God can be maddeningly hard to get. When God says that his ways are not our ways, he really means it (Isaiah 55:8).
We have these encounters with him where he breaks into our lives with power and answers our prayers and wins our trust and waters the garden of our faith, making it lush and green.
And then there are these seasons when chaos careens with apparent carelessness through our lives and the world, leaving us shattered. Or an unrelenting darkness descends. Or an arid wind we don’t even understand blows across our spiritual landscape, leaving the crust of our soul cracked and parched. And we cry to God in our confused anguish and he just seems silent. He seems absent.
Singing to the Silence
That’s why tears tend to flow when I listen to Andrew Peterson’s song “The Silence of God.” I know what Andrew means:
It’s enough to drive a man crazy, it’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder, if he’s ever been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
And the Heaven’s only answer is the silence of God
The same thing happens when I listen to Rich Mullins’s song “Hard to Get”:
Do you remember when you lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread?
Did you forget about us after you had flown away?
Well I memorized every word you said.
Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath,
While you’re up there just playing hard to get.
All of God’s saints, if allowed to live long enough, are led into the lonely, disorienting, weary wilderness. And while there, we lament. And since laments are often better sung than said, it’s always been the poets and songwriters who help us most.
Job: “I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me.” (Job 30:20)
King David: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1–2)
The Flat Earth and the Absent God
Atheists will tell us that the reason God seems silent is because he’s absent. “No one’s home at that address. Duh.”
In the silent suffering seasons we can be tempted to believe it. Until we step back and take a look and see that existence itself is not silent. It screams God (Romans 1:20). As Parmenides said, and as Maria sang in The Sound of Music, “Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could.”
All of God’s saints, if allowed to live long enough, are led into the wilderness.
Believing atheism is like moderns believing in a flat earth. “From where I stand, it doesn’t look like God is there.” Right. And if you only trust your perceptions, the world looks flat. The only reason you know the world is round is because of authoritative scientific revelation and many corroborating testimonies.
What we experience as God’s absence or distance or silence is phenomenological. It’s how we perceive it. It’s how at some point it looks and feels but it isn’t how it is. Just like we can experience the world as flat when we’re walking on a huge spinning ball, we can experience God as absent or distant when “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
In reality, God wasn’t absent or silent or indifferent at all toward Job or King David. It’s just how it felt to them at the time. Nor, in reality, was God silent toward Andrew Peterson or playing hard to get with Rich Mullins. And when we feel forsaken by God we are not forsaken (Hebrews 13:5). We are simply called to trust the promise more than the perception.
Why the Silence?
But why does it need to feel that way? Why the perceived silence? Why can it seem like God is playing hard to get or like he’s just standing there looking at us when we cry to him for help?
I don’t claim to understand all the mysteries of this experience. No doubt we underestimate the effects of remaining sin on us and our need for this discipline in order to share God’s holiness (Hebrews 12:10). But I believe there are clues for another purpose as well. I’ll phrase them as questions.
Why is it that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” but “familiarity breeds contempt”?
Why is water so much more refreshing when we’re really thirsty?
Why am I almost never satisfied with what I have, but always longing for more?
Why can the thought of being denied a desire for marriage or children or freedom or some other dream create in us a desperation we previously didn’t have?
Why is the pursuit of earthly achievement often more enjoyable than the achievement itself?
Why do deprivation, adversity, scarcity, and suffering often produce the best character qualities in us while prosperity, ease, and abundance often produce the worst?
Do you see it? There is a pattern in the design of deprivation: Deprivation draws out desire. Absence heightens desire. And the more heightened the desire, the greater its satisfaction will be. It is the mourning that will know the joy of comfort (Matthew 5:4). It is the hungry and thirsty that will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Longing makes us ask, emptiness makes us seek, silence makes us knock (Luke 11:9).
God’s silence is how it feels, it’s not how it is.
Deprivation is in the design of this age. We live mainly in the age of anticipation, not gratification. We live in the dim mirror age, not the face-to-face age (1 Corinthians 13:12). The paradox is that what satisfies us most in this age is not what we receive, but what we are promised. The chase is better than the catch in this age because the Catch we’re designed to be satisfied with is in the age to come.
And so Fredrick William Faber wrote in his poem “The Desire of God”:
Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! ever pine;
Oh languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth;
Famished, thirsty, and restless — let such life be thine —
For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth.
(Thank God for poets and songwriters!)
So you desire God and ask for more of him and what do you get? Stuck in a desert feeling deserted. You feel disoriented and desperate. Don’t despair. The silence, the absence is phenomenological. It’s how it feels, it’s not how it is. You are not alone. God is with you (Psalm 23:4). And he is speaking all the time in the priceless gift of his objective word so you don’t need to rely on the subjective impressions of your fluctuating emotions.
If desire is to earth what sight is to heaven, then God answers our prayer with more desire. It’s the desert that awakens and sustains desire. It’s the desert that dries up our infatuation with worldliness. And it’s the desert that draws us to the Well of the world to come.