“Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.” 1 Samuel 13-14 NIV
We’ve all been misunderstood at some point in our lives. Being taken the wrong way, heard wrongly, taken amiss, these are things that happen in every human relationship. If we are married, we’ll more than likely be very experienced at having the person we love most hear something quite different from what we actually thought we said. As writer and speaker Brene Brown often explains, we are always telling ourselves some kind of story in our heads and if what we think we hear feeds into that, we reinforce that often twisted version of the truth. In those kinds of cases, working through our defence mechanisms and being honest with ourselves and God will hopefully help us dig our way to the truth. But what about other kinds of misunderstandings, like poor Hannah here, pouring her very heart out before God and yet being accused of drunkenness?
Somehow being misread by an authority figure, perhaps especially a priest, is a double injury. When we were trying our best to be authentic and the very representative of that authenticity is scathing, that is a deep and difficult wound to bear. Fortunately, in Hannah’s case, it was quickly set right, simply by her pouring out yet more honesty. But in so many situations like these we can clam up, stammer our way out of the building or just burst into tears at the unfairness of it all.
The worst kind of being misunderstood of course is when the other person claims to know it all, or doesn’t take the time and trouble to find out the truth or to listen. Sadly this happens all too often in church, particularly if it is about an issue, such as marriage difficulties or sexuality where the answers seem to be not only written in stone, but doled out with about as much warmth. Gender divides are one example, where a woman might be trying to express her desire to practice a particular gifting, and yet be told that she is not allowed to because of her sex. “Because the bible says so” or “Because that is what we believe” is not an adequate answer in and of itself, especially where it is given with no compassion or attempt at explanation. “Because it is what we have always done,” is perhaps more honest but also no help. At its best, being misunderstood feels shameful and frustrating. At its worst, it can be dangerous, as any spouse sent back to an abusive partner “because God hates divorce” well knows.
Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, doesn’t understand her either. She weeps because she has no children, and he says, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” When we are not allowed or unable to articulate our pain and be heard, we suffer from being misunderstood, and it can eat away at us and our sense of self. The cure is often as simple as being given time and space. Patience and understanding are invaluable gifts, and listening a powerful and much underrated ministry. But Hannah knows of course, that the one person who will truly understand is God, and it is to him that she pours out her soul.
God will not only hear us, listen and understand, but he will know more than we can say and care more than we can imagine.
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