Why You Should Not Despair When God is Silent
- Jeremiah J. Johnston
- 2015 10 Nov
God’s Silence Is Biblical, Personal, Common, and Not Always a Bad Thing
An errant understanding of God produces an inconsistent spiritual life. Bad theology inculcates incorrect thinking. There is an erroneous understanding within the church that God’s silence equals His chastisement in our life. Of course, chastisement is a word we rarely hear in modern “Churchianity” today, but it is found in the Bible. Chastisement is the experience of God’s discipline in our lives. God’s silence and God’s chastisement are very different things, and certainly not synonymous. If God is silent to us, it does not automatically mean that He is disciplining us. Recall the episode in John’s gospel in which Jesus saw a blind man and His own disciples queried, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus’ answer corrected the errant theology of first- century Judaism (and some modern Christianity), “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (verse 3). Jewish families in the first century who suffered with handicaps, birth defects, or special needs were considered outcasts. I am sure they felt God was distant. However, as we learn in John 9, God had a greater plan for this particular family to experience the power of God with healing and deliverance. God’s silence is not always linked to sin.
If you are experiencing the silence of God, do not believe the lie that you are a second-tier, second-rate Christian. In reality, it is possible, even probable, that it means quite the opposite. God has entrusted you with His apparent silence for a greater reason. Trust is the central issue that needs your focus. Will you trust God to straighten out this mess in your life? Will you trust God to see you through the desert? Will you trust God, even when He says no or wait or not now?
The Bible is a time machine, a portal to the historical past, providing access to examples of common men and women transcending extremely difficult moments with profound courage and faith. As we search the Scriptures for answers to the unanswered questions, we must remember the Bible is history, not mythology. The stories of the Bible exhibit verisimilitude with the reality of the world in which the stories take place. In Latin veritas (root is ver, meaning “veracity, verifiable”) means genuine or true; similitude means similar or likeness. Therefore, as historians and biblical scholars, when we say the New Testament exhibits verisimilitude with the first century, we are noting that the contents of the biblical narrative correspond with what we know of the era the document describes. In other words, the Bible finds its place in the ongoing cut and thrust of history and there is tremendous overlap when one compares the sacred Judeo-Christian manuscripts with other extant documents, inscriptions, and archeological findings from antiquity. We can have an abundance of confidence that the Bible speaks of real people in real places, with real ceremonial and cultural customs, who are trusting God through the vicissitudes of life. Accordingly, have you considered that God’s silence is biblical? It is usually a surprise to the casual reader of the Bible that several of the major Bible characters faced moments of deafening silence from God.
Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are, God
The narrative of Abram and Sarai (later to become Abraham and Sarah) serve as a series of mountain-peak passages in the Old Testament. In studying the carefully recorded chronology of Abraham’s life in Genesis 12–18, these seven chapters serve as a window into the twenty-five most important years of his family’s life. We learn that Abram and Sarai experienced nearly twenty-five years of God’s silence. The first period was ten years (see Genesis 12–16), and the second period was thirteen additional years (see Genesis 17–18). Even God’s closest friends are not exempt from experiencing God’s silence: “The Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God” (James 2:23).
Abram and his family endured not one but two distinct periods of God’s silence. When we encounter Abram and Sarai in the early pages of God’s story they are quite ordinary. Even so, against all odds, they are able to exhibit faith in God with reckless abandon. After all, Abram, along with this family, trusted in this personal God, Yahweh (“I Am”), which means the self-existent One, and relocated to a new region called Canaan. If you read too quickly through Genesis 11:27–12:4, you will miss the fact that when Abram responded to God’s call on his life, he left behind his heritage, his rightful land, his extended family, and all of his eventual inheritance to follow Yahweh 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from Ur (modern-day Iraq), through Haran (modern-day Syria), to Canaan (modern-day Israel). At his defense before the Sanhedrin, Stephen said, “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:2–3). Hundreds of miles from their cultural home, Abram and Sarai found themselves in a foreign land, aging and childless.
Not only is God’s silence biblical, it is also personal. How is that? God’s silence is personal because it can be the agent of our transformation. In Genesis 12, Abram (“great father”) was a pagan, he was seventy-five years old when God asked him to leave everything he knew to follow Him. God promised Abram, “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). For many Christians it is not difficult to identify with the experience of God’s silence. While it might not be the issue of infertility, you can probably point to a time in your life when you wondered if God had forgotten you.
Imagine you were in Abram or Sarai’s place. Ten years had passed since God’s promise that your descendants would become a great nation, in Genesis 12:2. For many years, God had been silent regarding how and when His covenant with you would be fulfilled. Suddenly, God appears to you (see Genesis 15:1–6) and you find yourself standing outside, gazing at the night sky unobstructed by today’s city glare as the Lord compares your future and immeasurable offspring with the innumerable stars of the sky. As with many other characters in the Bible, and probably with us today, clarity came only in hindsight for Abram and Sarai. In the midst of those years of silence, even a man of great faith such as Abram struggled with God’s way and timing. He even struggled with the lack of God’s presence! He worried. He looked elsewhere for answers.
Abram was looking for answers to his uncertainties, but the Lord wanted him to look up. God’s dynamic and starry sermon illustration provided a vision for what He planned to do through Abram’s example of trust and obedience. Yet when God finally spoke, with this promise beautifully illustrated by the stars in the heavens, Abram “believed in the Lord” (Genesis 15:6). Here we see that even after ten years of God’s silence, and having absolutely nothing to show for it, Abram cast himself on the un-failing chesed (Hebrew word translated most often as “lovingkindness” or “grace”) love of God. Abram trusted in God’s covenant faithfulness and he decided, against all odds, to trust in God’s character. Abram affirmed his trust in God’s covenant faithfulness and was declared righteous. His faith (’ā·măn)—which in Hebrew means “to be convinced, have confidence, to trust,” very similar to our English amen—is cited again and again in the New Testament as the doctrine of imputed righteousness. (See, for instance, Romans 4:3, 9, 33; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23.)
Fast-forward to Genesis 17, Abram is now ninety-nine years old (he was seventy-five when God initially promised his progeny), twenty-four years after promising Abram a son, and thirteen years after confirming His covenant. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of multitudes”). Therefore, Abraham’s transformation occurred in the midst of God’s silence, because he had cast himself unreservedly on the character of El Shaddai—God Almighty. (Genesis 17:1, “When Abram was ninety- nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty.’”) Thankfully the story does not end there. When we study the narratives of the Bible, we must remember that these are not fairy tales. These characters in the Bible are not super heroes or robots. They were normal people, like you and me. One of the most relevant and rewarding aspects of studying the Bible is that the central characters and narratives are so approachable. We can read our stories into the biblical epic as though we were present, watching the scenes as they unfolded, taking hold of timeless principles and examples of faith. What would your response be to God after twenty-four years of silence? After sixteen verses of God proclaiming His might and power (see Genesis 17:1–16), Abraham responds in a most human way: he laughed in God’s face. Abraham’s name has been changed yet his immediate reaction was to laugh at God (see Genesis 17:17–18), which was an expression of disbelief and doubt.
Guess what? God has a sense of humor, too. God said in Genesis 17:19 that Abraham shall name his son Isaac (“laughter”) so that each time Abraham calls for his son, he will always be reminded that God transcended his momentary doubts and kept His covenant promise. No wonder God asked a third person a question of Himself: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Perhaps you have laughed in disbelief at God’s apparent absence in your life. It may be that you identify with the father in Mark 9, a believer who struggled with a chronically-ill son, who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). In this case, Jesus did not berate the father for his believing unbelief! Jesus healed his child and we learn a dynamic lesson: some of the most faithful believers struggle with moments of intense doubt as a result of the adversities in life.
Not only is God’s silence real, biblical and personal, it is also common. Consider Joseph’s experience with the silence of God. Joseph was obedient to God; he trusted, obeyed, followed, and ended up in a foreign land, Egypt, a teenage victim, sold in a human trafficking transaction (see Genesis 37:1–36) to become a slave in Potiphar’s house. Joseph was wrongly accused and Potiphar had Joseph thrown in an Egyptian prison. (See Genesis 39:1–23.) Many overlook the description in Psalm 105:17– 19: “...Joseph, who was sold as a slave. They hurt his feet with shackles; his neck was put in an iron collar. Until the time his prediction came true, the word of the Lord tested him” (hcsb).
Genesis 40 concludes by saying Joseph was forgotten in prison. God’s silence. The meta-narrative was that God did not want Joseph to remain in the land of Canaan, where his family would have most likely died from famine. God did not want Joseph as a slave in Potipher’s house, either. God wanted Joseph to be Pharaoh’s prisoner. Why? Because God wanted to favor him in the eyes of Pharaoh. God’s silence was a test. Joseph’s trans- formation to becoming the second-most powerful man in Egypt happened through God’s silence.
Therefore, God’s silence can lead to our transformation.
The faithful Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel all experienced God’s silence. God’s silence is biblical, personal, common, and not always a bad thing.
So here is the key application: when the silence is real in your life you must recognize that you are not alone in the stillness. In fact, you are in good company. A right biblical framework will cause you to think rightly about your experiences. What is it about human nature that we constantly doubt ourselves? When you realize that Abraham, Joseph, and many of the great prophets all persevered and were eventually promoted through God’s silence, we remember we are not alone. First Peter 4:12–13 says, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory” (hcsb).
Dr. Jeremiah J. Johnston is a New Testament scholar, professor, apologist, and speaker. Dr. Johnston completed his doctoral residency in Oxford in partnership with Oxford Centre for Christian Studies and received his Ph. D. from Middlesex University (United Kingdom) with commendation. Dr. Johnston serves as the founder and president of Christian Thinkers Society, a Resident Institute at Houston Baptist University where he also serves as Associate Professor of Early Christianity. For more information, visit www.ChristianThinkers.com.
Publication date: November 10, 2015