It is one of the loudest things you will ever hear. The silence of God. The battle-torn heart-cry rasps your voice, your cheeks grow red, salt-burned with tears, and you raise your face hoping to hear a word — hoping to hear anything at all. But there is only the sound of the blood pulsing in your ears and the rise and fall of your breath marking out the moments of no answers. You likely wrestle at times with God’s silence just many of us who pray to him do.
When God is silent, I reflect on why we are silent at times in an attempt to make sense of as-of-yet-unanswered prayers. When we mull over potential solutions to a problem, we usually remain silent. But God ponders nothing. There is no need. He knows all things. When overwhelmed or distracted, we speak little. But a God who is perfectly attentive to all things can never share those all-too-common human weaknesses. God is not an overwhelmed, cosmic short-order cook, nor is he frozen in thought like Rodin’s famous statue The Thinker.
Upon growing unhappy, angry or indifferent, we may ignore the things that bring displeasure. When people we care about are in distress or need, we want to answer. When they need to talk, we want to be there. When there is trust, there is open communication. But when we are hurt, betrayed or ridiculed, we grow silent. In moments of God’s silence, we often make him over in our own image and assign to his inaction reasons of our own styling. In trying to make sense of the silence, we often default to our own, most-negative reasons for wordlessness.
“God is angry at me.”
“God does not care.”
“God is ignoring my cry.”
As one of his children, none of these assertions are true, but still the thoughts come. A quick look at the Psalms will yield evidence of his silence while the cries of his people echo loudly…
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest (Psalm 22:2).
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Psalm 44:23-26).
O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! (Psalm 83:1).
And one of the most heart-rending statements can be found in the book of Job: “I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me” (Job 30:20).
“You only look at me…” The very statement makes me think of a child crying for out to an unfeeling father who just stares, unmoved, and does nothing. The silence of God can be terrifying. In the midst of fear and uncertainty, when we seem to need a word from him most, he is often silent.
What do we do when we are worried, fearful and seeking, but the heavens are brass? We may have repented of everything he has brought to our minds, approach him with pure hands and a clean heart, and still have the silence ring back upon itself. What do we make of his silences?
For one, we must remember that there are things only God knows…
It is the glory of God to conceal things…(Proverbs 25:2).
The secret things belong to the LORD our God… (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Secondly, we know that God only does things the right way…
This God–his way is perfect…(Psalm 18:30).
Finally, we cannot anticipate or fully grasp certain actions of God…
Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Psalm 77:19).
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us…(Ephesians 3:20).
So then, being perfect and never careless, even his times of silence have meaning. Like pauses between the notes of music, the times of no answers are building toward an end that only he sees clearly. It is his glory to reveal and conceal at his will. Since his way is perfect, and he can do no wrong, when he is silent, it is good, purposeful and, yes, glorious.
Consider a well-known passage in the context of God’s apparent inaction found in John 11:1-6. Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
It’s those last two verses that will drive you to confusion. Verses 5 and 6 do not seem to go together. If Jesus loved them, then why on earth did he not go immediately? Don’t gloss over this idea, and don’t dismiss it. There is something going on there that needs to be examined.
The word used in verse 6 “so” can be translated as “then, therefore, accordingly, consequently, these things being so.” In other words, verse 5 and verse 6 are joined because the second verse is a result of the information in the first verse.
Try reading it like this: Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [Because of this], when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
In some ways, that seems more frightening than an apparent contradiction, but there is a deeper reason for what Jesus did, or more accurately, did not do. A few years ago, as I planned to speak to a group, I told a close friend of mine named Carl that I was going share the story of Lazarus in John 11. I mentioned that I planned to talk about Jesus’ silence when they asked him asked to come to them, his sense of timing and how he’s never late. It’s the standard approach to the story. Carl just stared at me and told me that he didn’t know if the main thing Jesus was trying to show Mary and Martha was something about his timing when he delayed in coming to Bethany when Lazarus was sick. Instead, Jesus wanted to show them something about himself they didn’t know. Carl said, “They called for Jesus because they knew him as the Healer, but he wanted them to know him as the Resurrection.”
His statement reminded me of one from Oswald Chambers in My Utmost For His Highest: “When you cannot hear God, you will find that he has trusted you in the most intimate way possible — with absolute silence, not a silence of despair, but one of pleasure, because he saw that you could withstand an even bigger revelation.”
Jesus trusted Mary, Martha and Lazarus with a new revelation of himself out of his love for them and a desire for his own glory. He knew that they had grown to a place where they were ready for something more — more of him. He made them wait, not for a healing, not for a physical resurrection, but for a divine revelation that would change them forever. We always think that we are ready for the next revelation, but only he knows when we are prepared for what he will give us. Only God knows when we can handle more of him.
Thinking about this truth, I wrote the following:
Now Jesus loved ______________. Because of this, he ______________________, so that he would be known in a deeper way.
Then I began to think of the accounts in the Bible that could fit easily into those blanks.
Now Jesus loved the disciples. Because of this, he allowed them to go through the storm and revealed his power over creation, so that he would be known in a deeper way.
Now God loved Moses. Because of this, he allowed him to be an unknown in the land of Midian for forty years to prepare him to be used to deliver God’s people, so that he would be known in a deeper way.
Now God loved the world. Because of this, he sent his own Son to die for our sins, so that he would be known in a deeper way.
You can take those the words, and the blanks, and write in your own name and circumstances…
Now Jesus loves me. Because of this, he has delayed in answering prayers and has remained silent on specific things, so that he would be known in a deeper way.
Would you be willing to try something? The next time the silence comes when you pray to him, take the next step of faith and say, “God, thank you for trusting me with this. Thank you for loving me and trusting me with your silence. And thank you in advance for the deeper revelation of yourself that you plan to show me. I look forward to knowing you more. Prepare my heart to receive what you have for me, and may you receive all the glory as you reveal yourself. I trust you and know that you have better things to come.”
We will trust the promise of God to draw near to us when we draw near to him, even if we can not clearly see his working at the time. – James 4:8a Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
We will know that, even in his silence, God has not abandoned us. – Hebrews 13:5b For he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
We will wait patiently in our times of silence for God to answer. – Psalm 62:1 For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.