Slilent God

Not long ago, my friend Steve asked when was the last time I experienced God’s silence. I told him that I have had many notable times in my life when God was not speaking. Looking back, I can explain the reason–the best I understand it–for each one of those seasons.

I told Steve about my transition to become the senior pastor of the church where we now both serve. I loved my last church, maybe too much. I didn’t want to leave. Everything in me wanted to stay, so when I got the call to consider being the senior pastor of Grace Chapel, I was not open to the idea.

In fact, I told God in my car one day, “You better speak clearly on this one, because my heart is not up for another change.”

Despite my firm declaration to the Lord, I can’t remember Him ever speaking clearly throughout the whole process. I prayed. I asked for guidance. I sought advice. I wept. I might have felt a few faint stirrings in the recesses of my soul, but there certainly were no clear words or obvious signs.

One day during the process, our women’s director at my previous church asked me, “Has God called you to this other church? Have you heard his voice?” Then she took me in her office, closed the door, leaned across the desk, and said emphatically, “You have to tell me that you’ve heard God’s call to leave here, or else I will keep fighting for you to stay.”

I didn’t know what to say when she prodded like that. I hadn’t heard God’s voice telling me anything. I wanted to say I had heard from God, for her sake and mine, but that would have been a lie.

But here is the thing—even though I hadn’t heard God’s voice, I had peace. Even though my heart wanted to stay, I knew God was leading me to go. Eventually, I did hear His voice and the calling clearly, but not when I needed it the most. It was after-the-fact confirmation, not in-the-moment guidance.

That is when I learned that sometimes you don’t hear His voice, you just feel His presence. He doesn’t always speak as loudly as the people in our lives, but He is more trustworthy and consistent than any of them. When I trust His heart, I don’t have to hear His voice–I just have to know He is with me.

Someone once told me that you know you’ve found a best friend when you can sit together in silence and it is not awkward. Sometimes God takes this posture of being a best friend who is simply there, calling us to be comfortable in silence. To be still. To know He is God.

Trying to figure out God is not always an easy task. Some of God’s ways are best left as mysteries. However, we are told to pursue God, and that means we intentionally try to understand Him so we may grow in our trust and likeness of Him.

Certain seasons of life give rise to acute feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and pain. These times can come upon us slowly, like a gathering storm that finally appears overhead, or as suddenly as lightning bolt. Here are some seasons you may be able to identify with when God goes silent:

Seasons of Calamity

These involve the loss of someone or something we love. This can be our dog being hit by a car or a loved one dying in a car accident. It could mean getting downsized from a job and being thrust into dire financial straits. It might be your spouse announcing plans to divorce, a friend’s betrayal, or a serious diagnosis. Most of our loss comes without warning. The furious squall crashes over our life when we least expect it, and all things that were considered “normal” are now meaningless.

In these seasons, we usually shake a fist at God and ask a lot of “Why?” questions. Rightfully so, in some cases. We can’t make sense of the loss, and we don’t know who else to blame. Yet when He doesn’t respond with the answer we want or as promptly as we want it, our anger boils over.

Job has to be the poster child for enduring the hardships of life without answers from God. He lost it all, without much warning. His friends kept telling to him to curse God, but he didn’t. He trusted that God had a purpose in the pain and in the sting that came from unanswered questions.

Job said to his friend, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10 NLT). It was as if he knew some calamity was allowed by God, and though there was not always a clear answer as to why, he could trust that God’s heart was good.

Later on, he said, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (13:15 ESV). After losing your family, house, possessions, friends, and health, you can only say this if you really do trust God as the God of all.

Seasons of Change

These times are particularly hard for those who long for safety and security. Small changes can be difficult, while big changes can be downright daunting: a job transfer from one city to another, the ups and downs of the financial market, a cherished friend who moves away, or an elderly parent being placed in a nursing home.

Some people have consistency as their god. They love things being comfortable and predictable. If change comes, they are willing to go with it as long as it comes on their terms. When it doesn’t, they get frustrated, wondering why someone—even God—had to upset the apple cart.

Usually, this results in an attitude of questioning why God was silent and didn’t communicate the changes in advance. God didn’t send an eviction notice ahead of time or a sixty-day termination letter so you could prepare.

Let’s say your boss walks into your office and says, “Sorry to tell you this, but we need to lay you off. Pack your personal belongings, and security will escort you out of the building within the hour.” Sadly, this is fairly typical in the corporate world we live in.

You react with frustration toward your boss and then toward God. You loved the job. You loved your coworkers. You loved the paycheck. Why didn’t God warn you this was coming?

Because you questioned God’s lack of communication about the beginning of the change, you begin to question Him through the whole transition.

In a season of change, the only remedy is to trust God as the immovable fortress of your life. This is easier said that done. You may have to rehearse the words over and over before they click in. Trusting God begins by a renewing of your mind, which will in time result in action. When you don’t hear God in the midst of change, you may have to hear yourself say frequently, “He is my fortress, my unchanging rock. I will put my hope in God.”

That is exactly what David did. He repeated lines like this all the time, as we read the Psalms. His world changed often. Enemies tried to overtake him, those under his command didn’t always like his leadership, and he had epic family problems. Yet he trusted God to protect him.

Over and over, David would say things like, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge” (Ps. 18:2 ESV). And, “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’ ” (Ps. 91:2 ESV).

Our struggle with God in seasons of change is often the very thing that produces progress in our life. As He peels our white knuckles off of our security blanket, He redirects us to cling to Him all the more.

Seasons of Confinement

These are days, weeks, or months when we feel like we’ve been backed up against a wall with no way out. I think of the Israelites with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them. With no way out, they find themselves trapped by circumstances that would take a miracle to escape from.

For us, feeling confined may not involve a sea and an army, but it may entail medical debt, a roommate situation gone bad, a child who ended up in jail, or unemployment with no job prospects in sight. In circumstances like these, we feel restrained or detained.

Waiting for God to speak as the vice tightens is an extremely unsettling feeling. We know He can solve the situation if He’d just step in, but He doesn’t. We pray for the Creator of the world to create a solution in our individual world. Yet He seems to either be holding back His power or diverting it to more important matters.

We see people like Moses, Abraham, Joshua, Isaiah, and King David cry out things like, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1 ESV). This raw prayer is a plea for action, not silence.

God eventually does what is best for His kingdom and us (Rom. 8:28), but it doesn’t always come without pain in the waiting.

Seasons of Consequence

These seasons come as a result of poor judgment or sinful decisions. God promised our eternal forgiveness, but He never promised complete freedom from all consequences of our actions. We sometimes get this wrong as Christians, assuming there are hall passes and “Get Out of Jail Free” cards that excuse us from the mistakes we’ve made. That is not always the case. The grace of God does forgive us eternally, but we still have to walk through the outplay of our bad choices. All the while, we can trust that God will give us grace if we walk humbly and with thanksgiving.

I’ll be the first to say I don’t like the idea of being punished by my heavenly Father. But I will also be quick to say I want Him to be perfectly just. I want Him to follow through on what He said He’d do, even if that means suffering the consequences for my own bad decisions.

We’ve all been around a kid whose parents are convinced he can do no wrong. They let him get away with everything. It is annoying because we know the punk-kid lives in a made-up world. He never learns hard lessons and is insulated from all consequences. We are bothered because deep down we know this is unloving. If his parents don’t teach him consequences now, the world will teach him much more harshly later on.

The same is true with God. He is a loving Father who forgives us in the end, but allows us to experience the consequences of actions.

No matter the crisis we find ourselves in, God has His eyes on us. He deals with us truthfully and justly because of our disobedience. Yet He is also compassionate and loving. He will uphold His grace and mercy as He upholds His justice and wrath. There will be times He is quiet as we work through our sin, but He is never absent.

Seasons of Calling

Sometimes God backs away just far enough to cause us to lean more into Him. He is calling us to a more intimate walk with Him.

I can’t think of a more vivid example than when I stand a few steps down from the top of the stairs and tell my eighteen-month-old daughter to jump to me. Her arms start going back and forth vigorously as if she is overcome by excitement and fear at the same time. She curls her little toes around the top stop and starts to lean. She will not jump, but she will lean. I say, “Jump! I’m right here.” She leans a bit more but won’t allow herself to fall into my hands only inches away. It isn’t until I back away a little farther that she finally falls right into my hands.

At times, God does seem to be silent so that we will seek Him all the more. He longs for us to trust Him. He feels loved when we use His silence as an opportunity to press more into His chest to hear His heart.

As I discovered with my transition to a new ministry position, God often asks us to trust Him even when He isn’t making His direction perfectly clear. We want a burning bush or a billboard announcing God’s will for us. We want someone to walk up and say out of the blue, “In my prayer time with the Lord this morning, He told me to share with you that, yes, you should definitely take that job. No doubt about it. Move ahead with confidence.”

Our times of calling often involve small nudges instead of loud instructions. If you feel that God might be calling you to a new situation, you could be frustrated that He doesn’t lead you like a supernatural GPS app (“In five hundred feet, you have arrived at your destination”). Though apparently silent, He is indeed walking beside you every step of the way.

From Silence to Scions

Last year, on a glorious Colorado fall day, my wife, Molly, and I packed up our three kids and headed south on I-25 for family day trip. Two hours later, we arrived at Happy Apple Farm in the quaint little town of Penrose. This is a fabulous pick-your-own-fruit farm situated on ten acres teeming with gooseberries, blackberries, pumpkins, and applies.

We grabbed a couple of baskets and headed out to the apple orchards, where the trees seemed to be groaning under the heft of their huge harvest. The branches hung heavy, and some were cracking with the weight of abundance.

A farm worker approached us and said, “You came at the right time. We haven’t seen a harvest like this in years.”

When I asked her why, she told me that the previous year there was a late frost in the spring, and all the buds froze. When that happens, she explained, an apple tree does a miraculous thing: It stores up its energy in thousands of nodules, called scions (pronounced “see-ons”). All that energy courses through the network of scions until the spring of the following year, and then–bam!—there’s an exploding riot of buds, as an apple tree unleashes all that stored-up energy.

As I helped my kids fill their baskets with the plump, shiny apples, I reflected on the farmer’s agricultural insights. Sometimes our lives are hit by a harsh frost—illness, divorce, bankruptcy, trauma, grief, depression—which leads to the feeling that everything has come to a screeching halt. All of your plans are suddenly put on hold—or demolished altogether. We cry out to God, but hear nothing. Longing for closeness with a loving Father, we feel distance.

Those frostbitten times lead us to think that nothing is happening and God is freezing us out of His plans. Ah, but something is happening. God’s power is pulsating in the hidden places, in the scions of our soul. During seasons of silence, we feel our hearts waiting, longing, and even aching for those frozen places to burst into life. Our living hope is that one day, all of this pent-up energy, the fusion power underlying the silence, will be unleashed in a joyful riot of splendor.

No matter the season of silence you find yourself in, hold on to this truth: God’s power is at work, quietly stirring and roiling in the undercurrents, preparing you for greater things when His power is unleashed in your life.