Ray Mayhew Looks At Ways of Interpreting the Silence of God
John Quanrud recently shared with me an experience he had in Albania. He was taken to a small home and proudly shown an ancient gramophone. Every Christmas, during the years of repression, the family posted a trusted friend outside the house, dropped the shutters, and brought out a record that had been hidden since the previous Christmas. It was the carol “Silent Night.” They did not know its meaning but for them it captured a dimension of spiritual experience they had been denied for many hears.
As we approach Christmas again the carol remains as popular as ever, despite the fact that we all know that the night Jesus was born was not silent at all. God was speaking more loudly and dramatically than he had ever done previously in human history. Angels were singing, shepherds were marveling—and the baby was probably crying! However, there are times when we do seem to enter a “silent night” in our spiritual experience when God does not seem to be speaking—a “dark night of the soul,” if you like.
Interpreting these “silent nights” in our spiritual experience is crucial if we are to advance as a prophetic people and move on with God. There are six dimensions of spiritual silence that we will briefly look at.
#1. The Silence of Absence
Of course, God is never absent in the absolute sense, but he does withdraw his presence from time to time. When he does, we cannot force God to meet with us or speak to us. Relationships by their very nature have to be free. Relationship and communication cannot be forced on me or on God. We can no more force the living God to speak any more than we can force a living person to do so.
One writer put it like this, “If we could mechanically draw him into an encounter, force him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet him, there would be no relationship, and no encounter.” A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom.
If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationships you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about him. We complain he doesn’t make himself present for us for the few minutes we reserve for him but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer, “I’m busy, I’m sorry.”
We have no right to complain of the absence of God because we are a great deal more absent than he ever is. Some of the reasons for his apparent silences are given below but we need to humbly realize that the delicate nature of any true relationship means that we cannot demand or dictate when or how God speaks to us. It is one of the mysteries of our walk with the Lord.
#2. The Silence of Inexperience
In the Scriptures, God’s voice is described as the sound of many waters, a mighty cataract that thunders day and night. Usually our problem is not that God is silent but that we have not learned how to listen. Under the Old Covenant, it was necessary for a priest or prophet to enquire of the Lord on our behalf. Under the New Covenant, we have the exciting privilege of hearing his voice ourselves, but to do so regular practice of the spiritual discipline is crucial if we are to fine-tune our receiving mechanism. Submission and obedience, mediation on the Word, and praise and worship are all indispensable.
There are no quick-fix methods or instant packages in this area. For Samuel, the prophetic capacity to hear God’s voice began as a child and developed through a lifetime of spiritual discipline. This is not an article on how to hear the voice of the Lord, but two things need to be said before moving on.
First, we should not be discouraged or afraid to make mistakes as we embark on the adventure of discerning the Lord’s voice. We are all apprentices in this area. It is sometimes better to act and risk looking like a fool than to repeatedly draw back in fear and uncertainty.
Second, we must avoid the practice of “tactical deafness.” Some of us subconsciously screen out what the Lord is saying because we are not prepared to obey it. Unless we are committed to radical obedience it becomes impossible to advance in hearing God’s voice. We develop “jamming mechanisms” that make it impossible for him to get through to us.
#3. The Silence of Freedom
Our high calling in the New Testament is to the dignity and freedom of sonship. We are not abject slaves receiving a constant stream of directives from an exacting master. We are sons who understand the Father’s heart and seek to please him. I have discovered that often when the Lord is silent over a particular matter, it is simply because he wants me to enjoy the freedom of sonship and exercise my will in a particular choice. He trusts me to make a decision, as any good father trusts a son who is growing into maturity.
I did not mind telling my youngest daughter, when she was five, to wear shoes, and not sandals, as it was raining outside, but I would be distressed if I had to give her similar directives twenty years later!
Maturity means that I can increasingly make decisions that I know will please the Father. I do not have to endlessly ask him about all manner of trivia. It would be a neurotic child indeed whose every decision was a direct response to a parental directive. On some issues God is going to be silent, simply because he trusts me to make a decision that reflects his will. It is part of the high calling of sonship. Enjoying the liberty of the sons of God is basic to life in the spirit. Silence can be God’s recognition of our growing maturity in sonship.
#4. The Silence of Selectivity
Between the last verse of Genesis 16 and the first verse of Genesis 17 there is a 13-year gap in the life of Abraham. People often interpret this as a period of silence during which the Lord did not speak to him. I disagree. Abraham was the friend of God and it would be an odd friendship if you did not talk to each other for 13 years!
However this period of “silence” has significance. It was silent in the sense that God did not give Abraham any more specific revelation concerning the birth of Isaac during this period. Having given Abraham some definite promises concerning the birth of a son, God did not think it was necessary to repeat himself, and therefore, he was silent on the matter. However we assume that he was in fellowship with Abraham over many other issues during this period.
There is an important lesson here. Often we are asking God to speak on an issue that he has chosen to keep silent about at present. We, therefore, go on listening for an answer on the issue when, in fact, God is trying to speak about something else. We then interpret this as a silence when, in fact, we are simply listening in the wrong direction. If the Lord chooses to be silent on an issue we need to submit to his wisdom, enjoy fellowship with him and receive prophetic words in other areas.
The problem here is not God’s silence, but his selectivity—he dictates the agenda, not us. Sometimes we make the mistake of clamoring for revelation in a certain direction, becoming frustrated because the Lord does not seem to be speaking, while all the time he is wanting to get our attention about something else. If at the present time God chooses to be silent on a matter, we need to submit to his wisdom.
#5. The Silence of Disobedience
The word of the Lord was rare during periods of Israel’s history because of their rebellion and disobedience (e. g., Samuel 3:1). Another possible reason for God’s silence in our lives is that we also need to repent in an area that is grieving the Holy Spirit. God is an offended lover in such circumstances and his silence is a mechanism to bring us to repentance.
Hassidic Jews from Poland are known all over the world for their dancing and violin playing. What is not so well known is that silence was often used as a discipline in their culture within the family. If a son were rebellious, the father would stop communicating with him directly. Within the home he would remain silent—even at the meal table. If any communication took place at all with the errant son, it was via another member of the family. If the father was addressed directly by the son he would only reply (if at all) through somebody else. The discipline would be continued until the son repented and changed his ways. Of course for a loving father such a distancing of himself from the child he loves was a daily agony, but in the Hassidic culture the discipline was effective. The silence of a loving father was too much for a son to live with and resulted in repentance and reconciliation.
I have discovered that some of God’s silences in my life are for similar reasons. His lack of communication gets my attention and causes me to examine my life to see if I have been grieving him in any area. It is a mechanism of love that we need to be aware of so that we can repent as necessary and enjoy the restoration of intimacy in our relationship with the Lord.
#6. The Silence of Companionship
In a love affair verbal communication is only one dimension of the relationship. Companionship—simply being together—is another that is equally important. In our relationship with the Lord the simple silence of companionship is an important discipline that is often neglected. This is not the silence of absence, but the silence of presence.
There is a story of an old peasant who used to spend hours and hours sitting in the village chapel motionless, doing nothing. The priest said to him, “What are you doing all these hours?” The old peasant simply said, “I look at him, he looks at me, and we are happy.”
Bishop Anthony Bloom in his book School for Prayer tells the story of an old lady who kept asking for his counsel. Though she had prayed continuously for 14 years, she had never sensed the presence of God; how could she learn the secret? He gave her wise advice and later she told him of her first experience of the presence of God. She had gone into her room, made herself comfortable and began to knit. She felt relaxed and noticed with contentment the nice shaped room she had, its view of the garden, and the sound of her needles hitting the armrest of her chair. Gradually she became aware that the silence was not simply an absence of sound but was filled with its own density and she said, “It began to pervade me, the silence around began to come and meet the silence within me and all of a sudden I perceived that at the heart of the silence was him.”
Silence can be vibrant with his presence. Someone else described it this way, “All in me is silent and I am immersed in the silence of God.” However we must not reserve the silence of companionship for times of solitude and retreat. We can be livingly aware of his presence in the rough and tumble of everyday life.
The silences of God are an important dimension of our life in the Spirit. They need to be interpreted prayerfully so that we can respond appropriately. If we do so they will become living silences. They can enrich our personal pilgrimage and sharpen the prophetic edge our lives.