Renee James was 18 when she decided to stop praying. If God was going to be silent, she thought, she would be silent too. She had been praying for years for the healing of her brothers, Sean and Niall, one suffering from autism and the other from Down syndrome. Yet there had been no answer.

Her prayers[1] obsessively oscillated between supplication and desperation: “Lord, the Bible says you care about healing. Please, heal Sean and Niall. Lord, what made You believe that our family can take care of two handicapped children? Is it something we did? It’s not fair! God, why am I normal and Sean and Niall aren’t? Is there something I must do or be so justice can be done for them? Lord, why did You allow their handicaps? Why?”

God’s silence. Abandoned by God?

One of the toughest things we can experience is that moment of silence—awful from friends and even worse from God—when we are crying for help. There are situations in life that do not abide by human reason and logic. These situations make us ask ourselves whether God has not stepped back and given us over to the chaos produced by sin. The empirical knowledge of subjective reality can generate, at a certain point in time, a slip towards unbelief like it did for Asaph (see Psalm 73).

How can one manage such situations? The temptation is either to rebel, or to interpret the perception of God’s silence as an act of unbelief.

Scripture acknowledges the human dilemma regarding God’s silence as transparently and honestly as possible. Jesus Christ recounts two parables to suggest the manner in which moments of uncertainty, and the dilemmas we have when it comes to God’s “silence”, must be approached: the parable of the midnight friend, and the unjust judge.

The midnight friend

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:5-13).

This parable offers a glimpse into Israel’s rural life in the time of Jesus. There were no shops, and bread was baked at home—that is, in the one room which was a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom.

Hospitality, a very important component in the structure of community life, is an essential virtue for a Jewish peasant; an imperative duty.

The Midrashic commentary on Abraham’s welcome of the three heavenly guests states that hospitality is greater than the reception of Shekinah (the manifestation of God’s presence). [2] This is why the question in the parable, “Which of you..?”, demands a negative answer: Nobody! It is inconceivable for a neighbour not to welcome those in need, for hospitality’s sake. The Bible says it clearly: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbour, ‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you’, when you already have it with you” (Proverbs 3:27-28).

Furthermore, the guest is not a guest just of the individual but of the whole community[3], and must leave satisfied as a result of the community’s hospitality. This is why the host in the parable goes to his neighbour and asks the one sleeping to fulfil his duty to the guest. The request is modest and a refusal is inconceivable. The request refers to the humblest element of a meal: bread. Soaked in the food bowl, the bread is the knife, fork, and spoon used to serve the food.

The parable does not debate the timing of the request, but underlines the certainty that the request will be honoured. If the friend who is awakened from sleep in the middle of the night hurries, without a moment’s delay, to answer the request of a neighbour in need, even if the whole family must be woken by the latch being opened, all the more will God bend his ear to the cry of those in need and come to their aid. He does more than they ask.

The unjust judge

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

Jesus describes the judge as being immoral and insensitive. The judge knows that the widow does not have any money to bribe him, nor any power or influence to make him act in her favour. He was counting on the women’s submission. Still, the widow does not cease to insist that justice be done.

English theologian Henry Baker Tristram[4] was a witness at a trial in Nisbis, Mesopotamia. His description of the trial offers us some cultural background into the parable. The judge is seated and his assistants sit around him. While the men present their requests, shouting, in the hope that they will be resolved, other cases have priority, because the judge and his assistants have been bribed.

A widow keeps interrupting the proceedings with her cries for help, refusing to be silent. In the end, exasperated, the judge asks: “What does the woman want?” [5]

In the Middle East, the fact that a women requires her case to be heard in court shows that there is no longer any man in the family to speak on her behalf. Only a widow could behave like the one in the parable, pleading for attention with insistence and perseverance. A man who behaved like this would have been severely punished, even sentenced to death.[6] When Jesus wanted to illustrate the unwavering perseverance one must use to bring one’s soul’s need before God, His example of the poor widow is apt.

Injustice versus perseverance

Thirty years had gone by since Renee last uttered her heartfelt prayer. All that time, she continued to attend church and participate in the events organized by the religious community. It was therefore not unusual for her to be present at a gathering of Christian artists on that day. However, what was unusual was the way in which a question from the pastor fundamentally changed her perspective on prayer. While a video with images from a baptism was playing in the background, the speaker asked meditatively: “What do we need to give up to discover the depth of God’s heart?”

This introspective question made Renee reconsider her attitude. “I gave up my need for God to answer my why questions regarding Sean and Niall. I stopped that train of thought forever. I turned my eyes from my wounds to the images of tears of joy in the water. I focused on these images of the bigger picture, the only one that matters, of the new life, here and now, thanks to Jesus’ death and resurrection. And I prayed.”

Renee says that she uses the same words in her prayers today that she used 30 years ago, but that the spirit of the prayer is completely different:

“God, thank You for Sean and Niall. May You be their daily bread in the way they need it today. Lord, You are the Great Doctor. Only You can heal Sean and Niall. Heal me too. I do not understand the great work You are doing in my family, so help me be patient.”

Responding to God’s silence

God does not always answer prayers immediately. Perseverance is at times needed for prayers to receive an answer. Perseverance discourages frivolous, occasional requests. Perseverance purifies motivations. Perseverance encourages self-searching and the honesty of the request. Perseverance in prayer does not change God, it changes us and helps us to see true values more clearly. God is often silent for us to hear our own voices better. Other times, He is silent in order for the echo of what He has told us in the past to reignite our commitments. There are also occasions, precious precisely because they are costly, when God is silent because He knows that the lessons His silence teach us cannot be learned any other way.

[1]„Renee James, «When God Doesn’t Answer», Today’s Christian Woman,, may 2012”.
[2]„Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 87”.
[3]„Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 122”.
[4]„May 11th, 1922 – March 8th, 1906”.
[5]„Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 134”.
[6]„Ibid., pp. 134-135.”

„Renee James, «When God Doesn’t Answer», Today’s Christian Woman,, may 2012”.
„Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 87”.
„Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 122”.
„May 11th, 1922 – March 8th, 1906”.
„Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 134”.
„Ibid., pp. 134-135.”