The Silence of God

Dr. Brian Allison

This past Wednesday night in Cell Group, we were talking about the fact that God can withdraw His gifts (not His gifts of justification and His Spirit) for reasons known unto Himself. He can withdraw the gifts of peace, joy, and comfort, for a season, in accord with his inscrutable purposes. Now, when God is pleased to withdraw His gifts for a season, the result can be an unsettling sense of forsakenness, of feeling alone. This sense of abandonment by God is a spiritually painful experience for the Christian. God has become silent. Do you know what the silence of God is like – having enjoyed the warmth of His nearness in terms of joy and assurance, having felt the comfort of His presence throughout the day, and then feeling His absence?

Now, you may know that God loves you. You may know that He cares for you. You may know that He will continue to provide for you; and yet you may have the indescribable experience of feeling alone. You may still profess the God who created you and who saved you, and yet that grace of His presence may be withdrawn; and you consequently say in your heart, "Where is God?" I believe that this is the experience of many Christians, although they would not readily admit it. John Bunyan (1628-1688), the Puritan preacher and writer, experienced the withdrawal of the favourable presence of God. In his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he writes:

This temptation lasted for about a year and all this time I had to give up Bible reading and prayer, for it was then that I was most distressed with these blasphemies. There would be sudden thoughts to question all that I read. Or again, my mind would be strangely snatched away that I could not remember so much as a sentence that I had just completed.

I was also greatly troubled when I attempted to pray during this time. Sometimes I have felt Satan behind me, pulling my clothes. He would also continually be at me in the time of prayer to "get it done, break off, make haste, you have prayed enough, stay no longer." Sometimes also he would cast his wicked thoughts into my mind; for instance, that I ought to pray to him.

And when my thoughts wandered away, and I tried to fix them upon God, then the Tempter with great force presented to my heart and fancy the form of a bush or a bull – that I could pray to one of them. And he so got hold my mind that it was as if I could think of nothing else or pray to nothing else but to these.

Yet there were times, too, when I had some strong feelings of the presence of God and of the reality and truth of His gospel. And at such times, my heart poured itself out with inexpressible groanings. My whole soul was in every word. I cried out with terrible pangs of pain to God that He would be merciful to me, but it was no good. I thought at once that God merely mocked at these prayers, saying as the holy angels listened, "This poor simple wretch keeps after Me as though I had nothing else to do with My mercy but to give it to such a one as he. Alas, poor soul, how you are fooled! It is not for such as you to have favor with the Highest."

Bemoaning the silence of God

That was Bunyan's experience. And maybe this is your experience. Maybe you have reached the point that you do not feel like reading your Bible or praying. Maybe the Tempter has come and has put wicked thoughts into your mind, even blasphemies, and you are wondering what in the world has happened; you may even wonder whether you are 'losing it,' or whether you will, at the last, become an apostate. Are you experiencing the silence of God? This was the disturbing experience of the Psalmist, as recorded in Psalm 42. This Psalm records that the Psalmist was apparently exiled from Jerusalem; he was away from temple worship, but we are not given the reason why. He was now residing in the northern part of the country, the place where the Jordan River rises, near Mount Mizar.

In this distant land, the Psalmist longed for the worship of God. He longed for God's presence. Now, God's presence was identified with the temple in Jerusalem, and so, in longing for the presence of God, he thus longed for the temple where God was pleased to manifest His particular glory. So, he exclaimed, "As a deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?" (vss. 1,2). The Psalmist hungered and thirsted after fellowship with God. He was separated from God geographically and communally, as well as personally and experientially, with the emphasis being on the latter. This separation anxiety brought about inner pain to him. He bemoaned, "These things I remember, and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival" (vs. 4).

The Psalmist was in deep pain not only because he was separated from God, but, more so, because God seemed to be separated from Him. God had distanced Himself; He was 'nowhere to be found.' There was no visible tokens of His favour and blessing; no clear evidences of His grace or His mercy. God seemingly has forgotten him; and in his anguish, the Psalmist cried out in despair. God had become silent to Him. And it was this excruciating fact that his enemies 'threw into his face.' So, he grieved, "My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'" (vs. 3). His own heart remorsefully confirmed the truth of his enemies' taunts concerning the divine absence – "I will say to God, my Rock, 'Why hast Thou forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'" (vss. 9,10).

Again, do you know what the silence of God is like? When I was going to seminary, I had an opportunity to preach in Ottawa. The morning service went fairly well; the congregation responded positively. I was to preach again in the evening. That afternoon I had lunch with the elderly pastor of the church. In talking with him, we slipped into talking about 'personalities' (that is, a dangerous thing!) – "Did you hear about this man...Did you hear what so and so did...etc?" It was nothing less than gossip. Such talk entails criticism and fault-finding. I knew at the time my behaviour was wrong. I knew that the Lord was displeased. This belief and understanding were confirmed that evening – when I later stood up to preach, there was a terrible sense of the withdrawal of God. I stood in the pulpit alone. My heart could have cried out, "Where is your God?" Certainly, Satan was mockingly asking that.

Maybe Satan has come to you and has whispered in your heart, or has spoken through unsuspecting people, "Where is God?" Maybe you have felt the oppression of the enemy, and it has weighed heavy upon you. Maybe your husband or your wife continues to be a source of aggravation and irritation, and you have come to God and have prayed to Him, pouring out your heart before Him, and yet there has been no change; and you hear that question ringing in your mind, "Where is God?" Or, maybe the financial negotiations in which you had been busily engaged, trying to stabilize the present situation, broke down, even though you diligently sought the Lord about it, and in that moment of weakness you hear that question resounding in your mind – the whisper of the Tempter – "Where is God?" Or, maybe that bad habit that you continue to struggle with, which has often overcome you, became a serious matter of prayer and discipline, and yet its power seemed to increase, rather than decrease, and, falling again, you heard the Tempter mockingly ask, "Where is God?" God is deathly silent.

Despairing because of the silence of God

The experience of the pain of God's silence – the absence of His felt-presence – may result in gloom or depression. The Psalmist uttered in soliloquy, "Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?" (vs. 5a). The man was obviously overwhelmed; he was overcome by the stressful situation. He was confused. And, as a result, he slipped into depression. Accordingly, he talked to himself. Do you know what that is like? You are so disturbed, you are so upset, that you begin to talk to yourself – "What is going on? What is the problem? What is happening? Get 'hold of' yourself." That is a desperate situation, but self-talk can be quite medicinal during the times of confusion associated with despair.

Outward circumstances, conflictual relationships, and spiritual upheaval can cause inner anguish, despair, or anxiety? For instance, a number of years ago, I worked at a Christian school, and I had a run-in with the administration. It was a conflictual relationship. For a while, I was rather anxious and disturbed, similar to that of the Psalmist. Now, the experience of despair, depression, or inner disturbance is not wrong per se. Such reactions are a natural human response to the stresses and difficulties of life. For instance, the Lord Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, was burdened and stressed out to the point of sweating, as it were, great drops of blood. Our Lord was in great anguish of soul because of His circumstances. So, the experience of depression, despair, or anguish is not wrong per se; but what is wrong is the fact that one may fail to confront and overcome such emotional and spiritual 'darkness.' Here the Psalmist was honest with himself and with his condition. He did not deny his despair. He did not allow spiritual pride to deny that he was hurting, that he was struggling, but he courageously responded to his plight.

Responding to the pain of the silence of God

First, the Psalmist challenged or confronted the despair – "Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?" (vss. 5a,11a). He tried 'to get hold' of himself. The man challenged his emotions. I know a Christian lady who was feeling somewhat depressed. Her response was something like this, "I feel like being depressed. I want to remain depressed. There is some kind of strange pleasure in being depressed. Right now I like being self-piteous. I like feeling sorry for myself." Is that your experience? Do you say, "No one else is going to feel sorry for me, so I may as well feel sorry for myself. No one else is going to pay attention to me, so I may as well pay attention to myself." That is pride and self-centredness. It is simply sin.

Second, in confronting his despair, in seeking 'to get hold' of himself, the Psalmist sought to acquire a right focus or perspective. The Psalmist self-consciously encouraged himself to place his hope and trust in God – "Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence" (vs. 5b). Though he did not feel the presence of God, he considered the person of God; resting in who God is and what God has done. He made a self-conscious effort to focus on God, to have a right perspective. We must remember that regardless of our circumstances or situation, He is God and He deserves the response of trust and hope. Is that what you do? That is what John Bunyan did. He continually tried to turn his attention to God, even though that was painful, for Satan took advantage of that holy effort to implant blasphemies in his mind.

Third, in actually hoping in God, the Psalmist specifically remembered the goodness and love of God, and that, in turn, fueled his hope – "Therefore I remember Thee" (vs. 6b). He did not feel God's presence, but he deliberately made recollection of Him. Now, in your spiritual exile, take pains to remember God. In remembering God, the Psalmist could triumphantly say, "The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime" (vs. 8a). He did not say this because he 'felt it;' he said it because he knew it, because he remembered who God is, and what God had done, and what God could yet do. So, in your spiritual exile, when God seemingly has put you on an island, separate from His grace and His mercy (in terms of knowing His peace and His joy), you need to remember what He has told you in the light as you, for a season, must walk in the dark.

Fourth, in remembering God, the Psalmist realized that this 'dark' situation had come from the hand of God. God brings calamity and tragedy into our lives (Is. 45:7). The Psalmist realized that the sovereign Lord had brought this situation into His life – "Deep calls to deep at the sound of Thy waterfalls; all Thy breakers and Thy waves have rolled over me" (vs. 7). He, no doubt, could say, "It was God who caused this flood to come in to my life; it was God who allowed my footing to slip. It is God who has overwhelmed me." And, thus, he said, "I will say to God, my Rock, 'Why has Thou forgotten me?'" (vs. 9a). Now, no reason is given as to why the Psalmist had to go through this painful experience? It does not say that he had sinned and that God was punishing him. It does not say that God was teaching him a lesson. No reason is given, and yet the Psalmist bowed to the sovereignty of God, recognizing that God had ordered it. Do you? When it seems that God has distanced Himself from you, when it seems that God is not answering your prayers, when it seems that God does not care, allowing you to go through some difficult situation – dealing with that irritating co-worker or that unkind spouse – do you realize that it is God's breakers, His waters, rolling over you? Do you realize that it is coming from the hand of God, and that He is not obligated to give you a reason? He is God.

If we understand that the withdrawal of God's presence has been ordered and ordained by Him, then that understanding should give us comfort. Even though we may be confused as to why God has allowed it, just knowing that He has allowed it can give us comfort. The silence of God has been the experience of God's people throughout history. Even the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 details this fact, providing us with comforting insight. We read, for instance:

God, who is most wise, righteous and gracious, frequently allows His own people to fall for a time into a variety of temptations, and to experience the sinfulness of their own hearts. This He does in order to chastise them for sins they have committed, or to teach them humility by revealing to them the hidden strength of evil and deceitfulness remaining in their hearts. His purpose is also to cause them to realize their need to depend fully and at all times upon Himself, and to help them to guard against sin in the future. In these and other ways His just and holy purposes are worked out, so that all that happens to His elect ones is by His appointment, for His glory, and for their good (ch. 5, sec. 5).

Understanding this particular truth may not bring much peace and comfort as you go through the deep waters, but knowing who is overseeing and regulating those deep waters can be quite comforting.

Fifth, the Psalmist, in recognizing the sovereign hand of God, was in constant prayer, persevering until the Lord would command His lovingkindness. This psalm is laced with prayer – "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God...O my God [he moves from a somber soliloquy to solemn prayer], my soul is in despair within me...And His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life" (vss. 2a,6a,8b). During your dark night of the soul, when God is pleased to withdraw His felt-presence (again, for reasons known only to Himself), and knowing that at the appointed time He will command His lovingkindness, you need to be in constant prayer until He again reveals Himself. You need to pour your heart out to the Lord. At this point, self-help books will not assist you; contemporary psychological techniques will not assist you; even the reading of your Bible may not assist you – not when God has withdrawn Himself. It is not a psychological or emotional problem; it is a spiritual issue. And at these times, you simply need to resign yourself to the truth that God is God, that He is sovereign; and when He chooses, He will return and then you will again see His glory.

My brothers and sisters, what are you going through this week? Can you identify with the Psalmist in feeling distant and separated from God? Is that your situation? If it is, then I feel for you because I have been there, and it is a terrible place to be. I know what it is like to turn everywhere to find comfort, and to discover that there is no comfort. At that time, you long for a moment of peace and rest from the upheaval of your mind and the agitation of your soul, and there is no peace or rest to be found. My Christian friend, hope in God. Follow in the faithful steps of father Abraham who hoped against hope, trusting in God. God will command His lovingkindness at the appointed time. When He has tried you, you will come forth as gold. You need to persevere. Do not stop praying. He hears your cry, and He sees your tears. When He has brought you to the point where you are more humble, and you see more of His glory, and you are more willing to serve Him, then He will return, and you shall again praise Him. So, be encouraged. Be of good cheer!