Today’s Gospel passage invites us to reflect on the silence of God and the nature of our faith. Here we see a mother in grief over the plight of her demon-possessed daughter. The love of a mother for her child is perhaps one of the greatest loves a human can have for another, and the pain in her heart for the plight of her child is unmatched by any other human tragedy. In her extreme desperation that the daughter whom she so dearly loves be healed, she cries out to Christ, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil”. And perhaps what follows is one of the hard passages in Scripture. To this plea, to her desperation, Christ answers her not. One. Word.
Many times, we come to Christ in our pain and we cry out to Him, asking for His help. But He does not answer us immediately. This silence in the face of our pleas—even the pleas for loved ones, even for their salvation, can be one of the most painful experiences in the spiritual life. Does God not care? Doesn’t He see the tears I shed? Why won’t He help me? Why won’t He open the eyes of my loved one? Why does he allow my friend to wander so far away from Him? Why is God silent? Because God wants us to know who He is and who we are. If He always answered us immediately, we would mistake Him for a genie who simply exists to grant us our wishes. We would not understand God as the awesome Creator of the universe. We ourselves would not be transformed into His likeness, we would never grow “unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Instead, we would be like spoiled children who constantly make demands on their parents and become (I won’t say grow up) ungrateful, insensitive, and mostly helpless adults. In His silence, God is teaching us.
Sometimes God is silent because He wants us to know if we really want what we ask for, or will we be quickly discouraged and give up. Are our desires heartfelt, or are they just whims? Again, thinking of children with their parents—when a teenager asks for a car, if his parents tell him “No, you’ll have to get a job to work for it” he must ask himself how much he wants it. If he really wants a car, he will work hard, save his money, and buy one. It will take awhile, but when he finally buys the car, he will value it for all the work and effort he put into it. If his parents just give it to him, it would just be another satisfied whim. He wouldn’t understand the hard work and effort that goes into it, and would not take care of it in the same way. No one would be surprised if in the latter case, he totals the car.
Sometimes God does not answer us immediately even for spiritual things in order to increase our desire for it. If we have to continue in prayer and fasting and prostrations and tears and failures then when God finally answers our requests, we will value His blessings more and be more grateful for them. In the case of spiritual health, we will guard it more closely, having a better understanding of how precious it is.
By His silence, God wants us to see our faith—is it the faith that sees God as a genie and is otherwise uninterested in Him when things are going well? Do we only turn to God during misfortunes, not because we desire God so much as we desire an easy life? Or is it a faith that deeply trusts in His Providence for all things—including the salvation of the ones we love. Is it a faith that firmly believes God is good and loves mankind? If God answered our pleas immediately, we would not see how frail and weak are faith is. We would think that we must be something, that we have achieved something to have God’s ear all the time. And God allows us to see our faith as it really is in times of crisis, especially if it is a weak and sickly faith, not to drive us to despair, but to at least ground us in reality, to be reminded that without Him, we can do nothing. This way we can begin afresh a life of repentance and turning to God.
The silence of God reveals our faith to us. Today, Christ’s silence reveals the faith of the Canaanite woman to His disciples and to all of us. When Christ refuses to answer the woman, she does not give up. She is not fainthearted and self-pitying, saying, “I guess He doesn’t care about me or my daughter”, returning home, tormented by her demonically possessed daughter and tormented by the bitterness in her heart. Our faintheartedness in the midst of our spiritual struggles never eases the pain we’re experiencing; it only compounds it. But let us look at her faith. First she cries out but now in the face of Christ’s silence and even His apparent rebuff, calling her a “dog”, she comes closer to Him and worships (specifically, prostrates before) Him. What an example of faith! In the midst of God’s silence and refusal, we must also come closer to God and fall down before Him. We must continue in our prayers and in our spiritual endeavors, struggling in our life of repentance. Because even if Christ does not answer us, we will be exactly where we need to be—at His feet. It is from there that Christ can heal us and help those for whom we pray. So that if He continues His silence, or tells us “No”, then at least now we are right next to Him. Whereas before, when we were content and self-satisfied, we didn’t care that Christ was far away, or rather, that we were far away from Him.
Sometimes God is silent because we have to understand that our chief crisis in the spiritual life is not that we struggle with anger or lust or selfishness or this or that passion. Our chief crisis is that we are willingly separated from God. How often do we go through the spiritual life not wanting God but rather a quick and painless solution to our problems? Elder Aimilianos says:
Often we go to our spiritual father hoping that he can take care of our problems. We might as well say to him, ‘Please, don’t talk to me about God, just help me to deal with life’s difficulties; help me to organize my affairs better, so that things are easier for me; help me to get what I want….despite the difficulty that I’m facing (The Mystical Marriage, p. 32)
We could care less about actually being with God, just as long as so-and-so stops treating me this way, just as long as this illness goes away, just as long as this project is a success. These are easy to dismiss, and we can quickly recognize we are in the wrong when this is our mindset. But it works on the spiritual level as well. How often in our struggle against sin do we just want God to magically remove the passion from us so that it doesn’t wound our pride that we are selfish, that we are easily offended, that we are lazy, that we aren’t pious. We don’t want to be with God in prayer, which by the way, is offered to us for the entire length of our existence on earth. God does not immediately answer us because in our struggle for waiting for an answer, we will search for God. We will begin to seek His face. That is what God wants from us, regardless of anything else. He wants us to seek Him. Because by seeking God, however imperfectly, through prayer, almsgiving, bearing our brother’s burdens, and other virtues we will learn to hear His voice. So that when God does finally answer us, we will not only have the answer to our pleas, but we will have also learned how to talk to God in the meantime. And for the most part this skill will be more valuable to us and will be more useful than the solution to our current predicament.
Finally, the last lesson I want to draw from the Gospel is that God healed this woman’s daughter through her faith. Saint John Chrysostom is very explicit that when Christ says: “Great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” He is not merely praising her. He is connecting the healing of her daughter specifically with her great faith. Otherwise He would have said “Let your daughter be healed” and not bothered to mention the faith of the mother. God can and does heal people directly, without their asking for it, even without their awareness. But He also wants to heal other people through our faithfulness in our prayers for them, however weak our prayers may be.
God’s silence in the midst of our prayers, our tears, and our agony is ultimately an opportunity for us to reflect on our faith. Do we just want a comfortable, painless life, without difficulties? Then today, the Church presents what our faith really is—the Cross. Christ did not promise His followers an easy life, He promised them the Cross, death to our old selves. But on the other hand, if we think God is silent because He does not care and that He is not helping us, again the Church offers us the Cross—God Himself is nailed thereto out of His endless love for us. He knows what it is like to suffer as a man, and as the God-man He suffered not just the physical tortures of the cross, but all the spiritual pain of mankind. If for a time God is silent, that does not mean He is absent. He is on the Cross, bearing our pain. So let us take courage and follow after the example of the Canaanite woman and come to Christ with all our pleas and all our tears, not doubting His goodness and love. Amen.