Today we take up a topic that I am positive we have all had to deal with at some point in our lives. In fact, I dare say that some of us here this morning are currently living in this moment right now. Over the last month, we have been looking at the topic of prayer in this series we call “Dialogue – Recovering the Lost Art of Communicating with God.” For four weeks we have seen how prayer is necessary; it is not superfluous, but actually needed. God wants us to pray and our prayers can change things.
We have also looked at what things we can pray for and how we should just do it. Don’t worry about whether should or could; just pray. God is too big to allow us to mess things up.
We have looked at how the most important part of praying isn’t the words we say but the heart we approach prayer with. Humility and boldness should be behind everything we pray.
And last week we looked at how God still speaks to us today if we will put ourselves in a position to be able to hear him. If we live our lives with zero margin, no down time, no moments of quiet, we might be missing out on what God wants to say to us.
What is it that makes us think that the world will not go on without us for even five minutes if we were to stop, calm ourselves, and spend a few moments in still and quietness? I think our own self-importance doesn’t want to find out that the world really would continue if we took a breath.
Today, I want to continue this idea of listening to God, building upon what Ryan shared last week. Yes, I believe God still speaks, but what about those times in our lives when God is silent? Have you ever experienced a time like this? You prayed and prayed only to hear crickets chirping. Maybe you are seeking direction in a big decision you have to make. Should I take this job? Should I buy this house? Should I attend this university?These are all big decisions. They are all moments where if God is speaking, we want him to do so with loud, audible words so we don’t screw up our lives. And we pray and we pray. And we might even listen and listen. And then. . . silence.
In these moments, we typically just make a decision and move on. We think, “Well, God must be busy right now. He’s keeping the entire universe going. I get it.” But what about those times in our lives when we REALLY, REALLY, REALLY need God to hear our prayers and for God to speak into our lives?
When your mom or dad is diagnosed with cancer and not given much time to live, you need God to hear and answer your prayer that they might be healed. When your marriage is falling apart and you can’t seem to get along for anything; when even just walking by each other seems to lead to a massive fight; when you’ve tried everything but you know where the marriage is headed, you need God to hear and answer your prayer. What if when you most need God to hear you and you to hear from him, God is silent?
Is God silent because he doesn’t care? Is he silent because he has moved on to deal with something more important? Is he silent because you just aren’t good enough for him to care about? Why does God seem to answer others’ prayers and not mine?
When we are NOT going through difficulty, these sound like silly questions. But when you are in the middle of it, and I dare say some of you are there right now, when you’re in the middle of it, these are all honest questions. They flood your mind when you so desperately need to hear from God, but your prayers seem to hit the ceiling and go no further. God seems to be a million miles away, or worse it seems that he just doesn’t care. Let’s take a look at this today and find out a few things about the danger of silence, the hope of silence, and what to do when God is silent.
The Danger of Silence
Most often, we find silence in the midst of suffering. We find it most difficult to hear from God and most of our unanswered prayers seem to occur during times when we are experiencing difficulty and life is not going well. These are highly emotional times, high stress times. And honestly it is the worst possible time for this to happen. . . But it does.
One danger we face is that we are often unprepared. We talk about this frequently here at Ashworth Road. There is an underlying assumption that to be Christian means to be happy and trouble free, to never experience anything uncomfortable. But this is probably one of the most unbiblical thoughts you can have. If the Bible teaches us anything it is that suffering is a part of this life. This world is broken. I am broken. You are broken. All God’s creation is broken. And as long as we live in a broken world, around broken people, there will be hardship and difficulty.
This is not a popular message, I know. Most people think, “Why is he saying that? He’s supposed to make me feel better about my life and this is making me sad. Stop making me feel sad, Brent!” I could tell you that life is going to be perfect, that you and your spouse will never fight, your kids will never disappoint you, you will get every job you apply for, every promotion you want, and no matter what you spend, your bank account will have an endless supply of money. But what happens when I tell you that and as you step one foot out of the door, you and your spouse get into it. Or your kid decides to use a sharpie on the carpet at home. Or you go to the doctor tomorrow and hear a diagnosis you hoped you’d never hear. The greatest danger we face is when we are unprepared for these moments in our lives.
This past week, I read a story of a pastor (Mike Woodruff) who was into health and fitness and decided to start swimming. He found out that he was in the .02% who are susceptible to fraying an artery in his vertebra by repetitive head turning. This led to a stroke right before Easter. He was already preparing a sermon series on suffering for his congregation at the time. This solidified what he wanted to say.
There were four points: If you live long enough you will suffer. Americans are bad at suffering. You can prepare for suffering. Suffering can be a pathway to growth.
We need to understand that suffering and silence will occur. And if we are prepared for it, we can greatly reduce the next danger we face in the silence, which is a damaged faith.
Any time life throws us a curve ball there is a chance that we can be pulled away from God. Our faith is shaken. We blame God. And when we pray and pray and feel like God isn’t listening, we could easily throw our hands up in the air and just say, “I’m done with this. What’s the point?”
In the Old Testament, we find the story of Job. Job was a godly man. He was someone God held up as an example of faith. Satan came and accused God that the only reason Job was so godly was because he had such a good life, but that if God would allow Satan to mess with him, Job would walk away from God.
God allows Satan to begin picking apart Job’s life, piece by piece. First his possessions and wealth are destroyed. Then his family is killed. Then even Job’s health is taken from him. And all during this time, God is silent. He never gives Job a heads-up it is about to happen. He never tells him, “Don’t worry, I’ll make it all better at the end.” All Job knows is that one day life is good, and the next day it’s not.
Fortunately, what we find in Job is faithfulness. But not so much for his wife. In fact, after he is covered with painful sores, she comes to him and says,
Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die! —Job 2:9
There is a real danger of this attitude when we don’t understand what is going on. We want to blame God. We want to ditch our faith. After all, we think, “I’m a good person. I go to church. I give my money sometimes. This shouldn’t be happening to me.” We are conditioned to expect certain results if we put in the right things. We think in terms of cause and effect: “I do good, so God only allows good to happen to me.”
But that’s not the way this world works. Yes, God will take care of us, but it might not be in the way we think he should. Job’s response to his wife gives us great insight into this mentality.
He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. —Job 2:10
Job shows us that God’s silence will reveal the true depth of our faith. Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed, “Faith like Job’s cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.”
A third danger we need to be aware of is misunderstanding the silence. We want to make sense of it. We want understanding. We want to answer the question “Why?” And when the answer isn’t immediately available, we begin filling in the gaps, sometimes erroneously. Going back to our friend Job as our example: Job didn’t know why things were happening. He didn’t understand what was going on. He kept his faith when everything around him told him not to. And it wasn’t just his wife that wasn’t helpful. His friends came along and piled on as well.
In chapters 4-23 of the book of Job, we find his friends “encouraging” him and Job responding to this so-called encouragement. One friend tells him,
Think about it. Innocent people don’t get punished. —Job 4:3-4
Another friend tells him,
God will not reject a blameless person. —Job 8:20
And a third friend says,
Confess your sin so that life will get back on track. —Job 11:14, 15,17
Every one of Job’s friends told him, “This is YOUR fault. What have you done to deserve this? Fix it. Confess your sin. Return to God.” But this is a misunderstanding of what was happening to Job. Most of the time we correlate God’s speaking and his silence to our obedience or sin. But God’s silence is not necessarily a reflection on your sin or your righteousness. His silence can be caused by sin, but it is rarely due simply to sin or rebellion. After all, those living in rebellion to God usually don’t seek God in prayer anyway.
I’ve referred to this book previously, but Philip Yancey writes in his book on prayer, “Some, but not all, unanswered prayers trace back to a fault in the one who prays. Some, but not all, trace back to God’s mystifying respect for human freedom and refusal to coerce. Some, but not all, trace back to dark powers contending against God’s rule. Some, but not all, trace back to a planet marred with disease, violence, and the potential for tragic accident.”
We just need to make sure that we are prepared when it happens, that we don’t let it destroy our faith when it does, and we don’t jump to conclusions as to why it might be happening. Because even in the silence, we can have hope.
The Hope of Silence
How can there be hope in silence? These moments of silence we are talking about are the most difficult that we can ever experience. They have the potential to destroy our faith. How can anything good come from them?
As you read through the Bible, you can quickly see that if you are currently not hearing from God, you are in good company. Many people in the Bible experienced their own times of unanswered prayers, silence, and waiting for God. Abraham, Joseph, David, Job, and Moses were all people who had great faith and they had heard from God before, but all experienced times where God seemed absent. All had prayers that seemed to go unanswered.
The greatest example of this we find in the Bible though is in Jesus himself. In Matthew 26, we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had just had the Last Supper with his disciples. Judas was already off to bring his captors to Jesus. And we see Jesus, alone here in this place, crying out to God the Father, a prayer that is deeply personal and deeply emotional.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsamane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” —Matthew 26:36-45
Three times Jesus prayed and asked if there could be another way. Three times Jesus cried out to the Father. He prayed with utmost humility and boldness. He brought his request to God. He had great faith that his prayer could be answered. And when Jesus cried out in his hour of greatest need, his cry was met with. . . silence.
In what was the most difficult moment of his life, when he needed and wanted an answer, he received none. And we know the rest of the story. Jesus was arrested. He was tried and convicted. His was brutally beaten, mocked, and abused. He was led out of the city with his cross on his back to the place called Golgotha. And he was crucified.
And on the cross, he cried out, a quote from Psalm 22,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
And we can look at this moment in history and say “How could God be so mean? How could God leave Jesus to go through this moment without a single word?” Or we can look at this for what it is: the most significant event in human history came as a result of the silence of God. When Jesus prayed for salvation from death, he did not get it. Instead he got the salvation of the world.
What can God do through the periods of silence in your life? What if he’s not being silent to be mean or nasty to you, but to help you develop an even greater spiritual depth than you ever imagined, an even deeper relationship with him that you ever thought possible.
Hopefully hearing this helps you get through the difficult moments. We have a savior that has experienced the deafening silence as well. He is a sympathetic savior. He’s been there as well. So, understanding the dangers and seeing that there is hope, what do we do?
What To Do When God is Silent
Here are some very practical things you can do when you feel like your prayers are not working.
Examine your life. Even though not every unanswered prayer is the result of sin, it doesn’t hurt to begin there. Make sure you have confessed and removed any barriers between you and God. What is more important to you, an answer to your prayer, or your relationship with God?
Know that silence is seldom permanent. It may not be in your time frame, it seldom is, but it isn’t forever.
Know that silence doesn’t change who God is. He is a good God. He is in control. He cares for his people. God is love. None of this changes, ever.
Know that God does hear. Do not confuse God’s silence for apathy. In fact, it is probably just the opposite. His silence is for something greater than we know right now.
Know that God is still working. Do not confuse God’s silence for absence. God cares. God is still at work.
Learn to wait. Like a woman who must wait nine months for the arrival of her child, waiting doesn’t have to just kill time. It can be used in anticipation of what is to come.
Appreciate unanswered prayer. Is anyone other than me really grateful that sometimes God doesn’t answer your prayers? You might pray diligently for something only to look back later and breathe a sigh of relief. As one pastor put it, “God will either give us what we ask or what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew.” Trust that God knows what he is doing.
See if God is really silent or just not answering how you want. The Apostle Paul had a persistent prayer request that God did answer, just not in the way he had hoped. 2 Corinthians 12 we read:
…in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” —2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Paul wanted one answer. He could have been stubborn and said, “God is ignoring me. Don’t ignore me God!” But instead, he heard what God was saying and even though it wasn’t what he wanted, he received it and even got to the place where he said,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:9-10
Henry Blackaby wrote in the book Experiencing God, “You can respond to the silence of God in two ways. One response is for you to go into depression, a sense of guilt, and self-condemnation. The other response is for you to have an expectation that God is about to bring you to a deeper knowledge of Himself. These responses are as different as night and day.”
Sometimes what causes us the most problems and confusion is when God seems to say nothing at all, but we have to remember that just because there is silence, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. He is there. He still cares. He is still working on our behalf even if we can’t see it, or hear it. We cannot confuse his silence for apathy or absence. Maybe, just one reason for it is to create a deeper longing within us.
An article I read this week called “When God Is Silent” put it beautifully. “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? 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).”
Are you sitting in the silence? Are the dangers resonating louder than the hope? Can I encourage you this morning now to pray through the silence? Tell someone what you are going through. Open up about it. I promise you, they have been there. There is no shame in the silence. The only way we get this wrong is if we stop praying. Trust that God is near, he has not abandoned you. It might just be through the silence that you experience the greatest growth and deepest spiritual depth you couldn’t have even imagined.