The words God is not listening! He is not answering! are the essence of one of our most troubling complaints. Is there an answer to it powerful enough to pull us from doubt’s darkness?
When we are under the impression that God is not listening, frustration opens the door to the most insidious complexes and fiercest reasons to rebel against God. When this happens, the Bible may, paradoxically, turn into our enemy. This happens because we often look at the prayers for divine interventions in the Bible and ignore the time that elapsed between the asking and the intervention. This is how we may come to feel that the Bible only applies to a world where God used to speak directly to people, while here and now, there are very few people who claim to hear Him—and even fewer who are credible.
This perceived disconnect between the world of today and the world of the Bible leads us to a serious question: Is it possible that the Bible, shrouded in a history so old it can no longer be completely verified, has somehow crossed over from reality into legend?
When did God fall silent?
Before evaluating how to conclude the reasoning above, let’s check its premises. Is it really true that in biblical times the communication between men and God was frequent and common? It’s easy to go through what the Bible has preserved for us, belonging to a history which is several thousand years old, and get the feeling that conspicuous interventions from God were the rule, while ignoring the passages which describe God’s silence or absence. What if we discovered that the Bible records long periods in which God was silent, or perceived as absent?
How many slave generations died in Egypt before God told Moses, “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me” (Exodus 3:9, see also 2:23-25)? We also come to know that in the time God called Samuel to serve, “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Samuel 3:1). Centuries later, David and other psalmists have shown how often and intensely God’s people experienced the agony of His silence (Psalms 10:1, 13:1, 42:9, 74:1, etc.).
The Bible shows us that God’s saving acts actually occur in the midst of a people whose regular experience was the perceived absence of God.1
Presbyterian theologian Eugene Peterson sums this up, stating that this historical experience of God’s absence is “reproduced in most of our lives”, and that the problem is “most of us don’t know what to do with it”.2
We don’t know what to do with God’s absence or silence because, to us, it seems abnormal. But it is not abnormal—the Bible records a much more recent history than we dare to believe. With this observation in mind, we are ready to move forward.
The silence we don’t understand, or appreciate enough
Few manage to contemplate God’s silence from an angle other than that of frustration and anguish which fills the void left by the lack of an answer from God. This is why the other side of His silence is much less discussed and admired.
God is silent when He ought to speak, and His words would be punishment (Psalm 50:21, Isaiah 42:14; 57:11). In these situations, God’s silence becomes an expression of His grace, of a new chance, and of the tenderness and discretion He grants us, as an undeserved favour. If we can start seeing, simultaneously, the two sides of God’s silence, the picture thus formed would testify to a deeper meaning of the divine silence.
A fragment from Night by Elie Wiesel, a Jew born in Romania, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, paradoxically offers the deepest answer to questions like: “Why is God silent in the face of evil? And what does He do with the prayers of the tormented?”
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time Lagerkapo refused to perform the execution. He was replaced by three SS. The three victims mounted together on to the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within nooses. Long live liberty, cried the two adults. But the child was silent. Where is God? Where is He? someone behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting […]. Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me I heard the same man asking: Where is God? And I heard a voice within me answer him: Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.3
God couldn’t have been anywhere else. “Any other answer to this devastating question would surely be a blasphemy.”4
This is exactly why God’s silence in the tragedy Wiesel witnessed is the place where absolute unbelief (experienced by most of Wiesel’s readers) and profound faith meet, unexpectedly. God’s silence in the face of the gallows is an echo over time of His silence at Calvary. And the two scenes, happening at the same hour, at dusk, are even more powerfully connected by the common question: “Where is God now?”. “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him” (Matthew 27:43).
Silence is not absence
What takes us even deeper into this evaluation of God’s silence, in its rawest manifestation, is the moment when, hanging on the cross and surrounded by God’s absolute silence, Jesus Himself asks: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Coming from the One who had never been separated from His Father, these words describe the paroxysm of Christ’s agony. It is impossible for them to contain any exaggeration. This is exactly why the meaning of these words cannot be fully explained. In those moments before death, for the first and only time, Jesus did not receive the assurance of God’s presence. It was the moment when the devil tried with all his might to force the door of Jesus’ mind open, using the darkest and most alarming thoughts.
But Jesus did not give up on His God, and the words He spoke in the end offer us two indisputable truths: 1) No matter how deep the feeling of His Father having left Him cut Jesus, He continued to call His Father “My God”; 2) Surrounded by God’s absolute silence, Jesus does not hesitate to entrust His life to this same God (Luke 26:46, 3). His last words are quotes from Scripture (Psalm 22:1; Psalm 31:5), which point out how, in a profoundly humbling manner, His mind kept finding power and solace in God’s Word, in the middle of the worst agony.
Contrary to Wiesel’s revelation regarding the child who was hanged, Ellen White wrote that God’s absolute silence from the cross must not be mistaken for His absence: “and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Luke 23:44). “God’s presence was hidden in that dense darkness”5 (Psalm 18:11). Even if, in that moment, the Saviour of the world had to tread “the winepress” alone (Isaiah 63:3), and could not be comforted by the presence of the Father, still, in His silence, the Father was with His Son. In Wiesel’s words, God was there hanging on the cross.
Even when He was silent, God was present. In the Biblical picture, the prayer of faith is a luminous and certain baseline. It is no longer one prayed solely in the firm belief that God is listening, but is a prayer inspired by the conviction that God, silent or not, is with us in a perfect way.
Between these two axes of prayer, the graph of our communion with God unfolds: We ask, He listens, and answers—according to His promises, which do not deceive us, and according to His faultless kindness and His will, which is not only sovereign, but perfectly wise. There are moments and standpoints from which God’s answer seems more like the lack of an answer. Or there are moments in which His silence appears to be His absence. But in those times, following the example set by Jesus on the cross, our prayer becomes an opportunity to renew the vow we made when we surrendered our lives to God6, and a reaffirmation of the faith that led us there in the first place.
The conditions of a relationship we wish were unconditional
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. (Psalm 66:18)
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)
It is true that God is often silent in order to show us grace. However “God cannot be mocked” (Galatians 6:7). He proposes a relationship which resembles marriage, because it must be conducted according to its highest standard of purity, love and faithfulness. This is why God cannot settle for less than honesty from the one who comes before Him, and who is willing to live according to his own prayers and the relational vow (Proverbs 28:19; 1 John 5:14). If a man plans to stay in a mutually exclusive relationship—with God and sin—trying to gain what he wants from both sides, his prayers will not be heard.
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (1 Peter 3:7)
Whether the relationship is in one’s own family, or is a relationship with a friend, acquaintances, or business partner, forgiveness is the sprouting seed of God’s love. Prayer is inextricably tied to it. The one who truthfully asks for forgiveness must understand its power, fruit, and purpose, and, in order to understand them, he must not stop forgiving.
Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor, will also cry out and not be answered. (Proverbs 21:13)
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38)
Prayer is one of the means God uses to constantly remind us of the altruistic nature of His kingdom, and to bring us into intimate communion with the nature of His divine love. Whoever attempts to preserve oneself, untouched by this nature but at the same time wishing to benefit from it, does not understand that prayer is not a means to an end (James 4:2-3). It is a conversation which testifies to an ever-growing correspondence between two hearts—the heart of God, and the one praying.
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:6-8)
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. (Matthew 21:22)
And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:15)
Once we are sure that we ourselves do not stand in the way of God’s answer to our prayers, praying with faith simply means that we have met God, and that we understand and no longer doubt that He listens to our prayers. If we find the time to pray, God will find the time to answer.
Sometimes the answers to our prayers do not come immediately (which, according to the Bible, is not abnormal). This fact is recorded in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18). Through the moral of this parable, Jesus advises us to persevere in prayer, but not because perseverance is necessary for us to receive an answer—God is the antithesis of the unjust judge! The purpose of the parable is to assure us that God’s answer will come. We are challenged to discover, in the meantime, the way in which perseverance in prayer7 gives us the opportunity to develop our honesty, desire, dependence8, love for God, and our willingness to surrender to His will. We have the opportunity to develop patience, and loyalty towards our God.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.