God On Mute - The Problem Of Unanswered Prayers: Mel's Online Book Club
As book club questions were included in the book, I did not compile any for my real-time reading group, who met last week.
A book on unanswered prayer is never going to be an exhilarating read, but God On Mute, by Pete Greig, surpassed expectation for all but two of my Book Club members. I was one of them, and couldn't help but agree with the person who said she'd found it did nothing for her. Speaking personally, I wonder if this is because I've experienced God's silences so often that I no longer seek analysis and conclusions? Perhaps familiarity makes it easier simply to accept those periods as one of the mysteries of spiritual life?
A MOVING STORY OF SUFFERING
We all agreed that the book was immensely helpful in terms of offering support to others, and we certainly found the author's personal journey of unanswered prayer very moving. With his young wife, Samie, diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour soon after the birth of their second child, who could fail to be moved? And who better - as Samie battled with persistent epileptic fits following surgery - to write about the problem of God's silences during our times of greatest need?
THE GRIEF & INSPIRATION OF THE EASTER STORY
The structure of the book is cleverly wrought around Easter, so couldn't be more timely. Beginning with How? (how am I going to get through this) on Maundy Thursday, it moves through, Why (why aren't my prayers being answered) on Good Friday, Where? (where is God when heaven is silent) on Holy Saturday, and concludes with a triumphant When (when every prayer is answered) on Easter Sunday. With fifteen reasons offered for God's silences, the despair of Maundy Thursday tears at the ligaments of the soul as it turns into the torment of Good Friday. And then there's the agony of God's absence on Saturday as heaven lies silent - before the ultimate victory of Easter Sunday.
THE CONFLICT OF FAITH
Exploding the evangelical "certainties" we so often meet, in the "if you have enough faith you'll be healed" brigade (implying that if you're not healed it's due to a lack of faith) we see Jesus' unanswered prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, and again on the cross. "Caught in the extremes of mental and spiritual torment," Jesus tells his disciples that his soul is "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." Later, he asks the question we all ask at times: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
GRIEF, LOSS & BEREAVEMENT
How that spoke to us: the lady who mourned the loss of a loved one; the husband who was so hurt that he is unable to forgive; the couple whose daughter fell out with them; and the woman whose parents have persecuted her for years; even the young woman whose engagement ring was found – but not until after a week of wrestling with God's silence as she searched the foreshore. We are given permission to hurt; permission to acknowledge our wounds; permission to cry out with Jesus, "Abba, Father... everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me." And permission to ask, "How can I endure this loss – plus your silence?"
We recalled Jesus' answer when asked by his disciples, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Neither, Jesus replied, "this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in (this man's) life." And we remembered the remarkable story of Floyd McClung, whose daughter's life, and that of his newborn grandson, hung in the balance when she went into a coma following a Caesarean Section - half a world away from where he was ministering. Facing the possibility of losing both, he agonised in prayer. Then finally, remembering a conversation with his friend, Corrie ten Boom, he gave up on his own desires and asked God to do whatever would bring him the most glory.
RELINQUISHMENT: EMPOWERING SOLUTIONS
I could identify with that sense of relinquishment. There came a time in my own life when I felt it right to give up on the dream of healing for back pain that had taken me in and out of hospital for twelve long years; to abandon my hope of being filled anew with the Spirit; to surrender my fifteen year marriage – "it's not mine, but yours," I prayed.
"All I want is you, Lord," I said, after wrestling for so long with the silence of God. Next morning, I woke to find myself praying in tongues, my back pain gone – never to return.
Had I previously been praying the wrong prayer? Did God have something to teach me, as Pete Greig's book suggests? Two months later, on Christmas morning, my husband left. After years of his betrayal, and pleading with the Lord to change him, I felt strangely liberated: freed from the captivity of Egypt, with the vision of a Promised Land ahead. Of course it hurt! Me and my girls. But most of all, it hurt him. Because in practical terms we saw what Pete Greig advocates as one reason for God's silence: the consequences of allowing people the right to choose, to live out their own free will. "God willingly restrains himself from imposing his will on ours, doesn't he," said one woman. It was an observation with which we could only agree.
RELATIONSHIP NOT RESULTS
Prayer, we decided, was not about results but about personal relationships: a relationship with God, and with each other; a sharing of our deepest thoughts with him; of being real with him about our fears, our vulnerability.
Pacing the floor with his infant son who had contracted chicken pox soon after Samie's tumour was diagnosed, it came to Pete Greig that this was a picture of God the Father. We may not understand why God is allowing our hurt, but in our helplessness we can find comfort in knowing that he has us in his arms. With the innocence of a baby we can trust that he will seek to soothe us. We can be comforted in the knowledge that he will carry us through to the end.
Life is tough, we agreed – and laughed when one of the men suggested that perhaps we might do better in a different universe. But the sobering truth is that it is a life of suffering to which we are called. Unanswered prayer may sometimes teach us more than might otherwise be achieved – as in my marriage. Sometimes, it simply teaches us patience. And sometimes God requires that we are the answer to our prayers. Or that in his absence, we see his presence in others.
HIS PRESENCE IN ME
"How can I pray for God to provide for someone in need and not send money to help them?" said one woman. And we recalled how Pete Greig had taken the mail to his wife in hospital, after a particularly bad occurrence of epilepsy. The first item she opened was a card signed by dozens of praying friends. Their prayers for her to be uplifted were not enough, they'd decided. A card was a visual aid to remind Samie of their love for her. Sent before she was hospitalised, it arrived – with God's timing – when it was most needed.
We found the chapter on spiritual warfare particularly illuminating. Warned not to provoke or rebuke demonic realms, we were reminded that Scripture urges us to stand against the wiles of the devil. Using the illustration of the bloody massacre of Omaha Beach, in which more than 3,000 young men were killed in the space of a few hours, Pete Greig points out that this was a battle which was, ultimately, won. "Our Christian faith celebrates the fact that Satan is a defeated foe," he writes.
We moved on to thoughts of heaven. Would it be boring, we wondered, facetiously quoting someone who deplored the concept of being clothed in white and sitting around on a cloud. "I hope there will be petrol pumps for my Harley Davidson," said one man, raising a laugh. We talked of Catherine Marshall's vision when she was widowed, of her husband tending roses. "Will there be black spot and thorns?" asked one woman.
PRAYER: THE REAL MINISTRY OF OUR LIVES
Probably not, we concluded! But what we can be assured of is that our unanswered prayers are "as incense rising to the throne of God." They are the "golden bowls of incense" of which Revelation speaks, stored up by God, and "soon to be poured out in one vast Amen," on that final day when we see the "fulfilment of God's epic." It's hard to imagine, says Pete Greig, but our prayers – even our unanswered prayers - may, ultimately, be the real ministry of our lives.
Sometimes, God's silences may merely be prayers which have not yet been answered. Do leave a comment below if you have instances of unanswered prayers in your life. What have you learned from the experience? Has it helped to strengthen your Christian faith? Have you benefited in personal growth, or in your relationship with God and others? Or are you still wrestling with the silence?
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