“I’ve tried to believe in God. I want to believe, I really do, but I just can’t. He…just wasn’t there.”
The silence of God is a problem for many. It is for me. I’d like to be confident that the One who created me is involved with my life. If this Christian thing is a “heaven or hell” deal, I’d expect to see some clear signposts or messages from God if he truly wants to save people.
But, as many ex-Christians will say, “God just wasn’t there.” Seriously, what kind of psychopath lays out the choice between Heaven or Hell that’s contingent on whether we believe or not, but then conceals himself to make it easier for people to disbelieve–and go to hell?
Obviously, I don’t assume to know God’s mind, but there’s a problem when we think God doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s a simple misunderstanding: if God made himself known in the ways many want him to, then that would require him to betray his intentions for us. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God didn’t make us like the animals who only do what comes naturally (Gen. 1:26-27); he gave us the capacity to relate with him (Psa. 8:4-6), but that inevitably means we can refuse if we so choose (and we did; Gen. 3:6-7). And whether it’s “easier for people to disbelieve” or not does not depend on God’s presence or absence, but on whether people love something else more than God. Sin is the problem, and God can’t give us himself unless its dealt with.
What would happen if God made himself known to us to the extent that doubts no longer exist? Would we believe, or die because of our sin? Would we retain our individuality, or would we be brainwashed and traumatized at the overwhelming presence of him? God wants us to be souls, not computer programs, but relating with him has become so much harder because of our sin. This issue isn’t simple. We’re free-willed, but we’re also finite (2 Cor. 4:7) and sinful. Put it all together and we simply can’t handle what we think we can.
If we could play God for a day, what realities would we create? One where everyone goes to Heaven? Would we be free-willed? And how do we know that these alternative realities would incubate the type of traits Heaven requires? How could we, as free-willed people, know love, courage, compassion, heroism, mercy, justice, forgiveness, truth and goodness unless we lived in a world with hate, fear, disdain, indifference, cowardice, injustice, guilt, falsehood and evil? We can’t know darkness unless we know light, or right unless we know wrong.
Further, what if the greatest good is to know God? Well, how could we know him unless we have some sort of actual, experiential knowledge of everything he is not? I assume God doesn’t want posers in Heaven, but unless we live in our current world and experience the light and the darkness, goodness and evil, then posers are what we’ll be.
God’s silence teaches us that the world within and without is truly dark, but it also teaches us that the yearning for him is just as true (Eccl. 3:11), for to see something as truly dark is to know there’s something that’s truly light. Faith is the element that refuses to believe there’s only darkness even when that’s all we see. Faith looks at the hole and knows something can fill it.
The most important element in this equation is God’s omniscience. He knows what he’s doing. He knows why he’s “hiding.” If we’re smart enough to imagine alternative realities, then we’re smart enough to know that a Being of God’s magnitude already considered them all and set the current one in motion to suit his purpose. And if we’re wise enough to understand how finite we truly are, then we should be content with never finding answers, as the book of Job reminds us; after pages of rants from Job and his “friends,” God disregards it all with a single question: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? (Job 42:3)
Frederick Buechner’s words are insightful here: “God is absent from all Job’s words about God, and from the words of his comforters, because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life. God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.”
God giving us what we think we need is sometimes the worst thing for us. We’re ontologically weak, and therefore unable to relate with him in the ways we wish we could. As we wait for God, we’re left to echo the laments of the Biblical poets:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psa. 22:1)
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psa. 10:1)
“Why do you hide your face and count me as your enemy?” (Job 13:24).
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psa. 13:1)
“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psa. 44:23-24)
It’s not dangerous to admit your weakness or lack of faith (Mark 9:24). In fact, I believe that’s the point: “when we were dead in our sins, [God] made us alive” (Eph. 2:5). We’re dead without God. We’re not meant to be anything substantial outside of Christ (2 Cor. 4:7), which is why Christianity dwells on him. We’re supposed to have faith in God, not faith in our faith. It’s never been about what we do, but about what God’s doing in and through us (Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:24; see also Eph. 2:4-6; Col. 2:9-14). The same is true when we wrestle with God’s silence, for from the silence comes the growth of faith. God’s “absence” is the best training ground for trusting God. As Paul says, “who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24).
Those times I wonder if “this Christian thing is even true” are the times my faith grows, for it forces me to return to the core of Christianity (1 Cor. 15:1-8) to reevaluate the logic and evidence, thus reinforcing the reasonableness of it. But even if we get doctorates in Christian apologetics, there’s still mystery and uncertainty because we just can’t know God’s mind. Muscles strengthen through work, not inactivity, and so does faith. Waiting for God in the silence puts true faith to work.
Now whenever God chose to reveal himself in the age of Scripture, he didn’t come barging in as Creator God, glory on full throttle, expecting us to see him as he is (John 1:18; 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 4:12). That’s why he goes covert. As the Bible records, the Creator lives up to his name. He appears in dreams/visions (Num. 12:6), bushes (Exod. 3; or rather an angel via the bush), storms (Exod. 19:16), angels (Luke 1:11), donkeys (Num. 22:38), and most notably, Jesus (Heb. 1:2). The Word became flesh (John 1:14) because if it didn’t, we’d probably explode from the immensity of who he is (as suggested by Isa. 6: ; Rev. ). We need sunglasses for driving into the sun, and we need God to be sneaky for us to comprehend what he’s trying to give us. God relates with images, visions, donkeys, angels, symbols and parables because humanity’s eyes needed time (centuries, in fact) to adjust to the light.
The silence of God is the most brutal, yet most fruitful, method for procuring faith and individuality in humans. Only when God is absent do we become individuals because when he’s “gone” we’re forced to confront the hole he left behind and figure out who we are and what kind of person we’re going to be when God’s nowhere to be found. When he’s silent, the loudest voice is our own–our fears, guilts, misdeeds.
Perhaps the sin is the chief culprit after all. As humans, we tend to flock to anything that tries speak louder than the silence, but little do we know that these false gods are just trying to distract us from what God is saying in his silence. But thank God the silence will never be silent, for within the incessant silence lies our redemption. When the emptiness becomes too much to bear, the wholeness he brings becomes irresistible. Buechner nails this when he says the Gospel is bad news before it is good news because God must strip us in order to clothe us. What’s good news if we’ve never heard of bad news? “It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present,” he says.
So yes, the silence of God is a problem for me, but so is raising children, getting up for work, telling the truth, staying fit, keeping friends, saving money, and a host of other disciplines that, by all appearances, are “good.” Biblical faith can be unstable at times, and it can coexist with doubt in the same way they coexist when someone walks without crutches for the first time. There are doubts, but faith is stronger because they’re walking (even when the ground gets unstable).
The silence of God is a dark forest that everyone eventually stumbles into, multiple times, but I suppose those who make it out don’t care why it was there because through it all they just learned to love God more.