February 28, 2021

Prayers on the Floor

Losing your child to death is one of the greatest traumas in human experience. It strikes your psyche and soul with a raw and savage force that cannot be adequately expressed. In my journey, the trauma surpassed my emotional capacity to process it, often causing emotional numbness that made it virtually impossible to weep. I kept asking myself, “What is wrong with me?”

In addition to emotional confusion, an unexpected impact of being sledge-hammered by such grief was its impact on my spiritual life. In previous crises, including the deaths of our parents, my walk with God was an asset helping to carry me through the distress. Losing our son in the prime of his life, however, wreaked havoc on my spiritual experience. I would read my Bible seeking comfort and strength, but the passages I perused seemed to be lifeless words on screen or paper. I would pray and my prayers lacked the energy to even rise toward the ceiling. They just fell powerless to the floor. I had zero sense of God’s presence or support. The book of Job aptly depicts this experience: “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him” (Job 23:8, 9).* My heart was screaming, “Where are you God?” yet I heard no answering voice.

 About a week after the memorial service, as a raw act of the will I decided to honor the memory of my son by adopting an ambitious Bible-reading program he had just started. The plan consists of reading 10 chapters a day for 500 days. The program consists of 10 sequences that run simultaneously yet of differing lengths (four gospels every three months, Proverbs every month, etc.). One sequence started with Job. I was NOT in the mood for Job. I did not think I could face the grief and verbosity I knew to be in that book. Unlike his father, who is happier to put off unpleasant tasks, Andrew would have faced it head-on. So, summoning up my inner Andrew, I set into reading the Job sequence with the other nine.

I was surprised by my experience in Job. Job’s emotional openness helped me puncture some of the emotional numbness I was in, enabling me to more honestly face my feelings. It was not until I reached Job 12:1, however, that I noticed Job lash out at his friends for the first time. Job blasts his “friends” in the ensuing chapters, calling them “worthless physicians” (Job 13:4) who “whitewash with lies” (ibid.), imploring them to be silent (verses 5, 6). He angrily tells them they are “miserable comforters” (Job 16:1) and continues to chastise them in nearly every ensuing discourse.

I stopped to ponder what I had been reading. Job’s friends started well. They sat with Job in empathetic shock and silence for seven days, waiting for Job to speak first. They were magnificent! . . . until they started talking. Instead of perceiving the emotive cry of Job’s heart, however, they thought they heard bad theology and sought to straighten out his thinking. Job was fed up with them because by shifting from empathy to explanation and exhortation, they were utterly missing the emotive message of his cries. I can resonate with Job in noting that especially in the early shock of grief, quiet empathy is far more helpful than attempted explanations or exhortations.

As I ruminated on this while progressing through the daily readings, the thought hit me that the silence I was feeling from God was not abandonment but divine empathy. Like Job’s friends, God is silently sitting with me in the shock, horror, and numbness. Unlike them, however, He knows when to stay quiet. As I pondered this, I began to realize something even more profound. I realized that God is not so much sitting with me in empathetic silence, but that He is actually functioning as the floor under my feet to hold me up because I am unable to stand in my own strength under this grief. What this means, then, is that my prayers do not need to ascend to a God “up there.” They do not even need to reach the ceiling over my head. When my spiritually depleted prayers fall to the floor, they are taking the shortest, most efficient path to the God who is under my feet holding me up in silent empathy. Even though I cannot feel Him, even though I feel numb, dark, and spiritually void, I can choose to trust that the God under my feet is catching my prayers as they fall to the floor, and that He is answering them in ways I cannot grasp.

The same God that I am finding under my feet, even in His silence, can also be the God under your feet. When you feel crushed by grief and despair; when you feel emotionally numb and spiritually dead and unable to discern God in your life, then let your prayers fall to the floor and into the hands of the empathetic God under our feet, the God who quietly feels our horror with us, and who silently continues to keep us standing.

Stephen Bauer is a professor of theology at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, in the United States.

* Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.