When God is Silent
SEPTEMBER 6, 2017
I’m teaching a seminar at The Cove (The Billy Graham Training Center) in August. I’m writing this in July and you’ll receive it in September. So the seminar is in the future for me and it’s too late for you to attend. It’s already over.
You should have been there.
It was one of the truly great seminars in the history of the church—brilliant, life-changing and insightful. In fact, it was so good I took notes on myself. Well, maybe not…but given that it hasn’t happened yet, you never know. Frankly, my hope is that I don’t make a fool of myself, but it could be that Jesus will show in a mighty way and we’ll have revival. Okay…probably not. But The Cove is one of the most beautiful places on earth and the food will be good. People don’t even care so much if the teaching is bad. Good food in a beautiful setting in the mountains can be a spiritual experience in itself.
The seminar is on the silence of God. I’ve been doing a lot of Bible study, thought and research on the subject. I started seriously thinking about it after a pastor friend called to ask for advice on a difficult time in his ministry. He needed to make some important decisions and had a number of options. My friend asked, “Steve, don’t you wish God was a bit more forthcoming?”
As a matter of fact, I do. Sometimes I pray, “Lord, you know I would do my best to do whatever you told me to do, but you won’t say anything. So if I really do something stupid or commit some bad sin, it will be your fault. I will refuse to feel guilty. So there.”
Silence…with maybe just a benevolent smile. God gives us the right to say anything we want but rarely gives us a vote.
A friend of mine told me a story about Ed and Norma who went to a state fair where they offered helicopter rides for fifty dollars. “I’m an old man,” Ed said to Norma, “and I’ll probably never have another opportunity to go up in one of those.”
Norma refused to give her permission, saying, “Fifty bucks is fifty bucks.”
The pilot heard the conversation and offered them a deal. He would give them a free ride with one provision—that Ed and Norma remain silent the whole time. He said, “If there is a peep out of either one of you, it will be fifty bucks.”
Ed and Norma agreed and climbed into the helicopter. The pilot took them on the ride of their lives, doing loops, flying upside down and pushing all the limits. Not a word from the passenger seat. When they landed, the pilot said, “I’m really surprised but I’ve got to give it to you. Not a peep. The ride is free.”
“To be honest with you,” Ed said, “I almost said something when Norma fell out. But then fifty bucks is fifty bucks.”
We all pray when life is hard—e.g. the diagnosis is cancer, someone we love dies, financial problems threaten to overwhelm us, we give into temptation, we’re shamed and demeaned, our marriage has gone south, we’re afraid and lonely, etc.—that God would say something. Often there is nothing but silence. Pascal said that the “eternal silence” frightened him. It frightens all of us.
In the seminar I plan to teach what the Bible says. The truth of Scripture never changes and, in fact, God has said something and it’s quite clear. I’ll talk about the difficulties of an infinite God communicating to finite human beings and having them understand (Isaiah 55:8), the fact that God rarely speaks in the middle of a process (John 13:7), and most important, that God’s methodology as in the Cross is more often to illustrate rather than to elucidate (John 1:14). I’ll probably teach some things about centering prayer and how to listen in the silence when one’s heart isn’t silent, how God often meets us in the dark of our silence, and how our desire for God to speak (Psalm 44) is a part of our created DNA and reflects Augustine’s comment that we have been created for him and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. The desire points to the reality.
But as I’ve thought about the subject of God’s silence, I’ve discovered three places where God hardly ever talks to me.
I don’t know about you, but God hardly ever tells me how bad I am. In John 13 Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and says, “You are clean.” What? Peter was sitting there and had given Jesus a fit. A little later Peter was to deny Jesus three times and many years later Paul even calls Peter a hypocrite. Clean? You’ve got to be kidding.
But the truth is that Peter (and us too) had a tendency to despair. Gradually, as I’ve gotten old and more mature in my faith, and God felt I was ready, he’s showed me some areas in my life so sinful that I could hardly stand it. I really thought I would be a lot better than I am. But if God had revealed the depth of my depravity when I was younger, I probably would have become a Buddhist. And I’m quite sure that, even now, there’s a lot he’s not telling me.
God also won’t tell me how good I am. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul brags about what God is doing in his life and then says that Jesus gave him a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from being “conceited.” That’s self-righteousness and it’s dangerous. I really am better (and you are too) than I think but God only rarely lets me see it. Sometimes God allows me to see a sign of selfless love, a small act of obedience, or maybe forgiveness that isn’t normal for me. God will tell me that he thought I did well, but then always adds, “Just don’t let it go to your head.” He knows that if he gives me an inch, I’ll take a mile and become insufferable.
And then God refuses to tell me how good or bad you are. In Romans 14, Paul says that we aren’t to judge other Christians because they must answer to their own master. If you really knew me, you wouldn’t be reading this letter. And if I really knew you, I wouldn’t want you to. You see, God keeps us in the dark about each other so we can love, affirm and support each other until we become safe. Being safe with one another is a process. Until it’s complete, God lets us play together.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that God is silent.
As a young pastor I visited a lady whose husband had just died. It was the first time that had happened in the church and I was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I remember knocking on her door with my little speeches of help memorized and on the ready. I forgot all of that and mumbled something about being sorry. As other people started arriving to help this lady in her loss, I sat on the couch, feeling miserable and so ashamed that I had not been able to offer her anything.
She called me two weeks later and thanked me for helping her so much. “You’re kidding,” I said. “All I did was sit on the couch.”
“You have no idea what you being there meant to me,” she replied. “I didn’t need you to say anything.”
That’s what God sometimes does. He comes and just sits on the couch. He doesn’t say much and when he does, it’s often, “I know, child. I’ve been there. I’m here and it will be okay.”
Most of the time that’s enough.
(Actually, now that I think about it, with my hearing problems, maybe God has been saying a lot more than I thought and I just didn’t hear him.)
At any rate, he told me to remind you.