The Big Hovercraft Monster
One of my earliest memories is being taken to see a hovercraft take off. I was about five and this was new to the Isle of Wight, where we lived. We stood on the tarmac with this big rubbery thing in front of us. Then, without any warning it exploded into life, became twice as big and began to move. The noise was deafening. My most vivid memory of this event is holding on to my Daddy’s hand. All I could think was: ‘If I hold on really tight then nothing bad can happen, he will look after me.’
Sometimes I think of this event when I am worried about something. I think: ‘If I just hold onto God really tight then nothing really bad can happen to me,’ and most of the time this is true.
God on Mute is about the times when God does not protect us from the Big Hovercraft Monster.
Pete and Sammy
Pete Greig is the founder of the 24/7 prayer movement. He is currently ‘Director of Prayer’ at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. He is also a local boy who grew up and went to school in Reigate, where I have lived most of my adult life. I like to think this is significant, that people who grow up in this town have something special about them wherever they end up (but I could be just kidding myself).
Pete is married to Sammy and they have two sons: Hudson and Daniel. This is significant as the book centres around an event that happened soon after Daniel was born. Chapter 1 starts:
“Wake up!’ she gasped. ‘Something’s wrong.’ Sammy’s whispers buffeted me out of a deep sleep, and I began mumbling and fumbling like a drunk, flailing frantically for the bedside lamp. Squinting in its light, I stared instinctively towards the old Moses basket beside the bed, but seven-week-old Daniel was soundly asleep, his lips pouting softly for his mother’s milk.
‘It’s my leg.’ Sammy’s voice bristled with fear. ‘I can’t feel it. It won’t move…’ Sammy, pale as the moon, was sitting upright in bed, clutching her thigh. Then, suddenly… the fingers of her right hand began to curl into an old lady’s fist. Her wrist twisted to a 90-degree angle. She let out a gasp – a yelp – of pain as shuddering spasms began to tremble up her arm.
The seizure continued and, once in hospital, they discovered that Sammy had a large brain tumour. She was operated on and the tumour removed but it left her with serious and ongoing epilepsy which continues to this day. This book is not about coming to terms with this illness, with accepting it, because who could accept such a thing? It is about why God does not answer the prayers to heal Sammy, not just Pete’s own prayers but those of many, many other people has well.
Pray like Jesus?
Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorry is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”
Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do You want?”
Matthew 26: 36-39 (MSG)
At the core of the story of Jesus is a choice. We sometimes forget that He was a man. And, as a man he had two privileges. The first was ask God for whatever He needed, not with the certainty that the prayer would be answered but with the certainty He would be heard. The second was free will. He could have walked away. And with the God given knowledge of what was about to happen that would have been easier than for most of us. But He chose to do His father’s will. He chose to die on the cross.
Jesus is kinder to us than He was to himself. We don’t normally see the disaster coming. And even once it has happened we are somehow protected. Greig puts it like this:
I was lonelier than I had ever been before; yet strangely, I was also becoming aware of a kind of inner warmth. It was the comfort of huddling into a thick coat with deep pockets on a bitterly cold night. Doctors would probably call it shock, but to me it felt a lot like the presence of God.
This is an enormously thoughtful book. My only criticism of it would be that the title is misleading. It is not really about God being Mute. It about our requests not being answered. This is not unreasonable given what Jesus Said:
“Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?
Matthew 7: 6-8
But, just as a good parent would not give their children everything they ask for, we should not expect God to do the same. Of course, sometimes God does give us what we ask for, either in a natural or supernatural way but Jesus promised that God would be better than a good parent. He would know what we need. Grieg comes up with a number of reasons why prayers are not answered. If you have not read this book (or if, like me, your memory is less than perfect!) I think it is worth listing some of them with comments.
Reason 1: Common Sense. Some prayers are not answered because they are just plain stupid. This isn’t always obvious at the time. Greig mentions praying for a petrol (filling) station to appear where there was not one before. This is clearly stupid but I have prayed for things that only seem to be stupid in hindsight. Often when we are anxious or worried we will ask for things which are clearly not what we need.
Reason 2: Contradiction. Examples of this are: praying for certain weather patterns; praying for ‘your’ team to win the match; praying for a parking space. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for these things, just understand that God sees the bigger picture.
Reason 3: The Laws of Nature. Greig quotes C. S. Lewis:
That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce what we call miracles is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.
As we discover more and more about the natural world it is clear that it is a world finely tuned to support life and, therefore, us. If the laws of nature were continually subverted then we would be in danger of destroying this balance. But it also seems to be stranger and more beautiful than we previously imagined it could be. I sometimes wonder if we really, really want to disrupt the intricate dance that God has created for us to live in?
Reason 4: Life is tough. It is sometimes really tough. I know many people who are facing huge problems in their lives. Yet even when our lives are fairly OK we can find ourselves praying for ‘solutions’ to our problems. Greig says:
One of the problems, ironically, can be prayer. In prayer we set our hopes high and call it faith. We pray for the perfect spouse, healthy children, successful careers and serene families. We don’t just wish for these things but actually train ourselves to expect them! We fear the worst if we should ever lower our sights. Yet this is false faith. The apostle Paul longed not just ‘to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,’ but also ‘ the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ (Phil 3:10). The Christian witness and our ultimate hope, is not merely a miraculous succession of miraculous escapes from all human affliction. Rather, it is the joy of a deepening relationship with the ‘man of sorrows familiar with suffering’ (Isa. 53:3) who loves us and lives in us.
Reason 5: Doctrine. Greig describes a lady he knew called Margaret who was dying, painfully, of throat Cancer. Many people would tell her how brave she was, how difficult her life was. So she wrote her response on a piece of paper:
This is not the worst thing to ever happen! Cancer is so limited. It cannot cripple love, shatter hope, corrode faith, eat away peace, destroy confidence, kill friendship, shut out memories, silence courage, quench the Sprit or lesson the power of Jesus.
And that is it. I sometimes turn the whole thing around and ask people to imagine someone who has never suffered. We all know such people, usually young, often spoiled and shallow. Would we really want to be such a person?
Reason 6: God’s Best. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because he has something better for us. I was raised to be ambitious. When I became a Christian, about 6 years into my career in IT I used to pray for recognition and promotion. My prayers were rarely answered but I’m really quite glad. Having a less glittering career meant I could focus on the technical aspects of IT. It also meant that could be a mother, a wife and a friend. If my prayers then had been answered it might have been difficult to take the time off I’ve had now and write this blog.
Sometimes God wants us to have something even better than we ask for.
Reason 7: Motive. Greig says:
Jesus never actually promised to answer our prayers unconditionally. It is God’s prayers in our mouths that are guaranteed to work. The apostle John puts it like this: ‘This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him’ (1 John 5 14-15, emphasis added). It is when we pray ‘according to his will’ that God hears and acts, which means that miracles happen only when our prayers harmonize with God’s broad desires for our lives.
Reason 8: Relationship. We all have our favourite bible characters. Mine is definitely Simon Peter. I love that bold impulsiveness, the argumentative streak. Like, him I love being on, or in the sea (although I have never tried to walk on top of it, wouldn’t that be great!). But he definitely did not have an easy time. It is almost impossible to imagine how he would have felt after Jesus was crucified. Not only had he lost his best friend, his teacher in the most horrific circumstances, but had betrayed His trust at a time when he was needed most. But Jesus never wanted to give his disciples an easy time. What He needed from Peter was to forge a relationship so strong that it would enable him to start the Church. Jesus needed Peter to know that He was with him every step of the way.
There is lots more in this book. For instance, I’ve missed out a whole section on spiritual warfare which is well worth reading. But one phrase keeps on popping up in my mind. It is from Love Wins: ‘Does God get what God wants?’ and the answer is Yes. He wants us to be better than we are, to be more like him. He wants us to have rich and fruitful lives, even if it means we don’t get what we want. And, above all He wants us to know him.
I said before that I didn’t like the title of this book. Because God is never mute. He is speaking through nature, through other people and through scripture. Sometimes, he speaks directly to us but however He is speaking all we have to do is learn to listen.