What are we supposed to make of the fact that things don’t seem to work as we are led to believe when it comes to faith? Jesus said, ‘Ask, search, knock,’ and suggested that all would be well. Paul said, ‘Just believe, and all will be well.’ Were they lying? What if we do as Jesus and Paul say and God seems silent or absent? King David faced this and he was not afraid to express what he thought to God, asking him to account for his hiddenness.
In our service on Thursday at 2pm I wrestled with just what we are supposed to do when we see others suffer and don’t see the supposedly loving God doing something about it. The readings were Psalm 10: 1-4, 12-18, Galatians 3:1-5, Luke 11:5-13.
I don’t suppose a week goes by in SL without me finding myself listening to someone’s story. Often those stories are heart rending. People have suffered in so many ways with one event piled upon another until it seems that the burden must be too much for the person to bear. I wonder how such people might come to have a faith in God or how they hold on to the faith they have. I have no easy answers and I am wary of trying to give any. Platitudes can wound deeply and show a profound lack of understanding of the challenges and sorrows a person is facing in their life. There are times when I feel that I need to apologise for God and his lack of action.
I know I’m not alone in struggling to make sense of a faith which proclaims that our God is a loving parent. The questions I ask, the frustrations I feel, are shared by others as they too observe the apparent unfairness of life and the absence of any evidence that God is at work in the situation. I wonder if God is responding to the questions by presenting me with this gospel passage to reflect on today. He’s certainly given me quite a challenge as I try to make sense of it in the light of experience.
Jesus had been teaching about prayer and in the verses immediately prior to this passage we have Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer where the disciples are encouraged to call God Dear Father, Daddy, Abba, as they address him with the intimate trust of a child asking for his or her needs to be met. Already for some that very form of address is a major hurdle. Their experience of fatherhood has been far from a relationship of trust. They have been abused, abandoned, ignored; made to feel insignificant, dirty, defective; the one who should have protected them has left them in need of protection. Is there any wonder that this way of talking to and of God is a barrier between them and the most loving parent they will ever meet? Regardless of the difficulties, this is what we have been given by Jesus.
In the passage we have today Jesus illustrates more about prayer, having given the model prayer. He does this by means of the parable about the friend at midnight. The man receiving visitors lacked what he needed and so he went to his neighbour to see if he could have some bread. Despite being initially rebuffed by this friend due to the lateness of the hour, persistence paid off and eventually he was given the bread he wanted in order to feed his visitor. It was the persistence rather than the friendship that brought the desired outcome.
Jesus built on the parable with three commands: ask, search, knock. They are not given as suggestions but definite commands. For each command he stated what the outcome would be: ask and you will get what you ask for; search and you’ll find what you are looking for; knock and you will gain a way into the place you want to enter. He went on to give the same message all over again except for one important difference – the tense of the verbs changed. He taught his disciples to keep on asking, keep on searching, keep on knocking. This kind of prayer is not the sort which results from an emergency but is more prayer that is woven into our lives, keeping us constantly in touch with God.
Jesus then taught about the kind of answer our prayers will receive. He looked at caring earthly fathers and how they respond to requests made by their children. They do not give something harmful but something good. Compared to God, the best parent on earth is evil, and yet knows how to be good to his or her child. How much more can God be trusted to give us what is good for us, including the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. There is no need to be afraid of what he might give us, just as a child need not fear what a caring earthly parent will give in answer to a request.
Hudson Taylor caused concern to many in 1886 when he took his family with him to spread the gospel in eleven Chinese provinces which had not previously heard of Jesus. Showing his total trust in God’s parental care, he told those who were fearful:
‘I am taking my children with me, and I notice that it is not difficult for me to remember that the little ones need breakfast in the morning, dinner at midday, and something before they go to bed at night. Indeed, I could not forget it. And I find it impossible to suppose that our Heavenly Father is less tender or mindful than I.’
This is all well and good, all very positive. Paul told the Galatians that receiving the Holy Spirit and seeing miracles among them was the result of believing the message they had heard about Jesus. Simple, straightforward. Jesus said, ask, search, knock and you will receive. Simple, straightforward. But what about the dilemma I mentioned at the beginning, when God doesn’t seem to act as promised? For this I need to turn to David, that man after God’s own heart, who had a deep and authentic relationship with God. His was a no holds barred, say it like it is, relationship.
David was honest with God about his difficulties as we can see from Psalm 10 (and many others). He challenges God to answer: ‘Why stand so far off, O Lord? Why hide yourself in time of trouble?’ It seems far from simple and straightforward for David. No doubt he had believed, asked, searched, knocked but the answer was silence and absence. This is not how it’s supposed to be. Did Jesus tell us a lie about God? Was he just trying to fool us into false hope? Later in the psalm, David says: ‘Lord, you will hear the desire of the poor; you will incline your ear to the fullness of their heart.’ How does this work? How can David be sure in the absence of evidence?
Frank James wrote recently in Christianity Today about trying to work out what faith means when his brother died in a mountain climbing accident on Mount Hood in Oregon despite the prayers uttered and faith exercised. Here is an extract from his attempt to make sense of it all:
‘It seems paradoxical that David would trust a God who hides himself when David needs him most. But as I have meditated on David’s Psalms, I sense he had a different kind of relationship with God—one not many Christians understand. It is more mysterious than I had been led to believe. It is a relationship where simplistic spiritual formulas and religious clichés have no place. David’s relationship with God combines brutal honesty with what Luther called a grasping faith. It is a relationship where disappointment is juxtaposed with hope.
‘One of the profoundly difficult lessons is that amid all the spiritual consternation in the shadow of Mount Hood, God has manifested himself in my grief. Somehow he is found in the disappointment, the confusion, and the raw emotions. This does not exactly make sense to me, and I’m quite sure I don’t like it. But I have felt the divine gravity pull me back toward God, even while I am dumbstruck by his hiddenness. My conception of faith has become Abrahamic—which is to say, I must trust God even though I do not understand him.’
I think Frank has come as near as I can get to a way forward when God doesn’t seem to operate as a loving parent, when I want to apologise for his apparent lack of care, when he is silent even though I long for him to speak. The way to cross that divide between what we are told and what we observe is faith, trust that God is who he says he is whether we can see it or not.