Many believers throughout the ages have experienced what appears to be the silence, absence, distance, hiddenness, or unresponsiveness of God. Prayers seem to be unanswered, God seems to be nowhere near, and we can have a sense of divine abandonment, or at least of divine silence.
While this can be a major theological and philosophical problem for some, for most folks it is a very personal, practical and pressing problem: Where is God? Why does he not hear me? Obviously, in times of hardship and suffering, such questions really become pronounced.
When it seems to be dark all around us, we often ask where God is. He seems silent, aloof, uninterested in our plight. The more we suffer, the more we tend to notice what seems to be his absence, his silence, his lack of interest in us. That is how things appear to be at any rate while we go through tough times.
And the examples of great saints who have experienced this are never ending. Think of the famous work The Dark Night of the Soul by the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591). How many millions of devout Christians have also experienced this sort of thing?
Let me offer just two much more recent cases of Christian champions who have gone through this. Elisabeth Elliot of course knew all about hardships and suffering. The wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot, she has penned a number of books on the issue of suffering. In her 1969 volume, On Asking God Why, she said this:
We look for some light. We look for some help. Our prayers seem to be vanishing, like so many wisps, into the serene aether of the cosmos (or worse, into the plaster of the ceiling). We strain our ears for some word from the Mount of God. A whisper will do, we tell ourselves, since clearly no bolts or thunderings have been activated by our importunity (yes, we have tried that tactic, too: the “nonfaith” approach). But only dead silence. Blank. Nothing. “But Lord, how are we supposed to know if we’re on the right track at all if we don’t get some confirmation from you – some corroboration – in any form, Lord – inner peace maybe, or some verse springing to life for us, or some token. Please let us have some recognisable attestation to what you have said in your Book.” Nothing. Silence. Blank.
And C. S. Lewis penned a poignant and raw book about the death of his beloved wife, A Grief Observed. Early on in this work he asks some hard questions and makes some pungent claims as he struggles with all the pain and hurt and uncertainty of it all:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is 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. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
Lest the reader think that he is getting carried away here, and verging on the blasphemous, recall two things. First, he later went on to his usual strong faith. This was a time of temporary turmoil and grief, but he never abandoned his trust in God. He never gave up his faith.
Second, recall that millennia earlier the psalmist could make basically identical remarks: “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). Lewis is here simply echoing the thoughts and feelings of the past great saints as recorded in Sacred Scripture.
Speaking of which, we have plenty of such passages that can be mentioned here. The prophets often called out to God, asking about his apparent aloofness or hiddenness. Consider Isaiah who said this: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel” (Is. 45:15).
And the writer of lamentations knows full well about this:
Lam. 3:8 Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
Lam. 3:44 You have covered yourself with a cloud
so that no prayer can get through.
Or as Habakkuk famously asks in Hab. 1:2:
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Obviously, we would expect poor Job to say similar things – and he does:
Job 13:24 Why do you hide your face
and consider me your enemy?
Job 30:20 “I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me.”
Job 31:35 “Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.”
And the psalmist has plenty to say on all this. Consider just a few more passages from the Psalms:
Psalm 13:1-3 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
Psalm 22:1-2 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.
I need not remind you that our Lord appropriated this prayer for himself while hanging on the cross on our behalf. (Mark 15:34)
Psalm 28:1 To you, Lord, I call;
you are my Rock,
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I will be like those who go down to the pit.
Psalm 35:22-23 Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent.
Do not be far from me, Lord.
Awake, and rise to my defense!
Contend for me, my God and Lord.
Psalm 44:23-24 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
Psalm 55:1-2 Listen to my prayer, O God,
do not ignore my plea;
hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
Psalm 69:16-17 Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love;
in your great mercy turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant;
answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
Psalm 77:5-9 I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Psalm 83:1 O God, do not remain silent;
do not turn a deaf ear,
do not stand aloof, O God.
Psalm 88:14 Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
Psalm 89:46 How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Psalm 102:2 Do not hide your face from me
when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.
Psalm 109:1 My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
Psalm 143:7 Answer me quickly, Lord;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit.
I think by now you get the drift. Plenty of godly and devout saints have also cried out to God – often in a flood of emotion – as they sense his absence or wonder about his presence, his nearness, and his ability or willingness to come to their aid in time of need.
So one obvious point in all this is as follows: if you sometimes feel that God has abandoned you, or he does not hear your prayers, or he is nowhere to be found, you are not alone. Millions of saints through the ages have experienced the very same thing.
So this is common enough. Of course the next issue is how we deal with this. What do we do when we go through the dark night of the soul? How do we respond? How do we hang in there when it seems that all is lost, and darkness surrounds us?
Well, that will have to be the stuff of further articles, so hold on! But a few quick things can be said here. We must indeed hang on. We must indeed persevere. Whatever dark patch we are now in will not last. These things are temporary, although they may not seem like it at the moment.
As the old saying goes, “Never doubt in the dark what God has told you in the light”. When things are closing in all around you, you must hang on to the eternal truths you have always loved and trusted in when things were less dark and burdensome.
Hold on to biblical truth, even when it seems like there is nothing left to hang on to. And even more importantly, remember that God is hanging on to you. He always has, he always is, and he always will. Never forget that. When things are the darkest, the eyes of faith are the most needed, to see that God has not moved – he is right where he has always been.
And of course the issue of unanswered prayer is another biggee here. I have written on various aspects of prayer before, so have a look at this for starters: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/03/on-prayer/
And here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/11/08/on-prayer-faith-and-gods-will/
But more needs to be said on the hiddenness of God, so stay tuned.
For further reading
While awaiting more articles from me on this topic, the eager reader may want to follow up with further reading on this. For more general, pastoral and practical discussions, see these titles:
Dunn, Ronald, When Heaven is Silent. Thomas Nelson, 1994.
Guinness, Os, God in the Dark. Crossway, 1996.
Habermas, Gary, Why Is God Ignoring Me? Tyndale, 2010.
Long, James, Why is God Silent When We Need Him the Most? Zondervan, 1994.
Moser, Paul, Why Isn’t God More Obvious? RZIM, 2000.
Pratney, Winkie, Dealing With Doubt. Spire, 1989.
Shaw, Luci, God in the Dark. Highland Books, 1989.
Yancey, Philip, Reaching for the Invisible God. Zondervan, 2000.
Yancey, Philip, Where is God When it Hurts? Zondervan, 1977.
And for more philosophical treatments of this issue, see these volumes:
Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Paul Moser, eds., Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Moser, Paul, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology. Cambridge University Press, 2008.