Have you ever gone through a time when it seemed you couldn’t hear God – and couldn’t make yourself heard by Him? Why do these “dark nights of the soul” happen? What can you do about them?
OUR FIRST TERM as missionaries in France was hard, as all first terms are for new missionaries. But we had enjoyed a great furlough, and had been refreshed physically and spiritually, and were eager to return to our adopted home and pick up the vital work we had left. We had packed everything except our last suitcases and were nearing the day when we would board the plane for Paris.
We had everything we needed to return, except our French temporary resident visas. The Lord stepped in and kept our visas from arriving, and we had to cancel our airline reservations. The ensuing days, which turned into weeks and finally into months were filled with frustration as we waited for the French diplomatic courier to make his weekly run, only to be told week after week that our visas were not in that pouch.
Those were days spent waiting, looking for reasons, for answers, for clear guidance from God. The frustration of not being able to do anything to hurry the French Foreign Ministry was coupled with the frustration of trying to find something profitable to fill the time, which still could be dropped at once as soon as we were able to leave.
But as I look back, I’d have to say that in all honesty the most difficult part was not the waiting, but the silence of God while we waited.
Yes, the silence of God.
I’m not sure that I ever acknowledged it in so many words – at least during the day. It was at night that the silence weighed so heavily. I would lie awake at night with questions, thinking about my questions and about lying awake.
But it seemed God was somewhere else. To say He is omnipresent, He is everywhere, sounded hollow: He most certainly was not there – where I could hear, sense, or feel Him.
I think my wife shared much the same feelings I had, but we didn’t talk about it in this way. After all, we were missionaries, therefore spiritual. And how could I, as spiritual leader of the family, admit I wasn’t experiencing the presence of God?
Such an admission would fall on evangelical ears as an open confession of sin. For we all know the doctrine that sin breaks our fellowship with God, but confession restores it. I guess unconsciously I dreaded opening myself to Job’s comforters. Obviously I was in sin and God was withholding the visas until I got my life straightened out. And as for the “silence of God,” it was really the “stubbornness of Gary,” and if I’d confess, the silence would be broken with words of forgiveness and acceptance.
I did examine my life at that time, and soberly concluded that there was no known unconfessed sin which was responsible for the experience.
EVERY DAY ISN’T SWEETER
At that time I had never heard anyone talk about experiencing the feeling that God was silent. But as I read the Bible – especially the Psalms – I am convinced that it is not uncommon for believers to pass through such experiences.
And I’m equally convinced that many who will read this have experienced the silence of God – or are experiencing it right now. You may not have called it that, but if you’re honest you will identify with what I’m describing.
The Bible is totally honest, but we have created a false standard in our evangelical circles that keeps us from being so. Afraid to admit what we see as a failure, we smile and sing, “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,” and all the while we’re empty, groping, bewildered.
In the last scene of the last act of King Lear, after death, madness, and the storm have swallowed the noble as well as the evil characters, Shakespeare has a broken but surviving Edgar bring down the final curtain with these words: “The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
We would probably all be healthier mentally if we made it a habit to speak what we feel, not what we think we ought to say, in sad times, in hard times, in times of heartbreaking grief or stomach-wrenching fear, as well as in times of bubbling joy and richly satisfying peace. We’ve fallen out of the habit of truthfulness and are mired in the fear of other Christians’ reactions. Afraid of saying something we ought not to say, we skirt truthful acknowledgement of our deep feelings when we speak what we think we ought to say.
But in Psa. 13 – and in a good many others as well – David candidly revealed his deepest feelings. David, the man after God’s own heart, in a piece of poetry inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself, admits his own experience of the silence of God.
BE HONEST WITH FEELINGS
Just here, I think, is where we must begin in understanding, enduring, and surmounting this experience in our own lives. We need to confront and acknowledge our feelings honestly.
Psychologists and counselors tell us that unacknowledged and, therefore, unresolved feelings lie at the heart of a vast array of behavioral problems, even among Christians. But the scriptural examples teach us to confront honestly how we feel. We see Elijah crushed in self-pity and despair. We hear Jonah lash out in anger at God. Habakkuk expresses impatience, Jeremiah grieves over his city, and Hosea’s heart breaks over his wife’s unfaithfulness.
Acknowledging how we feel, then, is not wrong. It is the place to start.
“But,” you might object, “what if I am bitter, jealous, angry with God?” Those may he unhelpful feelings leading to wrong behavior, but until were willing to admit we feel them, we cannot deal with them and we run the risk that suppressing those feelings will do even more damage, possibly resulting in mental and behavioral dysfunctions.
So the first step in dealing with the experience of the silence of God is to acknowledge it. This David does in Psa. 13:1-2:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
The four-time repeated cry, “How long?” shows us the depth of David’s feelings. It seemed God had forgotten – abandoned – him. The experience of God’s presence was far from David’s life. He lay in bed with only his thoughts to wrestle with, and the lack of spiritual victory in his life led David to believe, whether literally or figuratively, that his enemy gloated in his defeat.
This is the experience of God’s silence. Not the self-imposed exile of unconfessed sin. Not simply the feeling of lack of guidance; not even the experience of waiting months or even years before seeing a specific prayer answered. No, this is the feeling that God is totally absent from all areas of your life. Your prayers bounce off the ceiling and fall impotently on the floor. You force yourself to read the Bible, but it is about as meaningful and relevant as a three-month-old issue of Newsweekin the doctor’s waiting room. Christian music seems like insipid platitudes; Christian books like so much pabulum, and Christian fellowship about as helpful as a convention of mannequins.
It feels better during the day, although it seems as though a dusty pall has settled over everything, dulling colors and dimming the sun. At night, wrestling with your thoughts, the silence of God is so real it aches and sleep comes hard. It feels like a vast sorrow with no cause, a deep fear of an unknown threat. And all we can do is cry, “How long?”
C.S. Lewis married late in life, and after just a couple of years his wife Joy died of cancer. Her death plunged Lewis deep into grief, and during those days he kept a brutally honest record of his thoughts and feelings. That journal, published under the title A Grief Observed, records Lewis’ experience of the silence of God:
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?
This is the same question reflected in the title of Philip Yancey’s excellent book, Where is God When if Hurts? The experience of the silence of God is not unique to us. Others – giants of the faith – have stood here before us. And so the first step to take in dealing with the experience is to acknowledge it.
KEEP ON PRAYING
In Psalm 13:3-4 we see David making a specific request to God:
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death: my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
“Look on me, answer me,” he pleads. In this idiom David asks that God take care of him, and do it in such a way that David can see evidence of that care.
David offers two reasons for his request: First, he is so depressed in the silence that he feels sick unto death. Second, David fears his enemy’s exultant claims of victory, the dreaded sound, “I told you so!”
David’s prayer – look on me and answer – is not very specific as prayers go. But in it we can see a second phase of response to the situation. If the first thing we must do to work through the experience of the silence of God is to admit it honestly, the second thing is to keep on praying. Even when it seems futile, even when it seems our prayers hang limp in the stale air around us, never coming close to heaven, even then we must go on, continue to pray. Pray without ceasing, Paul said, not just when you feel like it (1 Thes. 5:17).
We must keep asking God to make Himself real in our experience, to meet us in our need. No need for oratorical excellence in this prayer – anguished honesty is more eloquent. What we need is to feel God Himself really present in our lives, not some sanitized Sunday-school-booklet portrait of Him. As Frederick Buechner says in his excellent book Telling the Truth, “It is out of the absence of God that God makes Himself present. …God himself does not give answers. He gives Himself.”3 And so even in the awful silence, we must continue to pray.
The last two verses of the Psalm take us one step further. In these verses David reasserts his faith:
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
If the first two stanzas of the Psalm are spoken through clenched teeth and salty tears, in this final stanza the shadow of a smile flickers. Silence isn’t yet turned to symphony; the joy of full fellowship with God isn’t yet restored. But in reasserting his faith, David finds the strength to get up and face just one more day.
David’s expression of faith rests on two pillars: God’s unfailing love, and David’s past experience of God’s goodness. He knows God’s love is loyal, always faithful. He would nod agreement to Paul’s conclusion that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
And he can remember many times in the past when the goodness of God was overwhelmingly real. And so David proclaims his joy in God’s salvation – an expression that I believe refers to the deliverance God will yet bring to David. He knows the silence of God won’t last forever, and so answers his own question of verse one. God will deliver him because He loves him and has been good to him in the past. Based on this faith, David will yet sing to the Lord. Not just now, maybe, but someday. Silence will be turned to song.
LOOK TO A HIDDEN REALITY
Now this might easily be dismissed as a shallow appeal to the power of positive thinking. It might be, that is, if it were not true.
Just because David feels abandoned does not mean God is not really there. Just because he cannot hear God’s voice does not mean he will never hear it again, or that he is not even now speaking, or that help is not already on the way. It may be that concentrating on statements of trust in God’s love and goodness is the power of positive thinking, but it will keep us from surrendering to the power of negative thinking.
In the last stanza of Psa. 13, then, on the basis of his faith, David asserts that what he feels, real though those feelings are to him, is not really the way things are. And we must say the same. Yes, we must confront and acknowledge our feelings. But then we must lay those feelings alongside reality and see how they measure up. You see, if you have made a faith commitment to God, you have faith in His love and have seen His goodness to you in the past. And so in spite of how you feel, you know God will bring deliverance.
Thinking back on my experience of God’s silence while waiting for those visas, I believe the feelings lasted eight to ten weeks. I went that long living, so it felt, in a vacuum. I came to church, smiled, even preached. But one day my wife and I left the children with some friends and drove up in the mountains to talk and pray. And when we returned, God had spoken. I can’t really say He broke His silence; rather, He broke into in my silence. By opening our eyes to certain, particular needs of our own family, God made it quite clear that we should not return to France.
Maybe I had not been ready to hear that word two months earlier. Certainly it brought some disappointments and regrets. We had worked hard learning the language and the culture, and now would not use those skills. We had made plans that now we would never see fulfilled. We had developed relationships that now we could never continue. But in that time, God’s grace and peace were real. He was again there for me. And out of the experience we gained a deeper understanding of God.
Right now are you perhaps feeling the silence of God in your life? You might be in circumstances where you deeply need God, but just can’t seem to feel Him in your life. Perhaps you’ve lost a job, or lost a loved one through death. Perhaps the anguish has been brought on by a total inability to communicate with your spouse, children (or spiritual leader). It might be caused by physical pain, or doubts, or unjustified personal attacks. And just when you need God the most, He seems most absent from your life.
Don’t yield to despair. Others have been there before you. You need not let that feeling of abandonment lead you down the wrong path. You could, you see, try one of many ways of covering up for the silence of God in our lives. You could try to mask the silence through a frantic pace at work, or a whirlwind social schedule, as if being active and surrounded by people can fill the void left by the absence of God. You might hide behind overeating, or perhaps over-exercising. You could seek escape through drinking or drugs, or the enticing finality of the escape offered in a handful of pills.
But that doesn’t have to be your pathway. Keep praying. Even if you feel it’s doing no good, keep it up. And then in faith reflect on God’s unfailing love and all the ways that His goodness has enriched your life in the past. Have confidence based on that faith that He will bring deliverance to you. Remember, it’s out of God’s absence that God makes Himself present.
Wait patiently in faith for that new, deeper experience of God Himself that will be yours when the silence is broken. David’s pathway led not to despair, but back to joy and song. Yours can, too.
Garrett J. DeWeese, Discipleship Journal