Some time ago, I needed to talk to a priest about a very important problem in my ministry which only he could solve, but, after trying to call him three times, he never replied. In prayer I asked God for help — “Lord, how do You want me to respond? I’m really desperate” — but the response was silence.
Silence can be very distressing, particularly when we’re in great need. We need a job, for example, and we pray, but nothing comes along and we don’t seem to get a response from God; we’re praying for a cure and there’s no cure; we’re praying for someone to change but they don’t change; we’re praying to find our vocation/to get married but no one comes along.
We can be affected by this silence: Our love of God or trust in Him can dwindle, or we can choose to not pray as much. But this would mean we have a faith that is fragile. God the Father wants us to have a strong faith, because faith is the basis of our relationship with Him (Cf. CCC, 142, 150; Lumen Fidei, 32).
Just like we mentioned a month ago, let’s look at these beautiful words of Jesus to St. Peter, on the night He’s betrayed; these words are directed to us too: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat [This means the devil is coming after us; he wants us to lose faith], but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail [Think about that for a second: Jesus, our high priest, loves us and is praying for you and me that our faith doesn’t fail!—let’s let that sink in]; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers [It’s our vocation to strengthen the faith of other people with our prayer, words and example. We must encourage people by our own strong faith.]” (Lk 22:31-32 NAB).
We should aspire to have the faith of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel. Her faith is so strong that Jesus complements her: “Woman, great is your faith!” (Mt 15:28). Even though she’s in incredible need (because her daughter is tormented by a demon) and runs to Jesus shouting for help, and He doesn’t answer her… and even though He says His mission isn’t to her people, the Gentiles (non-Jews); and even though He’s silent and appears to ignore her, she doesn’t lose faith!
How do we get that level of faith? It starts by understanding why God is silent. This passage in the Bible doesn’t tell us why (and by itself it’s a very hard text to understand), but here’s what we do know: We know for sure that Jesus isn’t silent in order to hurt her, because it’s not consistent with what we know of Him from the rest of the Gospels. We know He loves the Gentiles because, seven chapters before this story, He healed the Roman Centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13). We know that He died for this woman and her daughter, “for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10); “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16); and, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14) (CCC 605). Whenever God is silent towards us, the reality is, it’s not to hurt us. Actually it’s for our good. I can think of three positive reasons why God is silent with us:
1) Because He wants us to switch our prayer. A year ago, we talked about Chris and Yanta: Three years ago, Yanta got breast cancer and eventually had a double mastectomy. When she and Chris first found out about the cancer, they started praying for her good health. But then they prayed, “God help us to accept Your will because You have a plan. And please give us peace,” which, according to Yanta, He always gave. But then they switched their prayers again when they saw something spiritually better happening: When they sent out a message to friends asking for prayers, they saw that some friends, who were Catholic but weren’t practicing, were praying for her! Realizing that some people were turning to God because of her cancer, Yanta started praying, “Lord, take this as far as You need it to go.”
God is sometimes silent because He wants us to change what we’re asking for to something deeper.
2) God is silent because He wants us to want something as much as He wants it. I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Imagine I’m standing with God the Father in front of me and Jesus on my left. I tell the Father what I’m asking from Him: “Father, please help me be a saint; help me to love my people more; please open their hearts so that they will recognize how much You love them; please help them to love each other; heal their wounds.”
Then the Father asks me, “How much do you want these things?” I answer, “Father, I want them so much.” Then He asks, “But how badly do you want it?” And I ask, “What do you mean?”
Then Jesus steps in and says, “Father, I want all these things too,” and He holds out His hands with the holes from the nails in them, indicating that He’s already given everything for these intentions.
Then the Father turns back to me, “You see, Justin, you’re praying for all these good things, which I also want. But I want them so much that I gave my only Son for these things; my Son wants these things so badly that He died for them. You say you want these things, but you don’t want them as badly as we do. We want you to want them so much that you’re willing to sacrifice everything for them, just as we are.”
The reality is, when our prayers aren’t immediately answered, our desire for help increases. The first time I contacted that priest looking for help, my desire for help was about a 7/10. But as time passed and there was no response, my desire increased; I began to really need help! But God’s desire to help me was already 10/10; He loves me more than I love myself and wanted a solution more than I do. He allowed me to wait so that I would desire something as much as He. (I won’t tell you if I got a resolution to the problem or not because that’s not the point of the story. The point is: The silence helped me grow in desire for something good, because it wasn’t as strong as God’s when it started.)
It’s a human reality that, when we have to wait for something, our desire for it typically increases. For instance, whenever we’re on a trip or living abroad, the longer we’re away from home the more our desire to go home increases. Every year that the Canucks lose, true fans grow in their desire for the Canucks to win, while the bandwagon people give up all faith.
St. Augustine says Jesus was indifferent to the Canaanite woman’s request, “not to refuse her mercy, but to increase her desire for it”. He actually wanted the girl’s healing more than the mother, believe it or not, because He loves her more than she does, since He’s God. And as the mother waited for an answer, her desire increased and approached the intensity of Jesus’ desire.
3) God is silent because He wants us to live by faith, not by consolation (See Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, 170-1). By consolation, I mean that God often gives us good feelings at the beginning of the spiritual journey: We feel His presence and love, our prayers are answered right away, we see miracles in our lives—from this we realize God is real and loves us! But what happens when we don’t feel His presence and everything in our life starts falling apart? Does that mean He’s not there? Are we going to give up?
Good parents are sometimes silent with their children at the right time, after years of assuring them of their love. There’s a body builder named Sagi Kalev, who tells the story of how he had to join the Israeli military at 18, because it was mandatory. After the first three days, before being assigned, he called his mom “crying like a little boy,” and she hung up on him. He called her back: “I think the phone got disconnected.” She said, “Nope, I hung up the phone. It’s time for you to grow up.” Now Sagi’s the one who tells this story, and there’s no bitterness in him! His mother knew he could rely on her love, but he couldn’t rely on always calling her whenever he was afraid. Her love was there, and he had to live by the knowledge of this, not by the feelings.
The greatest example of this reality and of everything we discussed so far is how God the Father treats His own Son. When Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, begging, sweating blood because His human nature is afraid of the cup of suffering, the Father doesn’t answer His Son. He strengthens His Son by sending an angel (Lk 22:43), but Jesus hears nothing from His Father.
Watch this clip from the 2000 film The Miracle Maker [until 1:42], which is “a Jesus movie that is simple enough for children, sophisticated enough for scripture scholars and theologians.” It’s a combination of stop-motion and drawn animation. The first thing to pay attention to is the portrayal of the devil. He comes running out of nowhere and at a superhuman speed (because he was an angel) just in time to tempt Jesus. Watch how the trees bend away giving Jesus a chance to escape and give up! Yes, there’s an easy way out of God’s silence: All we have to do is give up believing that the Father is with us and give up prayer. The other thing to notice is how Jesus keeps on repeating His Father’s name and what He’s asking for, because this is a sign of authentic prayer: “Father… Father… Father, let there… let there be some other way… Let there be some other way…. Father, dear Father, listen, listen to me.” And then Jesus switches His prayer: “No, no! Not my will, it’s not my will; it’s Your will; it’s Your will! Father, Your will be done. Your will… Father… Father… Your will be done.”
He’s left all alone, which is how He feels. Just before this event, at the Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples, “Behold, the hour is coming… when each of you will be scattered… and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (Jn 16:32 NAB). He knows the Father is with Him, loving Him, helping Him, but doesn’t feel it. He’s living by faith, not by consolation. That’s how it’s supposed to be with us.
So this is how we respond whenever God is silent to us: Never give up prayer no matter what—this is absolute and there are no exceptions. Pray honestly and tell Jesus how we’re feeling: “Jesus, you’re silent. I know You’re with me, but I don’t feel it. I know it’s not to hurt me; I know You’re doing it for my good. But, if You want, help me to understand.”
If I may gently say… For some of us, everything we’ve talked about (i.e., that Jesus is never silent to hurt us) is obvious and intuitively makes sense—you’re very blessed if this is so. But for others among us, this might not resonate. If so, it’s possible we’ve never experienced the love of Jesus in our heart. I merely suggest this, because if we have experienced it, we would never doubt Jesus’ love. If we haven’t experienced this, let’s ask for the gift; Jesus wants to grant it. We can experience it if we’re open. And this reminds us why we should never rush Mass, because rushing our prayer will not help people encounter Jesus. We want to celebrate Mass in such a way that people can experience Jesus’ goodness. This also explains why we have all-day Confessions, Alpha, the Faith Studies, or parish retreats—they’re all ways to meet Jesus in a real way.) And if any of us knows someone who hasn’t experienced the love of Jesus in this way, please help them. Share with them what you’ve experienced concretely of Jesus.
Finally, take comfort that many of us know what you’re going through and Jesus knows what you’re going through. For me, my greatest comfort is that, when God is silent to me, I realize that I’m becoming like Jesus. In moments of grace, I say: “I get it! Father, this is what Jesus went through. This is making me more like Jesus. I’m living by faith, not by consolation. I’m becoming more mature.” When He’s silent, it’s for our good.