In a time of suffering, David engaged in righteous self-talk about how he should respond in light of God’s goodness: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14).
The call to wait on God is an invitation to trust and hope. It entails believing that one day—even if today is not that day—He will make all things right. In times of waiting, as we seek God in prayer, we must learn to listen to Him as well as talk to Him—to shut out the clatter and quietly wait as He unfolds to us His person, purposes, promises, and plan.
But what about when we wait and listen, and God still seems silent?
In Deserted by God? Sinclair Ferguson discusses what our Christian forefathers called “spiritual desertion”—the sense that God has forgotten us, leaving us feeling isolated and directionless. But through faith, we can affirm God’s loving presence, even when He seems silent and we feel deserted. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8) is a promise God will not break, despite how we feel.
Several years ago, for no apparent reason, I went through four months of depression. I had to learn to trust God for His presence despite what I felt. Eventually, as I continued to open His word daily and seek His face, while still in that depression, I gradually regained my ability to sense and hear Him.
Many of us have walked the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13–32). Overwhelmed by sorrow. Plagued by questions. We wonder where God is. When, all along, He walks beside us.
A pastor friend told me about his experience after his teenage son’s death: “Nearly every morning, for months, I screamed questions at God. I asked, ‘What were you thinking?’ And, ‘Is this your best for me?’ And finally, ‘Do you really expect me to show up every Sunday and tell everyone how great you are?’ Then, when I became silent, God spoke to my soul. He had an answer for each of my questions.”
Waiting on God involves learning to lay our questions before Him. It means that there is something better than knowing all the answers: knowing and trusting the only One who does know and will never forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
Trusting God when we don’t hear Him ultimately strengthens and purifies us. If our faith is based on lack of struggle and affliction and absence of doubt and questions, that’s a foundation of sand. Such faith is only one frightening diagnosis or shattering phone call away from collapse. Token faith will not survive the dark night of the soul. When we think God is silent or absent, God may show us that our faith is false or superficial. Upon its ruin, we can learn to rebuild on God our Rock, the only foundation that can bear the weight of our trust.
There’s a sense in which God is never silent. He has already spoken in His Word and by becoming man and dying for us on the cross, purchasing our eternal salvation. This is speech, and speech is not silence! What we call God’s silence may actually be our inability, or in some cases (certainly not all) our unwillingness, to hear Him. Fortunately, that hearing loss for God’s children need not be permanent. And given the promise of resurrection, it certainly won’t be permanent.
Psalm 19:1 tells us the heavens shout about God’s glory. Romans 1:20 shows how clearly creation proves God’s existence. God speaks not only through His Word, but also through His world. When my heart is heavy, walking our dog Maggie or riding a bike through Oregon’s beauties is often better than listening to a great sermon or reading a good book.
Still, when we can’t hear God, we can keep showing up and opening His Word, day after day, to look at what He has already said—and done—and contemplate and memorize it until we realize this is not silence but is God speaking to us. Naturally, there remains a subjective sense in which we long to hear God in a more personal way. God spoke to Elijah in “a low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12).
The problem with low whispers is they’re not easy to hear—especially when all around us the wind is howling! Why does God sometimes speak so quietly that it’s hard to hear Him? The answer may be to bring us to the end of ourselves. To prompt us to be still and seek Him. And to build our faith and eventually speak more clearly or heal our hearing problem.
Martin Luther’s wife, Katherine, saw him discouraged and unresponsive for some time. One day she dressed in black mourning clothes. Luther asked her why. “Someone has died,” she said. “Who?” Luther asked. “It seems,” Katherine said, “that God must have died!” Luther got her point. Since God hadn’t died, he needed to stop acting as if He had.
What can we do when God seems silent and life is dark? We can pray with biblical writers who cry out to God:
To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit. (Psalm 28:1)
O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! (Psalm 83:1)
I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. (Job 30:20)
We also can remember that, however long the silence seems, God promises it is temporary. Consider Zephaniah 3:17:
The Lord your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, he will be quiet in his love, he will rejoice over you with shouts of joy (NASB).
Just because we can’t hear God exulting doesn’t mean He is not rejoicing over us with shouts of joy. A blind or deaf child may not see her father’s face or hear his words, but can learn to sense his love and affection nonetheless. The blood-bought promise states that this brief life will be followed with an eternity in which His children “will see his face” (Revelation 22:4).
My wife, Nanci, while going through chemotherapy treatments that ended several months ago, read me this from Andrew Murray’s Waiting on God: “It is God’s Spirit who has begun the work in you of waiting upon God. He will enable you to wait. . . . Waiting continually will be met and rewarded by God himself working continually.”
“For God alone my soul waits in silence . . . my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:1, 5). If we lean on Him while we wait, God will give us the grace to wait and to listen carefully as we pray, go to trusted Christ-followers for encouragement, and keep opening His word and asking Him to help us hear Him.
This article originally appeared on Desiring God, and is also featured in EPM's latest issue of Eternal Perspectives magazine.