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Praying Through God's Silence

When we worship and humbly persist, God will speak.


Hear these words from the Word in Matthew 15:21–28:

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession."
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us."
He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."
The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said.
He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
"Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

We are coming dangerously close to Christological idolatry; that is, worshiping a Christ who never was, is not, and will never be the Christ of the Bible. We are coming dangerously close to worshiping a self-styled Christ, a Christ that we have made in our own image and after our own likeness. We are coming dangerously close to worshiping a vending-machine Christ—we stand before him, make our selection, take our prayer quarter, put it in the slot, and expect that Christ to always give us what we have selected when we want it and how we want it. And when he does not, we are disappointed. We want to serve a Christ who always speaks, always acts, always gives.

We want the Christ who says: Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you'll find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you. Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, you can ask what you will, and it shall be done unto you.

We want the ego, the "I am" Christ who will be what we want him to be: I am the water of life. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the door. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the true vine.

That's why, when we come to this passage of Scripture, we are troubled, we are astonished, we are astounded, and we are frustrated. The text says Jesus leaves the environs of Palestine and goes to a house in the Syrophoenician area. He does that in order to be incognito, because he needs a little rest and relaxation. But he could not be hid. There's a woman from the Tyre and Sidon area who discovers Jesus is in the house, and she comes there with an urgent request. How could someone in the northwestern part of that area outside of Palestine know about Jesus? And how would she know he's in the house?

Eight centuries prior to this time, God had been sustaining the prophet Elijah. Elijah had been walking around with the key to the water department around his waist. He was saying, "You don't need to read the newspaper, and you don't need to listen to the eleven o'clock news to get the meteorological report for the next three and a half years. It ain't going to rain."

God sent the raven catering service to sustain him and kept a brook running to give him water. Twice a day he ate and drank. Then, when the brook dried up, God opened another door for Elijah.

God sent him outside of Palestine to a pagan territory. There was a widow in the Tyre–Sidon area who was gathering sticks to make a last meal for her son and herself and then die. Elijah said, "Make me a little cake first." And when she put God first, God sustained her for the rest of the famine by putting a cornfield in her barrel and an oil well in her cruet.

That's how they heard about Yahweh. The woman in Matthew has heard about Jesus, and she has come to disrupt his anonymity. She has a request: Lord, my daughter is possessed by a devil. Have mercy upon me. I'm not possessed, but any time my daughter is affected under demonic domination, it affects me. When I see my child with glassy eyes, when my child seems to be someone I never gave birth to, it affects me. So, have mercy upon me.

And the Bible says that after listening to this emergency request, Jesus answered her not a word. He ignored her. Now we can understand a Jesus like this in Matthew 27:12, when the chief priests at the trial of Jesus challenged him to defend himself. The Bible says he answered them not a word. But this woman?

We can understand a Jesus like this in Matthew 27:14, when Pilate challenged him to be his own defense attorney. The Bible says Jesus answered him not a word. And we can understand a Jesus like this in Mark 14:60–61, when the high priest said: Man, don't you understand what kind of power I have? Speak up for yourself.

And the Bible says Jesus held his peace.

But a woman who is troubled and heartbroken over the serious condition of her daughter, for him to look at her and ignore her? We don't understand that kind of Jesus, because we think the Jesus we worship should always speak, should always act, and should always give. Jesus is silent.

In fact, we don't like silence anyway. As soon as we get in the car—radio on, CD on, or tape player on. Whether or not we're listening to the words, we like the sound. As soon as we get home, turn on the television in one room. Go to another room, turn on the television. Go to another room, turn on the television. Keep earplugs in our heads. Even go to sleep with them, because we don't like silence. We like sound.

We don't want to come home, press our answering service, and have no calls. "No calls? I've been gone for 12 hours. No one loves me any more. No one thought about me for 12 long hours?" We turn on our computer: "You got mail." We feel good. We need sound.

But silence must adjust to the rhythm of sound and sound to silence. Sometimes you have to walk by the rhythm of silence. The silence of death.

You don't go to Auschwitz and stand where human atrocities have been committed and do a lot of talking and laughing. You don't go to Jonestown, where 900 people have taken poison punch, and do a lot of verbalizing. You don't go to Pearl Harbor and see the effects of the bombing of December 7, 1941, and do a lot of talking.

I stood at the Vietnam War Memorial several years ago, and I watched an old man lift up a little girl on his shoulders. He put her finger on a particular name, and tears were coming down her face. It was the name of a father she never knew. And people were not talking. They were sniffling, and they were quiet.

I don't know if you've ever had to sit by the bedside of a loved one whose frame has been reduced to skin and bone. You start hearing that heavy breathing, the slowing down of the breath, and finally that last exhalation without any inhalation. A tick but no tock. And it seems like an eternity between the last breath and the first sob.

How do you handle silence? The Bible says: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord. Hear, O Israel! Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. Be still and know that I am God. God is in his holy temple, let all the Earth keep silence before him.

God was not in an earthquake for Elijah, nor in a windstorm or fire, but in the still, small voice. And you have to listen for that.

How do you handle a God who chooses not to speak in your emergencies, when you're in the crucible of your tribulation, and he answers you not a word and seems to be ignoring you? How do you worship a Christ like that? Your family has been in Egypt for nearly four generations; God has not stopped by, and you're still making bricks without straw. How do you handle a Jesus who tells you to get in a boat and go to the other side, but he goes to sleep when your life is in danger? How do you handle Jesus when you, like Paul, have preached and served and sung and studied and you finally ask something for yourself—take away this thorn in my flesh that nags me, agonizes me—and he says no? How do you handle a Jesus like that?

Jesus ignores the Canaanite woman

This woman said: Lord, have mercy upon me. My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

And Jesus answered her not a word. The disciples had a word. They always had a word. Most of the time it was the wrong word. They said: Send her away, Lord. She's crying out after us.

Now we don't say that to people who need us—"Send them away." But the disciples said it in Mark 6:36–38, when they realized they didn't have enough money in the treasury to feed the 5,000: Send them away to the villages where they can buy food. There's a Wendy's over there. There's a McDonald's and Burger King there. Send them away!

This woman had three problems. Number one, she had the wrong face. She was a pagan. She was a Syrophoenician woman. Number two, she had the wrong race. She was a Gentile. Number three, she was from the wrong place. She was outside of the Promised Land.

It's amazing that America had two religious peaks, two great awakenings, and slavery survived both of them. How can you have two great awakenings, where the country is stirred, and slavery is still in vogue? I want to suggest, brothers and sisters, it's the same reason why racism, classism, and sexism are still in vogue today. We treat it cosmetically and not cardiologically. You've got to get under the skin. It's deeper than the epidermis.

Jesus excludes the Canaanite woman

Jesus says, to make matters worse: I wasn't sent for you anyway. I was only sent to those who are of the house of Israel, the lost sheep of Israel. Number one, you ignored her, Jesus. Number two, you are excluding her. Some of us would have been through with Jesus, who says: I didn't come for folk like you.

But this woman has an indefatigable spirit. She is irrepressible in her determination. She has enough guts and nerves that she won't take no for an answer. So, the Bible says, she falls prostrate before Jesus, worships him, and says, "Lord, help me."

Before anything is done, she worships. Before anything has been transformed, she worships. Before she gets the answer to her prayer, she worships.

She's somewhat like Jehoshaphat when he faced an impossible situation—to fight against a vast army—in 2 Chronicles 20:20–25. He put the worship choir first and the army behind it. The Bible says when they began to worship God, praising him and playing on the cymbals, God began to work. And all the army had to do was mop up.

Worship God before anything happens. Shout before healing comes, before deliverance comes, before you get an A on your exam. Tell God, "I'm going to praise you even before anything happens."

The woman worships God and says, "Lord, have mercy," because she understands that worship is primarily a noun before it is a verb. She's getting herself ready to receive the answer she's asked God for.

A noun is a person, place, or thing. God is saying: Get your noun-ness first in worship, and then your verb-ness will be accepted. You worship me with your verb-ness. You honor me with your mouth, your lips. But your heart is far from me. If you get your noun-ness together, your heart, I'll accept your verb-ness, your lips.

This woman is getting her noun-ness together so God will work in her behalf. She says, "Lord, help me!" You say, "That's not a prayer. It's only three words." If your pastor stood up and all he said was, "Lord, help us," you would think there would be something wrong. Some of us would faint. Where's the rest of the prayer? But when you pray a long prayer, it means you are not in an emergency situation. When you're in an emergency situation, you don't take time to tell God he's omnipotent, he's omnipresent, he's omniscient. You don't tell God he's infinite. You don't tell him he's from everlasting to everlasting. You don't have time for that.

When Peter is sinking, he doesn't pray a long prayer. He says, "Lord, help me." When the dying thief is getting ready to check out and wants to have somewhere to lay his head, he says, "Lord, remember me." You don't need to have the right words, because prayer is not the multiplicity of words; it's the emotion of the heavenly fire that's kindled in the breast.

All you need to do is have a little talk—not a long talk—with Jesus. Go on and talk to him; tell him what's on your heart, tell him what's in your mind.

Jesus embarrasses the Canaanite woman

She said, "Lord, help me." And Jesus said: It is not right to give the children's (the Jew's) bread (provisions, blessings) to dogs (Gentiles).

Gentiles are called dogs by Jesus. In Mark 7:27, Jesus says: Feed the children (the Jews) first.

Number one, Jesus has ignored her. Number two, Jesus has excluded her. Now Jesus embarrasses her. To call her a dog? Feed the Jews first—that's his chronology. He even says in Acts 1:8: When the Spirit of God has come upon you, you'll be my witnesses first in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and in the utmost parts of the Earth.

And Paul says in Romans 1:16: I'm not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, because it's the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth: the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

You would think this woman, now that she's been ignored, embarrassed, and excluded, would quit. But the Bible says she agrees with Jesus. "Yes, Lord," she says. This is the third time she says Lord—Boss, sovereign one, one who is in control—you are right.

She doesn't have a well-developed theology of grace yet, but she has enough sense to understand that whatever you get from God, you don't get by what you merit or deserve. You get it because God has given you grace. It doesn't cost you anything, and he gives it to you in spite of your not being worthy.

She says: Lord, you're right—I'm a dog. But even puppies eat the crumbs underneath your table. We don't have to have the original fish and loaves, but even the crumbs have had your hand on them. So any way you bless me, Lord, it will be all right. I don't care about being first. All I want is your hand upon me.

Jesus looked at her and said: Woman, I can't get rid of you. Great is your faith. Whatever you ask will be granted to you.


Now what is the Lord saying to us? He's saying: If you want something from me, you're going to have to cross your own borders. You're going to have to get out of your own Tyre and Sidon, out of your own comfort zone. You need to cross borders—black and white and red and brown and yellow. You have to want it enough.

Some of us are one prayer away from deliverance. Some of us are one prayer from a blessing. Some of us are one prayer from physical, spiritual, relational, and emotional healing. Some of us are one prayer from a breakthrough. If you can hold out till tomorrow, if you can keep faith through the night, everything will be all right, because weeping will endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning.

The Lord is trying to tell us things are different when you come to his house. This woman came to the house where Jesus was, and when Jesus got finished with her, things were different in her house. There is a connection between the church house and your house. If you go to the church house and worship God in spirit and in truth, while you're yet praying and praising God, he can be working on your house. He's saying: In the midst of silence, eventually I will speak.

I know about the silence of God. I remember that day—February 26, 1984. My wife had had lupus for two and a half years, and finally she could not stop coughing. We took her to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. The next morning, which was Sunday, I was still there. She was doing a lot better, and I was told I could take her home on Monday. I went home to take care of our children, and I got them ready for church.

I returned Sunday afternoon. The room was empty. The nurse grabbed and hugged me, and asked if I was Mr. Smith. I said yes.

"Your wife has been stricken with a series of seizures," she said. I went out to the hallway. I saw someone who seemed to have a thousand tubes in her being pushed down the hallway. They took her up from the third floor where she was to the seventh floor.

After a week was over, after they had cut into her head to release the pressure, after her kidneys failed and her heart stopped, my heart was broken. People were praying for her all over the city. Sunday school teachers were telling our children she would be all right. We had all kinds of confirmation. But Gail died, and I had to tell my children that.

But I didn't know that on that same day, there was a young lady named Wanda working on another floor in the hospital. A few years later, I found out that while God was working on the seventh floor, taking away Gail, he silently was working on another floor, because now I'm married to Wanda.

God may be silent for a while, but he will speak. I know he will, because the greatest silence we've ever known took place on Calvary. One Friday, Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And God said nothing. In fact, the sun protested and began to have a full eclipse, because the moon came between the sun and the Earth. But God said nothing. The moon began to drip like it was hemorrhaging, but God said nothing. The Earth was like an inebriated man and began to reel and rock, but God said nothing. And even the Roman centurion began to protest and say, "Surely this must be the Son of God." But God said nothing. Nothing on Friday. Nothing on Saturday morning, and nothing on Saturday night. But early Sunday morning, he broke the silence and began to speak.

Because he lives, you can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone. Because he lives, you can face the future. Life is worth living, because he lives. He may be silent now, but he will speak.

© Robert Smith, Jr.
Preaching Today Issue #226
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Robert Smith, Jr. serves as professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Sermon Outline:


Many in today's culture believe in a "vending machine" Christ who will always give us what we ask for, when and how we want it.

I. Jesus ignores the Canaanite woman.

II. Jesus excludes the Canaanite woman.

III. Jesus embarrasses the Canaanite woman.


God may be silent for a while, but if we worship and humbly persist, he will eventually speak.