Outwardly, I tried to give an impression of stoic endurance, and there were times when I did feel very calm. But I was also scared that Sammy might die if I didn’t pray enough, or if I didn’t have enough faith, or if I didn’t fast enough, or if I didn’t bind some disembodied principality, or if I didn’t repent of some root sin, or if I didn’t strap her body on a stretcher bound for Bethel or Lourdes. Surely, I thought, God would not disqualify her on a technicality?
I’m ashamed to admit that this was how my prayer life looked when it really counted. Sammy’s faith frequently amazed me, but I prayed at best like a child and at worst like an addict needing to score. There were times (should I admit this to you?) when Sammy’s diagnosis merely stirred up the murkiest shallows of my soul, bringing to the surface my inner cravings for sin, sympathy, and back-to-back Big Macs. What a contrast to the One who endured grief inﬁnitely worse than ours yet somehow gouged the words from His heart on which human history would turn: “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
When our souls, like Christ’s, are overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, we do not necessarily pray like Jesus. In fact, we may barely pray at all. One of the most common defense mechanisms against the suffering of others is adulation. People lionize the bravery, the quiet dignity, the stoic endurance of any poor soul in pain. We bestow them with nobility and deem their insights profound. We liken them to saints simply for having suffered. Our subconscious motive in doing this is to distance ourselves from the dreadful possibility that these people are actually exactly the same as us. We don’t want to consider the fact that it could just as easily be us in that wheelchair, or caught by that tsunami, or in danger of losing that baby. Of course, many saints do suffer, but in my experience there is nothing glorious—and far less that is glamorous—in the soul’s response to profound trauma. Lying half naked and vomiting with fear in an MRI scanner does not necessarily inspire serenity, profundity, and a less selfish worldview. Hurting like hell does not automatically grant you a hotline to heaven.
The psychological trauma experienced by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane was extreme. Symptomatically, according to the physician Luke, “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Jesus, we now know, was probably suffering a rare physiological condition called haematidrosis in which, under extreme anguish, capillaries may rupture in the subcutaneous layer of skin near the sweat glands so that the sufferer emits sweat tinged with blood. Here then, beyond any doubt, is a man caught in the extremes of mental and spiritual torment. “My soul,” He tells His disciples without exaggeration, “is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).
One of the most touching aspects of Christ’s prayers at this agonizing time is how very simple they are: “Abba, Father . . . everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). The great theologian Karl Barth said that true prayer is primarily very simple. “In the ﬁrst instance, it is an asking,” he said (Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, part 3, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance [Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1960], 268.) This is reassuring for those of us who struggle to issue anything more than six-year-old “Dear God” type requests when we are under intense pressure.
Sometimes, we wonder why these prayers are not being answered, and well-meaning people tell us deep things about discerning the will of God, or about the transforming power of contemplative prayer, or about fasting, spiritual warfare, and the importance of a certain attitude. We nod and say, “Aha, that’s really helpful,” but our prayer lives continue to be a staccato succession of yells and groans like a man falling down stairs. Secretly, we may sometimes suspect that we’re not really praying at all. So these words from Karl Barth are reassuring:
It is the fact that [a man] comes before God with his petition which makes him a praying man. Other theories of prayer may be richly and profoundly thought out and may sound very well, but they all suffer from a certain artiﬁciality because they miss this simple and concrete fact, losing themselves in heights and depths where there is no place for the man who really prays, who is simply making a request. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 268)
In that hospital ward, awaiting Sammy’s surgery, I couldn’t manage long, impressive prayers and complicated spiritual techniques. In fact, after many months, I ran out of words altogether. My prayers—if that’s what they were—merely amounted to thinking about Sammy, the kids, or our bank account with a heavy sigh and groaning two words which might have been mistaken for a blasphemy: “Oh, God.” I didn’t know if this even counted as prayer, but at that time it was about all I could muster. I have since come to ﬁnd enormous riches in other forms of prayer—some of which we will touch on later in this book. But Karl Barth kindly reminds us that it’s okay to pray like a six-year-old or a man falling down stairs. In fact, it’s more than okay; it’s possibly the most important kind of prayer there can be.
This is an excerpt from Pete Greig’s latest book, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayers available now from our store.
What do you do when God is silent? Writing out of the pain of his wife’s fight for life but also the wonder of watching the prayer movement they founded touch many lives, Pete Greig wrestles with the dark side of prayer and emerges with a hard-won message of hope, comfort, and profound biblical insight for all who suffer in silence.
- Small groups or Sunday school classes
- Anyone with honest questions about prayer
- Any time of the year, but especially Lent
Get it from our store here.