Text: 1 Samuel 1
At last, scientific research seems to have proven what many people have suspected all along. Prayer does not work. Prayer does not change things.
A recent study led by cardiologists from Duke University Medical Center tested whether heart patients recovered more readily if they were prayed for. The three year study involved 750 patients from throughout the USA and 26 prayer groups from different part of the world, including Christians in Manchester, Buddhists in Nepal and Sufi Moslems in America. The findings suggested that prayer made no significant difference to the long term health of the patients involved.
Are you shocked by the results of this research? There’s no need to be. After all, much of the prayer was offered to gods who don’t even exist. How can a non-existent god hear and answer prayer? And in any case, as the bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, remarked, “Prayer is not a penny in the slot machine, you can’t just put in a coin and get out a chocolate bar at the bottom. This is like setting an exam for God to see if God will pass it or not.”
The truth is, of course, that prayer is never going to yield its secrets to those who attempt to study it under laboratory conditions. Prayer is not a ‘thing’ to be dissected, such as a spider or a lump of rock. Prayer is not subject to some set of scientific laws that, if only we obey them, will give guaranteed success. If we are to understand prayer at all, we must approach it differently. Prayer – Christian prayer – is ‘the conversation of friends.’ It is the natural expression of our loving dependence on the living God. It is a thrilling journey, and there’s no telling where it may lead.
Accordingly, we turn to Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1 not so much to analyse or explain, as to wonder and worship.
Poor Hannah! Hannah was childless in a society where the main duty of a woman was to produce children. In an age when children were very much seen as gifts from God, her barrenness would have been seen as a terrible misfortune or even a curse. Her husband, Elkanah, did his best to console her. But still, in accordance with the custom of the times he had taken a second wife, who duly bore him the children that Hannah had been unable to provide.
The other wife, Peninnah, never let Hannah forget her inadequacy. It all came to a head on the annual family trip to Shiloh. It was supposed to be a feast, a holiday, a celebration, but for Hannah it was torture. The taunts of her rival became too much for her to bear. In desperation, Hannah got up from the meal, and went to pray. ‘If you give me a son,’ she said to the Lord, ‘I promise he will serve you all his life.’ She was in such a state that at first Eli, the high priest, thought that she was drunk. But she explained herself, and Eli was able to assure her that her prayer would be answered.
In due course Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel. True to her promise, she took him back to Eli, saying, ‘This is the son I prayed for. God gave him to me. And now I am giving him back to God. Please take care of him and train him for God’s work.’
Hannah’s story is a wonderful example of the kind of praying that God loves to answer. Those who are self-confident, self-sufficient, or self-righteous unpray their own prayers and place themselves at a distance from God. But those who are at their wits’ end, desperate, willing to throw themselves on God’s mercy because there’s nowhere else to turn have already met the one condition that God sets. In the words of an old hymn, “All the fitness he requireth/is to feel your need of him.” It has been truly said that ‘man’s extremity is God’s opportunity’. ‘”Lord, I’ve come to the end of my resources.” “Good – because you’ve just come to the beginning of mine!”‘
But there is more. This is not only a story of how a woman gained a son, but part of a bigger story of how a nation gained a leader. The last verse of the book of Judges sums up Israel’s disarray at that time: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.’ 1 Samuel pick up the story at that point and describes, for example, the wickedness of Eli’s sons, together with the ineffectiveness of their father in controlling them. In fact, the whole nation was heading for disaster. It was desperate for righteous leadership. Hannah’s son, Samuel, became that God-given leader. Priest, prophet, king-maker, judge, through Samuel God would transform the nation. So you see: a woman gains a son. A nations gains a leader. Ultimately, as the even bigger story is told, the world gains a Saviour. Hannah’s story is also part of God’s story.
A pebble is thrown into a lake. How far will the ripples travel? A balloon is released into the air. Where will it land? The waves beat steadily against the cliff. How much will the coastline change, in time? Like Hannah, we may never know the far-reaching effects of our prayers. Like her, we may never realise how the strands of our own thoughts when directed Godwards interweave with his so as to form the tapestry of divine-human history. But, like her, we can learn that God hears and answers prayer. And we learn, not be investigating it, but by doing it. Not by experiment, but by experience.
Certainly, prayer will never yield its secrets to those who seek to study it under the microscope or put God to the test by treating him as some kind of celestial slot-machine.
But if we engage in prayer as the natural expression of our love for God the Father who made us, our trust in God the Son who loved us and gave himself for us, and our dependence on God the Holy Spirit who lives with us and in us, then we will discover in our own experience the truth of the Scripture which says, (James 5:16) ‘the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective’.
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”