“Silence is violence,” we are told—to not speak on a particular issue is to perpetrate violence against those affected by it.
If that is true, how then do we cope with the silence of God? In the midst of our pain and our struggle, is his silence an act of violence against his people?
Perhaps you want to rush to say that God is not silent. We have his word in the Bible. He speaks through others and sometimes directly. You’re right, of course. Yet, for many, and so often for those suffering unspeakable tragedy, this is their experience. In the face of horror, in the face of despair, in the fact of death, we experience God as silent.
But silence is not violence. As Andy Crouch wrote in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, “there is no contradiction between silence and presence.” Silence can be presence. What did Job’s friends do well at? They sat with him in the ash heap for a week (Job 2) and were silent. It started to go wrong when they started to speak—not that speech is wrong, but they spoke wrongly. They were not absent, but they were silent. That was the right response to Job’s anguish.
Perhaps in God’s silence we can encounter his presence. At Advent we face up to the silence of God. If we live the season rather than the end of the story from the beginning, then we do not know when God’s silence will end. Instead, we have a rumour, a hope, of his return. Then he comes in the surprising ‘silence’ of a newly born baby. Silence is part of learning to hope.
In our Advent days, as we live in the Between, what Auden called ‘The Time Being,’ we have a rumour of hope for the future. The Christ who was born and died and rose, the Christ who conquered Death—Jesus of Nazareth, King forever—is coming back. His rule will break in and the world will be burned with fire, before being reborn. Yet we have to live in the now, knowing what the kingdom will look like, encountering it is as a roaring fire one day and a sputtering flame the next.
In God’s silence, God is hidden. The theologians call it Deus absconditus, which means the Hidden God. We intrinsically hate the idea, living in a noisy age. Fleming Rutledge explains it with recourse to the great poets: Auden says we are more afraid of silence than pain at the start of his Christmas Oratorio, and calls that silence the ‘Abomination’ and the ‘Wrath of God.’ In a similar vein Robert Frost says he is not scared of the empty spaces between the stars, how could we be when we are full of desert places ourselves? Emily Dickinson wrote that she “saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched.” This is what we approach in the season of Advent, this pain, this existential quiet, our inability to reach the heavens, and most terrifying of all: the barrenness of our own hearts.
We want to handwave the difficulties. Tie it all up in a little bow and nod along happily with our neat theologies. For these few weeks at least, I would request that we do not. Instead, look the horror of it full in the face, and abide with the silence of God.
How do we face up to the silence of God? Alain Emerson says we do so in prayer, as we learn to sit with God in the midst of pain. We learn this in Gethsemane, where Jesus asked for the cup to go from him and was answered, as best we know, with silence. This heavenly silence was the very centre of the purposes of the entire cosmos. Silence does not mean absence. Nor does it mean that we have been side-lined.
There is no place where God is not (Psalm 139). In our deepest suffering and our most nagging questions we can encounter the mystery of God’s presence in his silence. In the Problem of Pain, Lewis writes that “God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.” That is true in times of great connection to God, when we need his transcendence explaining to us again, as it is in times of aching silence, when we need to know he is present with us despite our experiences.
It seems like a platitude to say something like “when God seems most absent from us, he is doing his most important work in us.” On the face of it, it’s exactly the sort of pudgy religious nonsense that gets written on fridge magnets and that the cultured and learned amongst us roll our eyes at.
Except I just wonder if it might be true. There is an agony of not experiencing God’s presence. We all feel it sometimes. We should talk about it more. Larry Crabb describes it as ‘normal’ and ‘part of a good journey.’
How can we know that God is with us? How can we trust that his silence is his presence?
Auden ends his great Christmas poem with these lines:
…After today The children of men May be certain that The Father Abyss Is affectionate To all its creatures. All, all, all of them. Run to Bethlehem.
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