist Germaine Greer, would tell her to pull herself together and find another way to find fulfillment: "Until women themselves reject stigma and refuse to feel shame for the way others treat them, they have no hope of achieving full human stature."
But that is not how Israelite women thought in the tenth century before Christ. Her position as a woman, as a wife and a potential mother, revolved around her family, and the absence of a child and heir made her feel, not just incomplete, but a failure. Without adding a son or daughter to the strength of her family, her clan, her tribe, and her nation, she was—in her own eyes—a disgrace. More than that, her neighbors would have seen her barrenness as indicative of her being under God's curse—which, in fact, she was, in a sense, since "the LORD had closed her womb" (I Samuel 1:5) to bring about His purpose. We do not know how long she carried this heavy shame and guilt, but it went on "year by year."
We know her story ended in bittersweet joy when she bore the future prophet Samuel. At the Tabernacle in Shiloh, she had prayed to God for a son, vowing to "give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head" (I Samuel 1:11). She conceived not long thereafter and kept him only until he was weaned (verse 22-23), perhaps two years or so. Then, at the yearly sacrifice (probably one of the three pilgrimage festivals), she brought him back to Shiloh and handed him over to Eli, the high priest.
The irony! Hannah—whose name means "grace" or "gracefulness"—gave up (not "lent" or "loaned," as in some Bible versions) the very thing she had asked for! Yes, she was faithfully fulfilling the "deal" she had made with God, but her willingness to give Him her most precious possession stands on par with Abraham's renowned sacrifice of Isaac. God blessed her with Samuel, and at the earliest moment, she returned her boy to Him to use as He saw fit.
Her sacrifice and her subsequent powerful prayer of thanksgiving (I Samuel 2:1-10) set Hannah apart from most of us. We are apt to receive God's blessings with thanks and keep them for ourselves, to spend them on our pleasures (see James 4:3). Yet Hannah grasped a principle that most people either have never understood or have conveniently forgotten: God intends that His people use the blessings He gives in service to Him. This principle stands out in the apostle Paul's explanation of the gifts God gives to those He calls (see Romans 12:3-8; I Corinthians 12:1-31; also, I Peter 4:10-11).
Hannah also seems to have realized that, when we do this, God multiplies our blessings. She honored God mightily in her prayer, exalting the source of all goodness and favor, and He responded, not only by honoring her throughout history in Scripture as the faithful mother of Samuel, but also by giving her an additional three sons and two daughters (I Samuel 2:21), erasing all her feelings of shame and worthlessness. She gave to the Lord, and He repaid her with good things many times over.
Take some time this holiday weekend to consider Hannah's thanksgiving as an example that God wants us to follow.
- Richard T. Ritenbaugh
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