God on Mute: When God seems absent

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.
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If God is so good, why do we ignore Him?

Something that’s always bothered me is why some humans believe in God and others don’t. Where did it go wrong? We are I believe mostly good people, trying to raise our families and live our lives well, so if God was so instrumental to this why aren’t the churches packed with worshippers?

Since diving full on into a life with Christ, my Bible reading has ramped up and I relish learning more about God and Jesus. It really is true that the more you read, the deeper your faith grows. But… if someone told me this a few years ago, I would have been more than a little sceptical.

Like many, I would have thought:”Yeah right, they only want to brainwash me with their religion. Who has time to read the Bible when there is so much else to do? Give me OK magazine any day! And why go to church? If God loves us all, He’ll know I’m fine as I am and will love me whether I bother or not. We’re not all meant to be pious martyrs!’

Yep, pretty cynical and, if I’m honest, I was brushing it off because I didn’t have time in my life for God, I didn’t find church very exciting, I didn’t understand much of it, I’d had some bad experiences and I simply wasn’t ‘holy’ enough… so I just didn’t go there.

I considered myself, for most of my life, to be a Christian (of sorts), someone who (mostly) believed in God and felt a sense of something special when I went into a church (which became more as a tourist or spectator). I’d look at Christians and feel a bit envious that they had something I didn’t, that depth of faith that I seemed to be lacking, yet also I’d be very wary of them….

But all that changed when my daughter died and I found God waiting patiently for me.

Just as an atheist struggles to understand why anyone would believe in God, once you have experienced God you look at people who haven’t and wonder why. Why don’t they feel this? Why don’t they see what you see? They are missing out on so much deep joy! It really does make you want to spread the Word!

But the thing is, people don’t want to be saved.

Right from the beginning, Genesis, since the Fall (yes, I totally believe all that about Adam and Eve) we have turned away from God. God gave us free will, which in the main we love and make use of, but it means He won’t interfere to turn our hearts towards Him. He’s no wish-granter, but it’s a bit like the idea of a genie where you can have whatever you wish for but he can’t make you love someone, including himself.

And early in Genesis, we start doing our own thing and losing touch with the creator. So much so that God sends the flood to wipe the earth clean! Then, in Exodus, God is obviously involved with his people and communicates to them through Moses and others and numerous signs. Time and again they go to him then it’s not long before they seem to forget. Forget how powerful and loving he is. Forget the creator! If he’s not there, right there, performing miracles or some other wondrous act, he’s forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind! And just like children, once we are left to our own devices we usually get up to no good!

I imagine it to feel, to Him, the same way we do when our children grow up, gain independence and not need us any more. Some children stick around and keep in contact with their parents, often or occasionally. Others don’t. In God’s case, many of his children have said, ‘See you later Dad, we can do it by ourselves, that is, until we need something so we’ll pop back just in case you can help, or we’ll blame you for everything and never speak to you again!’

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Breathe deeply in faith

I’ve realised that it doesn’t take much these days to break me. I always mourn my daughter harder when life feels tough…illness, sleep deprivation, anxieties, parenting challenges all set to chip away at my weary soul.

Women, mothers, hold up so much. We carry so much burden to alleviate the physical and emotional burden on others. We keep things ticking. Our minds work at a thousand paces. Yet we are human too.

I pray for patience then sin with words. I pray for peace then sin with angry thoughts. I feel I should be more. Be calmer, milder, more accepting but that only seems to create the opposite as I fail to live up to my own expectations. I’m not happy with my behaviour. I beat myself up. I’m irritable. And perhaps worst of all, I feel desperately alone. Pressures God knows I don’t need.

Today, I prayed a psalm of thanks which fell open in my Bible. I then prayed for God’s help, again. My prayers feel selfish but I poured it out to God in the brief moment I had without a child’s demands. I opened my Lent book, God on Mute, by Peter Greig, and read this quote…  Yet again I realise that, in prayer, I don’t need to search too far or for too long to find comfort and guidance just to…

…breathe deeply in faith.

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A Christian funeral

I attended a funeral this week of an inspiring lady from my church, ‘D’. Her death, while expected in some ways due to the leukaemia that had taken over her body, was a shock to her family and friends nonetheless.

She and her husband are both committed Christians and have done a lot for the church in their lifetime. However, the funeral wasn’t so much about their depth of faith, but was about how ‘D’ had lived her life and the impressions she made on people. We learned how she was the kind of woman to make the most of every day. How she was always challenging herself. How she used her creative talents to benefit others. How she was involved in community work and selflessly reached out to support young and old. All the while raising two children and being a dedicated wife, grandmother and homemaker. She had lived a life many of us aspire to, but did so without self-congratulation or pride, but humbly and modestly, and with an awesome dose of humour! She dealt with her illness with great courage and dignity.

It spoke volumes that the church was full of mourners and there was standing room only for some. While not originally from our village, all ages and people from all her life attended. A testament to who she was. A much-loved person who gave more love in return. I had only known her relatively briefly, a few years, and we socialised at church events. But there was much about my own relationship with her that made me feel a connection to her and such sorrow at her death.

She first introduced herself to me at the first church service I attended after my daughter’s funeral. This kind-faced couple approached me and she told me how they knew something of our loss, as they had lost their eldest grandchild in similarly sudden and unexpected circumstances at a similar age to Abi (who was 12 when she died). Ever since, they always made a point to say hello or to have a chat whenever they saw me. While there were periods where I didn’t see them for a while, I felt welcomed as an instant friend and there was a genuine sense of care and love about them.

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The expectations of a grieving mother on special days

Now that Mother’s Day has passed, I feel I can exhale. I have a little more breathing space (until Father’s Day which is another tough one). I posted on Facebook yesterday about how hard I find the run of ‘special (bloody) days’ I face. It feels like I’m charging at each one like it’s a brick wall and, by Mother’s Day, I simply go splat!

If I’m honest, I have always found ‘special days’ difficult. As an introvert who doesn’t like ‘fuss and nonsense’ I have developed an association with attention on me being difficult. Difficult perhaps because I don’t like letting my guard down. Difficult perhaps because I don’t like showing my emotions. Difficult perhaps because I’m simply protecting myself from disappointment or hurt…

My childhood, brought up in poverty, was still a good life and we appreciated what we had, but it doesn’t create much sense of anticipation either. Never expecting much, trying to ignore what others have that you don’t, being more thankful for a simple homemade cake than a big party and fuss, keeping a lid on your emotions…. It’s a humbling existence, which I’m not complaining about as I’d much rather have this than be the type of person to cry into my drink because I didn’t get the handbag I wanted.

Unfortunately, as a result, I find myself being irritable and grumpy on special days. I will brush off well wishes and shush people who try to be nice to me. It’s not something I’m proud of at all and I do try to be more open to accept love from others, even my husband and children, but it’s always with a tinge of feeling uncomfortable and wanting it all to be over! I will find myself deliberately busying myself with chores just to avoid the feeling that I must ‘sit down and be Queen for a day’. I clearly have no idea how to be kind to myself!

As I’ve got older and a heck of a lot wiser, I’ve realised I’m not a bad person for being like this. I’m just not the type of person to court attention or expect a big fuss. So, with any special day like my birthday or Mother’s Day I almost ‘vant to be alone’… as Greta Garbo once said.

The expectations of performing a role or being some kind of ‘perfect’, special person make me cringe. For me, rather than feel awesome, days like these always remind me of my failings… of actually not being a ‘perfect’ mother, or not being the ‘perfect’ wife. And then I make myself feel worse as I’m irritated at not throwing myself into it and enjoying some much-needed attention! Attention I know, deep down, I do deserve but just can’t cope with.

Recently, I’ve come down hard on my older children (disciplining your other children after you’ve lost a child is an emotional nightmare, but it’s proven to be essential and worthy of a whole other post, like this one).

I’ve been unpopular. I’ve heard my name shouted and horrible words said in anger. I’ve beaten myself up as I feel tired and emotional, always trying to hold it together yet always managing to give way to my frustration, all the while trying to work out if I’m disciplining as a caring parent or just taking out my grief on them. Failing, failing, failing….

Of course, I’m not really failing, but since Abi died, the expectations of special days adds yet more pressure to me.

Now it’s the same but harder still, as I feel the expectations of grief on these days, as well as on Abi’s special days. I want to hide from the world and get stressed about how I’m feeling. Due to how I am, I know it’s no one’s pressure but mine. I clearly like to beat myself up!

This Mother’s Day was tricky but also revealed a lot to me about why I am the way I am and what I am thankful for – and hence inspired this reflective post.

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Having the courage to believe

This week, I attended my 8-year-old son’s parents’ evening. Like many parents at this time of year, I was keen and somewhat nervous to see how he was getting on.

In the past, before my eldest child died, I was guided a lot by the grades my children achieved. Abi, my eldest child, always did very well. Effortlessly getting good grades due to her natural affinity to the school system and learning. My second child was similar; a good all rounder with a creative flair. My son has found learning at school harder to adjust to. As one of the youngest in his class, he was at a slight disadvantage to his peers. He’s bright enough and loves maths, but he’s not keen on writing or reading in a structured way. He tends to worry about getting things wrong and will simply ‘switch off’ when he can’t handle something. Yet he’s happy and his confidence in himself is growing all the time.

When Abi died, my perspective on many things changed. Everything seemed insignificant… of course it was… but it was such a big thing to adjust to that no one warned me about. I suddenly didn’t know what to care about anymore. But as their routines didn’t stop, I needed to somehow find a way to continue to support my children’s schooling. Our children need to see that we care about all the things they do.

Three years on, I’m in a fairly happy place with this now; my focus centres on my children’s overall happiness and wellbeing. The grades don’t really matter. Clearly, I see the value of learning essentials such as English and mathematics, but I’m not fussed about them achieving the ever-pressured targets set by the government. I firmly believe in a rounded education that includes sports, arts, faith, hobbies and just plain old having fun.

It was something the teacher said that struck me the most about his progress. He was sat at a table with his peers and they were talking about God and Jesus. Everyone except my son said they didn’t believe in Him, they made jokes about Jesus and giggled about it. It wasn’t a deep theological debate this was just 8-year-olds having a chat. But my son went against their opinions and admitted he believed in God, and he said this with simple and honest courage in his convictions. The teacher noticed this and commented on it to us.

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What happens when we die? Explaining death to your child

When thinking about death we have so many questions and very few answers. It’s where the fear and disbelief stem from. Children are renown for saying exactly, and frankly, what’s on their minds. They also have questions which we can find hard to answer, especially when our grief is so raw and we feel lost in our own cloud of uncertainty.

Three years on my children still ask about Abi’s death occasionally. They think about death and heaven, and what it means to die. Part of them is anxious about this, another part very accepting. They have very normal and understandable feelings about death, just like we do, and we take their questions seriously.

My children know what happened to Abi. And while they do worry about death more now, they accept that her brain haemorrhage was a unique illness for her and is unlikely to happen to them.

In the early days, when they were 5 and 10, we kept them sensitively involved in Abi’s death and memorials. We didn’t hide from them what was happening and kept an open dialogue about it all. This we feel has helped them immensely to adjust to life without their big sister. They also fully believe in God and that Abi is in heaven, and again, we haven’t romanticised this to them. She’s not turned into an angel or a star or a bird. She is in heaven waiting for us to one day join her and to live again in a world without pain or suffering.

Yet still the questions come. And I love it!

I love that they always ask why. That their questions mean that they are really trying to understand this life, this world and our purpose. They are inquisitive and will not be ‘won over’ by empty phrases or ‘just because’. And Jesus made it quite clear that us adults can learn a great deal from children, whose minds are open and willing to accept that which they can’t see.
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A brief encounter… of the heavenly kind?

I wrote this blog post to share one of the encounters I had with God after my daughter died. This was the first time I heard His voice. I haven’t heard it since, not as clearly as this, but He’s shown Himself to me in so many other ways. I wonder if, on this occasion, He knew I was struggling so He had to be this clear.

Last year, I had an encounter at the cemetery that has never left me.

There have been a number of occasions when I’ve visited Abi’s memorial where I have felt a presence near me; a bit like you might feel when you think someone is behind you, but when you turn around you realise you’re alone. It either makes you shiver a bit or you shrug it off as imagined. But to me, it always feels pleasant, warming. I never thought I’d say that about being alone in a cemetery!

This particular day, I’d visited Abi alone as usual during the morning. I didn’t feel chatty, I felt depressed as though I’d woken with a large grey cloud above me. I was on the verge of tears and confused.

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‘Where is your God now?’

While there are many commonalities to being a Christian, a relationship with God is a deeply personal thing. Those who believe have ways of talking to or hearing God. Some people come to the faith through deliberate reasoning and learning, others simply grow into the faith, and then there are those who have the encounters with God that most of us pray for. But one thing I noticed, and have wrestled with, is how the relationship with God can change after a bereavement or period of suffering.

Until fairly recently, I was happy to pray to God, to ask Him for help with a problem, to pray for my family, to pray for healing, but when those prayers were not answered I felt confused and alone. Isn’t it true that when something goes well we believe that was God answering our prayers (and, perhaps, we take just a smidge of the glory by thinking it was thanks to us praying in the the first place!), yet when something goes badly we are stumped as to what happened, and don’t know what to say.

Reading about Jesus’s last days on earth, I understood how he knew he had to take the burden of our sin onto himself, he had to take the suffering of our bodies and minds, and worst of all, he had to be abandoned by God, his Father. He had to know what it was like to live without God, just as the people were doing. When our prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be, it can feel this way for us.

‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’
Matthew 27:46

Yet, at the hour of his suffering and abandonment, Jesus put himself entirely into God’s hands.

Feeling is believing
After my daughter died, I knew in an instant that I wasn’t alone in my grief. That Jesus was there – right there – grieving with me. It was a comfort but it also left me feeling more confused than ever. I was totally separated from God at that point in my life. I hadn’t lived a very Christian life. If anything, I felt nothing but anger at my decision that it was ‘all untrue’. I felt spiritually alone. So I was shocked to feel this overwhelming sense of spiritual love.

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Life through God’s lense is not rose-tinted

With the popularity of social media it seems we know more about people than ever before. We know their good times though holiday snaps, happy families, beautiful homes, good jobs… then it goes wrong, for someone, somewhere. Someone we know or a friend of a friend. An accident, burglary, cancer diagnosis, sudden death… we perhaps, somewhat voyeuristically, crowd round them in a cyber world in shock and disbelief. While many will offer practical and emotional support, others will fan the flames of anger and injustice. Life is shit. It’s so unfair!

But, Jesus told us to expect all this. In fact, He promises ‘you will have trouble’ (John 16:33), which isn’t a phrase you’ll want to think of over the nicer messages!

Like me, one day your life could look very different… trouble comes knocking.

Your body doesn’t work the way it should anymore.
You develop anxiety over something unexpected.
Your job or income is threatened.
Your relationship breaks down.
You’re involved in an accident.
You are harmed in some way.
Someone in your family is taken ill.
Someone you know dies.

Something, anything, could have a profound affect on the rest of your life and how you are able to live it. And it’s often at times like this we turn away from God, confused about why our prayers aren’t being answered or why we have to endure this new situation and suffering.

Life is hard
In our society, we expect a large degree of perfection. Way back when, magazines touched up images of models to make them look perfect. This was one level of perfectionism that most people could ignore. However, the popularity and accessibility of social media amongst all ages and sexes has skewed how life is viewed. Life is edited to sound more interesting. Pictures are filtered to look better. The life we present online can show an unrealistic snapshot of what it truly is.

As a Christian, learning about Jesus, we are never told that our lives will be easy. I can see, now that I have explored further, that the message of ‘God Saves’ is not ‘God will solve all our problems’. When Jesus healed and raised people from death He was not just rescuing them from those afflictions, but was demonstrating who He really was and the power He had. (As we know, we often want evidence in order to to believe.) Jesus told us quite clearly that we will always have illness, poverty, evil and suffering, and that God will love and support us through it all and – ultimately – wipe every tear from every eye.

It seems a morose way to view life and contradicts what we are to believe in the love of God. But our suffering and God’s love go hand in hand, in equal measure.

When my daughter died, I didn’t understand why (I still don’t) but I did feel very strongly that Jesus was with me (and I had been so separated from my faith up to that point that I couldn’t even pray to God to save her). I felt a presence. I felt such love and grief alongside mine. I may not have understood what was happening to us, but I felt understood.

‘To be understood, as to understand.’
To be loved as to love with all my soul.’
Make me a Channel of your Peace, Prayer of St Francis

So Jesus’s message was we should not be surprised by the trials of life but know that we are blessed when things are going well. The good times shine out and become even better.

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