Moses heard God's voice through a burning bush. Elijah heard it as a whisper. The prophet Samuel heard an audible voice, and the disciples heard it as thunder. God is a communicating God and uses a variety of ways to speak to us. But while we may celebrate in times of answered prayer, sooner or later we must face an opposite truth: sometimes God is silent too.
For ten years my wife and I tried to start a family. During that time we sought God diligently through prayer. But the dreamt-of child never came. While God has turned that around for good, what was most perplexing was God's silence on the matter. We heard him speak on other things during that time, but never about our pursuit of a family. Even having God say No to us would've been a mercy in the end, saving us much heartache. But all we got was silence.
I don't know why God speaks clearly sometimes and not others. But I have since learnt to ask three questions when he seems silent to us.
1. Am I shouting too loud to hear him?
CS Lewis's raw, vulnerable words in A Grief Observed speak for many on the topic of God's silence. Writing shortly after losing his wife Joy he said: 'Meanwhile, where is God? ...go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in 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.' Lewis expresses the frustration of those who seek God but hear nothing.
But Lewis' mood changed as he journeyed through the grief process. Describing his experience as like a drowning man who couldn't be helped because of his frantic clutching and grabbing, he finally reflected: 'Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.'
Just as the world's clamour can drown out the voice of God, so can the noise of the heart – the sadness, confusion, angst, anger, and the frantic 'Answer me!' shouts of our prayers. As Lewis discovered, sometimes these emotions must be allowed to ebb before we can hear God again. He's ready to speak, we're just not ready to listen.
2. Do I want God or only his gifts?
Christian scripture is beautifully authentic; it covers both the joys and the frustrations of walking with God, and the problem of divine silence isn't airbrushed out. We're told Israel experienced it (1 Samuel 3:1), as did biblical greats like Job and Asaph (Job 23:1-9; Psalm 77:1-9). 'Do not turn a deaf ear to me,' David prayed during his own experience of God's silence (Psalm 28:1). 'Why do you hide when I am in trouble?' (Psalm 10:1). When we know that the heroes of the faith wrestle too, we can take some comfort.
We can also follow their example. While these saints express in unvarnished terms their dismay at God's silence, they don't walk away. They may have tears in their eyes, but they keep looking heavenward. They may rant and rave, but they stay in the room. God's silence has a way of testing whether we want him or just his gifts. If he doesn't come through with the guidance, healing, or breakthrough we seek, will we still follow him?
A friend of mine is going through one of the worst seasons imaginable. The suicide of one family member was followed by the death of another, then a third member getting critically ill. 'I'm not hearing from God at all right now,' he told me, 'and neither do I feel God's presence. At the moment I'm living by what I believe to be true of God, not my feelings about him. And despite everything, I still believe he's good.' My friend is staying in the room. He wants God, not just God's gifts.
3. Have I really heard what he's already said?
Jesus was silent once, in a way that baffled everyone. It happened as he was teaching in the Temple one day. Having enthralled the crowd with his words, he had suddenly stopped, stooped down, and begun scribbling on the ground. 'The law of Moses says to stone her,' angry voices around him shouted. 'What do you say?' (John 8:5). But Jesus had stayed as silent as the shamed and shivering woman standing half-naked before them all.
When Jesus finally broke his silence it was brief. 'All right,' he'd said, 'but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!' (8:7). Then he'd looked back to the ground, wordless once more. Silence, a few words, then silence again. One by one, people drifted away, those few words of Jesus ringing loudly in their ears.
What is God doing during his periods of silence? Preparing the answer to our prayers? Maybe. Testing the depth of our devotion? Probably. But Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in adultery shows us something else about God's silence: Jesus may not have spoken, but he was there. God's silence doesn't mean his absence. And his lengthy pauses were meant to ensure his audience really heard what he'd already said. When God is quiet to us we can ask: what did God last say that I need to remember or act on?
God doesn't stay silent forever. He ultimately spoke to Israel and to Job. The morning finally dawned for Asaph and David. My wife and I may never know why God remained silent to our request for a child, but he's spoken to us since. And amid all the remaining questions I believe this: Sometimes God is speaking and we just can't hear him. And sometimes he stays silent so we'll act on what he's already said. And every moment of silence asks us if he's really worth following, even if we don't get what we ask for. I have so much to learn but still believe the answer to that is Yes.
Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster, frequently contributing to faith programmes on BBC Radio 2. His books include Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings and Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, and get his free ebook Five Practices for a Resilient Life.