The Power of Desperate Prayer

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After the dark period described in the Old Testament book of Judges, Israel’s desperate situation began to turn around with the prayer of a woman named Hannah. She had had enough and decided she could not take it any longer.

Hannah was one of two wives married to a man named Elkanah. The other wife had children, but Hannah was barren. According to the Bible, Peninnah, the rival wife, would mock Hannah and make fun of her, “provoking her in order to irritate her” because “the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb” (1 Samuel 1:6). Day after day, year after year, Hannah was teased and taunted, mocked and ridiculed.

Every year Elkanah’s family went to the tabernacle of the Lord in Shiloh, which was the center of worship in Israel. There the family would offer sacrifices to the Lord. But that’s also when Peninnah’s taunting of Hannah increased, to the point where Hannah wept so hard she could no longer eat (vv. 3 – 8).

Each year this pattern repeated. Her husband, Elkanah, loved Hannah and gave her extra portions of the sacrifice, but that didn’t heal his wife’s pain. Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted?” he would ask Hannah. “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (v. 8).

Then one year, something snapped inside of Hannah, and she suddenly refused to endure the taunts of Peninnah and accept her childless status. Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up (v. 9). Hannah left the table and went to pray near the doorpost of the tabernacle. It was a moment with historic ramifications.

“In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly” (v. 10). She didn’t recite mental prayers as we often do; her heart went out to the Lord. Amid the backslidden and even corrupt religious establishment of that day, we see a desperate, simple woman stirred to pray a prayer that will usher in a new day in Israel’s history. In her prayer she promised God that if he gave her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord for as long as he lived. When she finished praying, she got something to eat, and her face was no longer downcast (v. 18).

It was as if she knew something was about to change.

The next morning Elkanah’s family arose and worshiped God before they headed back home to Ramah. Once there, Elkanah made love to his wife as he had so often done before, but this time “the Lord remembered her” (v. 19).

Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son.

Now, what was it that stirred Hannah to pray a prayer that changed the future of Israel?

Hannah could have chosen to live in denial. When Peninnah mocked her, she could have said, “Who cares? I’m not into kids. I don’t want to change diapers anyway!” But she didn’t. She faced the truth (as painful as it was), saying, “I want a baby, I want a son, I want to be fruitful.”

Hannah could have forgotten her heartache and just rejoiced in the fact that she was a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and a part of the covenant people of Israel. Or she could have looked at her situation and said, “I don’t have a child, so it must be God’s sovereign will that I don’t.”

But she didn’t do either of those things. Hannah’s story shows us that she did not deny her barrenness, but neither did she accept it. Her unique prayer became the channel that God both prompted and then used to turn the tide in Israel and bring much-needed blessing upon them. The lesson is clear for us today.

We must not silently accept our lack of fruitfulness and somehow justify it as God’s will for us.

Imagine if Hannah had said, “Well, I guess I’m not supposed to have a baby.”

No, as hard as it was, she honestly faced her circumstances and then desperately prayed for God to change them. What was in her mighty prayer that God could not ignore? None of us totally understands the power of prayer, but we know that Hannah’s prayer was powerful and effective, the kind James describes in his epistle (James 5:16). Yet if I had to guess, I would say it was both the heightened element of desperation coupled with deep faith in God. Hannah had no other place to turn. It was as if, in her great anguish and grief, she cried, “Make me fruitful, or I don’t want to go on.” She was at her end. “Give me a child or I will die!”

God heard Hannah’s weeping, and her prayer became the pathway to divine intervention. Furthermore, God wanted her story told in detail in the Bible, so future generations would recognize that Israel’s turnaround started with a lonely, heartbroken woman who just wanted to bear fruit.

Desperate and soul-stirring prayers like hers result in answers.

When God is sought in desperation, he responds.

Even in hopeless situations.

Excerpted from Storm: Hearing Jesus for the Times We Live In by Jim Cymbala, copyright Zondervan.

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Your Turn

Just like Hannah, we have areas in our life where we desperately need to experience a breakthrough. Do you believe prayer can change your situation? What are you desperately seeking God for in your life? Come join the conversation on our blog. We would love to hear from you!

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Jim Cymbala

Jim Cymbala has served as pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle for more than forty years. He is the author of many bestselling books, including Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, The Church God Blesses, When God’s People Pray, Fresh Faith, and Spirit Rising. He lives in New York City with his wife, Carol, who directs the Grammy Award–winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. The Cymbalas have three children and eight grandchildren.

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