“A SILENT Heaven is the greatest mystery of our existence.” With this statement, Robert Anderson, a fruitful Irish Christian writer (who was also a respected police official at Scotland Yard), begins his work The Silence of God, published in 1897. He speaks about the inutile prayers of tortured Christian missionaries, who “in their terror and agony cried to Heaven for the succour which never came.”
Anderson also alludes to those who died for their faith at the hands of the Roman authorities and in the Inquisition: “Torn by wild beasts in the arena, torn by men as merciless as wild beasts, and, far more hateful, in the torture chambers of the Inquisition, His people have died, with faces turned to heaven, and hearts upraised in prayer to God; but the heaven has seemed as hard as brass, and the God of their prayers as powerless as themselves or as callous as their persecutors!”
While God declaredly does not hear prayers of those who still stand in rebellion against him, he promises that the prayers of those who, once redeemed by faith in Christ and made his children, will not fall to the ground. The Scriptures affirm everywhere the infinitude of God’s power and goodness, and extensively encourage believers to pray to him in their difficulties, because he is always willing to hear them. A completely favorable picture is revealed here in a few representative verses:
“For nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few.” (1 Sam. 14:6)
“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.” (Ps. 34:15)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Ps. 46:1)
“Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” (Ps. 50:15)
“No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” (Ps. 84:11)
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight.” (Prov. 15:8)
“Ah, Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You.” (Jer. 32:17)
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7–8)
“For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:37)
“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16 NIV)
“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Pet. 3:12)
Accordingly, believers hear from a distinguished Christian thinker like Jonathan Edwards: “The more excellent the nature of any benefit is, which we stand in need of, the more ready God is to bestow it in answer to prayer.” And the honorable Martin Luther says that God “testifies by his Word, that our prayer is well-pleasing to him, and besides, that it shall be assuredly heard and granted,—lest we should slight or neglect it, or pray in uncertainty.” The Reformer goes further to asseverate that whoever does not believe the promise that we shall not be deceived in our prayers “should know that he provokes God to wrath, by dishonoring him in the highest degree, charging him with falsehood.” We should know, Luther says, that God “will not permit our prayer to be vain and ineffectual. For, if he were not pleased to hear you, he would not command you to pray, and he would not have enjoined it so strictly.” Lovely, convincing and comforting. Believers are urged to believe without any vacillation that God will never frustrate their prayers. What an amazing promise!
Yet, many Christians are puzzled by the fact that fatal diseases, for instance, will, in most cases, have a fatal outcome for them or their beloved ones, in spite of their cries to the Father. All those biblical verses about the efficacy of prayer end up viewed with perplexity. Many believers confess that sometimes they think that prayer is nothing else than this: We ask here, God disregards there, especially in the hardest circumstances, when we are most helpless and hopeless. Exactly as we read in Lamentations 3:8: “Even when I cry and shout, He shuts out my prayer.” Or in Psalms 39:12—the child feels like a stranger before God, who remains disturbingly silent:
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
And give ear to my cry;
Do not be silent at my tears;
For I am a stranger with You,
A sojourner, as all my fathers were.
This is not fiction: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, ‘Where is your God?’” (Ps. 42:3).
Anderson did not write The Silence of God to criticize God. As he said, “The statement of these difficulties here is made with a view to their solution.” I likewise will present many disturbing questions in order to give occasion to answers that may constitute a consistent biblical account of evil in the world and of God’s way with it. Elihu said to Job and his three friends what I humbly repeat to you, dear reader and fellow believer: “Bear with me a little, and I will show you that there are yet words to speak on God’s behalf. . . . I will ascribe righteousness to my Maker” (Job 36:2–3).
Horatio G. Spafford, a distinguished and well-to-do lawyer, and his wife, Anna—dedicated, pious, and generous Christians—experienced a financial disaster caused by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Horatio had invested heavily in land, anticipating the growth of the city. But the investment failed because of the catastrophic fire. Anna’s health declined so that, taking the advice of the doctor in care of her, the family decided to take a trip to Europe.
However, just before they left Chicago, a man made an offer to buy part of the land in which Horatio had invested. The sale would relieve him of almost all his indebtedness brought by the failure of the investment. But the couple decided that the travel would not be postponed. Anna, their four daughters, and the French governess, Ms. Nicolet, would go as planned. Horatio would join them later in France. The little girls were Annie, Margaret Lee (Maggie), Elizabeth (Bessie), and Tanetta.
But before the ship, Ville du Havre, departed, Horatio received a telegram with the disconcerting news of the sudden death of the man interested in buying part of his property. Anna was so fragile—and there was the additional stress of the imminence of her first travel without the husband—that Horatio put the telegram in his pocket, telling her nothing about the bad news, so as not to depress her still more.
Four French pastors were returning to their country on the same ship: Reverends Lorriaux, Weiss, Blanc, and Cook. Horatio asked Rev. Lorriaux, to look after his family. Mrs. Goodwin, a dear friend to Anna, joined the group with her three children—Goertner, Julia, and Lulu. Anna also took with her Willie Culver, son of other friends, who would visit his grandparents in Germany.
It happened that about two o’clock the morning of November 22, 1873, an iron sailing vessel, the Lochearn collided with the Ville du Havre. Anna, carrying Tanetta, more than two years old at the time, ran on deck with Ms. Nicolet and the other three girls. Reverend Lorriaux joined them. “Tanetta was heavy, and Annie put her shoulder under Mother’s elbow to help lift her weight.” What a lovely girl! A little servant. Then Reverend Weiss joined the group.
Mrs. Goodwin, her children, and Willie Culver were not able to reach the deck. Maggie, holding the hand of Rev. Weiss, looked up into his face and asked him to pray. Her sisters asked the same to their mother and Rev. Lorriaux. They prayed for God’s compassion. Rev. Weiss, who survived, told later in his book on the tragedy that the little girl, who was very frightened and agitated earlier, exclaimed: “Oh! All is well now.” She was now “calm, resolute.”
Annie urged Maggie and her mother, whom she was still helping to support Tanetta, not to be afraid, but to be confident in God’s care. The group sank together. The Ville du Havre sank only twelve minutes after the collision. Ms. Nicolet and the four Spafford girls perished. Anna and the four pastors were rescued, with other survivors, by the sailors of the Lochearn.
Pastor Lorriaux was not able to swim but clung to wreckage of the ship. Anna “had been rolled under and down, and as she rose unconscious to the surface, a plank floated under her, saving her life.” It was estimated that she stayed in the sea for an hour.
She learned that two of her girls clung to the clothes of an American man, a good swimmer, who hoped to save them. But the smaller one disappeared and, as he was reaching a boat, the other sank as well. A nine-year-old girl who, clinging to a piece of wood, cried insistently that she did not want to drown, was the only child saved. By about four o’clock in the morning, nearly two hours after the shipwreck, no more survivors were found. Two hundred and twenty-six lives lost.
Three days after the shipwreck, but unaware of it, Horatio wrote a letter to Anna in which he said: “If the Lord keeps us, we hope before many months to be all together again, better understanding than ever before the greatness of His mercy in the many years of the past.” Then he mentioned their daughters: “When you write, tell me all about the children. How thankful I am to God for them! May He make us faithful parents, having an eye single to His glory. Annie and Maggie and Bessie and Tanetta—it is a sweet consolation even to write their names. May the dear Lord keep and sustain and strengthen you.” Anna received the letter weeks later in France.
Nearly a week after writing the letter, Horatio received the first news about his family. According to Bertha, her mother’s cable from Wales to her father consisted of two words: “Saved Alone.” But according to the cablegram conserved by the US Library of Congress, the full message is as follows: “Saved alone what shall I do. Mrs Goodwin children Willie Culver lost go with Lorriaux until answer reply”
Horatio sailed to meet his wife, accompanied by Mr. Goodwin, who had lost his wife and children. At a given moment, the captain called them into his private cabin and told them of his belief that they were passing the place of the shipwreck. This was the precise seedbed of the highly appreciated hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” which Horatio so painfully gave the world.
About a month later, Anna wrote to a friend, on Christmas Eve:
Yes, Mary—all are gone Home—so early. How thankful I am that their little lives were so early dedicated to their Master. Now He has called them to Himself. I thought I was going, too, but my work is not yet finished. May the dear Lord give me strength to do His will. The dear children were so brave. They died praying. Annie said to Maggie and me just before we were swept off the steamer, ‘Don’t be frightened Maggie, God will take care of us, we can trust Him; and you know, Mama, ‘The sea is His and He made it.’ These were her last words. Maggie and Bessie prayed very sweetly. I have much to comfort me, Mary; they are not lost, only separated for a season. I will go to them—only a few years at the longest.
Now, the puzzling questions that stories like this raise in our minds: How could Rev. Weiss possibly affirm afterward that “prayer works,” if it worked for him, who was saved, but not for Maggie, for example, who asked him to pray . . . and died? Why was his prayer answered as if he had said, “Help some of us”? Is God’s general protocol to deliberately choose who will be saved and who will perish in a tragedy?
God saved all four French pastors, one at least of whom, Rev. Lorriaux, could not swim. Anna rose unconscious to the surface and was saved by a plank that floated under her. She had no participation in her own salvation. It did not depend on her force or ability. She was unconscious. But why did God not provide other saving planks for her little daughters? In accordance with Rev. Weiss, a little baby was seen in a tub, which the sea overturned before he could be reached. Did God not also save a little girl, the only child saved, using a piece of wood? Why not other children too?
According to Rev. Weiss, a young man had scandalized Anna’s eldest daughter, Annie, when she was reading a book of edification: “Oh! You are a pious little girl!” Having survived, he told the grieving mother that he had changed his mind. When he was sinking, he felt his knees bend against his will and a voice cried in his heart: “Oh, God! Save me! He heard me,” he added, “and now I believe in Him.” How would that young man make sense of the fact that Annie also believed in God, but died?
Bertha, born later to Horatio and Anna, reports that her four “little sisters” loved Mr. Dwight L. Moody, the great evangelist and a close friend of the family, and that he, having interviewed Annie and Maggie, when they expressed their wish to join the church, said to the minister: “These children know more than I do.” Bertha also tells that on the visits of the family to the nearby Marine Hospital, where Horatio conducted religious meetings under the auspices of YMCA, the little girls carried fruit and flowers. Why on earth should the lives of such children not be preserved? Did they not, beyond their value as “deeply religious little girls,” foreshadow women of influential spiritual character?
The Lochearn rescued the survivors from the Ville du Havre. But it was damaged too. Another ship, the small Trimountain, was led by mysterious reasons to the place of the disaster. Captain Urquhart said: “I believe I was under some supernatural control that night.” Divine providence.
Forty-seven survivors from the Ville du Havre and Lochearn’s crew were transported to the Trimountain. Rev. Blanc, too ill, stayed behind. Rev. Cook stayed voluntarily with him. When the condition of the Lochearn become more critical, the few men who had remained on it were rescued by the vessel British Queen. Rev. Weiss wrote that an officer of this ship told that the storm forced him to change direction twice during the night. This led him unknowingly to the Lochearn. Rev. Cook replied: “It is absolutely natural, you had to come to our side.” Divine providence. Rev. Weiss added: “It is very fortunate that you have arrived so timely, because if we had to go down into the rowboats during the storm, we would be at the bottom of the sea for a long time.” Officers and several sailors from the Lochearn, who were rescued by the British Queen, said to Rev. Cook: “It is indeed thanks to your prayers that we are saved; God has answered your prayers.” Divine providence.
But would we attribute to God’s will the salvation of some that prayed and the death of others that also prayed. Those men considered their salvation a result of prayer, that is, of God’s will. This entails that the death of those who also supplicated for salvation was likewise of God’s will. Rev. Weiss told about Anna: “She cannot stop crying for her children, but she adds: ‘God gave me my four little daughters, it was he who took them back from me. He will make me understand and accept his will.’” Did God take them? Anna said that God “called” her daughters to himself. Was their agonizing death deliberately part of God’s way to call and take them? Was their agony his will? Or do we have here exactly the evidence that we are not dealing properly with his will, but rather with another factor? Is this not a world cursed by sin? Is it not ruled by the devil in usurpation?
Little Annie’s last words were a confident statement of faith: “God will take care of us, we can trust Him.” Might she have thought of God’s help more in spiritual terms than in terms of biblical stories of great deliverances, commonly told to children? Might she have thought, as she agonized in water, that God was caring for her? Yes, as they died, God took them home. But it is one thing that he rescued their souls once this fallen world killed them; another thing is that he willed their death and caused it so painfully. This is the subtle difference.
The Lochearn struck the Ville du Havre and rescued its survivors. The Trimountain appeared and rescued most people aboard the endangered Lochearn. A few men stayed behind, who were later rescued by the British Queen. Only divine providence could promote the Lochearn to be found by two saving ships in the vastness of the ocean. Now, which causative factor only could promote the tragic encounter of the Ville du Havre and the Lochearn in the same vastness of the ocean? Will we also speak of God’s will in this case? Why do we not ascribe good to God and evil to the devil? As to the remaining question, why does God not always save all of his children in distress, as in the case of the Ville du Havre and so many tragedies and diseases all the time, the necessary answer is that, as we insist, we still do not live in the new heaven and new earth; we still live in a world cursed, whose natural laws were vitiated by sin. We suffer because we are reached by the fragments of that bomb called sin, which exploded in Eden.
In his letter to Anna, Horatio said that “if the Lord keeps us” they would be all together again, understanding better than ever before “the greatness of His mercy in the many years of the past.” He also wrote: “May the dear Lord keep and sustain and strengthen you.” Since the Lord did not keep all of them, should Horatio deduce that God was merciless upon those who died? Horatio did not think so, nor do we. But how to make sense of it? Let us align six statements about the role of God in those deaths as well as in those survivals:
(a) God did not kill them;
(b) God did not will their deaths;
(c) They died because they lived in this world cursed by sin, made a chaos by its ruler, the devil;
(d) The idea of God’s mercilessness is emptied by this previous statement;
(e) The random fragments from the bomb of sin that exploded in the Eden were not lethal to all, so that a grouped survived. Nevertheless, those fragments will still affect them lethally sooner or later; and
(f) In spite of all this, we have no right not to be grateful to God when life goes on and have no authority to deny that he indeed acts miraculously for purposes that escape our comprehension.
Astonishment at the “strange” logic of prayer is expressed in a variety of questions and affirmations. Some reflect a sincere and humble doubt. Others reveal a great degree of perplexity. Still others come from completely incredulous and bitter hearts. Here are some of them:
If many times we pray for something and nothing changes in the course of events, why should we believe, when something actually changes, that it was for the sake of prayer, instead of being merely a natural change, however “unnatural” it may be?
Does prayer not seem but a struggle to persuade an intransigent God to act on our behalf?
Should prayer not work in a simpler way, instead of by a set of delicate rules, hard to be fully acquainted and complied with?
Prayer seems to have to go through a complex and slow “heavenly bureaucracy” before being finally answered, if answered at all.
The impression we have is that the whole truth about “God-will-assuredly-hear-your-prayers” lies in a note, lost among many, written with tiny fonts, almost imperceptible, at the bottom of the page.
If God has decreed from eternity everything that will come to pass, what difference can prayer make? And if I pray because I was foreordained to do so and I fail, for example, to have someone dear to me healed of an illness, is that not a “foreordination of disgrace,” as if God predetermined that I should ask what he will deny?
If we are to pray according to God’s will, is prayer not a “conformation play,” a mechanism of psychological adaptation, since what he wills is bound to happen anyway, whether we like it or not, whether we ask it or otherwise?
If God knows our needs before we pray, what else makes praying necessary or meaningful? Why does he not, as a loving Father, care for us in our needs, not necessarily without our prayers, but at least by “really” answering them, especially those related to our bodily integrity, in which no vanity is implied?
God is said to be “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). However, it would be enough if he did at least, or even only, what we can imagine and earnestly pray for.
Why do we have the sensation that God is far away, just when we feel most helpless, fearful, and hopeless? The hard requirement of faith exactly when we are weakest!
How can we not think that prayer is a resource for basic or simple problems only, if the graver a situation is, and harder to revert, when we depend most on a heavenly intervention, the less we can seemingly hope for real results? Compare, for example, the number of believers in their thirties or forties with cancer who are and are not cured.
Don’t we Christians sometimes consider it relatively understandable, from our prayer experience, that most people find it very difficult to believe that there is a God?
Our dads do everything that is possible, here and there, day and night, to help us when it hurts. Now imagine if they were “almighty”! God is our heavenly Father. We are his children. Why does he not do like our dads? And he is the All Mighty!
Unbelievers question God’s power, love, modus operandi—his way of working— and even his existence. They contend that God should be more practical (less “theological”); that he should be more like a fireman that acts immediately and to the limit of his possibilities when someone is in danger. The truth is, however, that those who hold a critical attitude toward God implicitly say, absurdly, that they could better perform the divine role. Ultimately, they would like God to be God as they think he should be, as said in the poem “Carmen Deific” by Robert W. Buchanan:
If I were a God like you, and you were a man like me,
And in the dark you prayed and wept and I could hear and see,
The sorrow of your broken heart would darken all my day,
And never peace or pride were mine, till it was smiled away,—
I’d clear my Heaven above your head till all was bright and blue,
If you were a man like me, and I were a God like you!
The creatures can only ridiculously imagine themselves playing God’s role better than he does, since they failed to play their role, their human role: to acknowledge gratefully his unique divinity, sovereignty, and goodness. Indeed, their pretentious will to be like God, lords of themselves, is what their fall—sin!—is all about.
This is a study on prayer. But prayer is not an autonomous subject, a unit that can be isolated from the body of Christian tenets and studied independently. As Peter Baelz expressed it: “At the heart of all our difficulties concerning Christian prayer, both theoretical and practical, is the problem of understanding the being of God in general, and the relation of God to the world and to ourselves in particular.” Baelz also wrote: “Prayer is a touchstone of a man’s religious beliefs. What he believes about prayer is an indication of what he believes about God.” Prayers are statements of faith, the meeting point of all of our beliefs. Doubts about prayer are, to some extent, doubts about God—his wisdom, love, power, saving work, promises, etc. So, in order that we may gain a comprehensive view of what prayer is, presupposes, and implies, we must consider aspects of virtually all Christian doctrines. A theology of prayer is the entire theology viewed from a particular angle. The same applies to any other doctrine.
In order to understand prayer, we must understand the doctrine of divine providence, which is a point especially sensitive in the Christian truth. Simply, we find it hard to understand, and accept, the “silence” of God when it hurts. The essential problem here is that the common idea of providence misses this fundamental point: The full and final salvation of our bodies has not arrived yet. Only our higher bodies, remade from death on Christ’s coming, will no longer be subject to any evil. Then the degree of difficulty with the doctrine of providence is inversely proportional to the degree in which it is viewed in the light of the eschatological fulfillment. God’s acts today—both his wonders, which cannot be, in any event, definitive, and his “silence”—should be viewed with the glorious return of Christ in mind. Otherwise, we will succumb to perplexity and agony. God’s providence permeates history. How many deliverances he has worked in our lives! Yet, we should be aware that he is conducting history in successive dispensations, each with its particularities, role, and characteristic mode of manifestation of his power. This present dispensation, which antecedes the eschatological climax, is the dispensation of faith and hope, not of generalized deliverances. We are already spiritually saved, but, as far as our bodies are concerned, we are saved in the hope of their future redemption (see Rom. 8:23–24). Therefore, as to the full solution for our pains, divine providence should be primarily understood in an eschatological sense. I will elaborate further on this subject.
And, as will be seen in further detail later, the truth that prayer is not an isolate doctrine means, in practice, that a particular prayer of a serious believer is not merely an incidental and insignificant point “lost” in history and in God’s great universe. Rather, it is a virtuous point in history which God enjoyed before history, and graciously grants to be of consequence not only for history, but also for the final fulfillment of history. Against this “eternal background,” we will find the answers—possibly more than the usual—for the questions that many believers ask about prayer, the chief of which is: Why do we experience frustration with and become perplexed about prayer?