One of the persistent questions I hear from unbelievers and believers alike is: How can a loving God remain silent in the face of starvation, disease, war, and injustice? Divine silence dictates that God must not care or is not even there.
When I try these doubts on, they fit like an old familiar shirt.
I get it.
After my dad’s death in 1968, I stopped believing in him. I mean, I could not deny he was my father. I had to have come from somewhere. In my grief, I built a case that Dad was no dad at all. I remembered best one emotion: his anger. He was a M-80 who could and did explode any time.
But try as I might, I could not remember hearing him utter those powerful words, “I love you, Eugene.” Dad’s silence was deafening.
Et Tu, God?
We’ve all heard about God being angry. Silent. This is why some avoid the Old Testament.
Closer to home, however, God’s tight lipped response to my questions about why Dad died was unbelievable. It was easy to move from not believing in Dad to not believing in God.
It was either that or face hard, grief-filled questions. This unanswered grief, I believe, is a major root of our culture’s struggle to trust God.
Too many can recite similar stories. At first they point to God’s maddening silence about starving children in Ethiopia or some real but abstract injustice. But when we pull the scab, we discover the grief comes from a more personal wound. My late sister, a believer for over fifty years, agonized over God’s silence in the last couple of years of her life. She doubted God and that God loved her.
Et tu, reader?
When I was around twenty-nine, I was preparing my four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son for a bath. As I pulled their tiny shirts up over their heads I said, “Skin the rabbit!” What a weird thing to say. I froze holding their shirts. As I whisked the kids into the soapy water, I wondered, Where did that come from?
As I tucked them in, a truth rose out of the cavern of my labyrinthian grief. That’s what my dad said as he whisked me into the bath. My dad was a 1950s dad. Coal-miner hard, an auto mechanic, a man! Men back then did not bathe their kids. Ideal dads spanked their kids. Made them eat nasty, mushy, boiled spinach.
But bathing was an intimate act of nurture and love.
Later that night, my kids in bed, the Redheaded-Wildflower reading, my grief-wound broke open. I finally heard Dad say he loved me. But he didn’t use words.
That event brought on a cascade of similar memories. Dad taking me fishing, hunting, building fences, working on cars, sweeping the garage. He spent time on me like he was going to live forever.
God’s Most Fluent Language Is Silence
Does silence indicate lack of love, impotence, or nonexistence? No.
The difficulty is that silence allows us to fill it with our own words and ideas. Usually untrue words and ideas.
Paradoxically silence is the language of love. In the many times I’ve been hospitalized, those sitting with me in silence—not trying to talk me out of my fear, not trying to convince me all is well—have spoken the loudest love.
During my heart attack the doctor leaned over me and said, “You are six minutes from the hospital with a cath lab.” He described the stent procedure I might undergo. “You’ll be okay.”
Comforting words, sort of. But he and I both knew I could die in six minutes. Words don’t always assuage fear. Or stave off disaster. God said nothing during my six minute trip to the hospital. But I felt his grip on my mind and heart. God was there.
Saint John of the Cross said, “Silence is God’s first language.”
The Message of Job
This is apparent in the book of Job. Job’s noisy friends gave him every argument for his pain. They were the first to utter that meaningless phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Despite his friends’ words, Job persisted in the silent presence of God.
“Oh, how I wish that God would speak,” Job said. Finally God did, asking a series of questions Job could not answer.
“Can you pull in the sea beast, Leviathan, with a fly rod and stuff him in your creel?” (The Message)
What does my wordless creation say about me, Job? God seems to ask.
God asks us the same questions.
Job shrugs. “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!” (The Message)
God speaks through silence because our doubts flow from emotion and grief not logic. This is why the ontological arguments for the existence of a loving God leave so many cold and unbelieving. Logic insists that we must believe in God before we ask if God loves us. But our hearts know the true order of things. We know we have to have come from somewhere. Or Someone. Our hearts don’t really doubt that. Our hearts are asking God what I demanded of my deceased father. “Do you love me?”
God knew even a dictionary full of words could not fully answer my doubts about Dad. Therefore, God dredged up a strange memory form my buried relationship with my father. Much like with Job, God asked me a question. “Where did ‘skin the rabbit’ and all these other memories come from?”
My answer is Job’s: “I’m speechless, in awe—words fail me.”
Does God’s silence mean he doesn’t care or—worse—isn’t there? Stand in the silence as Job did. Then your own eyes and ears will have the answer firsthand.
- When have you shown love through silence?
- What are some examples of when you have heard God in silence?