When I think of examples of unfulfilled longings in the Bible, Hannah is one of the first people who comes to my mind. Here is a reminder of her experience:
“Now there was a certain man…and his name was Elkanah…He had two wives: the name of one was Hannah and the name of the other Peninnah; and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Now this man would go up from his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts…When the day came that Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and her daughters; but to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved Hannah, but the LORD had closed her womb. Her rival, however, would provoke her bitterly to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. It happened year after year, as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she would provoke her; so she wept and would not eat. Then Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’ The Hannah rose after eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She, greatly distressed, prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. She made a vow and said, ‘O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.’ Now it came about, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli was watching her mouth. As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard. So Eli thought she was drunk…Hannah replied, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the LORD. Do not consider your maidservant as a worthless woman, for I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation.’ Then Eli answered and said, ‘Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of Him.’ She said, ‘Let your maidservant find favor in your sight.’ So the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad…The LORD remembered her. It came about in due time, after Hannah had conceived, that she gave birth to a son; and she named him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I have asked him of the LORD.’” 1 Samuel 1:1-20
I think that we actually see two examples of unfulfilled longings here and several examples of how we can express these longings and our accompanying feelings of loss and despair. Hannah’s unfulfilled longing was to have a child. Hannah wept and refused to eat when she experienced her unsatisfied desire. Her heart is described as sad and she was greatly distressed. Hannah described her situation as affliction and presented herself as a woman oppressed in spirit. She was so upset that Eli thought she was drunk when he observed her praying earnestly for God to give her the desire of her heart. We see that Hannah focused on what she did not have and lost herself in despair when God did not provide it right away. She was unable to appreciate her loving husband and the things that God was doing in her life because of her preoccupation with what He was not doing.
Peninnah intentionally provoked Hannah “bitterly to irritate her.” I wonder if Peninnah’s unfulfilled longing was to have a husband who loved her. She may have felt provoked each year when they went up to worship because she knew that her husband would be more attentive to Hannah. Whatever her feelings or longings were, Peninnah chose to act in anger and provoked Hannah to bitter weeping each year. She lashed out at the person who had what she so desperately wanted. I imagine that she held Hannah responsible for having so much of Elkanah’s attention and affection. I suspect that this did not encourage him to love her any more.
Though Hannah’s initial response to her unfulfilled longing does not seem that healthy, she eventually takes herself to the temple and begins pouring out her soul before the LORD. I think that this is one of the best actions that we can take when we experience an unfulfilled longing. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Heb. 4:14) I am convinced that Jesus experienced unfulfilled longings in his body of flesh. I feel certain that He is familiar with the grief and disappointment that accompanies the human experience and that He longs to comfort us in those moments. And Hannah was comforted. When she left the temple, she was no longer sad. She didn’t have to wait until God fulfilled her longing for the sadness to lift. Hannah just had to confess her feelings to Him and plead for His provision and her feelings changed. God did not fulfill her longing instantly and we don’t know how many times she prayed before and after this incident before she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. But, we do know that the priest sent her in peace and her face was no longer sad.
We don’t know what happened to Peninnah. I hope that she also found relief in crying out to God and receiving His peace. I hope that she found a more healthy way to express her anger and sadness. Ultimately, I hope that God also provided for the unfulfilled longings in her heart.
I think that unfulfilled longings can be incredibly painful. Whether you long to be married, have a child, work in a job that you enjoy and that makes use of your talents, be free from addiction, experience success in ministry or business or something else, you may experience grief and disappointment when it does not happen on your time-table. I think that it is tempting to believe that you are alone in your experience and your painful feelings, especially if there isn’t anyone else near you who is longing for what you are longing for. But, I think that this experience is actually more common than we think and it can happen in response to any unfulfilled longing. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, we learn that God “has also set eternity in [our] heart.” My NASB footnote summarizes the chapter this way:
God’s beautiful but tantalizing world is too big for us, yet its satisfactions are too small. Since we were made for eternity, the things of time cannot fully and permanently satisfy.
So, no matter what season of life you are in or what your unfulfilled longing is, your experience of dissatisfaction will be familiar to the people around you. My friend who is longing to have a baby can empathize with me when I am longing to be married and we can empathize with our other friend who is longing to find a job that she doesn’t hate and that makes use of the gifts that God has given her. We can find encouragement when we share our feelings because those we share with experience these same feelings in some area of their life. We can discover hope when we fix our eyes on Jesus and remember that there is coming a day when He will return as King of the whole earth
“And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer by any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Until then, I think that we can expect to experience unfulfilled longings and periodic sadness. Having people near you who have what you want can be incredibly provoking and irritating. Going to professional meetings and hearing about other people’s incredible successes can wound the person who is feeling discouraged professionally. Going to baby-showers can have the same effect on the childless and wedding showers can be the same for the single person. But, focusing only on what you want and do not have does not help. Fixing your eyes on Jesus and being thankful for what He has provided and is doing can be helpful and healthy. This can be challenging and it is important to express those sad, angry and disappointed feelings when they emerge in response to an unfulfilled longing. But, after you confess them and plead for God to intervene and make a way for you, make sure that you take some time to thank Him for the provision that you do have.
It can be tempting to judge Peninnah for her malice and those who become bitter as time passes and their longing is still not fulfilled. But, before you do, ask yourself how you express and manage your unfulfilled longings. Do you fixate on what you do not have and minimize where God is at work in and around you? Do you attack those who have what you want? Do you judge their dissatisfaction in their unfulfilled longings because their area of longing is one that is fulfilled for you? Or, do you allow Jesus to lead you into the wilderness of unfulfilled longing and to speak tenderly to you there so that you will be one who comes up “leaning on her beloved?” (Song of Solomon 8:5)