When my mother died, a friend told me, “The silence is so profound.” I sat with this difficult truth for a long time.
In the years that followed, the silence of other sorrows made me feel isolated and alone, even in a caring church community. I thought of God as a shepherd who searches for his sheep, but I felt none of this agency. Rather, I felt as if God was giving me the silent treatment—that he was indifferent and neglectful.
But silent moments, unanswered prayers, and divine inaction are important spaces that can move us through the mystery of God.
Silence can be an absence of sound, speech, or activity. Silence can reflect reverence or an act of prayer. Silence is not, however, simply being quiet. And it is not the same as peace.
The peace of God is knowing we cannot orchestrate our lives, but only do our part and trust his sovereign design.
Unlike this peaceful surrender, silence occurs in difficult circumstances. Death, loss, grief, and suffering challenge our existing beliefs and require us to search for meanings to understand our personal story. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes, “When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing him, … if you remember yourself and turn to him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
Western culture does not handle silence well. In our overstimulated society, silence is a negative space, something to be avoided. Technology has made us consumers of knowledge and noise at every turn. Endless news cycles and social media bombard us with ideas. However, intentionally embracing silence, physically and spiritually, can bring healing. Separating from technology and noise in our lives can highlight larger truths, much like a rest in a musical score, a strategically placed darkness in a painting, a gaping black hole in the universe.
Perhaps silences, though difficult to bear, are an intentional part of God’s chiseling of our souls.
God is not indifferent or uncaring, but perhaps God’s silence is there for a reason. As Anne Lamott writes in Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, “Periods in the wilderness or desert were not lost time. You might find life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.” Wilderness moments are important spaces that force us to shift our understanding of God and make us more conscious of him. Careers, children, aging, and even death can fill our lives with noise and activity. In these times, divine silence can lead us to prayer. While silence may not produce the euphoric, exciting animation our society expects, silence reflects God’s work in our brokenness.
Silence suggests that God is not always active in clear ways, but I know he is working. I see it in the people I live and work with every day, people who help me to make sense of this silence through their own stories. It comforts me to know that I am not the first person to experience divine silence, and I won’t be the last.
People in the Bible and in history who endured anger and grief and faced divine silence also give voice to this experience. Their behaviors and attitudes in the face of lament offer hope that silence is seasonal. Their stories frame my journey and shift my focus to God.
As Christians, we are called to action, yet embracing divine silence is a powerful choice that rests with each of us.