On God in the Gulag
[Hab.1:2-3; 2:2-4; 2Tim.1:6-8, 13-14; Lk.17:5-10]
The famous Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918- 2008) hated communism. He often criticised its evils and was severely punished for doing so.
In 1945, at the end of WWII, he was exiled to Siberia. For 11 years he suffered in prison camps, doing back-breaking work watched over by armed guards. He was starved, allowed little rest, and forbidden to talk with anyone. He became so isolated and miserable that he thought everyone, including God, had forgotten him.
One day he decided to commit suicide. But he found he couldn’t do it, because as a boy he’d learnt that suicide is wrong. So he thought he’d escape instead, knowing he’d be shot. At least then someone else would be responsible for his death.
On the day he planned to escape, he was sitting under a tree. He checked the guards’ positions, and just as he was about to run, a prisoner he’d never seen before appeared in front of him, blocking his way.
Solzhenitsyn later said that when he looked into that man’s eyes, he saw more love than he’d ever seen before in any other person. That prisoner bent down and with a stick silently drew a cross on the ground.
When Solzhenitsyn saw that cross, he knew that God had not forgotten him. He knew that God was there beside him in that awful place. What he didn’t know, however, was that Christians all over the world had been praying for his release, and within three days he was a free man in Switzerland. [i]
It’s not unusual for us to sometimes feel abandoned. Life can be tough. In our first reading today, the prophet Habakkuk complains about the misery and injustice that’s so widespread in the kingdom of Judah. In frustration he asks God why he’s not listening or doing anything about it.
But God is listening, for he gives him a reply. God tells him to have faith and to be patient, for the day of justice will come.
Some of us find that our experience of faith is strong when everything’s fine, but it starts to weaken when we’re struggling. Like Solzhenitsyn and Habakkuk, we wonder where God might be or if he even exists at all.
But the message for us from Solzhenitsyn and from Habakkuk is that God is listening. He does care. He’s with us all the time. So we must keep our faith, especially when times are tough. For faith means trust; it means being patient. Faith means understanding that God is always working, even when we think he’s not.
At the end of WWII, in Cologne, some words were found scrawled on a wall in a cellar where some Jews had been hiding:
I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when he’s silent.
Most of us would like an instant solution every time something goes wrong, but God’s ways are not our ways (Is.55:8). Sometimes it’s better for us to work through a problem and learn from it. We know that’s true, don’t we? We can see it when we look back on our lives and discover that we’ve not only survived the hard times, but the experience has also made us better people.
As someone said, there’s more growth in the valleys than on the mountain tops.
When Solzhenitsyn saw that cross etched in the dirt, he knew that God had not abandoned him. In 1963, after he became famous, he wrote this prayer:
How easy for me to live with you, Lord!
How easy to believe in you!
When my mind casts about
Or flags in bewilderment,
When the cleverest among us
Cannot see past the present evening,
Not knowing what to do tomorrow –
You send me the clarity to know
That you exist
And will take care
That not all paths of goodness should be barred.
At the crest of earthly fame
I look back in wonderment
At the journey beyond hope – to this place,
From which I was able to send mankind a reflection of your rays.
And however long the time
That I must yet reflect them
You will give it me.
And whatever I fail to accomplish
You surely have allotted to others.[ii]
It’s faith that sustains us through the hard times, and it’s prayer that nourishes that faith.
Our faith might only be small, like a mustard seed, but that doesn’t matter. God is happy with small things (Lk.17:5-6).
Tiny seeds of faith grow into mighty trees when watered with prayer.
[i] Joe B Brown, Battle Fatigue. Broadman & Holman, Nashville. 1995:136.