When God Gives You the Silent Treatment
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“And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
“And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? I have absolutely no idea. My help supposedly comes from the Lord, but I haven’t seen it yet! It seems the one who made heaven and earth doesn’t have anything left to give me. Is He asleep or on vacation? Is He angry with me? Perhaps I’ve offended Him in some way. Or maybe He just doesn’t care.
I know. That’s not the way that Psalm 121 goes, but sometimes it seems that way; doesn’t it? Sometimes it feels like God isn’t paying attention. You’ve had those days, haven’t you? When it looks like God doesn’t care. That He must be angry with you. That He is screening His calls. What do you do when God is slow to answer your prayers? What do you do when God gives you the silent treatment?
Most of the popular books on the Christian life and prayer give an unrealistic picture. They read as if we live in the best of all possible worlds where God’s rule is largely unchallenged. They have much to say about victory, triumph, and peace, but very little about struggle, failure, and conflict. These writers give the impression that once people have faith in Christ, they escape the troubles of the world and lead blissful lives free from all that ails most people. We have to go a long way before we hear the comforting message that we must undergo many trials before we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
Things get worse when we move from books to our own ordinary, everyday conversation. We usually are quite ready to talk about our successes, but are rather reluctant to mention our failures. It is as if everything unpleasant and incriminating has been censored from the stories of our lives.
From my experience, this tendency to gloss over failure is all too common among Christians. It is as if we observe a secret taboo against failure. Now that may stem from a healthy reluctance to burden others with our problems, as well as a natural defense against the possibility of criticism. No one likes a whiner! But it could also come from an unhealthy attempt to avoid hurt and deny loss in the hope that what remains unmentioned will cease to exist.
This conscious and unconscious censoring of experience, has certain inevitable negative effects on us as individuals, as well as on the Church. First, it can create an air of unreality that confirms the cynicism of religious skeptics and confuses new disciples in their naivety. Second, it stops people from facing reality together with God and thus short-circuits the process of spiritual growth. Third, it creates intolerable tensions within those who honestly struggle with the disparity between their own obvious deficiencies and the apparent triumphs of others. These strugglers conclude that they haven’t made the grade spiritually and may even decide that they don’t belong to the Church, since it appears to be a club for a spiritual elite rather than a hospice for sinners. Fourth, since people never mention their troubles to each other, we can’t bear one another’s burdens in prayer. Last, and worst of all, it gives Satan room to attack the Church through the evil and the hurts that have not yet been resolved just because they have been repressed.
The censoring of experience is much like the taboo against anger in many households. Since it is considered wrong to get angry, the members of these families never express their anger with each other, even when they are hurt and feel angry inside. This anger, however, is not dispelled by the prohibition against it; it is merely repressed and entrenched more deeply than ever before. Such people never learn how to get rid of their anger in a healthy, socially accepted way. Instead, they cease to show their feelings and withhold affection from each other. They commit a kind of emotional suicide.
As a Christian, you know that you shouldn’t harbor doubts about God’s goodness, nor should you feel hostile toward the people around you. But you do. And you don’t receive much help from the Church in dealing with the fact that you do. Where can you turn when you feel that God has betrayed and abandoned you? How can you get rid of your bitterness, anger, rage, and even hatred toward those people who have humiliated and hurt you? What can you do with the guilt and shame you feel about your failure to be the kind of person you should be? What hope is there for you if you are overcome by depression or anxiety? People seem to think that such experiences and feelings are out of place in the life a Christian. And so we deny these troubles and hope they will go away. The pity of it is that by this very trick of denial we miss out on the best opportunities for healing and spiritual growth. The person who avoids his own troubles may, in fact, avoid God and miss God’s work in his life.
The Bible is full of God’s promises to hear the prayers of His people. For example, we have this promise in Psalm 34:17: “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of their troubles.” Yet God quite often does not appear to keep His promises. He does not immediately appear to provide for what we need and heal us when we are sick. He does not instantly appear to deliver us from evil and defend us when we experience injustice. All too often, God seems to be silent and unhelpful just when we need Him most.
Popular piety maintains that good Christians prosper. That’s what the preachers on T.V. say. That’s what they write in their books. Yet our own experience contradicts that expectation. Things go wrong for us. And when we ask God for help, nothing much seems to happen. Things may even get worse. When God fails to answer our prayers, we feel that He is either not what He claims to be, such as just, gracious, and compassionate, or that He is so angry with us that He has abandoned us. So we, quite rightly, feel disappointed and angry with God.
Unfortunately, popular piety also forbids us to complain to God. Complaining is synonymous with disrespect and unbelief. In such a religious climate, where, then, can you go to complain when you feel that God has let you down? I mean, it’s not exactly like you can speak to His supervisor, is it? What can you do when God gives you the silent treatment?
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus uses the parable of the persistent widow to teach His disciples (and us) to not lose heart and keep on praying even when God seems to be silent and unresponsive. This widow has experienced injustice in a court of law. The court has backed her adversary, even though she was in the right. But she does not give up. She goes beyond the law and appeals directly to the judge outside the court because she knows he is not a stickler for legality or conventional morality.
It would seem that such appeals are unlikely to produce a ruling in the widow’s favor. People cannot appeal to him saying “For the sake of God,” because he doesn’t fear God. Nor can anyone plead, “for my sake,” because he says he does not care what anyone thinks about him. He possesses no inner sense of honor or moral code to which petitioners can appeal. And he really sees no need to change. After all, she’s only a widow. She obviously has no one else to stand up for her, no father, uncle, brother, or nephew to speak for her. In Middle Eastern society, women do not go to the courts; men go for them. She must plead her case alone.
The parable presupposes the woman is in the right, but the judge is dragging his feet. Alone and against impossible odds, the widow plays the only card she has: She refuses to be quiet or go away until the judge surrenders. She keeps on demanding justice from him against her “adversary” because he is a vain man who cares for his reputation. This comes out even more clearly in the Greek than our English translation because the judge does not just say that he fears that she will wear him down, but that she will give him a black eye if he does not consider her complaint. Finally, he agrees to settle her case favorably just to be rid of her.
Jesus uses the rabbinic principle of interpretation “from the light to the heavy.” If in this somewhat humorous scene, such persistence pays off, how much more is persistence appropriate in prayer where we kneel before a compassionate God? Jesus makes clear that we are not in the presence of a grim judge who is taking bribes from someone else and wants nothing to do with us. On the contrary, in prayer, believers are in the presence of a loving Father who cares for His children.
Unlike that judge, God is truly just; but He is also gracious and merciful. He exercises grace and vindicates us. He sent His only-begotten Son to fulfill the Law in our place. Jesus lived the perfect, obedient life that you and I could not, would not, did not. He died on the cross as the just payment for all the sin of the world, your sin and my sin, included. In Holy Baptism, you are baptized into His death and resurrection. You are clothed with His righteousness and credited with His obedience and holiness. You are vindicated. Declared not guilty. Redeemed by Christ’s holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Forgiven and sustained in faith with His true body and blood.
You may therefore copy this widow by trusting that God will deliver you from your adversary, the devil, and vindicate you. And when things go wrong, as they often will in this fallen world, Jesus commands you to bring your complaints to God daily, even when, perhaps especially when, it seems God gives you the silent treatment. These complaints are evidence of your faith because they assume that even though God may appear to be indifferent, unresponsive, and unhelpful, He is actually just and gracious and merciful and wants to hear and answer your petitions for the sake of His Son. You may appeal to God’s grace in the face of His apparent callousness or wrath, because you know His real character as demonstrated in Son, Jesus Christ. Don’t lose heart. Always pray. Cry to the Lord day and night. And He will give justice speedily.
When commenting on this text, Martin Luther said:
It is not enough just to begin and to sigh once, to recite a prayer and then to go away. As your need is, so should your prayer be. Your need does not attack you once and then let you go. It hangs on, it falls around your neck again, and it refuses to let go. You act the same way! Pray continually, and seek and knock, too, and do not let go. … Since your need goes right on knocking, therefore, you go right on knocking, too, and do not relent.[i]
After all, why should some affliction be more persistent than you? You’re a holy child in the care of God the Father, while your affliction is a conquered nothing that can do you no lasting harm. It is so because God has justified you speedily, already for Jesus’ sake. He doesn’t leave you alone to battle your afflictions, but bids you. “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22). There is no despair for you! You do not cease praying and you do not lose heart, because you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 21, p. 234). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.