Sunday Meditations: Doubt and the Silence of God

The issue of the silence of God has come up in a few conversations I’ve had with friends over the past few weeks, primarily on the issue of recovery.  Why is it that we can earnestly pray for insight or healing or spiritual growth or changing circumstances – all seemingly things God would want – and yet we often get nothing back?

This is not a question unique to individual, contemporary Christians.  The Bible records God’s people struggling with this phenomenon almost from the beginning.  Where is God?  Why isn’t He saying or doing anything?  How long does He intend for these terrible circumstances to go on?  Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous experience troubles?  The Old Testament is full of this wondering and, not uncommonly, followed up by accusations.

Part of this is the problem of evil – how can there be a good, omnipotent God and also so much evil and suffering?  That is a very worthy issue of meditation.  However, I want to focus particularly on the issue of silence.  I want to talk about the experience all people who follow God seem to have: the experience of earnestly reaching out to God for something and getting nothing back – no response, no feelings, nothing.  Dead air.

This is where our atheist friends have a very simple and cogent point: you get nothing back because there’s nothing there to give you something back.  You pray and nothing happens because God doesn’t exist.  This is a very good argument.  It explains the particular data under consideration with the fewest number of entities.  I’ll circle back around to this as well.

One of the things that distorts the Old Testament in our heads is the time dilation produced by the stories being one right after the other.  A lot of times, we skim over all the boring genealogies and references to other kings to get to the meat of a story.  Because of this, in our heads, we perceive the stories in the Old Testament as happening very closely together, as if Noah went through his flood, and then next week, Abraham was called.

If we pay attention to those time indicators, though, we realize that rather large amounts of time pass between many of those stories – sometimes years, centuries, or longer.  In our heads, the Old Testament presents a world where God is constantly talking and doing supernatural things, and certainly there are stretches where that’s what’s portrayed.  But when you pull back and look at the landscape of the stories, you discover that there are countless days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries where nothing of the sort happens.  Even in the midst of some of God’s more talkative eras, those events are portrayed as special.  For every day God says something to Abraham, there are many weeks or years where He says nothing to Abraham.

So, even though we have perhaps the greatest concentration of spectacular stories of God’s presence and intervention in the Old Testament, it does not give us a picture of daily communication or intervention from God being a common thing.  What is far more common is silence – God’s original language.  God’s people may be praying regularly, but God isn’t regularly talking back or acting in response, and often that response is delayed far longer than the people praying hope for.  They are making their way in a difficult world, and events challenge their faith, their theologies, and their identity, and they cry out and, often, get nothing back.  Even when God does respond, we need to pay attention to those time indicators.  Often, entire generations are born and die without God responding.

Sometimes, the theological interpretations of these stories in the Bible give us insight into God’s planning and reasoning in these stretches of silence, but they often do not.

I can’t help but think of the contrast of this picture with our contemporary evangelical pictures and expectations of how “life with God” is supposed to go.  I am often discouraged because I don’t always feel God’s presence, or I pray at night and it seems like the only audience is the ceiling.  I certainly have experienced my share of weird stuff, but there’s only a small number (approaching zero) of things that can only be explained by a supernatural intervention.

But reading about my spiritual forefathers comforts me, in a way, because not experiencing these things is pretty much the default for the faithful people of God.  The coming of the Spirit changes this, somewhat, but I’ll look at the experiences of someone who really had the Spirit in a moment.

What I want to do is really internalize the fact that faithful God-worshipers were born, lived, and died in Babylonian captivity.  Not just some, but the overwhelming majority of God’s people who were faithful, loved God, believed the Scriptures, and obeyed Torah did so without ever seeing a prophet arise or a fire and light show, much less individually hear from God or see Him act in some unmistakable way.  Rather, we see people looking at their perfectly normal, unremarkable lives and experiences – or even looking at circumstances that would seem to contradict the idea that God was there or that God was good or that God was trustworthy – and just assert that He is, in fact, there, and everything around them was a testimony to this.

But this understanding is challenged, and people struggle with it, individually and collectively in the Bible.  And this has never gone away.  To this day, rabbis continue to reflect and write about this issue.  Struggling with the silence of God despite the faithful and earnest outcries of His followers.

When we read of Jesus in the gospels, we see his own followers and advocates struggling with doubt despite a relative lack of silence.  John the Baptist wonders if Jesus is actually the Messiah.  Peter is walking on freaking water and begins to doubt.  Even if you don’t believe the miracles in the gospels happened, the narrative tells us their presence did not have the impact one would expect.  To the gospel writers, it didn’t seem weird at all to have people doubting even in the face of spectacular events.

But, interestingly, this phenomenon of God’s silence occurs in the life of Jesus.

Even though, historically, Christians have disagreed (and continue to disagree) on the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship to God, the one thing most Christians have agreed on is that the relationship is uniquely close and that by observing Jesus we get our clearest picture both of what God looks like in the world and what faithfulness to God looks like in the world.  If anyone’s prayers are heard, if anyone is constantly aware of the presence of God, if anyone has unbroken mystical communion with God and fellowship in the Spirit, it’s Jesus.

So, what happens with Gethsemane?

The night of Jesus’ capture prior to his execution, Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him.  And he is in distress about it.  Extreme distress.  So distressed that he could die.  Faced with these circumstances and this distress, he turns to God in prayer.

But God does not respond.

Jesus does not get a feeling of peace in his heart.  Jesus does not receive ministration from an angel.  Jesus is not delivered.  None of those things happen.  Not only does the text not say they happen, but the things Jesus actually does tells us they didn’t.

He prays for hours.  He does not pray and come to peace with it.  He’s at it for hours.  He has to keep waking his disciples up and is genuinely upset that he is suffering so much and they are falling asleep.  He is praying so earnestly that sweat like drops of blood begins to stream from him.  For hours.  And what is he praying for?  He’s praying that these terrible things that are about to happen to him won’t happen.  He wants it to go away.  He is scared.  He is looking at torture and death being the very next thing he experiences, and he is desperately crying to God about it.  For hours.

This is not a picture of a man who was given a “peace about it” or whose faith left him serene in all circumstances.

Thank God for the Gethsemane story.

Jesus pours himself out to God for hours, begging for deliverance, sharing his fears and distress, throwing all that out into the night sky, and nothing.  Nothing!  And how does Jesus respond to the silence?

“Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done.”

Jesus is faithful and trusts God in the silence.  He is Israel pleading with God about her troubles and seeing no intervention, and he does what Israel is supposed to do: trust anyway.

I have heard it said that the only time someone can be courageous is when they are afraid.  Perhaps the only time someone can truly trust is when they have reason to doubt.

And of course, we know how the story ends.  Jesus has to go through those terrible experiences, and not only that, but he feels forsaken by God while they happen.  He is not serenely enduring the cross.  His life is slipping away from him, and he is not comforted by the presence of God.  And yet, AND YET this man says, “Into Your hands, I commit my spirit.”  That resolution that he will trust in the face of circumstances that, empirically, are clearly telling him that God is not there, and Jesus genuinely feels like God is not there.

And that man who trusted is raised from the dead and given a name that is above all rulers and powers.  His trust was not in vain.  His trust was rewarded!  But it can’t be trust if you don’t actually have to trust.

Folks, if Jesus has to go through this, surely any of us will.  Servants are not greater than their masters.  But take heart, Jesus tells us from two thousand years ago, because he has overcome the world.

I have never been confronted with the circumstances Jesus was confronted with, or even Israel in her day to day.  I have a long projected lifespan (although any random circumstance can cut that short).  My sufferings are relative to my lot in life which, compared with Jesus or even most people in the world, is pretty great.  Their are faithful Christians in Haiti who are living under a corrugated metal lean-to who will likely die that way, and I agonize in my warm bed at night because I pray and don’t feel anything in response.

Still, our feelings of suffering are relative to our own circumstances; they don’t come from an objective comparison.  When I pray and don’t feel like anything has actually happened but me talking aloud to no one, or when I pray earnestly for a condition to change and absolutely nothing happens, I also doubt.  I doubt, just like you.  I wonder if there is really a God there.  If He is there, is He anything like what I conceive Him to be?  Does He hear me when I pray?  Does He care?  Is He going to do anything?

It is in those moments, and it is arguably only in those moments, when I can trust.  And trust does not look like feeling different.  Trust does not look like getting the response I want when I want it.  Trust does not mean getting outcomes that make sense to me, theologically.  Trust does not mean emptying my brain so that I can adopt a view of the world that I strongly, strongly suspect is not real.

If Jesus is to be my guide in this matter, trust is acknowledging the reality of my feelings, the lack of response, the terrible outcomes, and in the face of that seemingly overwhelming tide saying, “You know what?  F*** it.  I’m going to trust, anyway.”

Jesus probably didn’t say “F*** it.”  That’s an Anglo-Saxon word.

I have read enough, seen enough, and believe enough that I will live with my real doubts, real fears, real feelings of being alone, and real circumstances – knowing full well I might never feel differently and my circumstances may never change – and trust, anyway, as many of my brothers and sisters have before me and do now.

That may end up making me a huge idiot.  I don’t care.  I’m an adult, and I don’t need to justify my trust to anyone.  Nor my doubts, so those folks out there who think I don’t have true faith because my life isn’t an unending stream of supernatural communication from God and constant validation of my faith, I don’t need your feedback, either.  I have to live my life, not you.

The reality for me is that these periods of silence are punctuated by fruits of the Spirit, communion, powerful changes, and yes, even the occasional event that’s hard to explain any other way.  And when I don’t have these moments, others do.  And even if we didn’t, the fact is, that when I hear the word, I believe.

Perhaps part of trusting God, despite how I feel or what I believe I really need from Him, is trusting that His silence is the best thing I could be getting at the time.