I left my last blog with an unanswered question about unanswered prayer: what can be said about those who pray for a loved one, or for the cause of justice, and experience no answer – the person dies, the cause fails? I used the example of Jesus himself, praying to be spared torture and death. His prayer is depicted as agonised, but God’s lack of response is made respectable by the Jesus’ submissive words, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Clearly if submission to God’s will were the whole of faithfulness, asking God for anything would be a waste of time. Instead Jesus represented his own cause with words and tears.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on here.
Believers talk about the presence of God, but of course they do not mean that God is available like some kind of supernatural gloop. Better theologies say he/ she is present as person to person. But how is this divine other experienced? Again not as a a divine spook, but rather without material presence. The usual way of describing this is to use the word spiritual. But where does a spiritual presence happen? Surely in the mind, or better, the imagination, of the believer. We imagine God. That does not mean that God is unreal, just that we contribute, through what we have learned, to the image of God that we recognise when we speak of God’s presence.
When we pray, ths imagined image is very important. For example, is the presence male or female or somehow both or neither? That will depend on what we have learned about God from our sources and our religious community. When we say our prayer was unanswered, we mean first of all that what we asked for did not happen. But secondly we may mean that we did not even experience a negative response, some sense of God saying “no.” There are people who have reported to me their sense of God’s refusal of their petition, sometimes accompanied by comfort and encouragement to wait. In most cases, these refusals were seen as espressions of God’s love.
It may well be the case that some experiences of God’s silence come from an inadequate imagination of God which cannot see “no” as a possible answer. If so, richer learning may help the believer to a richer prayer life. Biblical and other resources can help people see prayer as a more varied drama than they had previously imagined. (Caution: the training of the imagination for prayer is not a confession that “it’s only a pious game.” God uses our imagination as well as our other mental processes.)
But there are occasions where experience of the silence of God is final. The ears of our best imagination can detect nothing. We may like Jesus, feel that God has abandoned us in the time of our greatest need. Like most of humanity we are left to face whatever suffering comes with whatever resources we can muster.
At such a time I would encourage people to imagine that God has fallen silent a)because there nothing that God, who never intervenes by force in the world, can do about the suffering; b) out of respect for the human person who is suffering; c) because there is no suffering which is not also suffered by God. This may not be at all comforting to the suffering person, but it may give courage to bear what even God cannot change.
Did I just write “God CANNOT change”?
I mean God cannot change it without ceasing to be the God he/she is, one who gives total freedom to creation, from particles to human beings, to develop towards perfection. Whatever mistakes are made, whatever evils are committed, God will not impose his/her will, but will only work by persuasion. To do otherwise would be foreign to God’s nature. If climate change leads towards the extinction of life on earth, God will not intervene to stop it.
So when we bear the destructiveness of nature or the malice of humanity, we share the pain of God as God shares ours, in the partnership of suffering love, of which the brutal death of Jesus is the historical sign. If in faith we can imagine this, then in spite of God’s silence, we can still pray and maintain that partnership, even saying to God as the poet Paul Celan did in the name of persecuted Jews, “Pray to us, Lord, we are here.” The weakness of God makes this strange equality possible.
Paul says that those who share the labour pains of God in Christ will also share the glorious freedom of the children of God. In the world of time, this is promised in the future, but those who move out of time, dying as partners of the suffering God, may experience this victory “now.” This of course is still a product of my imagination schooled by the church and its bible. But if my imagination of this victory is mistaken, then I would regard the whole of my faith as nonsense. So beyond all other prayers I pray for this victory, for the creation and for myself, trusting that neither I nor the Bible are mistaken, and that the One whose suffering I have shared will let me share his/her splendour.
Maybe this is not what has been traditionally taught about prayer, nor does it meet the requirements of fervent souls whose hands are ever in the air, but it is all the better for that.