“Hannah made a vow, saying, ‘LORD Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’” —1 Samuel 1:11
I love this prayer because it’s so real.
Hannah was a woman living in the land of Israel in the time before Israel had a king. She was one of two wives of a man named Elkanah. Hannah and Elkanah had no children, but Elkanah and Peninnah, his other wife, did have children. Elkanah loved Hannah and treated her well (setting aside the minor fact that he had another wife), but Peninnah was cruel to Hannah, mocking her for not bearing children.
Hannah longed for a child—apparently a son, specifically—and she cried out to God, promising that if God would allow her to conceive and give birth to a son, she would dedicate the son to the Lord’s service. (The “no razor will ever be used on his head” is a reference to a particular set of vows some people, known as nazirites, made to God.)
Here’s what I love about this prayer: we can poke a bunch of holes in it (Why does Hannah care what Peninnah says? Does it make sense to bargain with God in this way? Why does she want a son instead of a daughter? Not having a child shouldn’t really create “misery,” should it? Surely being unable to conceive isn’t a sign that God has forgotten someone, is it?), but Hannah’s not worried about censoring her prayer so that it all passes theological muster. She’s speaking from her heart, an imperfect person in a painful situation in an unjust society in a broken world.
I think all of those objections to Hannah’s prayer mentioned in the previous paragraph are legitimate. This prayer is not a model in terms of its content. But it is a model in terms of its honesty. God has heard it all before. We can bring our flawed, broken, half-thought-through prayers to God. If we speak honestly to God and also listen to what he’s teaching us, over time God will shape our prayers to better match his truth. But the most important thing is to get started, to get the conversation going. That’s what prayer is: a real, honest conversation. So be real with God. Be courageous. Don’t forget to listen, but also don’t wait to talk until you’re sure you’ve got all the words and ideas worked out just right. Because you never will, which means you’ll be choosing not to talk to your Father in heaven. And that’s never a good thing.