For about a year now I have been witness to a drama that is all too familiar to us mortal men. Someone finds he has cancer; the medical treadmill begins, with its implacable log of defeat; hope is marshalled, begins the march, is rebuffed at every juncture, flags, rouses, flags again, and is finally quietly mustered out.
And meanwhile, because the people in the drama are Christian believers, everyone is dragged into the maelstrom that marks the place where our experience eddies into the sea of the Divine Will. The whole question of prayer gapes open.
The promises are raked over. And over and over. “Is the primary condition enough faith on our part?” “We must scour our own hearts to see that there is no stoppage there—of sin or of unbelief.” “We must stand on the promise.” “We must claim thus and such.” “We must resist the Devil and his weapons of doubt.”
And we leap at and pursue any and all reports and records of healings. “Look at what happened to so and so!” “Listen to this!” “I’ve just read this wonderful pamphlet.” We know the gospel accounts by heart. We agree that this work of healing did not cease with the apostolic age. We greet gladly the tales of healing that pour in from all quarters in the Church—no longer only from those groups that have traditionally “specialized” in healing, but from the big, old, classic bodies in Christendom—Rome, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and so forth. “God is doing something in our day,” we hear, and we grasp at it eagerly.
And meanwhile the surgery goes on its horrific way, and the radiation burns on, week after grim week; and suffering sets in, and the doctors hedge and dodge into the labyrinthine linoleum and stainless-steel bureaucracy of the hospital world, and our hearts sicken, and we try to avert our eyes from the black flag that is fluttering wildly on the horizon, mocking us.
And the questions come stealing over us: “Where is now their God?” “Where is the promise of his coming?” “He trusted in God that he would deliver him …” and so on. And we know that we are not the first human beings into whose teeth the Tempter and his ilk have flung those taunts.
We look for some light. We look for some help. Our prayers seem to be vanishing like so many wisps, into the serene aether of the cosmos (or worse, into the plaster of the ceiling). We strain our ears for some word from the Mount of God. A whisper will do, we tell ourselves, since clearly no bolts or thunderings have been activated by our importunity (yes, we have tried that tactic, too: the “non-faith” approach).
But only dead silence. Blank. Nothing. “But Lord, how are we supposed to know if we’re on the right track at all if we don’t get some confirmation from you—some corroboration—in any form, Lord—inner peace maybe, or some verse springing to life for us, or some token. Please let us have some recognizable attestation to what you have said in Your Book.” Nothing. Silence. Blank.
Perhaps at this point we try to think back over the experience of the people of God through the millennia. There has been a whole spectrum of experience for them: glorious deliverances, great victories, kingdoms toppled, widows receiving their dead back, men wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins—
“Men wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins? What went wrong there?”
“That’s in the record of faith.”
“But then surely something went wrong.”
“No. It is part of the log of the faithful. That is a list of what happened to the people of faith. It is about how they proved God.”
The whole spectrum of experience is there. The widow of Nain got her son back and other mothers didn’t. Peter got out of prison and John the Baptist didn’t. Elijah whirled up to heaven with fiery horses and Joseph ended in a coffin in Egypt. Paul healed other people, but was turned down on his own request for healing for himself.
A couple of items in the Gospels seem to me to suggest something for the particular situation described in this article, where deliverance did not, in fact, come, and where apparently the juggernaut of sheer nature went on its grim way with no intervention from Heaven.
One is the story of Lazarus and the other is the Emmaus account. You object immediately: “Ah, but in both those cases it turned out that the dead were raised.” Well, perhaps there is something there for us nonetheless.
For a start, the people involved in those incidents were followers of Jesus, and they had seen him, presumably, heal dozens of people. Then these followers experienced the utter dashing of all their expectations and hopes by death. God did not, it seemed, act. He who had been declared the Living One and the Giver of Life seemed to have turned his back in this case. What went wrong? What did the household at Bethany not do that the Widow of Nain had done? How shall we align it all? Who rates and who doesn’t? Whatever it is that we might have chosen to say to them in the days following their experience of death, we would have had to come to terms somehow with the bleak fact that God had done something for others that he had not done for them.
From the vantage point of 2,000 years, we later believers can, of course, see that there was something wonderful in prospect, and that it emerged within a very few days in both cases. The stories make sense. They are almost better than they would have been if the deaths had not occurred. But of course this line would have been frosty comfort for Mary and Martha, or for the two en route to Emmaus, if we had insisted to them, “Well surely God is up to something. We’ll just have to wait.”
And yet what else could we have said? Their experience at that point was of the utter finality of death, which had thrown everything they had expected into limbo. For them there was no walking and leaping and praising God. No embracing and ecstatic tears of reunion. Only the silence of shrouds and sepulchres, and then the turning back, not just to the flat routines of daily life, but to the miserable duel with the tedious voices pressing in upon their exhausted imaginations with “Right! Now where are you? Tell us about your faith now! What’d you do wrong?”
The point is that for x-number of days, their experience was of defeat. For us, alas, the “x-number of days” may be greatly multiplied. And it is small comfort to us to be told that the difference, then, between us and, say, Mary and Martha’s experience of Lazarus’ death, or of the two on the road to Emmaus, is only a quantitative difference. “They had to wait four days. You have to wait one, or five, or seventy years. What’s the real difference?” That is like telling someone on the rack that his pain is only quantitatively different from mine with my hangnail. The quantity is the difference. But there is, perhaps, at least this much of help for us whose experience is that of Mary and Martha and the others, and not that of the widow of Nain and Jairus and that set: the experience of the faithful has, in fact, included the experience of utter death. That seems to be part of the pattern, and it would be hard indeed to insist that the death was attributable to some failure of faith on somebody’s part.
There is also this to be observed: that it sometimes seems that those on the higher reaches of faith are asked to experience this “absence” of God. For instance, Jesus seemed ready enough to show his authority to chance bystanders, and to the multitudes; but look at his own circle. John the Baptist wasn’t let off—he had his head chopped off. James was killed in prison. And the Virgin herself had to go through the horror of seeing her Son tortured. No legions of angels intervened there. There was also Job, of course. And St. Paul—he had some sort of healing ministry himself, so that handkerchiefs were sent out from him with apparently healing efficacy for others, but, irony of ironies, his own prayer for himself was “unanswered.” He had to slog through life with whatever his “thorn” was. What does this data do to our categories?
But there is more. Turning again to the disclosure of God in Scripture, we seem to see that, in his economy, there is no slippage. Nothing simply disappears. No sparrow falls without his knowing (and, one might think, caring) about it. No hair on anybody’s head is without its number. Oh, you say, that’s only a metaphor; it’s not literal. A metaphor of what, then, we might ask. Is the implication there that God doesn’t keep tabs on things?
And so we begin to think about all our prayers and vigils and fastings and abstinences, and the offices and sacraments of the Church, that have gone up to the throne in behalf of the sufferer. They have, apparently, been lost in the blue. They have vanished, as no sparrow, no hair, has ever done. Hey, what about that?
And we know that this is false. It is nonsense. All right then—we prayed, with much faith or with little; we searched ourselves; we fasted; we anointed and laid on hands; we kept vigil. And nothing happened.
The Singing Christ
Their mighty song burns heavenward
And glory shines in sound;
The herald angels praise the Lord
In shouts that shake the ground.
Sing, O sons of heaven’s joy,
The wonder of his ways;
The birth-cry of an infant boy
Perfects his Father’s praise.
Sing, O Jesus, Mary’s son,
The pilgrim psalms appointed:
How great the works the Lord has done!
How blessed his Anointed!
Sing in Nazareth, young man,
The songs of jubilee;
Today fulfill redemption’s plan,
Proclaim the captive free!
Sing, O Saviour, lift the cup,
“Jehovah is my song!”
The sacrifice is offered up
Before the shouting throng.
“I come to do thy will, my God,
My body is prepared
To drink the cup and bear the rod
That sinners should be spared.”
Sing, O Christ, up Zion’s brow
From Kidron’s rocky bed;
The pilgrim songs are silent now
And all thy friends have fled.
Sing in agony, my King,
The God-forsaken Lord:
Count thy bones in suffering
While malice mocks thy word.
Sing, ascending King of kings;
Lift up your heads, ye gates;
The King of Glory triumph sings,
The Lord that heav’n awaits.
Sing, O Son of God’s right hand,
Our Prophet, Priest, and King;
The saints that on Mount Zion stand
With tongues once dumb now sing.
Sing, Lord Christ, among the choir
In robes with blood made white,
And satisfy thy heart’s desire
To lead the sons of light.
O Chief Musician, Lord of praise,
From thee our song is found;
Ancient of everlasting days
To thee the trumpets sound.
Rejoicing Saviour, sing today
Within our upper room;
Among thy brethren lift the lay
Of triumph from the tomb.
Sing now, O Lamb, that we may sing
The glory of thy shame,
The paean of thy suffering,
To sanctify thy Name!
EDMUND P. CLOWNEY
Did it not? What angle of vision are we speaking from? Is it not true that again and again in the biblical picture of things, the story has to be allowed to finish?Was it not the case with Lazarus’ household at Bethany, and with the two en route to Emmaus? And is it not the case with the Whole Story, actually—that it must be allowed to finish, and that this is precisely what the faithful have been watching for since the beginning of time? In the face of suffering and endurance and loss and waiting and death, what is it that has kept the spirits of the faithful from flagging utterly down through the millennia? Is it not the hope of Redemption? Is it not the great Finish to the Story—and to all their little stories of wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins as well as to the One Big Story of the whole creation, which is itself groaning and waiting? And is not that Finish called glorious? Does it not entail what amounts to a redoing of all that has gone wrong, and a remaking of all that is ruined, and a finding of all that has been lost in the shuffle, and an unfolding of it all in a blaze of joy and splendor?
A finding of all that is lost? All sparrows, and all petitions and tears and vigils and fastings? Yes, all petitions and tears and vigils and fastings.
“But where are they? The thing is over and done with. He is dead. They had no effect.”
Hadn’t they? How do you know what is piling up in that great treasury kept by the Divine Love to be opened in that Day? How do you know that this death and your prayers and tears and fasts will not together be suddenly and breathtakingly displayed, before all the faithful, and before angels and archangels, and before kings and widows and prophets, as gems in that display? Oh no, don’t speak of things being lost. Say rather that they are hidden—received and accepted and taken up into the secrets of the divine mysteries, to be transformed and multiplied, like everything else we offer to Him—loaves and fishes, or mites, or bread and wine—and given back to you and to the one for whom you kept vigil, in the presence of the whole host of men and angels, in a hilarity of glory as unimaginable to you in your vigil as golden wings are to the worm in the chrysalis.
But how does it work? We may well ask. How does Redemption work?
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