On prayers and answers

“Grace is the great gift. So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves.” 

- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.

“Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”

- Shusaku Endo, Silence.

The easiest thing to believe is that God is silent. The easiest thing to believe is that prayers are late-night monologues that dissolve in to the ceiling, that the ritual of Sunday church attendance is an exercise in collective delusion, that there is nothing we can say or do to be assured that things will turn out alright. I look back at the 15-year old wrestling with the arguments of apologists and atheists, my heart gripped with fear that it would never experience the reality of God. I have never quite forgotten how that heaviness felt, yet the stirrings of that anxious heart have been laid to rest.

As a 19-year old newly promoted infantry sergeant in the Singaporean Army, I was entrusted with 13 troopers under my immediate command and regularly, the entire platoon of 39. These soldiers brought stories of vocational institutes and academic high schools, of days in prison and nights in the red light district, of being away from home in a country they barely knew. They viewed my cluelessness with apprehension and disdain- most of them were older than me owing to circumstances delaying their conscription.

I was the youngest in our team of commanders, fellow servicemen who had experience with the responsibilities of military leadership. We were tasked with bringing our troops through a phase of infantry training. This meant long nights in the jungle, overnight route marches, live firing exercises, and relentless physical training schedules. These prospects induced disappointment, fear, and restlessness amongst my soldiers. The pressures of the role demanded that I put up a strong front. I had to be certain in my instructions and firm in my decisions. I couldn’t afford to show any inkling of uncertainty. My authority had been diminished by my age as it stood.

The pressure each day weighed immensely as I lapsed into the thoughtlessness of routine. I struggled to build rapport with my troopers, having lacked the opportunity to venture beyond my social bubble while in high school. I brought them through the day’s activities and retreated to my bunk every evening, exhausted. I struggled with the task of meting out punishment and finding compromise. I struggled to justify punishing the entire platoon with push-ups for the tardiness of a few, or confiscating mobile phones for raucous behaviour.

I faced punishment for the multitude of mistakes that I’d made, momentary carelessness during training exercises. I forfeited the freedom of my weekends. I spent hours questioning why God had placed me where I was, in a place where I could not possibly hope to flourish.  The answer: a resounding silence.

One Sunday at church, we sang a song that proclaimed the desire to place Jesus at the center of our lives. As we sang, I felt a weight in my heart, an intimation that I could not sing those lyrics in good conscience. I had fallen prey to the temptation of selfishness, of placing my comfort above everything else. I had conversations with a close Christian friend who’d finished his National Service and he asked me to ask one question, "God who did you make me to be?"

That precipitated a shift in the way I approached my role- I began to understand that God had placed me where I was to shape me, and to use my position of responsibility to bless those entrusted to me. I began to see my struggle relative to God’s greater plan. As a commander, God had given me the opportunity to tend to the emotional needs of my men, to provide support and encouragement whenever they needed it, and to bequeath to them the dignity of kindness and compassion. In bringing me to an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people, God wanted to make me grow through the struggles that every day would bring. Through the words of that song and words of my friend, I heard God speak.

From then on, I did my utmost to live a life that reflected Christ, one that demonstrated the unmerited love and favour that God had shown to me. My prayers revealed this fundamental transformation that God had worked within me, as I began to pray for wisdom in leadership, generosity of spirit, and unity within the platoon.

I discharged my duties with utmost seriousness, seeing them as a way to do right by my troopers and fellow commanders. I did my best to reach out to my troopers as individuals, learning about their families and their aspirations, their concerns and their insecurities. I encouraged openness in conversation and allowed them the opportunity to voice their concerns without recourse. As time went on, I began to learn what it meant to practice empathy and the philosophy of servant-leadership. I sought never to demand of my men things that I would not expect myself to do. When I did, I would strive to be the first one on the job and lead by example.

Despite the ensuing difficulties of the tasks that lay ahead, I had a renewed sense of confidence that God was in control. As God transformed the way I understood my circumstances, things began to fall in to place. I witnessed things that I never expected to see. My relationships with my soldiers, fellow commanders and superiors were strengthened. My soldiers came to me whenever they needed someone to speak to. Deciding punishments never became easier, but in seeing their rehabilitative purpose, my approach began to change. Punishments were always accompanied by conversations with those who had received them.

The vast majority of my troops completed their infantry training with a renewed confidence. As we moved on to our unit, where our role was to play the aggressor during the army’s wargames, my trust in God never wavered. He saw my platoon through countless exercises in the jungle, explosive interpersonal disputes in and out of camp, and changes of leadership. As I neared the end of my service, I realised how God had been faithful throughout. My fears, anxieties, and sorrow had been transformed in to assurance and joy. I saw the fulfilment of my prayers in the way my troopers remained united and supportive of one another, a solidarity that was absent when I first met them. I finished my service with the assurance that things had happened as God intended, emerging as a different person from when I first began.

Today I can testify of the reality of God’s faithfulness and goodness in my life. I can testify of the deep joy of walking with him through every triumph and struggle, of learning what it means to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. I can testify of a God who answers prayers, though not always in the ways we might expect. Though the darkness of doubt occasionally returns to cloud my heart, there remains a glowing candle that ensures it never stays. Just as God has been faithful before, He will be faithful in the days to come. That has given me reason to rejoice every single day.

“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 ESV


Tom Olyott