How should we pray when God seems silent?
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I am the mother of two very persistent children. From extended bedtimes to Xboxes, they’ve always had a particular genius for requesting what they want with such frequency and intensity that, on occasion, their father and I have acquiesced just to make them stop.
While I have a grudging respect for their tenacity, I haven’t seen their petitionary persistence as a positive. So it has struck me odd that persistence is such a key theme in Jesus’ teaching on prayer.
In Luke 11, Jesus tells the story of a man who knocks on a door in the middle of the night until his grumpy neighbour provides food. In Luke 18, Jesus describes a widow who won’t stop calling upon a capricious judge until he grants her justice.
Both stories employ a classic rabbinical argument known as "from the lesser to the greater." If a lazy, inhospitable neighbour and a jaded, corrupt judge will eventually fulfil the requests of a persistent petitioner, Jesus suggests, how much more will your Father in heaven, who is good?
The argument is not hard to follow. But is Jesus telling us we should nag God until we get what we want, the way my eight-year-old once wore down my defences until he was the proud owner of glow-in-the-dark wheelie sneakers?
I don’t think so. After all, elsewhere Jesus warns against "babbling" in intercession or thinking our prayers are more likely heard if we use "many words" (Matthew 6:7).
So why does Jesus emphasize persistence?
Like so many others, I find my life forces my questions about Jesus’ teaching on prayer out of the abstract and into the urgent. For months my mom has been in the hospital. An out-of-the-blue heart attack set off a domino effect of complications – heart failure, kidney failure, internal bleeding, infection.
We are grateful she is still with us. And yet we are discouraged. Every time she’s survived another complication, we’ve praised God and made plans for her release – only to be told a day later she’s been hit with another setback.
As the weeks dragged on, I found myself growing increasingly tongue-tied when I tried to pray at her bedside. Requesting healing for the thousandth time, I felt foolish in the repetition. Why raise our hopes only to have them inevitably dashed again?
Things have grown a little quiet between God and me. I haven’t wanted to badger Him any longer about my mom, but her condition is so on my mind that it’s hard to talk about much else.
My conversation with God had dwindled until, a few days ago, my mom called and regretfully filled me in on yet another setback. I hung up the phone and found myself sinking to my knees. I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually I was struck by two important things. The first was that my sobbing – wordless and wrenching – was prayer. And the second was that there was a palpable presence in the room with me. My prayer was being heard.
God offered no clear answers. I heard no promises. But after a few minutes, I was able to stand up again, tangibly reminded my Father in heaven is still involved, and still good.
It made me wonder if maybe Jesus taught us to persist in praying out of empathy for our condition. He was utterly convinced of the goodness and the efficacy of His Father. Yet He understood how silent the heavens can seem from an earthbound perspective. So He asked us to trust God now, based on His character, for the things that will only make sense later.
In the meantime we have two choices – express what is really in our hearts or go mute. Given that nothing kills a relationship faster than the silent treatment, maybe what Jesus is saying with His persistence parables is this: Don’t go mute.
Jesus’ own prayer book was comprised of the psalms, almost half of which are raw, sometimes petulant, cries of lament. It turns out that "How long, O Lord?" is a much better prayer than "I’ll stop bothering you now."
So, like the psalmists, like a persistent neighbour, like a tenacious widow or maybe even like a child with a burning request, I’m back to asking.
Carolyn Arends (www.CarolynArends.com) is a recording artist, author and director of education for Renovaré. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/GoWithGod.