Zechariah asked the angel,
“How can I be sure of this?”
Luke 1: 18
We may think of prayer as an act of faith. And so it is. But prayer can also be an honest expression of our uncertainty and doubt.
We want to trust God. We want to have faith. But we have so many questions. So many things are unclear and uncertain. Where do we take our doubts if not to God? Where do we voice our uncertainties if not to God?
Some of us struggle with trusting God’s love for us. We believe God is a loving God. But we struggle to trust that God loves us. We may look for ways to erase this doubt. But it is tenacious. We live with the same kind of doubt that Zechariah gave voice to in this text: “How can I be sure of this?’
When Zechariah, a priest, questioned the angel, he was standing in the temple, a holy place. The angel had just told him that he and his elderly wife, who had never been able to have children, were going to have a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah. The angel told him that the prayer that he and his wife had prayed for years, and had long ago given up on, was going to be answered—that the deepest longing of his heart and his wife’s heart was going to be met. It was too good to be true. And so, he doubted.
The angel’s response to Zechariah’s question was to give him a strange kind of gift. Zechariah was given the gift of a sign, a reminder, a promise, that was with him every day until the child was born. The specific sign he was given was that he would not be able to speak until the child was born.. Because the inability to speak is so frightening to us, it might seem like this gift was a kind of punishment for his failure to trust in the good news he had received from the angel.
It is true that the sign of silence might have been particularly challenging for Zechariah because speaking was a central feature of his functions as a priest. Zechariah was a religious professional—one of those people who, just like pastors today, can always be asked to speak, always asked to pray a prayer. People who can always be asked to speak often find it particularly difficult to find room in their lives for not-speaking.
But silence can be a season during which we learn and grow by listening rather than speaking. It can be a kind of reminder that we are more than what we do—that we are more precious than anything we have to say. It is also a reminder that no doubts or fears, no resistance to grace will, in the end, prevent God from giving us the deepest longings of our hearts. No matter how too-good-to-be-true it might seem to us, no matter how speechless it leaves us, God hears our prayers—even when our prayers are full of doubt.
Sometimes prayer is giving voice to our doubts. The very things we long to believe may seem too much to hope for, too good to imagine. Even the thought that God might give us what we long for may leave us speechless. But when we voice our doubts, we open a door for God’s Spirit to respond with the gifts of grace, truth and healing that we so desperately need.
Prayer is talking with God about our doubts.
I hear your promises
but my heart is closed
in doubt and disbelief.
How can I be certain?
How can I trust that the good things
you say are true?
That you love me?
That you care?
That you are powerful?
How can I know?
What are your deepest doubts? Voice these doubts to God. Invite God to respond to your doubts and uncertainties.
from An Enduring Embrace: Experiencing the Love at the Heart of Prayer,
by Juanita Ryan, 2012