What Do You Do When God is Silent?

Do you ever struggle with God's silence? If so, here are some encouraging words to consider.

What Do You Do When God is Silent?
Photo by Nick Fewings / Unsplash

This week, I had Sandra Richter on the podcast to talk about how the Psalms transform the way we worship. It's a fantastic conversation!

One of the topics we covered was lament, and in Psalm 22, David says these words:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far from my deliverance
and from my words of groaning?
My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
by night, yet I have no rest.

After reaffirming his confidence in God’s character, David says in verse 6, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by people.” As Robert Alter writes, “The impulse of self-revilement puts the speaker in contrast to the meritorious forefathers, who trusted in God and were rescued by Him. The speaker wonders: Could I possibly be worthy of God’s intervention in my state of utter abandonment?”[1]

This question brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge for followers of God who feel abandoned by him. Sometimes, our primary concern isn’t if God is good; it’s if we are too low for him to notice us. After all, why would an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God care about the details of my life? By contrast, we are nothing more than worms.

God’s silence only seems to confirm our fears. But Scripture teaches us that silence can serve as a useful tool to make us more like him. And when we ask God tough questions and do not hear a response, this is our cue to learn what God is teaching us in silence. As Gerald Wilson writes:

When God does not reply to the psalmist’s repeated cries, it is not because he is unable to speak or is unaware of the psalmist’s plight. Divine silence is for the psalmist an example of the mysterious exercise of God’s free will. It is this difficult circumstance—that God is aware and could answer but does not—that fuels the psalmist’s painful confusion and dismay.[2]

In moments of silence, we have a tremendous opportunity to solidify our confidence in God’s character. When God is speaking, and life makes sense, it’s easy to follow God. But when God is silent, we are confronted with a two-fold choice: First, to forge blindly ahead and figure out life on our own, or second, to take a step back and ask what God might be teaching us in quiet what we might not learn if we heard his voice.

As Dallas Willard writes, “Usually, those who want a word from God when they are in trouble cannot find it. Or at least they have no assurance that they have found it. This is, I think, because they do not first and foremost simply want to hear God speaking in their lives in general. At heart they only want to get out of trouble or to make the decisions that will be best for them.”[3]

Silence reveals the restlessness of our hearts. It underscores our intimacy, or lack thereof, with God. Rather than run from it, we should embrace it as our teacher.

Jesus certainly faced this question of abandonment through silence. As Derek Kidner writes, “No Christian can read [Psalm 22] without being vividly confronted with the crucifixion.”[4] As Jesus hangs on the cross, Matthew 27:46 says these words, “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’”

While scholars debate the full weight of these words, it appears clear that this abandonment by his heavenly Father was infinitely greater than the physical pain Jesus endured on the cross. In these moments, Jesus experienced the greatest sense of abandonment one could ever experience—yet he continued to trust his Father. This is why George Robertson writes,

It is the suffering of Christ that has secured these patterns of faithfulness for the unfaithful. Jesus did this by carrying out God’s eternal plan to provide “righteousness” through his own sacrificial death (Ps. 22:31; Rev. 13:8). His cry of forsakenness from the cross was the announcement that he had become a “curse” for his people, which “redeemed us from the curse of the law” and fulfilled the Abrahamic promise to bring salvation to the nations (Gal. 3:13–14; cf. Ps. 22:1). Those who put their faith in Christ can therefore be assured that they will never be cursed.[5]

It’s this reason why praying to Jesus is so powerful today. There are some hurts, some pains, so breathtaking that we scarcely know how to pray. No one, not even our closest friends, can fully empathize. But it’s here we can lean into the very one who suffered silence and abandonment in their cruelest forms and still “endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”[6]

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[1] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (The Five Books of Moses), vol. 1 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 66.

[2]Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms Volume 1The NIV Application Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 414.

[3] Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 258.

[4]Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 122.

[5]Bryan Chapell, eds. Gospel Transformation Study Bible Notes. Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), paragraph 2262.

[6] Hebrews 12:2