Just before my father died, he asked me if it was ok to pray for yourself.
Dad had a long journey with faith. He’d seen a lot in his life, including time as a prisoner of war in World War II. I think in many ways becoming a doctor only confronted him with more suffering in people’s lives. He was a very compassionate person, and so when he saw people being treated badly, he found that very difficult. He certainly found it difficult to reconcile suffering with the existence of God. Meanwhile I often thought that he and God had a lot more in common than it might have seemed.
I can relate to the struggle. I also have my answers to it… largely. It’s certainly one thing to have answers in theory, but when you are faced with real suffering: it’s just a different ball game. Certainly, the last thing that helps is pat or glib answers. And what if the suffering goes on and on… and on and on?
Dad said he did a lot of reflecting in the last few years of his life. He had plenty of opportunity to. Following a stroke that affected much of his body in different ways, he just wasn’t very mobile.
It was very hard to understand what he was saying near the end: he was so weak. Largely, he couldn’t talk above a whisper. I don’t think his prayers were out loud.
I have a feeling that some of our most desperate prayers are the silent ones. Prayers that relate perhaps to issues that are too sensitive or private to say out loud. Or those times when we are in situations that might very much make us feel like a miracle or two is the only hope left. Praying out loud doesn’t always fit.
Maybe that’s why, over the last few years, the issue of silent prayer for me has become more urgent, and I’ve needed to go back and check some of my assumptions. Sometimes… it’s just very easy to believe things for many years and not always be able to point to why when you need to.
Take Hannah: Married to a man with two wives: the other was her rival. Her rival had many children, Hannah was barren.
Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.
I can’t really imagine what it would have been like.
So one year,
In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much, and prayed to the LORD….
As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.
Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
Bitter of soul, deeply troubled, great anguish and grief.
And God answered her prayer, silent though it was. That’s a relief.
It’s not just that God knows everything. It’s that he knows you. Thoughts, yearnings, even the things you don’t know how to express.
David had plenty of reasons to need God to know what was happening in his life, heart and mind. He wrote:
You perceive my thoughts from afar…
Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O LORD.
For some, perhaps this is a newbie question. Sometimes the newbie questions are the best ones to come back to. I’ve found that as my need for God to listen to my silent and desperate prayers has increased, so has my desire for reassurance that he can, in fact, hear them. He’s God – the same one that made the universe, and knows us in ways that no one else ever will: even our deepest, most desperate prayers. And hears with empathy:
We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.