The Silences of God
© 1991 by Paul Thigpen
Whoever said "silence is golden" never had an argument with his wife.
Quiet moments are undoubtedly a rare treat in our noisy world. But some kinds of quiet, like the icy silence of an angered spouse, are barriers that leave us isolated and dismayed.
Perhaps the most disconcerting silences of all are the silences of God. David's cry in the eighty-third psalm, "O God, do not be silent!" (v. 1), is often in our hearts as well. No doubt we often fail to hear from the Lord simply because we're not paying attention. But what of those occasions — usually times of great personal need — when we earnestly are listening, yet God remains silent?
God's silences, like His words, are intended to be redemptive. But we must learn how to interpret them. In fact, the Lord's refusal to speak may well say more to us than a direct word from Him, and say it more clearly and emphatically. If we learn to understand Gods reasons for remaining quiet, we'll be able to receive the silence as part of His revelation to us.
The Silence of Judgment
Most of us can probably recall the picture from childhood: the tight-lipped, raised-eyebrow silence of a parent who was angry over our misbehavior. The absence of words spoke loudly of his or her displeasure and often provoked in us a more earnest repentance than any verbal rebuke could have prompted. Such a silence was an act of judgment.
Sometimes God's silences are that way. We find an example in the early days of the prophet Samuel, when the Lord was reluctant to speak because the priests at Shiloh, Eli's sons, "were treating the Lord's offering with contempt." "In those days," the Scripture tells us, "the word of the Lord was rare" (2:17; 3:1 NIV).
As priests, these men should have been speaking and listening to God on behalf of all Israel. But instead their sin resulted in a famine of God's word throughout the nation. The Lord refused to speak through them because His words would have been defiled by men who handled holy things with contempt.
On this occasion, God's silence was one of judgment, a stamp of disapproval on the behavior of the priests. His refusal to speak caused the people to become so thirsty for God's word that when He finally raised up a righteous prophet — Samuel — they flocked to hear him. Those several years of silence during the priesthood of Eli's family underscored the divine word that came through Samuel. God had caught the ear of Israel with His silence.
Jesus and the Pharisees
In the New Testament we find that Jesus also used silence as a tool of judgment. The familiar story of the woman caught in adultery is a classic example of how silence can give birth to a conviction of sin (see John 8:1-11). When the Pharisees demanded that Jesus pronounce judgment on the woman, He first focused their attention by remaining silent while He wrote on the ground (v. 6).
Then the Lord stood and turned the prosecutors into defendants with a simple challenge and a second pause: "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her" (v. 7). The silence that followed His words as He stooped to write on the ground again brought conviction to men who had memorized God's words but forgotten His heart.
I learned about this kind of chastising silence personally just a few months after the Lord first apprehended me. Attending a six-week training session for Christian workers where sound Bible teaching and worship filled my daily schedule, I enjoyed a season in which God spoke to me clearly every day in the Scripture and prayer.
But one morning the Lord spoke to me pointedly: "Get your relationship right with your father." It was a frightening and uncomfortable word for me, because that relationship was painfully broken at the time. So I promptly tried to ignore what God had said.
Nevertheless, the Lord was persistent. He repeated the word to me again and again whenever I was in prayer (and even when I wasn't). Yet I continued to neglect His instructions, and finally the heavens were closed up.
The Lord grew silent. My prayers became monologues. His silence eventually compelled me to repent, and on the night I finally confessed my rebellion, God answered me with the grace to carry out His command.
We should note that in all these cases, the purpose of God remained redemptive. The silence brought judgment, but not condemnation. When God refuses to speak this way, we're left to consider the guilt and consequences of our sin. He wants our self-examination to motivate us to forsake our stubborn waywardness.
The Silence of Mercy
At other times, God's reluctance to speak may be, not an act of judgment, but an extension of mercy. His forbearance may allow us time to repent, save us from disaster or protect us from knowledge that would devastate us.
God's mercy in silence is poignantly portrayed in Jesus' arrest and trial. Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would go quietly to His death: "As a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth" (53:7). The prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus went silently with the mob that arrested Him and stood mutely before Herod and Pilate.
The Lord's words to Peter that night, when the disciple tried to defend him, are a startling reminder of God's grace: "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matt:. 26:53 NIV). One word from the lips of Jesus could have brought swift judgment to a world daring to reject God's only Son.
But instead He kept silent. And later that night when Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?" little did he know that the Lord's refusal to respond was also an act of grace–for the truth, if spoken, would have condemned all who were listening.
"What About My Career?"
In the first year of our marriage my wife and I learned an important lesson about the silence of mercy. Employment for me during that time was sporadic, and we were frustrated over the fact that I'd been unable to establish a career. Each time I found work, the job would turn out either to be temporary or to have little to do with my training or career plans.
In other respects we were convinced we were in the center of God's will for us. But we became increasingly restless, and finally frantic, about my vocation. We asked God to tell us what steps I should be taking in that direction. But we heard no reply. Our prayers were soon punctuated with cries of panic: Why was God silent?
Eventually, the answer came when my father became seriously ill. I had to leave my job, move back to my hometown and help manage the family business so my mother could be with him. If I had become established by that time in a good job with a bright future, my move to help my family would have cost me greatly. But as it was, I gave up very little.
A few months later, my father died. We helped my mother get back on her feet managing the business — and God immediately opened the door for my first editorial position. It was precisely the kind of job I was seeking at precisely the right time.
Why did God remain silent for so long about my vocational future? Because He knew that to reveal His reasons for the delay would be to reveal the fact that my father was soon going to die. God's silence was an act of mercy.
How many times have we been angry at God because He didn't act according to our expectations? We must learn instead to be grateful that on occasion He refrains from responding, for the truth might overwhelm or condemn us. Realizing our limitations should help us at such times to agree with the Israelites who trembled when God spoke the law at Sinai. The people begged, "Do not have God speak to us or we will die" (Ex. 20:19). They counted His silence as mercy.
The Silence of Testing
The Bible's most detailed account of how God can test a human being is found in the book of Job. God allowed Job to be deprived of his children, his health and his wealth in order to try his heart, to see whether he would continue to serve the Lord or whether, as his wife suggested, he would "curse God and die" (Job 2:9 NIV).
Beyond those losses, however, Job endured a further, perhaps more agonizing, trial: the Lord's silence. For many days God refused to respond to his cries for an explanation of what had befallen him. Job's story illustrates that sometimes the test of affliction is not nearly so severe as the test of apparent abandonment.
God may sometimes withdraw the awareness of His presence–including the sound of His voice — in order to manifest our attitudes. We read, for example, that in His dealings with King Hezekiah "God left him alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart" (2 Chronicles 32:31 NIV). God withdrew His presence just as a critical situation arose in which wisdom was needed, so that Hezekiah had to make a decision without a direct word from the Lord. All he had to go on was the wisdom gained from God's previous instructions and dealing with him.
Jesus used silence this way to test the Canaanite woman who begged him to heal her demon-tormented daughter. Though her request was not only legitimate but also urgent, in response to her plea "Jesus did not answer a word" (Matt. 15:21-28 NIV).
Nevertheless, the woman persisted, despite the disciples' desire to send her away and words from the Lord that would have offended most people. Jesus finally granted her request and praised her faith. His silence had tested her, making evident what was in her heart.
At times God will refuse to answer our requests immediately in order to test our persistence and confidence, to see if we will "keep knocking" until "the door is opened" to us (Matt. 7:7). His silence will clearly manifest our attitude toward Him by giving us an opportunity to demonstrate our confidence in His power.
A wise friend of mine once put it this way: "God's silence can be like a teacher's silence in school when you're taking a test. You may try to ask her the answer to one of the problems, but she won't answer. You have to do your best with what you know, and then when the test is over, she'll go over the answers with you."
The Silence of Waiting
Often to be silent is to wait. Probably all of us have at times experienced a one-sided conversation when we remained silent simply because the other person's unbroken discourse left us no room for even a word. In such a situation we usually must wait for the speaker to wear him or herself out before we can reply.
How often must God wait for us in silence until we can "be still, and know that He is God"? (Ps. 36:10). Several of the psalms ask God why He's silent in a time of trouble. If we look closely at those cries of distress, we find that some of them have a desperate, even frantic, tone about them that suggests the psalmist's confidence has waned, and panic has gripped him. Psalm 35, for example, is all one long, uninterrupted plea for help.
That's not to judge the psalmist, of course. If we had been in his shoes at the time he wrote this particular psalm, our prayers might have sounded even more desperate than his. But listen to Isaiah's words:
"In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust is your strength….The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. … How blessed are all those who wait for Him (30:15, 18 NAS, emphasis added).
The point is simply this: There are times when we must stand on God's faithfulness, realizing that in His silence He is waiting for us to be silent and to wait for His salvation.
"Is She the One?"
I remember praying frantically many years ago when I was asking God for a wife. An old man in my early twenties (or so it seemed then), I was certain that God had forgotten my cries for a companion and had left His phone off the hook. Every time I met a young Christian lady, I would ask, "Is she the one, Lord?"
I put out "fleeces" and looked for signs. But out of fear that I might make a decision outside of God's will, I refrained from pursuing any particular relationship. The result was an increasing panic that I would always be alone.
Finally, at a conference for Christian singles, I gained some objectivity on my situation. I met hundreds of young adults who shared my plight — most of them gracefully. So I too found grace to say to God: "I'll even stay single if that's Your will." And then I relaxed.
In less than a year I married the young Christian woman who lived in the apartment next door. She had been there all along — God's choice for my wife, right under my nose — but I didn't find out as long as I was bombarding heaven. God, in His goodness, eventually "made me to lie down in green pastures" (see Ps. 23:2) — but I couldn't see the grass until I finally lay down.
When we consider that the Canaanite woman's persistent request was the proper response to Jesus' silence, we may wonder how we can discern between the silence of testing and the silence of waiting. When do we "keep on knocking" as she did, and when do we cease striving and know that God is God?
Perhaps the best way to discern the proper response is to examine the attitude of our prayer. Are we persevering in our request because of a confidence that God will answer? Or are we clamoring frantically because we fear that God has forgotten us? If our prayer is born in panic, we need to remember that He restores our soul "beside quiet waters" (Ps. 23:2-3 NIV).
The Silence of Love
The Scripture speaks of yet one other kind of divine stillness, a quiet time which is perhaps most appropriately called the silence of love. the prophet Zephaniah tells us that sometimes the Lord will exult over us with joy, but at other times "He will be quiet in His love" (Zeph. 3:17 NAS).
Someone has said that the deepest sorrows and the highest joys are best shared in silence. I remember two quiet, wordless moments which reflected this truth in my own life. One took place when I stood silently by my father's casket at his funeral. The other came when I stood watching my firstborn child, only a few moments old, and wept silently over the miracle that had made me a father.
There are times and places when words only serve to distract or intrude, and silence is the only vessel capable of conveying what's in our hearts. Sometimes, I believe, we have such encounters with God.
God calls us at times to silent moments when He has no blinding revelations, no heavy dealings, no urgent instructions. Sometimes He draws us to Himself so that we may simply rest in His love, knowing that He's there and that He cares for us. David once wrote beautifully of such a "sabbath" next to the heart of God:
"My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me" (Ps. 131: 1,2 NIV).
The child who is weaned comes to his or her mother's breast, not to struggle for nourishment, but simply to rest.
We Are Beloved
As we learn to interpret the silences of God, we grow in our appreciation of His wisdom manifested in restraint. Whether He's silent in order to judge us or grant us mercy, to test us or simply to quiet us, His intention is always redemptive. He seeks to build in us trust that when He does speak, His words are faithful and true.
Secure in that hope, in the moments when silence is His word to us and stillness is our prayer, we can learn to rest in the calming quiet of His presence. Knowing we are beloved, we can be confident of one comforting truth: The silences of God, like His words to us, are yet another expression of His unfailing grace.
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