Few Christians have chronicled their struggle with God more poignantly than C.S. Lewis.
The famed Christian author was deeply in love with his wife, Joy. Not long after their relationship began, she was diagnosed with cancer. She endured a long and terrible season of illness before she died.
Lewis wrote about his feelings following Joy’s death in a series of notebooks that were later published just before his own death in 1963. Lewis’ most telling observation? The silence of God.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness...On the rebound one passes into tears and pathos. Maudlin tears. I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and honest...
...”Meanwhile, where is God?...When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him...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...
...”Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
The experience of the silence of God is real. Many of us have felt it. Times when we cry out to God, and there seems to be no answer. We pray, pouring out our hearts, only to hear the words echo back without a reply.
The maddening thing is that we have been conditioned to believe that there is a direct relationship between input and output. Cause and effect. The interplay between what I do and what happens. When we cry out to God, and nothing happens, how can we help but feel that something’s not quite right – and that the problem is with the Listener?
The silence, however, is seldom permanent.
Lewis would later write these words:
“I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted...[I was like] the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs.”
So what was he clutching and grabbing?
What was he missing in what first seemed like silence?
Many of us mistake God’s “no’s” for silence. Or His “not yets.” But for me, the easiest one to miss, but the most important to attend to, is when we’re experiencing “deep calling to deep.”
Consider the words of the 42nd psalm:
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God...My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:1-3, NIV).
Here is someone who is hungering for a word from God. He alludes to a difficult time, a season where he has been calling out to God in the midst of pain, grief or confusion. From all angles, it appears as if God is silent to his cries. So much so that those around him say, “Where is this God of yours that you pray to?”
But notice what he goes on to write – words that read as if they were transcribed from the most reflective of journals:
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God...My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you...Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:5-7, NIV).
The psalmist comes to see that there is no silence – there’s just an answer coming from God that’s deeper than words. God is present, and speaking, but what He’s saying isn’t resting on the surface waters of life.
This is a season where deep is calling to deep.
When I was nineteen years old and in college, I was invited to a weekend party at a nearby university. My friend, Phil, was going, and encouraged me to come along. He said that there would be five of us in the car, but there would be room. I wanted to go, and tried to make it happen, but couldn’t.
They left without me on a Friday afternoon. Two days later, as they returned to campus, a car from the opposite flow of traffic crossed the dividing line, became airborne, and landed headfirst into their car.
All four were killed instantly.
I first heard the news late that Sunday night. I left my dorm, walked over to the nearby athletic complex, hopped a locked fence, and sat in the empty football stadium under a moonlit sky. I grieved for my friend; I thought of the brevity of life, and how close I had come to being killed.
I remember crying out to God to help me sort it all out, to make sense of it all. To talk to me...to say something...anything!
In truth, it was one of the deepest conversations we had ever had. He was speaking to me, moving within me, communing and communicating with me on levels that had never been opened to Him before.
It was the start of many conversations – some even more traumatic.
Within four months I became a Christian.
It is of paramount importance to consider that it’s not silence we’re encountering, but a pregnant pause; a prompting to engage in personal reflection so that the deepest of answers, the most profound of responses, can be given – and heard.
This is the mark of all master-teachers.
I once read an article in Fast Company that profiled the chess master and much sought-after mentor, Bruce Pandolfini. Here’s how he described his work with his students:
“My lessons consist of a lot of silence. I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking...I let my students think. If I do ask a question and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question – and wait. I never give the answer. Most of us really don’t appreciate the power of silence. Some of the most effective communication – between student and teacher, between master players – takes place during silent periods.”
Could this be how God is mentoring us?
Is the silence the work of a Master Teacher?
When I go through seasons where God’s answers do not come quickly or on the surface of things - when the way God interacts with my prayers draws me deeper into Him for guidance and trust, dependence and obedience - the answers I find radically transcend what I initially sought to find.
I get introduced to sin that I needed to confront;
...patterns of behavior I needed to break;
...insight into who I am that I didn’t have before;
...and depths of relationship with God that I had never experienced.
Such revelations are worth the silence, for in such silence came the voice of God.
Perhaps this is behind the ancient name for the extended prayer that is given while one might normally be sleeping. “Vigils” means waiting. It also gives insight, and appreciation, for why “listen” is the first word of St. Benedict’s Rule for monasteries.
Before even these insights came the ancient “desert tradition” of Christianity. Though the sandy terrain was often literal for the early church fathers and mothers, Alan Jones writes of how they mostly entered the desert of the spirit: “a place of silence, waiting, and temptation,” which is also “a place of revelation, conversion, and transformation.” According to the desert tradition, such “empty” places were actually full, for it was out of the deadening silences that people were known to be reborn.
I know that it held that for me.
And will many times again.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Wrestling with God (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.