No one has ever seen God, but the One who knew Him before He was born on this earth taught us all to approach Him through prayer.
When a Christian asks himself whether praying makes any sense, the first answer that comes naturally is: the Saviour Jesus Christ encouraged us to pray. No one would have suspected Christ of teaching people to waste their time. Had it been so, Jesus would have blessed the tradition of long, boastful, and time-consuming prayers. Prayer could have then continued as before: only before an audience, as loud and shrill as possible, an array of words, repeated over and over until they lost all meaning. The Teacher, however, insisted on a completely opposite model to prayers that treat God as a spectator to be impressed: “But when you pray” said the Saviour, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”1
Jesus does not lie.
“Of course. Tell that to the Jews who lived in the time of the Holocaust!” How many conversations on the meaning of prayer must have been witness to the outburst of such a strong argument against the possibility of ever establishing a dialogue with God? “Where is God when I suffer?” is a searching question, containing all the tears that ever ran down the faces of suffering people throughout history. Many return to Auschwitz hoping to find either the map to God’s hiding place, or a common grave where, once and for all, they could bury their faith. In the years after the war, many people, among those who had come out of it unharmed, stalked their confessors with the question: “Why didn’t God protect the Jews, father?” An American rabbi, Reeve Robert Brenner, thought of addressing questions about God and the Holocaust to someone else.
Only the suffering
In The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, Brenner recounts his conversations on faith and God with hundreds of Jews who had survived the concentration camps. Almost half of those who came out from the Nazi hell alive did not feel that their experience had affected their religious beliefs one way or the other. Here is the statement of a survivor: “It never crossed my mind to doubt God’s actions while I was imprisoned at Auschwitz, although I understand that others did so.” In order to eliminate the risk of being thought of as fainthearted, the man added: “If someone thinks God is responsible for the death of six million people because He did nothing to save them, my opinion is that he thinks backwards. We owe God our entire lives, those years that we are given, and therefore it is our duty to worship Him.”2
It never crossed my mind to doubt God’s actions while I was imprisoned at Auschwitz, although I understand that others did so.
The admirable faith of this man seems unique. However, Brenner’s research revealed even more amazing things. Having open conversations with the survivors of that period in which they were so hated, the rabbi calculated that 5% of them started believing in God as a direct result of the experience they had in the concentration camps. If we extrapolate the total number of European Jews who survived, in one place or the other, 5% is approximately 170 000 people.
Brenner was not trying to optimistically rewrite the history of the Nazi horrors. Nor was he hiding the fact that 11% of survivors saw their faith go up in the smoke of the ovens. But the fact that 5% of the survivors were atheists when they entered the concentration camps and came out as believers, and another half of them left the camp with an untouched faith, shows that it is truly possible that, in the midst of the most excruciating pain, reasons to unflinchingly believe in God endure.
Contemporary assumptions tend to favour the most pessimistic scenario: crushed by suffering, a man lets go of his beliefs, and those who have not suffered as much as he has do not have the right to suggest he might be wrong. But when two hands, clasped in prayer, emerge from underneath the avalanche of misery, even those who did not suffer as much as those hands do not have the right to look at them and be silent.
A ten year old boy
A beautiful example of not being silent is offered by writer C.S. Lewis, in his first chronicle of Narnia. A boy named Digory, whose mother is dying, comes face to face with the mighty lion Aslan—who represents Jesus—and, although he is afraid to get ‘no’ for answer, he gathers up courage: “Please…mister Lion…Aslan…sir…could you…could I… ask you…please, could you give me some magical fruits from this land to heal my mother?”3
The Lion, however, gives him no answer and continues talking as if he hadn’t even heard the boy’s desperate request. After a while, Digory renews his request: “But please… please,” he cries out, “Give me something to heal my mother.” And C.S. Lewis, who lost his mother to cancer when he was only 10, recounts that Digory, “up until this point looked at the huge paws and claws of the lion; but now, desperate, lifted his gaze and looked him in the eyes. What he saw amazed him like nothing before. The brown face leaned over his face and—miracle of miracles—the eyes of the Lion were filled with tears.”4
Digory’s mother would not be healed, like Lewis’ mother was not healed either, nor his wife ten years later. However, even when there’s no healing, the tears of the Lion say He really cares for our suffering.
God being Himself
It takes courage to see God’s tears. At times, we do not lift up our eyes for fear that our gaze will be met with severity, and we will be crushed not just by pain, but also by loneliness. Other times, when the pain becomes too much for us, we are under the impression God shrinks to the point that, like American pastor Pete Grieg says, “He becomes the size of our suffering”5. And we fear His tears are tears of helplessness.
We do not see Him as He is, and then our loss becomes even deeper, because “the power of prayer depends almost entirely on our capacity to understand who the One we are talking to is”6. Suffering, unfortunately, has this capacity to deafen God’s voice in our hearts.
“God’s voice can easily be silenced by our pain, our self-hatred, or our crazy preconceptions about who He really is, or about how He talks. It can be silenced by what we believe He will say. However, when we come to God… with an open wound, we come to the Father that loves us deeply.”7
Christ did not contradict the fact that the God who longs to be called “Father” is a hidden God. The Teacher always pleaded for a practical experience of faith, not a theory which would in time turn into the ultimate form of divine behaviour. After all, faith does not condition us to completely understand God before taking a step towards Him, but is manifested through the decision to move toward the God whose infinity we have yet to know. Eventually, Jesus says8, this is an infinity we need all eternity to understand.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.