Prayers and silence

Bill Tammeus

Several times I’ve prayed anxious prayers asking God to avert a crisis.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when I heard that my nephew might be a passenger on the first plane that hijackers smashed into the World Trade Center, I prayed he had missed the flight, that he was fine, that he’d outlive me by decades.

But my emergency 9-1-1/9-11 prayer went unanswered. Karleton died that day at age 31.

Earlier, over the course of several years in the early 1990s, I prayed fervently that my marriage would survive, that my wife would end her affair with our pastor, that in 2018 we would celebrate our golden wedding anniversary.

But she left me and eventually married him.

In both instances, what I was laying on God’s desktop for attention were insistent demands based on my limited view of my reality and the future. And yet I contend that they fit various reliable definitions of Christian prayer.

For instance, Daniel L. Migliore, theology professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes that prayer “does not mean mastering certain techniques or becoming virtuosos of the spiritual life.” Rather, he says in his book “Faith Seeking Understanding,” that prayer means “being open and honest to God, praising God but also crying to God in our need, and even sometimes crying out against God.”

Many of us Presbyterians are familiar with and practiced in traditional prayer. We even have developed formulas for it, such as ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. But unlike many of our Jewish spiritual ancestors, we are much less used to “crying out against God.”

We can’t take God seriously, however, unless we’re willing to cry out against God when we think the situation merits it. And we can’t take God seriously unless we take hope seriously.

The great French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul understood this difficult concept. In his book, “Hope in Time of Abandonment,” he wrote that “hope comes alive only in the dreary silence of God, in our loneliness before a closed heaven, in our abandonment. … When God turns away, he has to be made to turn back to us again. When God seems dead, he has to be made to exist.”

So when we run smack into the theodicy question of why there’s evil and suffering in the world if God is good and loving — as we surely did on 9/11 — our task is to call God to account through our prayers. It is, to use Ellul’s words, to “demand that God keep his word. … Hope never ceases to shout in God’s ears.”

As I say, we have some excellent examples of this in the Hebrew Scriptures. One is the story of Abraham bargaining with God not to destroy Sodom. Abraham, in fact, says that if God sweeps away Sodom even though there might be 50 righteous people in the city, “it’s not like you to do this. … It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?” Just in those words of confrontational prayer we find that Abraham has not lost hope.

My own experience of Judaism today is that its adherents often seem more willing to challenge God, to confront God’s silence than we Christians are.

An example is the late Leonard Cohen’s song, “You Want It Darker.” In his low, raspy, haunting voice, Cohen says this to God:

“Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker.”

He said “a million candles” though he could have said “six million.” Either is a direct charge that God was silent and absent when needed most.

Can good come from God’s silence? Of course. And it often does, to our surprise. But sometimes our first task in prayer must be to name that silence accusingly.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog ( Read about his latest book ( Email him at