Why is it that in the difficult times, when we most desire a touch from God, He often appears to be silent?

My earliest memory is of holding my mother’s hand on my first day of school. I was so nervous I wouldn’t let go as I entered the classroom. I can still remember the smoothness of her palms and the warmth of her fingers reassuring my fastbeating heart. Her hand was my lifeline and my security when I was scared and alone. But the comforter was about to become the comforted.

In May this year I sat in a darkened room. The silence was deafening as I strained to hear the muted words coming out of the mouth of a woman whose body had been ravaged by cancer. This time my mother held onto my hand seeking reassurance from its warmth in her time of distress.

Those were heartbreaking days. One moment I was praying for a miraculous recovery, and the next for the end to come quickly. Sometimes I gave in to uncontrollable tears and sometimes I was just weighed down by a cold numbness. But I was also haunted by another paradox – the deafening silence was exacerbated by God’s conspicuous absence. What I would have given during those long, languishing hours for that still, small voice of peace.

I am not alone in my experience of the silence of God. This month I have spoken to a girl devastated at the breakdown of a relationship, a parent trying to come to terms with her child’s disability, a couple desperate to conceive, a wife distraught at her husband’s infidelity, a woman whose son was still imprisoned, despite evidence that pointed to his innocence. All these mature Christians spoke of the doubts that crowded in on top of the struggles they were facing. Why is it that just at the times when we need God most, he is often most silent? Many people speak about God drawing closer to them in these times of distress, but I am interested in the times when the opposite is true. Where do we go when we seem to need God’s comfort most desperately, but he withholds his voice from us?

CS Lewis put it like this in his book, A Grief Observed:

‘Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence… Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?’

Knowing that the experience of God’s silence is common may be reassuring. It may even be somewhat inspirational. In the middle of the horrific genocide of World War Two, a Jew in hiding scrawled on his cellar wall the following words: ‘I believe in the sun, even when it isn’t shining. I believe in love, even when I do not feel it. I believe in God, even when he is silent.’ This is a great soundbite, but how does our faith shine in the dark nights of the soul; how can it survive, starved of the oxygen of God’s voice? Another Jew facing a previous genocide may be a helpful starting point.

God’s Silence and God’s Sovereignty

Esther’s story is strange. The book is full of sexual exploitation, personal vendettas and the threat of anti-Semitic ethnic cleansing. But as I was preparing a sermon on this book during the last few weeks of my mother’s life, I noticed that nowhere in the story does anyone once mention God. No one refers to the scriptures and no one explicitly prays. God is on mute while murder is plotted, rape is legitimized and lives are ruined. Yet this book made it into the canon of scripture and, despite his silence, God’s sovereignty rings out loud and clear.

Reading Esther is like watching a film at the cinema. There are heroes and villains, supporting roles, bit parts and extras. But the most important person is absent for the duration. There would be no film without a director, who shapes every scene and controls every character. Each prop, camera angle and incidental character is deliberately and strategically placed from start to finish by the director. For most of Esther’s story it is hard to see how the threads are going to weave their way towards a happy ending, but by the final scene we can hear loud and clear God’s direction as he brings things to a satisfying resolution.

If Esther’s story is to help us understand God’s sovereignty in our own lives, perhaps we need to grasp the timescales involved. It is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that we can understand that the years of exile, Esther’s bereavement, her forced marriage and confined life eventually culminates much later with the rescue of God’s people. Surely Esther would have felt God was silent during her years of abuse. But somehow even in these dire circumstances, God’s sovereignty overrules.

God’s Silence and our Struggle

Last week I sat in the lounge of a man who had based his whole life on following and trusting and preaching a sovereign God. With wavering voice he told me the tragic story of his niece, a young mum, who had died from a brain tumour just three weeks earlier. He told me how during the previous year he had prayed for her and with her, and about the endless prayer meetings he had attended and the promises he had claimed and the scriptures he had clung to. He told me of his own grief and of the devastation to the children left behind. Then he opened up to the spiritual struggle, as holding onto God’s sovereignty had only led to more nagging questions: ‘How could a loving God allow this? How could God possibly be glorified through this tragedy? Isn’t the pain of the here and now as real as the joy of heaven? Is God even here at all?’

We don’t believe in a small God who is easy to fathom or who exists solely for our benefit. And yet when God doesn’t do things the way we expect him to we can easily feel betrayed, leading us often to interpret the silence of God as the ‘indifference of God’. The wrestling that this produces can be seen through the whole of scripture. We see the Israelites alternating between celebrating God’s rescue and doubting his goodness. We see the prophets standing up to proclaim God’s words one minute, only to run away and hide the next. We see the disciple Peter confidently stepping out of the boat, only to look down at waves that then began to engulf him. We see the disciples on the Emmaus Road walking away from Jesus when they needed him most because they believed he was locked in the grave.

A friend of mine recently experienced bullying, lying and cover-up in a Christian workplace that has left him emotionally and spiritually scarred. Despite moving home and changing career, he is still suffering, and 50-year-old habits of quiet times and church attendance have lapsed. He can’t face the emotions of sung worship or enjoy the fellowship of other Christians in the same way. To some it would appear that he has lost his faith, but as a biblical scholar he knows that his struggling faith is just as legitimate. This is how he describes it: ‘I still believe in God, but I have gone from the confident trust of Isaiah to the anguished despair of Job to the quizzical detachment of Ecclesiastes.’

Just as plants deprived of water put down deeper roots, so the struggle that seems to be such a part of our spiritual lives proves not the vulnerability but the vitality of our faith. Our experience of other relationships shows that when things are falling apart, the struggle – to hold them together, rebuild trust, respect and routes of communication – proves the commitment and acknowledges the intrinsic value of those relationships. If God’s silence bothers us, it is an indicator of our love and need for him.

God’s Silence and our Selfishness

When the ash cloud cleared the skies of aircraft, we became aware that jet flight was not to be taken for granted. Similarly it is in God’s silence we appreciate and value his voice more than ever.

Maybe, for some of us, the silence we experience in our relationship with God during times of crisis provokes us to the realisation that we had stopped listening for him a long time ago. Maybe the silence is a mercy from God – to help us realise where we are with him before it is too late.

Ironically the silence of God offers us a chance to resolve anew to deliberately make time and space in our lives to listen to him. Lewis famously explained: ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts to us in our suffering. Suffering is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’ Could it be that God’s silence is a way of breaking through our deafness to his voice?

I recently spoke to veteran evangelist and activist Tony Campolo about the struggle to hear God’s voice. Raised a Pentecostal, Campolo explained to me how extrovert his praying had been in the past, and how prone he was to telling God things he already knew. And so he had to work hard to incorporate listening into his daily disciplines: ‘I pray several different ways in the course of the day. In the morning I do what St Ignatius or Thomas Keating would call “centring prayer”. I get up before I have to and I centre on Jesus. I drive everything else out of my mind and focus on Jesus alone. In the quietude and stillness of the morning I don’t ask God for anything, I simply surrender to an infilling of the Spirit. I just yield. The greatest comment on prayer comes from the Bible when Jesus said: “If you want to pray publicly, that has its own rewards. But if you really want to pray, go into the closet and close the door.” Sometimes I spend time doing this and nothing happens. But about one out of every five times there is a sense of the filling of the Spirit.’

God’s Silence and God’s Suffering

There is a school of thought that says it is due to a lack of faith, or some unconfessed sin in our lives, that we do not hear from God or get what we pray for. But Joseph, Job and Paul are just three examples that break the rule. It was not Joseph’s lack of faith that led to his imprisonment, nor was it Job’s sin that led him to lose everything and almost everyone that was precious to him. Paul was inspired by God to retell his story of unanswered prayer when he explained, ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [the ‘thorn’] away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”’ (2 Corinthians 12:8–9). We must confront with scripture the kind of teaching that heaps guilt on top of our suffering – that says it is because of our lack of faith that our prayers haven’t been answered.

Ziya Meral, a Turkish friend working in the Middle East, wrote these powerful words: ‘Where is God when millions of his children are being persecuted in the most brutal ways? Why does he keep silent in the middle of persecution but speak loudly in the middle of conferences with famous speakers and worship bands? I have prayed many times like Luther: “Bless us, Lord, even curse us! But don’t remain silent!”’ (Christianity magazine, March 2008)

Meral’s struggle with this question brought him ultimately to Jesus’ own experience of the silence of God: ‘The greatest glory Jesus brought to God was not when he walked on the water or prayed for long hours, but when he cried in agony in the garden of Gethsemane and still continued to follow God’s will, even though it meant isolation, darkness, and the silence of God. Thus, we know that when everything around us fails, when we are destroyed and abandoned, our tears, blood, and corpses are the greatest worship songs we have ever sung.’

Similarly, Pete Greig in his book God on Mute (Kingsway) also focuses in on Holy Week as the place where we can find solace and make some sense out of the mystery of suffering and silence: ‘Even Jesus experienced the silence of God and unanswered prayers but these became the occasion for the greatest miracles of all times.’

Greig identifies three apparently unanswered prayers. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church. But that week saw his disciples scattering and hiding, and Herod and Pontius Pilate uniting; this pattern continues to this day. The promise remains, however, that God will return for his bride, the one worldwide Church. Later on Maundy Thursday, Christ prayed for the ‘cup of suffering’ of the cross to be taken away from him. It wasn’t, but through his death the miracle of eternal life is offered to us all. Finally, on Good Friday Jesus prayed to God, quoting Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ but there was no answer from heaven. Through Jesus’ rejection on the cross, we have been accepted as sons and daughters into God’s family.

God’s Silence and the Scriptures

It is fascinating that God’s word contains Jesus’ anguished prayers in Gethsemane, the psalmists’ expressions of doubt, despair and depression, books such as Job, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, Habakkuk’s complaints and John the Baptist’s questions from prison. The Bible doesn’t hide the difficulties of reconciling the three realities of the experience of suffering, belief in the goodness of God and the silence of heaven. Even biblical authors did not find resolution to their struggles but lived in the tension point, hanging on to their faith in the face of famine, destruction and bereavement. These dark passages don’t get much attention in our pulpits, although it may be that these less confident passages of Scripture can offer us more of a refuge.

Some people I spoke to have found solace in the liturgical churches where the richness and depth of ancient creeds and a strong tradition of the public reading of Scripture offer an antidote to the shallowness to some forms of contemporary worship.

Pete Greig spoke to me of the importance of reading scripture when God seems silent. His advice stems from his own agonising experience of watching his wife suffer from a brain tumour.

‘One of the things I had to learn was that silence and absence are different. There are definitely times when God chooses to become silent and it’s tempting to assume he’s absent. But St John of the Cross taught us that seasons of silence can actually be times of spiritual growth. When God’s word gets muted, a living faith can be reduced to a sort of bloody-minded resignation to things we once knew for sure. But although Bible verses may seem dry, it doesn’t make them less true. They still convey Christ, the word of God, to us. If sailors can still navigate by the light of stars that no longer exist, we too can stay true to the things we once knew to be true. My advice is this: believe your beliefs, doubt your doubts and don’t get isolated by disappointment and pain. My heart was breaking and my ears were ringing in the silence, but the love of friends still remained “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).’

When I was a young boy, I didn’t know how to pray. It was my mother who gave me words, kneeling by my bedside with her arm around me. She taught me that reciting a simple prayer together before I went to sleep helped me to connect each day with Almighty God. In the agonising days before she died and we were both lost for words, we turned together to the scriptures. It was the psalms that gave us words to speak to God when we had none of our own. It was the psalms that enabled us to find God’s voice in the silence.

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent…Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no-one to help…You who fear the LORD, praise him!’ (Psalm 22:1–2,11,23)

‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’ (Psalm 23:1–4)

Recommended Reading

The Problem of Pain (HarperOne) CS Lewis This is CS Lewis’ classic book dealing with the intellectual challenges that suffering brings which, in my view, is the best treatment of the subject.

Doubt in Perspective (IVP) Alister McGrath A world-class thinker offers practical and pastoral advice on what to do when you doubt. A very readable, engaging and sensitive approach to the subject.

Where Is God When It Hurts? (Zondervan) Philip Yancey This book byChristianity Today’s editor at large is Yancey at his best offering hope and help for those feeling distant from God.

God on Mute (Soul Survivor/Kingsway) Pete Greig If you only read one book on unanswered prayer this is the one to read. Greig writes with a lightness of touch, humour and profundity. His chapter on Easter Saturday is worth the price of the book alone.