prayer and the absence of god

13 09 2016

How do we pray when we don’t feel like praying anymore? Why should we pray when we feel like we are hurling our words down an empty well, and all we hear are the echoes of our own sadness?

Stop praying? Give up? Pray something different?

God sometimes answers prayer in a straightforward way. We ask for something, he says yes, and we get what we asked for. Happy days.

God sometimes does not answer prayer in a straightforward way. Like we say to God please can I have £20 and he says yellow, and we walk off looking confused.


Part of the problem is the way we talk about prayer.


We talk about prayer being answered. Put this in a different context and see how strange it sounds. When did you last have a chat with your friend? Did they answer? Have you spent time with your family recently? Brilliant, did they answer?

Prayer is much more profound than answers. That type of prayer treats God like a divine Siri and church like a subscription to Amazon Prime – put your order in, wait for it to arrive. Grumble at any delay or delivery charges.

But then life happens, and no matter how much we can deny it, we know God does not operate like this.

But it was never like that.

A truth: God is.

Whether he gives us what we want or not, he is. He is above our mood swings, our doubts – we do not destroy God by not believing in him, or being angry with him.

Another truth: God wants us to talk to him.

Prayer is the word we give to the thing we do with our family and friends – conversation, hanging out, spending time, getting to know. The way that you can get to know how your friends and family will think, that is what we can do with God. he knows us, and we can know him, begin to think as he does.

Which is not something we do so that we can get what we want fro him when things go wrong, like sucking up to your boss so you get a promotion or the best desk or the shift you want.

But what about the times when we are angry and disappointed and he does not save the people around us from illness or despair or death? Yes, they are tough. Those are the times we wish we could build up credits with God, and cash them in for good health.

There is no cashing in. But it is ok to be angry.

I know despair, I know anger. I know the feeling of deep sadness that only the death of a loved one can bring, like constantly falling from a great height and never landing.

Where is God then? In the valley of the shadow of death he is with us. I firmly believe that.

Most of the time.

Giving us strength, hope, raising us from despair. But not always saving us from it.

Does that help you? Does it help you if your son is diagnosed with cancer, or a friend commits suicide? Or if life is just rubbish?

Maybe it helps to know you are not alone in feeling that God is absent. Maybe it helps to be given permission to be angry.

The Bible is full of lament, that pouring out of grief and anger and questions that happen when life goes wrong. In fact, if you want a metaphor, a picture, for how you might feel sometimes, see Lamentations. The clue is in the name.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones…
He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked…
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help…
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust… (from Lam 3)

God is. And we pray.

Not just for what we want, but to know the heart of God.
Not because we want God to micromanage our lives.
Not because we believe we have a divine right to health, wealth and happiness.
But because God is.

Jesus calls us to persistent prayer. Yet knowing that the purposes of God – and of life – are greater than the well-being of my life or yours. Which can be hard to hear in these times of selfie-sticks, instant gratification, same-day delivery and the importance of my personal happiness.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (from Lam 3)


what’s the point in praying for Iraq?

11 08 2014

What’s the point in praying for Iraq? This is part 1 of a question I was asked the other day. It is a very good one. It is not a new one, but it is a very pertinent one. Part 2 of the question was even tougher. Referring to the horrific story told by Canon Andrew White (‘Vicar of Baghdad’) of a Christian child (he had baptised) being cut in half, my friend asked, surely the child’s parents had prayed. That didn’t work. What difference will our prayers make? Ouch. Fair point. 

My first response is to do with my bowels. And Jesus’ bowels too actually. Bear with me. When I hear these terrible stories I am moved with compassion – far deeper than that actually, a pain inside – which is described in the New Testament, when Jesus felt compassion, with the word splagchnizomai. It literally means ‘to be moved in one’s bowels’. The bowels were the seat of feeling. It’s that depth of pain in your gut. That, addressed to God, is prayer. 


Does that achieve anything, though? Or does it just salve our consciences, feeling a bit more active than clicktivism of changing our Facebook photo or signing a petition? Well, to feel is to live, so to feel deep compassion – literally meaning ‘with suffering’ – is to know you’re alive. So yes, it matters; and yes, getting together to lament and pray matters. But that’s still about us.

Here’s two thoughts about the difference prayer makes. First, the practical; second, the spiritual.  The practical is like this: if my neighbours house is burning down and they are stuck inside, and I realise I cannot help, what do I do? Go and make a cup of tea, draw the curtains and watch TV? No. I do what I can. I call the Fire Brigade. Fetch blankets. Make tea for others. I might buy my neighbours smoke alarms.  But if I never looked out my window, I would never know there was a fire. Imagine how my neighbours would feel then. Prayer is looking out the window and feeling. 

The spiritual (this is a false dichotomy, by the way) is this: there is a spiritual war for people’s hearts. I know that sounds a bit hard-core weird. No, I don’t know how it works. But there is such a thing as evil, it does take hold of people. It has in the militia of the IS. Prayer is our weapon against that. Again, I don’t know how. 

BBC News

So prayer is about actively standing in solidarity with those who suffer; it is about actively shaking ourselves out of a comfortable malaise, seeing where the world is burning and how we can help; and it is us actively taking our part in the spiritual battle of good vs evil. All of which can actually change the world as it changes us, as the more we pray, the more the Holy Spirit can work in us. But we don’t do it for that. We do it for those we pray for.

So, does prayer ‘achieve’ anything? Is there a point? It is not a slot machine, a magic formula, or a psychic communication;  but neither is it a waste of time or should ever be dull. And it may just be more significant than we realise.

If you are able to give financially, Andrew White’s Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East are one of few organisations still active in Iraq. For more about religious persecution see my post The Awkward Silence About Religious Persecution and this article in the Independent.       

in the (dry) river

26 01 2014

Praying when nothing seems to happen. Praying where no-one else prays. Praying when the needs around are like a tidal wave rising before you and you can do nothing but pray.

We are river people. We believe that God’s love flows like rivers. The Bible is full of it.  But following Jesus and doing church – trying to grow church – can sometimes feel like maintaining a dry river bed. Endlessly tending, clearing, weeding. Like Noah, when other people say ‘why are you doing that?’ There is, quite obviously, no water. If we want people to know the love of God, then there are other places where the river already flows. Surely if we are river people, we should go where the river is?

Except that our God is in it for the long haul. We are in it for the long haul. We put our churches where the people are, not where the rivers are. Because we patiently wait for the time the river flows. We prepare. Below is a picture of the source of the River Wandle.  It is dry. It is a dry riverbed. I have often looked at it and wondered why it is still there. 

Then, after 15 years, it rained. And rained. And where the river bed was dry, all of a sudden it flowed. And now it is this:

As we were praying for our area, even before we knew about the arrival of the Wandle, we felt that God was encouraging us to pray even when around us feels like a dry river bed. Because God is at work, underground, maybe far away from us. But the water is coming. And when it comes, we must be ready. The landscape will change.

Like people being motivated to pray for our local area.
Like people discovering and rediscovering faith.
Like finally having enough men to do a men’s curry night.
Like today, when a third of the church congregation were new to us this year. It is still January. Are we ready? 

my god remains silent

18 07 2012

into the agony of silence
i pour my prayers
hurling them deep and far into the
absent mind of a
numb god

the words tumble into the
blackness of nothing
falling unheard
the reply unstoppable in its

still i will pray
though the darkness swallows my words
and mocks the depths of the agonies
or the nothingness

still i will pray
though the platitudes of faith
and the cliches of scripture
tear at the very fabric of who i am

into the agony of silence
i pour my prayers
hurling them deep and far
as my mind becomes absent
my faith, numb
and my god remains silent.

© Kevin Lewis 2012

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