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.
Few Christians have chronicled their struggle with God more poignantly than C.S. Lewis. The famed author was deeply in love with his wife, Joy. Though they met and married late in life, few romances bloom as theirs did. Not long after their relationship began, she was diagnosed with cancer. She endured a long and terrible season of illness before she died.
Lewis wrote about his feelings following joy’s death in a series of notebooks that were later published as A Grief Observed just before his own death in 1963. His most telling observation? The silence of God.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness . . . On the rebound one passes into tears and pathos. Maudlin tears. I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and honest . . .
Meanwhile, where is God? . . . When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him . . . 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 a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become . . .
Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?1
Many of us have experienced the silence of God. We cry out to God, and there seems to be no answer. We pray, pouring out our hearts, only to hear the words echo back without a reply.
The maddening thing is that we have been conditioned to expect a direct relation between input and output. If we work a certain number of hours, we will reach a certain level of success. If we place our children in the right schools, enroll them in the right programs and practice the proper procedures, they will turn out as hoped for. If we invest our money strategically and wisely, we will receive a fair return on our investment.
When we cry out to God and nothing happens, how can we help but feel something’s not quite right-and that the problem is with the Listener? Few things are more damaging to a relationship than a sense of not being heard or responded to. It’s as if we don’t matter, that there is no genuine concern. If God is calling for our soul, and we are attempting to connect with him at that level, there seems no place-no excuse-for silence.
The silence, however, is seldom permanent. Lewis later wrote these words: “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted…. [I was like] the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs.”2
So what was he clutching and grabbing? What was he missing in what first seemed like silence? Perhaps the most penetrating question is simply this: what happens when we call out to God?
According to the Bible, three things.
God Hears, Cares, Responds
When we pray, God hears us. The Bible states in no uncertain terms that “this is the confidence we have in approaching God: . . . he hears us” (1 John 5:14). When we pray, whether by spoken word, ritual or quiet anguish, our prayers ascend unencumbered to God’s presence. But that’s not all.
When we pray, God cares. What we attempt to convey is more important to him than we could possibly imagine. The Bible asserts this as well: “Let him [God] have all your worries and cares, for he is always thinking about you and watching everything that concerns you” (1 Peter 5:7 LB). Notice the emphasis: God is concerned not simply with his grand plan but with our cares and concerns. When it comes to prayer, God’s empathy knows no bounds.
But it is the Bible’s third declaration that perplexes us. When we pray, God answers. The Bible is emphatic: there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. “You say, ‘He does not respond to people’s complaints.’ But God speaks again and again, though people do not recognize it” (Job 33:13-14).
Now you may be thinking, That isn’t true. I specifically prayed for a Maserati sports car, and it’s not sitting in my driveway, so I know God doesn’t answer every prayer. I know – I’ve prayed that one too.
Or you may say, “Once I prayed that I would get to work on time – that was it, no big deal, no sweat off God’s brow – and I got a flat tire.”
More seriously, you may resonate with Lewis’s feelings after his wife passed away. When you hear someone casually toss out that God answers every prayer, you say, “Listen, that’s just not true. And I have the experience to prove it.”
But the Bible doesn’t back down when challenged on this. It stands by the declaration that God hears, cares and responds. Always.
So what is happening with God’s answer?
In our struggle with God’s perceived silence we must take into account an idea that is often alien to our sensibilities: that a prayer was not answered in the way we wanted it answered or thought it should have been answered, doesn’t mean that an answer did not come directly from God. God promises to answer every prayer; how he chooses to answer is his affair. Consider the following ways a clear response from God might be mistaken for silence.
Mistaken for Silence: No
The first is the most obvious. Sometimes God’s answer is simply “No.” What we ask for, no matter how well-intentioned, could be inappropriate. Yet we often refuse to listen to God’s no, insisting instead that God has yet to answer. It is often beyond our thinking to imagine God denying our requests.
Once Jesus and his followers were traveling to Jerusalem. One of the cities they journeyed through was Samaria, so some went ahead to arrange a place with local inhabitants for Jesus and the rest of the disciples to stay. What happened next is interesting:
The people there did not welcome him . . . When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:53-54)
These two disciples sincerely felt that their question made perfect sense in terms of what had transpired. But did Jesus answer, “Sure, guys, let’s smoke ’em”?
Jesus turned on them: “Of course not!” (Luke 9:55).
God cares deeply about us and hears every request, but that doesn’t mean his answer can’t still be “No.” This becomes particularly clear to me when I think of my role as a father. Nobody loves my children more than I do. But sometimes when they ask for something, the answer must be – for their sake – a firm and deliberate no. More times than not, they don’t have a clue as to why. It makes perfect sense in their minds to stay up all night, to eat pizza for every meal, to invest a significant amount of our financial resources into the profit margin of the local mall, and to establish a secondary residence in Orlando. I’ve seen this lessen as they mature. Their requests are more informed as they learn to apply the values by which they have been raised.
So it is with our souls in relation to prayer. We often make requests that cannot be granted. But we can be assured that God’s operative stance toward us is shameless devotion. Even when pain erupts, tragic events are allowed to continue or God denies our requests, we can rest assured that we have been granted a greater blessing – or kept from a deeper, more lasting pain.
And God’s no is seldom left to itself. The answer often goes further. When Paul repeatedly begged God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” the answer was “No.” But there was more: “[God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The purpose behind God’s refusal and the ramifications it holds for our life are met by the direct presence and power of God. The fullest sense of God’s reply is “No, but I’m here . . . and it will be OK. Trust me.”
Mistaken for Silence: Not Now
But “No” is not the only response from God that can be mistaken for silence. Sometimes when he seems silent he is saying, “Not now.” When we ask God for something, we are looking for it at once. We have a predetermined timetable. If God were to say, “Not now – the timing is neither right nor best,” it would be natural to interpret his answer as silence.
What adds to the difficulty of “Not now” is that we are so used to instant gratification. We can’t imagine a life without express lanes, ATMs, faxes, e-mail and instant messaging. We’re used to getting what we want when we want it, which makes “Later” or “Not now” only slightly easier to hear than “No.”
But God’s delay should not be confused with his denial, much less his silence. He always has reasons for saying “Not now,” and we should greet such delays with trust and patience. The willingness to wait in prayer and let God’s timetable unfold is behind the Message translation of Romans 8:22-25: “Waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting.”
Besides, we may not be ready for what God would say. The delay may have less to do with the timing of events than the timing of our soul’s growth. Dallas Willard writes that we may have so little clarity on what a word from God should be like, and so little competence in dealing with it, that such a word would only add to our confusion, even “when it would otherwise be entirely appropriate and helpful.”3
As I write these words, I am waiting for God’s guidance on a host of issues that will determine my steps for the next season of my life. My petition is clear and direct, but the complexities that surround whatever resolution he chooses to bring overwhelm me. The shadows are maddening. Why won’t he just tell me, or show me!
My sense is that the answer is there, but I am not ready to receive his words. There is something he is doing in me that apparently must come before he reveals what he is going to do with me. So I watch and try to cooperate as he moves and shapes pieces of my life – both internally and externally. I’m waiting in what sounds like silence, but in truth God is on the loose.
Mistaken for Silence: Deep Calling to Deep
A third response from God that can be mistaken for silence is the most difficult to grasp. Perhaps the best way to introduce it is through the words of Psalms 42:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God . . .
My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” (Psalms 42:1-3)
Here is someone hungering for a word from God. He alludes to a difficult time, a season where he has been calling out to God in the midst of pain, grief or confusion. From all angles it appears as if God is silent to his cries. But notice what he goes on to write:
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God . . .
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you . . .
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls. (Psalms 41:5-7)
The psalmist comes to see that there is no silence; the answer coming from God is deeper than words. God is present, and speaking, but what he’s saying isn’t resting on the surface waters of life. This is a season where deep is calling to deep or, as Thomas Kelly phrases it, a time of going “down into the recreating silences.”4
When I was nineteen years old and in college, I was invited to a weekend party at a nearby university. My friend Phil was going, and he encouraged me to come along. I wanted to go and tried to make it happen, but I couldn’t get away.
Four people left without me on a Friday afternoon. Two days later, as they returned to campus, a car from the opposite flow of traffic crossed the dividing line and flew headfirst into their car. All four were killed instantly.
I first heard the news late that Sunday night. I left my dorm, walked over to the nearby athletic complex, hopped a locked fence and sat in the empty football stadium under a moonlit sky. I grieved for my friend; I thought of the brevity of life and how close I had come to being killed. I remember crying out to God to help me sort it all out, to make sense of it all. To talk to me . . . to say something . . . anything!
In truth, it was the deepest conversation we had ever had. God was moving within me, communing and communicating with me on levels that I had never opened to him before. That night was the first of many such conversations – some even more traumatic. Within four months I became a Christian.
Perhaps it’s not silence we’re encountering while we seek God, but rather a pregnant pause – a prompting to engage in personal reflection so that the deepest of answers, the most profound of responses, can be given and received.
In an article in the magazine Fast Company, the chess master and much sought-after mentor Bruce Pandolfini discusses how he works with his students:
My lessons consist of a lot of silence. I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking . . . I let my students think. If I do ask a question and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question – and wait. I never give the answer. Most of us really don’t appreciate the power of silence. Some of the most effective communication – between student and teacher, between master players – takes place during silent periods.5
Could this be how God mentors us? Is God’s apparent silence the method of a Master Teacher? When I go through seasons where God’s answers do not come quickly or on the surface of things – but the way God interacts with my prayers draws me into deeper trust, dependence and obedience – the answers I find radically transcend what I initially sought to find.
• I get introduced to sin that I needed to confront.
• I recognize patterns of behavior I need to break.
• I gain insights into who I am that I didn’t have before.
• I discover a depth of relationship with God that I have never before experienced.
Such revelations are worth the silence.
Kathleen Norris allows her students to make all the noise they want, but then she calls on them to “make silence.” Reflecting on the experience, her elementary-age pupils note that when they were silent, they felt as though they were “waiting for something.” One wrote, “Silence is me sleeping waiting to wake up.” Perhaps the most profound observation comes from a little girl who said, “Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”6
Few statements could be more profound. We think of a word from God as the soul’s main sustenance, but silence is a true compatriot not simply for where it leads but for what it affords: space for God to speak beyond the answers we seek.
“It is no surprise,” writes Frederick Buechner, “that the Bible uses hearing, not seeing, as the predominant image for the way human beings know God.”7 Perhaps this deeper communion is behind the concept of vigils (“waiting”), the ancient name for extended prayers given while one might normally be sleeping. It also suggests why the first word of St. Benedict’s Rule for monasteries is listen.
Before even these insights came the ancient desert tradition of Christianity. Alan Jones writes of men and women entering the literal desert even as they embraced a “desert” of the spirit – at once “a place of silence, waiting, and temptation” and “a place of revelation, conversion, and transformation.” According to the desert tradition, “empty” places such as the desert were actually full, for in the deadening silence of such experiences, people were known to be reborn.8 This was certainly the experience of Jesus, who was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to begin his ministry, and then led into the desert again to end it. Jesus’ cry from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” speaks to the separation within the Trinity as Jesus took on the world’s sin, but it also serves as a “silent” reminder to Jesus of a “deeper magic” that causes death itself to work backward. As Larry Crabb notes, Jesus screamed in agony “God, where are you?” and God seemed to say nothing. But deep was calling to deep, and in his reconciling the world to himself Jesus heard the voice of God in the depths of his heart.9
I can only wonder what his silence holds for me.
A Confederate Prayer
My family has been Carolinian on both sides for generations, making me the product of a fast-disappearing Southern culture of sweetened iced-tea, two meats at supper, sitting on your porch to watch the cars go by, saying “Yes Ma’am” and “No Sir,” and bringing meals to those who are sick.
The southern world of even the near-past cannot be understood apart from the Civil War. A pathos came to the surface during those years that crystallized long-standing traditions and ideals. Though often marred by the blight of racism, students of the era know, the divide between the states was multifaceted, and the South had its share of people of authentic faith who despised slavery.
As “the cause,” as the war came to be known in the South, began to fail – in the midst of what surely seemed like the silence of God – a Confederate soldier composed a simple prayer.
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy, I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men, I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life, was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.10
That soldier experienced the voice of God, and listened to every word. A struggle? Yes. But this prayer was written on the other side of his struggle. He understood God never met him with silence.
He had only to listen.
Excerpted from Embracing the Mysterious God by James Emery White. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. Copyright 2003. Used with permission.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC.
1 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 7-10.
2 Ibid, p. 38.
3 Dallas Willard, Hearing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), pp. 26-27.
4 Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: Harper & Row, 1941), p. 121.
5 Anna Muoio, “All the Right Moves,” Fast Company, May 1999, p. 192.
6 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead, 1998), p. 17.
7 Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), p. 58.
8 Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1985), pp. 6, 62-63.
9 Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2001), pp. 158-59.
10 G. Curtis Jones, “Prayer of an Unknown Confederate Soldier,” in 1000 Illustrations (Nashville: Broadman, 1986), pp. 298-99.