God cares in the silence
Mark Fairweather Tall deals with the difficult situation of apparently unanswered prayer, and offers an explanation.
“I don’t know whether I believe in God anymore” “I am so angry with God right now” “How could God let this happen?”
Over the years, I have had several conversations, emails and letters from people expressing such sentiments. Usually the cause is a particularly painful life circumstance. Imagine the situation… a loved one has been diagnosed with a serious and life-threatening illness. The person of faith prays, initially with great hope and expectation that God will bring healing. However, rather than getting better, the situation gets worse… and worse. God seems far away, and the silence is deafening.
Blame, bitterness, anger, doubt and so on, are natural progressions amidst the pain of the situation. Questions come thick and fast: “Where are you God?”; “Why aren’t you answering me?” “Are you even there?”
Leaving aside how we respond pastorally in such a situation, let us spend a few moments reflecting theologically about the apparent silence of God.
First, we can recognise that the feeling of being abandoned by God is not something to feel ashamed of. Anyone who feels alone and abandoned, struggling to see God and disappointed at the hand life has dealt them is in good company. Job complains that when God passes him, he cannot see Him and that when God goes by, he cannot perceive him (Job 9:11). Elijah felt so dispirited and alone that he hid in a cave believing that he was the only one of the Lord’s prophets left and that his life was also in danger.
The brutal honesty of the Psalms reflect the pain that can be experienced in life and faith. In Psalm 22, the song of David, sung to the tune ‘The Doe of the Morning’ begins with the lyrics: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night and am not silent.” V1-2.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had prayed to his father that he would release him from the path of the cross. However, he submitted himself to the will of God and on the cross quotes this Psalm as he cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Secondly, we can remind ourselves that the Bible clearly tells us God is with us. Job would come to say, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5). Elijah was called out of the cave to experience the presence of God that came in a gentle whisper. David spoke later in Psalm 22: “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.” And Jesus showed that even death cannot separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. Whilst feeling of abandonment and silence may be human, the truth is that God is with us.
Thirdly, silence does not mean that God does not care. In his book, ‘God on Mute’, Pete Grieg recounts a part of the CS Lewis novel, ‘The Magician’s Nephew’. The story is about a boy called Digory whose mother is dying. When he encounters Aslan, the Great Lion, he asks for some magic fruit to take back to make his mother well. It is like a prayer and this is what Lewis writes: “He had been desperately hoping that the Lion would say ‘yes’; he had been horribly afraid it might say ‘no’. But he was taken aback when it did neither.” When there is no response it is natural to assume that God doesn’t care but Digory asks for Aslan’s help again.
A little while later we read: “He thought of his mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came to his throat and tears in his eyes and he blurted out: “But please, please, won’t you – can’t you give me something that will cure mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now in despair he looked up at his face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was himself.”
The prayer remained unanswered, but everything had changed. Digory knew that Aslan cared. When it seems like God is silent and our prayers have gone unanswered is it just possible that God actually cares even more than we do?
Finally, we might ask, were my ‘unanswered’ prayers wasted? Tim Chester writes beautifully about this in his book, ‘The Message of Prayer’, using the image given in Revelation 5 of the prayers of the saints pictured as incense rising up to God. The bowls holding these prayers are full. Our seemingly unanswered prayers may be included in these bowls and become our most powerful contribution to the world:
“Prayers we think of as directed to the present are in fact being stored up to be answered on that final day. When we pray for those who are suffering ill health, we are expressing our longing for the day when there will be no more sickness. When we pray for God to end wars and oppression, we are expressing longing for the day when the kingdoms of the world will become the Kingdom of God and of Christ. When we pray for mercy on those suffering natural disasters, we are expressing our longing for the day when creation itself will be remade… The prayers we think have gone unanswered may in fact be stored up in the bowls of incense waiting for a greater fulfilment than ever we anticipated. Many of your prayers are lodged there and one day will determine the ultimate course of history.”
When it feels like God is silent and has abandoned us, we do not need to feel ashamed. He is still with us and He really does care. What is more, not one of our prayers is lost or ignored. Instead, we are joining with God in the ultimate re-creation of a new heaven and earth where God dwells with his people for all eternity.
The above image is courtesy of pixabay.com
Rev Mark Fairweather Tall is a Minister at Norwich Central Baptist Church.
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