I’ve been reading God on Mute for Lent, which ended at the weekend. There is much in the book that has both challenged me and opened my mind to understanding unanswered prayer in ways I’d never considered before. The book looks at various reasons why God might not appear to answer our prayers – in the time we want, the way we want or why we want them.
What is clear is that, even when he is silent, God hears our every prayer. Every song, praise, outpouring and simple ‘Jesus’ or ‘God bless’, He hears it all, but answering all those prayers the way we expect is quite a different matter.
I wanted to reflect on Chapters 10 and 11 from the book, Exploring and Engaging the Silence, which explores why, at times, God might choose to be silent. I don’t mean listening to prayer and answering it later or in a different way, but actually withdrawing from intervening in our lives.
When Jesus became an atheist
This part of the book reflects on the theme of Easter Saturday, a holy day that is vastly overlooked and understated. Easter Saturday is the time when Jesus was dead. When God was silent for him and for the world. He went down into death like any other person. God was gone.
Jesus, effectively, became an atheist. The resurrection was to follow, he knew that, but he also knew he had to go through the pain of Saturday. The Saturday expressed the despair and utter hopelessness of death without God, without heaven, without love. Nothing. It was a period of agonising waiting. In many ways, we are all now living this Saturday, while we wait for the joy, peace and grace of tomorrow’s paradise. It’s a concept I often reflect on in my grief.
Jesus cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ as he was dying. Words also written in the Psalms (Psalm 22:1. 16-18). Not only did he feel the physical and emotional pain of all sin, but even worse, the total absence of God, his father. Jesus’ words expressed the feelings we all feel at times – of doubt and a collapse of faith. Yet, at his hour of most need, his father had to step back.
I just read this moving article by Joey Feek’s husband about how in the months leading up to her death she painfully but determinedly distanced herself from her young daughter in order for her daughter to create a stronger bond with her husband, which would benefit both her daughter and her husband in their grief after her death. You can only imagine the strength it took for her to do that when every fibre of her being would want to hold her child every minute until she couldn’t anymore. God felt this too, as he left his son to die, yet He knew it had to be this way. We, even 2000 years on, still find it hard – with our human minds – to fully comprehend this seeming deliberate withdrawal of love.
Growing into spiritual maturity
What challenged me was what the author, Peter Greig, describes as moving on from the ‘infatuation’ with God to a mature relationship with Him.
When we first come to faith, our relationship is like the infatuation of falling in love. We want to know God more, think about Him all the time, pray, cry, sing! God makes us feel loved, we like the feeling that knowing Him gives us. (You make me feel so happy. You make me feel like I’m amazing. etc.) It’s quite one-way when you think about it. This is normal, but also is a place we, just like in any long-term relationship, need to move on from.
‘Growing into maturity always involves a steady process of recentring from our own priorities and preferences to those of the other. That’s why our centre of gravity shifts as we mature spiritually. We begin to pray that God would change our hearts and rewire our motivation. We long to become more like Jesus. We ask God to help us become more humble, more loving, more faithful.’ (God on Mute, pp 250)
Yet Greig continues:
‘It is in answer to these very prayers that God may decide to deny our requests and even withdraw a little from our lives. As long as it makes perfect sense to serve God and to live for Him, our faith can only mature so far. There’s nothing very selfless or sacrificial in obeying God as long as it remains in our best interests to do so – enjoying His love, receiving miraculous provision, hearing His voice clearly, experiencing His reality in worship, gaining stimulating insights from the Bible, knowing God’s comfort when we are hurting and so on. Until these things are removed from our lives and we are left standing alone without any reason for continuing except steadfast loyalty, we cannot truly mature from an us-centred relationship with God to a truly Christ-centred one. It isn’t until the facts that once reinforced our beliefs are removed from our lives that we can truly ‘live by faith and not by sight’ (2 Cor. 5:7).’
So, to mature in faith, we need to live like it’s Saturday, to feel like Jesus on the cross. It’s a huge ask and one that contradicts what we have learned from our faith thus far – yet, it makes perfect sense!
When God falls silent
There will be times in all our lives when God seems to be ignoring us – a tragic death, a prolonged or painful illness, financial desperation, depression or anxiety – and anyone would be understood for questioning where is God, what exactly is He doing to help, why is He allowing this to happen?
When we pray, we pretty much always ask for something we want – healing, strength, guidance, help… We need this and want God to help us with our problems. He wants us to ask! But sometimes it feels as though we’re talking to a brick wall, that our words are falling on deaf ears. We don’t understand why, we try to pray differently or act differently or consider where we are going wrong.
Why not this prayer? Why answer others but not this one? Take this affliction from me, I’m not sure I can take much more!
Greig reminds us that God is never absent – we are never alone – but we have to remember He is also our father. His will be done. And just like when He answers our prayers, there are perhaps more often times when He’s deliberately not answering them, for our sake, to develop our spiritual strength and draw us closer to Him.
This can of course be hard to understand when you bury your baby or child, or when your life is shattered by any kind of loss or hardship. How can my daughter’s death be for my sake?! If that’s your way of showing love God, then I don’t want to know! The answer I am most comfortable with is that God did not prevent my daughter’s death and, through my suffering I have actually drawn closer to Him, which has benefited me – saved me if you like! I feel no bitterness or anger, and I can’t tell you how hard that is to say because I feel I should! My daughter died! How can I not feel angry about that?! Yet, I have felt God with me even when He seemed silent and somehow knew He was there. But He had to let me find my way to Him…
God steps back, so we can step forward
To describe this withdrawal of God, Greig uses an interesting example of teaching his son to ride a bike. He noticed how his son didn’t try to balance when he knew his dad was holding onto the back of the bike to stabilise him, and when he ran along beside him in view. At first, Peter thought he was helping his son feel safe, but he realised this wasn’t helping him learn to ride the bike alone. So, he changed tack and only very lightly touched the back of the bike and made sure he was out of view. His son wobbled a few times but quickly learned he had to put effort in to stay balanced and move forward. Quite a striking metaphor for why God might choose to let us learn for ourselves!
It’s such a challenging view, as we want God to help us, we want at the very least to know that He is there for us, near us, caring about us. It’s scary going it alone! And He is with us, it’s just that sometimes He has to withdraw in order to allow us to live and learn. When God seems to be silent, I am challenged now to engage the silence, to pray with the silence and appreciate it is the quiet, parental, guiding love that God is giving me, and if I can do this my faith will be enriched rather than lost.
Greig says that even in times of a crisis of faith – such as when his friend, a Christian father of four, died suddenly – he has noticed the silence, but then, also a little later, he also noticed something about God in those times. Nothing obvious or dramatic, but a quiet presence. He began to realise that God, while not intervening or preventing the suffering, was present in the suffering. That, rather than be absent, He was actually riding it out minute by minute with all of them.
This point resonated with me, because that’s exactly how I’ve felt. I felt a faint presence and ‘being’ in the days and weeks after my daughter died. It wasn’t much, but it was something that reached into my soul. I felt I was being carried in my trauma, that I wasn’t spiritually alone even though my prayers were mute and my mind numb. It was that which ultimately deepened my faith to what it is today, three years on.
Greig’s explanation has been one of the most convincing and relatable I have read to date for why, having been through such suffering and loss, my faith is now stronger than ever.