I am often frustrated by God’s silences or my own failure to listen. I have friends who talk about feeling close to God, and I wouldn’t say I’ve never felt that way, but it’s rare for me. I understand that faith isn’t about feelings, but I want to know that I am on the right path and truly following Jesus. I want the relationship so often talked about in contemporary Christian circles. Relationships are two-sided, so why does God sometimes seem so distant?
I know, frequently, I don’t give him time. I am rushing through my days in a whirlwind, with ears only for the next step in my schedule or the clamor of daily anxieties. But when I do take time and get nothing, what am I supposed to make of that?
In Genesis, God speaks the world into existence. If you have ever looked outside, this itself is incredible. YHWH’s voice is the eruption of stars and the parting of waters, the growth of forests and the spread wings of Earth’s first birds.
Then there is Elijah who watched as
“a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
This low whisper is the voice of the Lord–not booming, not quaking, but a low whisper you have to lean in to hear.
Other times in the Bible, God seems to choose deliberately not to speak. God is quiet as Job’s sons and daughters die, his riches and livestock are plundered, and his body is covered in sores.
Job cries out for answers, but God stays silent until the very end. What he says is powerful, though not extremely comforting:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
He goes on like this for pages, and it seems like the message to take away is that God has no obligation to answer us. He does what he does. He is who he is.
Yet when Job acknowledges God’s greatness and his own smallness, the Lord restores his fortunes to twice what he had before. Why? He had no obligation.
I am most envious of Jesus’ disciples who saw him face to face and heard his voice. They could ask any question and expect an answer. They could hear him as he hung on the cross, crying, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I know the Holy Spirit is with us now, to teach us and remind us what Jesus spoke, but it’s very mysterious. I do think I have heard it, felt it? (I think I lack the vocabulary to talk about these things.)
I was a brittle teenager on a band trip in Europe in July. We were visiting a church somewhere in Austria, far from all the places where I knew what to expect. London and Paris were shining cities, but this church was just a short stop on a long bus trip across the countryside.
Inside the stone walls, I can only describe it as radiance. Perhaps I remember it brighter than it was, but in my memory, light will always burst from the ceiling, white and gleaming. Images of Jesus lined every wall and surface. A pamphlet about the place said its builders wanted the church to convey the joy of Christ. Joy. In the brightness, I could see it.
The choir sang a short concert there, and one of the songs was called The Prayer of the Children, written in the midst of civil war and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia in the 1970s. These are a few of the lyrics:
Can you feel the hearts of the children?
Aching for home, for something of their very own
Reaching hands, with nothing to hold on to,
But hope for a better day
Crying Jesus, help me
To see the morning light of one more day
But if I should die before I wake,
I pray my soul to take
I believe what God spoke to me in that church, in that song, was hope. I wasn’t exactly suicidal as a teenager, but I was very unhappy, and killing myself was something I thought about, always an option if I ever really wanted out. The children in the song, victims of ethnic cleansing, had much more reasons than I to be hopeless, but they believed in something better to come. I knew then, or at least I chose to believe, that hope was not in vain. It was real and bright, and it couldn’t be choked by darkness.
Moments like these are rare ones, I think, but they do happen, when God in his creation voice grabs us by the shoulders to tell us he is here when we thought he was long gone.
A lot of people think the Holy Spirit speaks mainly through God’s word in the Bible. I am sometimes skeptical, because I think people take verses out of context, treating the Bible like a magic eight ball or a prescribed textbook, when it’s 66 different books including records of kings, words of prophets, letters to specific churches at specific times, poetry and origin stories.
It’s been translated multiple times, and it’s a messy, often hard to grasp story, but it is the story of our savior, and I think he is alive in it.
In one of my loneliest days last fall semester, I will not leave you as orphans sprang into my head–the words of Jesus before his arrest, John 14:18. Perhaps a coincidence, but I think they were words for me as well as the original audience.
Moments like these don’t always come, though. There are days I read the Bible and am bored by it, when I pray and don’t feel heard, when I am listless and unhappy and even the beauty of creation does not stir me. I want God to grab me by the shoulders and speak, but often he seems to sit silent and still.
These are the days when I sometimes wonder if I am crazy, if the Lord never spoke to me at all, and all us Christians are wasting our time. But I think God is still working in silences, even when we can’t see what’s he doing, and I aspire to sit like Job when I can’t hear him, dressed in sackcloth in the dust, saying stubbornly:
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God.