Praying to a Silent God

The house I grew up in had one phone. It hung on the kitchen wall and had a long cord that stretched to the end of the hall. It was barely long enough to reach my bedroom. If I really wanted to talk in private, I had to walk to the nearest payphone. This was long ago, in the days before everyone had their own cell phone. In my teens, I mostly used the phone to talk to girls. But I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to say. I had trouble reading the mood of the person at the other end of the line. Did they enjoy talking to me or were they rolling their eyes, just waiting for the call to end? My phone conversations were made up mostly of insecure chatter interspersed with awkward pauses. Much like my prayer life and for the same reason.

Those calls, as I remember them, were usually one-sided. My prayer life feels the same. I seem to do all the talking. I know that there are some Christians for whom prayer is a dialogue. They come away from prayer filled with thoughts and impressions from God. It’s as if he has a conversation with them. That has never been true for me. For me, talking to God is a lot like trying to talk to an introvert. He is a really good listener. But he never seems to have much to say. In fact, he never seems to have anything to say, at least not out loud.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But I don’t always feel like God is talking to me. I have often wondered why. Maybe it’s like the phone on the kitchen wall. Because I can’t see his face or hear the inflection in his voice, God seems to be inscrutable. I am tempted to interpret God’s silence as indifference toward me or worse.

I find God’s silent nature to be a mystery. At times it is a frustration. After all, it’s not as if God has trouble with words. He was the first to speak. Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the worlds into existence. He is also a prolific author. I’ve read his book more than once. Yet for some reason, God prefers to speak through others. He does not use his own voice. Instead, God communicated through prophets and the writers of Scripture.

It has occurred to me that God’s silence may actually be an act of mercy. When the Israelites heard God speak on Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as their go-between so that they wouldn’t have to hear it again. “We will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer,” they said. “For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:25-27).

It seems that prayer isn’t about hearing God’s voice at all. It is about speaking.  “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God” the 19th-century church leader J. C. Ryle observed.  “It needs neither learning nor wisdom nor book-knowledge to begin it. It needs nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when it is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out their hand for alms, and does not wait to find fine words. The most ignorant person will find something to say to God, if they have only a mind.” The essence of prayer is in the asking.

Although the answer to a prayer is no small thing, it is not the only thing. We do not always get what we want when we pray. Sometimes we make our request and find that we must wait for the answer. Sometimes we ask and get something different. There are times when we ask and it seems that we do not get anything at all. Prayer is not about getting but about being heard. It is also about being known. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8. I usually know what I want, but I do not always know what I need. My prayers are often ignorant. God’s answers are not.

We find God’s refusals, when they come, hard to accept. Indeed, we have such an aversion to them that some of us have developed a theology of prayer which leaves no room for God to say no. If we do not get our request it is our fault. It means we do not have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. But God’s right of refusal is proof of the relational nature of prayer. “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted” C. S. Lewis observes. Lewis offers the prayer of Jesus as irrefutable evidence. “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him” Lewis explains. “It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”

I think my problem with prayer is that I have misread the silence. Silence can mean many things. It is true that silence is sometimes a signal of irritation. It can be a mark of contempt. But silence is also the comfortable space that has been carved out by long familiarity. Two people who sit together for hours in silent happiness do so because they enjoy being in one another’s presence. Silence is a mark of someone who is listening carefully.

I am not a great man of prayer. I know that don’t pray as I ought. What I have to say to God is usually dull and unimaginative. I am repetitive and sometimes whiney. I am pretty sure that if I had to listen to myself pray, I would soon grow bored. I have moments in prayer when I lose heart. I also know that the fault is mine. I misinterpret the silence on the other end of the line, mistaking it for boredom or contempt when in reality it is the silence of presence. I know that I do not pray well. But perhaps I do not have to pray well to know that God has heard me.

Hope, Agony, & Prayer

There is a homeless man I often see on my walk to the train. All knees and elbows as he sits on the curb, he looks as if his bony form has folded in on itself in total collapse. He holds a cup in his hand, which he lifts high above his head as I approach. Waving it in my general direction he cries, “Can I get a blessing today?” His voice seems strangled, as though it pains him to ask the question.

An observation by C. S. Lewis about prayer brought him to mind this morning. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis mentions a friend who is waiting for confirmation of a potentially catastrophic diagnosis and is experiencing the tormenting uncertainty that afflicts people in such circumstances. There is hope but there is also the agony of waiting. As you wait, Lewis notes, your thoughts run in circles. You alternate between expectation and despair. You pray, “but mainly such prayers as are themselves a form of anguish.”

When I was a young Christian, I thought the key to answered prayer was to be sure God would do as I asked. This posed a problem for me because I could never find that kind of certainty within me. It wasn’t that I doubted God’s capability. It was His willingness that was in question. I concluded that the purpose of my prayer was to prove to God that I was convinced. But how? Usually, it took the form of posturing. I labored to affect the right tone. I spouted affirmations and made declarations. Sometimes I shouted. If I did not weary the courts of heaven with my voice, I at least grew weary of it myself. And of course, when I was finished, I was no more certain of the answer than when I had begun.

According to Hebrews 11:1, faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” But I do not think this means that I must be convinced that God will do what I want in order to get answers to my prayer. It does not even mean that I must be sure that the thing I ask of God is a possibility. Jesus’ qualifying, “if it is possible,” in Gethsemane is proof enough of this (Matt. 26:39). Jesus’ many predictions of His own impending death make this request even more striking. He seems to have known that the request would be refused even before He asked.

This means that we can make our requests of God without possessing absolute certainty of the outcome. It also means that, even when we are persuaded that the thing we desire from God is unlikely, we have permission to ask anyway. We lift the cup of supplication high above our heads and cry out in the agony of hope, “Can I get a blessing today?”

Secular Eating and Daily Bread

Wendell Berry has pointed out that most eaters these days are passive consumers. “They buy what they want–or what they have been persuaded to want–within the limits of what they can get” Berry explains. “They pay, mostly without protest, what they are charged.” It seems as though we can get almost anything but that does not necessarily mean that we can always get what we want. We can only get what is made available to us. It certainly does not mean that we can always get what we really need or what is good for us. Berry points out that specialization of production leads to specialization of consumption. To explain how this affects our eating, Berry points to the entertainment industry as an analogy: “Patrons of the entertainment industry, for example, entertain themselves less and less and have become more and more passively dependent on commercial suppliers.”

Anybody who has spent hours scanning the vast selection offered by their cable provider, only to give up in disgust or settle for something they have already watched once or twice before and for which they are paying too much, will understand his point. Just as we have lost the capacity to entertain ourselves and must now settle for options chosen for us by the entertainment industry, we have also lost the ability to eat for ourselves. We are dependent upon food that has been selected and prepared for us by those who are far more interested in our wallet than our health, despite the nutritional information on the back of the package. We are what Berry calls industrial eaters. “The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical–in short, a victim.”

Eating and the economy are obviously linked. We must buy our daily bread since most of us do not produce it for ourselves. Those who do produce food are in the business of selling it. But eating is a matter of economy in a much larger and more theological sense. The term economy comes from the Greek word for household. It speaks of more than buying or selling. An economy is really an ecosystem. It is part of a larger whole. In this respect, every community is also an economy. Daily bread is much more than an individual act of consumption, it is a community enterprise.

The communal implications of eating are in evidence all through Scripture. They are embedded in the Law of Moses, which required growers to leave behind the grain that was dropped in order to provide for the poor (Lev. 19:9–10; cf. Ruth 2). They are implied in the biblical rule of hospitality, an exercise which always involved eating (Rom. 12:13; 16:23; 1 Tim. 5:10; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). The link between eating and communion was especially evident in the practice of sacrificial meals. Several of Israel’s sacrifices involved eating in God’s presence. This was most vividly portrayed in Exodus 24, which describes how the elders of Israel ate and drank in God’s presence. In 1 Corinthians 10:18 Paul calls those who offered such sacrifices participants in the altar. In saying this he seems to be drawing a parallel with the Lord’s Supper in an effort to persuade the Corinthians to pagan idol feasts (1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 21).

Eating is a communal activity that is tied to the means of production and the well-being of the community at large but it is also a sacred act. In other words, our problem is more than the fact that we have been turned into industrial eaters. Our chief difficulty is that we have become secular eaters. We fail to see the connection between God and our daily bread. Food is still a common feature of the church’s life, but eating is not generally viewed as a context in which we experience fellowship with God. We expect to have fellowship with others but God is mostly on the sidelines when we eat. Indeed, we do not even see our observation of the Lord’s Supper as a meal in any real sense. We regard it as a valuable symbol but do not consider it to be spiritually sustaining in any meaningful way.

In the Genesis account, we find that four of the most fundamental aspects of human life are interrelated: the need for daily bread, work, community life, and fellowship with God. They were not originally the separate and unrelated spheres which we so often experience today. It is just here that Jesus chooses to engage with us on this subject. He does not speak about our quest for daily bread from the comfort of Eden before the fall. He faces it head-on in the broken world in which we now must make our way. His message to us is that the God who provided for our needs in the garden continues to provide for us in the fallen world. He teaches us to pray that our Heavenly Father will provide our daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). He tells us not to be anxious about what we will eat, drink, or wear because our heavenly Father knows we need these things (Matt. 6:31-32).

But how can we not be anxious in a world where the ground that bears its fruit also produces thorns and thistles and where we must eat our bread by the sweat of our brow? Jesus does not say that our daily bread will come without effort, but rather that we must not think about these things like orphans. “Thank God that this Father is so compassionate and realistic that he appraises the little things in our life (included a warm sweater and our daily bread) at exactly the same value that they actually have in our life” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “Thank God that he accepts us just as we are, as living men, with great dreams, but also with many little desires and fears, with hunger and weariness and the thousand and one pettinesses and pinpricks of life that fill even the lives of the great of this earth (one need only to read their memoirs).” Give us this day our daily bread.

Speaking of God

prayingWhen I was a pastor some people addressed me as “Pastor.” Others called me “Pastor John.” Some called me “Preacher” and a few referred to me as “Reverend.” If they asked what I preferred, I usually said, “My friends call me John.” But what about God? How should we address Him? Sir? Your Majesty? Some other title? He has several in Scripture. Jesus reveals the answer in the opening to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9: “This, then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven….”

Jesus frames our conversation with God in terms of relationship. Speaking of God this way was not something new. God is spoken of as a “Father” in the Old Testament. But there the title generally speaks of His role as creator and deliverer. When Jesus speaks of God as Father in the New Testament He takes it a step further. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to address God as our Father. He teaches us to address God as our Father.

More often than not the thing that shapes our approach to God in prayer is the fact that we want something. It isn’t the only thing we are interested in but it is usually the main thing. It is why we are praying. We are interested in the request itself and the request is certainly not insignificant. But thinking about prayer only in terms of what we want from God can create a problem. Instead of bringing us closer to God, this kind of praying may actually drive us apart.

In his little book How to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “Let us think of our prayers, yours and mine; think of the warmth, the depth and intensity of your prayer when it concerns someone you love, or something which matters in your life. Then your heart is open, all your inner self is recollected, in the prayer. Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject of your prayer matters to you.”

It is possible for the subject matter of our prayer–the request itself–to be so important to us that it overshadows God. The solution to this problem is not to set the request aside but to recognize that prayer is more of a relationship than a transaction. Don’t just approach God in prayer. Approach God as Father. Don’t just approach God as a Father. Come to Him as your Father.

Most of the people I know are disappointed with their prayer life. Ask them if they believe in prayer and they will say yes. Ask them if they are good at prayer and they will answer no. Usually we think that the problem lies in the mechanics. We don’t pray well. We don’t pray enough. We don’t stay on task. We get bored or distracted. But the root problem is really one of relationship. It is not that we have forgotten how to pray or even that we have forgotten that we should pray. Our problem is that we lose sight of the One to whom we pray.

Theologian Helmut Thielicke observed that we would all be orphans if it were not for Jesus: “There would be no one to hear us if He had not opened the gates of Heaven. We should all be like sheep gone astray without a shepherd. But now we have a shepherd. Now we have a father. What can ever cast us down, what can ever unhinge us as long as we look into that countenance and as long as we can say in the name of our brother Jesus Christ: Abba Father.”

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #9: Preaching Beyond Our Experience

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I once heard a pastor lament, “My prayer is better than my preaching and my preaching is better than my life.” One of the great challenges of the pulpit is that of preaching beyond our experience. We are the first to feel the sting of the sermon’s reproach. In preaching against the sins of others, we censure ourselves. This is not hypocrisy. Those preach to others must preach to themselves first (Ro. 2:21; 1 Cor. 9:27).  

Preaching also takes me beyond my own experience because by it I offer hope for those whose sin or suffering may exceed my own. I do not have to have personally experienced all that those who hear me have experienced in order to speak with authority about their situation. I do not need to become an alcoholic to offer hope to the alcoholic or an adulterer to speak with authority to the adulterer. Jesus has already “been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The word of hope that I have to offer is based on his experience not my own.  

 One obvious implication of this challenge is that those who preach must do so with humility. We do not speak as those who have mastered all the disciplines of grace. There may be many in the congregation who are further along in their walk with God than we are. But we need to be just as wary of exaggerating our sins for the sake of credibility as we are of exaggerating our victories. We do not preach ourselves but Christ. It is God’s word not our personal experience that is the standard by which others should measure themselves.  

When the Prayer Matters to Us More Than God

In his little book entitled Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “…it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.” Bloom warns that one of the great dangers we face in this area is the temptation to take an impersonal approach to prayer.

 There are many times when we are ready to pray but we are not ready to receive God. “We want something from Him but Him not at all” Bloom warns. This can be true even of passionate prayer. Bloom asks us to think of those times when our prayers are marked by warmth and intensity. Times when the prayer concerns someone we love or something that matters to us. “Then your heart is open all inner self is recollected in the prayer” Bloom writes. “Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matters of your prayer matters to you.”

 My problem when it comes to prayer isn’t that I have been using the wrong posture or language. It is my angle of vision. I know cognitively that God is one who knows me deeply and personally. He is a God who is acquainted with my thoughts. A God who speaks my language and anticipates my words. This is a God who knows me better than I know myself. And no wonder. This is a God who became flesh and dwelt among us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:12).

But as long as the prayer matters more to me than God does, it will be a failure. I do not necessarily  mean that it will go unanswered. I may receive the thing I request. But in the process I may miss what I need the most. When it comes to prayer we are, as one writer puts it, like children who receive pennies from a father’s hand. Often more interested in the pennies than the hand that offers them.