The days leading up to Mother’s Day can be hard. Even though I am no longer a barren woman, I still struggle with my own difficulties and guilt as Mother’s Day approaches. For the infertile or the mother struggling with loss, Mother’s Day is acutely difficult. It’s almost as if everything around you is reminding you of what you don’t have—what you long for but can’t have. And it can be painfully isolating.
The barren women of scripture didn’t have a national holiday to remind them of their lack, but they surely had their fill of individuals (Gen. 16:1-5, 1 Sam. 1:4-9). One person’s celebration is often the seat of another’s deep pain. The pages of scripture are filled with women who longed for wombs to bear children, who longed for children to be restored to health and wholeness, of women in deep pain over grief.
What do these women have to do with us? With the barren, the broken, the sorrowful this day? More importantly, where is God in this day?
In the midst of great pain, it can be easy to miss that God is still working. I know I am there regularly. I have been there before. But just like you are not alone in your longing for fullness, you also aren’t alone in crying out to God to show himself faithful to you in your pain.
Judges, Ruth, and 1 Samuel are some of my favorite books in the Bible. Judges on its own is devastating and hopeless, but paired with Ruth and 1 Samuel it is packed with expectation. Judges ends with the heartbreaking line:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).
Ruth and 1 Samuel open with a reminder that we are still in that time period. Throughout these two books that come after, we are encouraged to see that even in the darkness, God is still working to establish his purposes in the world. What I find the most hopeful, though, is that even as he is working to bring a king to Israel, to fix the problem of spiritual barrenness in the land, and to draw his people back to himself, he is working in the lives of individuals. He’s working in the lives of barren women. Ruth and Naomi have lost their husbands. Naomi has lost her sons. Ruth and Hannah are barren. And it’s in their barrenness and longing that we see God show up to save his people from themselves.
When God works corporately it is always personal. After Ruth and Naomi’s long period of bitter loss, God provides a redeemer and an heir, but not just any heir, the future king of Israel and ultimately the Messiah. After Hannah’s years of barrenness, God hears her prayers and gives her a son, but not just any son, the son who will be responsible for anointing this future king and leading God’s people to spiritual renewal. In opening Hannah’s womb he dealt with the spiritual barrenness in Israel. But notice the hope that comes in 1 Samuel 2:21:
Indeed the Lord visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord.
As one of our pastor’s preached on Sunday, this isn’t the point of the text. But it is striking. Israel is in a desperate place. It’s the time of the judges. Everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. And yet, here is this faithful family. After years of infertility, God shows up and opens Hannah’s womb not once, but six times. On top of all that the son who opened her womb is growing in godliness in spite of the circumstances around him. We are meant to see the hope that his spiritual fervor brings to the scene. Barrenness is replaced with blessing. Hopelessness is replaced with hope.
Hannah’s barrenness was connected to God’s purposes for the people of Israel. When he opened her womb he was working not just in her story, but in the grand story of Israel, and the grand story of the world.
But God’s personal work in Hannah’s life is not the only time he does this in scripture. Consider Naomi and Ruth, two widowed, childless, penniless women who made the wearying trek back to Bethlehem. Their story is a turning point in a dark time in Israel’s history as well, but as God deals with the spiritual predicament of the land by establishing the line of David, and ultimately the Messiah, he also personally deals with these bereaved women. In the darkness, sorrow, and loneliness he is always working.
We don’t always know the outcome, but neither did they. Let’s not forget that we get the commentary only after, not in the moment. There is a long line of commentary waiting to be written and unfolded from our times of suffering as well.
In answering Hannah’s prayer, and Naomi and Ruth’s emptiness, we get a glimpse of God’s character. Individuals are never far from his mind when he is doing his work. He may be working corporately in the grand story of scripture, but he is also working personally. These women are real human beings who experienced great sorrow and then experienced great blessing, all from the hand who not only loved the nation of Israel, but loved the individual, too.
Whatever sorrow you are bringing with you this weekend, whether it is barrenness, loss, wayward children, your own sin, or some combination of those things, you can trust this God. Your suffering, even the suffering of motherhood, is always part of his good purposes in the world, even if you are in the middle of your longings. The commentary on your story is not yet written, but let Hannah, Ruth, and Naomi’s stories remind you that your story, no matter how painful, is never pointless in God’s grand purposes. He is a personal God, even for you.