When God is Silent

His silence is a kiss,

His presence an embrace.

But now he is fading, fading.

And I am alone…

– Thomas Keating

I read this poem toward the end of 2020 in a daily devotional I receive by email. It reflected my experience of God in these last months. God has seemed distant, silent. The chaos of our world just keeps increasing.

The noise of angry voices fills the spaces of life; the ever widening distance between views and opinions on just about everything continues to grow. The conflicting information received from a variety of news sources creates the illusion of “knowing” yet the “knowing” keeps changing and shifting, pitting friend against friend, family member against family member.

And God is silent.

I have found myself struggling with a bit of depression. This is not normal for me. There have been a few mornings when I would have rather stayed in bed, but I forced myself up and out, and on to something productive. My instinct is to withdraw rather than engage during these turbulent times.

This experience of God’s perceived silence, or absence, has been described by the 16th century Carmelite friar and priest St. John of the Cross as “The Dark Night of the Soul”. More recently, Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in their book The Critical Journey (1989), identify this as a “stage of faith” they entitle as “The Wall”.

In their book, Hagberg and Guelich encourage us to look at these times of God’s silence as an invitation to go “deeper” with God. To enter into the wall or “dark night of the soul” is an inward journey. It is a time of withdrawing from our external world to examine what God might be saying to us. I have found these times being at “The Wall”, as I have experienced several in the past, to be difficult, scary, hard, lonely, yet eventually, as I have continued to work through them, times of clarifying, growing, and coming out with a deeper understanding of who God is, who I am, and a deeper love for God and others. Not that one can understand God fully. Simply put, they have been transformative. But I was not in charge of this change. I simply kept pursuing and clinging to God in spite of God’s silence, in spite of the darkness, not perfectly, not even consistently, but in time, being drawn back to seeking answers from God.

I recently ran across a phrase “trust with little understanding”, which echoes a scripture passage in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.”

These verses were critical during a time when my husband was laid off from his job due to an economic downturn. We had young elementary age children at that time, and I was filled with anxiety and fear about what our future would be. One day I ran across Proverbs 3:5-6 in a devotional reading, and I was stopped in my tracks. It became evident to me that my part was to trust, and God would do the rest. I realized trusting was a decision, and when, by God’s grace, I made that decision that day to trust God, I had a visceral feeling, like a key was turning in my heart, and my fear and anxiety left me. I was able to walk in that trust in the next days and weeks, and thankfully, my husband was able to find new employment.

Reflection

Consider Proverbs 3:5-6 for yourself. Are you experiencing a “dark night of the soul?” Do you feel like you are at a “wall” with God? Are you willing to go inward with God, to explore and discover what God might want to be saying to you? If so, you may also want to find a trusted friend or Christian spiritual director to talk with about your experience.

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What is a Christian Spiritual Director?

Have you ever wished for a spiritual companion?  Someone to come alongside and listen to your questions about God and support you as you explore your relationship with Him? Christian spiritual direction is just that – meeting confidentially one-on-one with someone who is a little further along in their journey with God.  This person is biblically grounded and has been trained to accompany individuals as they share about their spiritual journey, helping them notice God’s presence and activity along the way, as well as offering personal reactions and responses.

green tree beside roadway during daytime
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In a formal, non-directive prayerful method, spiritual directors invite directees to discover a relationship with God through Christ and grow deeper in prayer and in living their calling as a follower of Christ. Spiritual Direction is actually a spiritual practice that has a long history in Christianity.

My interest in spiritual direction grew out of my own personal “crisis of faith” experiences.  While I grew up in a Christian home, accepted Christ’s offer of salvation at a young age, attended church, Christian high school and Bible College, and was deeply involved in lay ministry within the church as a married woman and mother of two young daughters, I found myself at times, confused about what God was allowing in my life, angry with God, grieving a loss, and at times burned out on my church busyness.  I traveled through the majority of these experiences on my own, without a spiritual director to assist me.  My turning points came as God brought to mind certain scripture, and I found myself turning to God’s Word to find answers, eventually, finding God Himself.  I realized that I was trying to live the Christian life in my own strength, instead of submitting my life to Christ and letting His life flow through me. I must confess this was a very slow process, as I often let myself get too busy to spend regular time with God. I often wonder if I could have traveled through these experiences quicker with a spiritual director.

God has been and continues to be re-forming my desires to long for what He longs for, and in doing that, He has led me to begin to see a vision of the church as a “hospital for souls”. What if, in the church, we could learn to care for the souls of others? What if, in our small groups, we learn to compassionately listen to others in the presence of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully discerning what God would desire for that person, stirring up a passion for God, as well as “stirring each other to love and good deeds.” What could happen?

I am currently meeting once a month for individual spiritual direction, and find my spiritual director’s warm, accepting, gentle presence so helpful as I explore with her what is happening in my life and in my life with God. I have experienced group spiritual direction and witnessed God help participants realize a decision they need to make, a truth about themselves, encouragement for a difficult situation, restoration of a fractured marriage relationship.

God has impressed on me the fact that none of us are “experts” when it comes to the spiritual journey!  We may have heard that we need to have a “relationship with Jesus” but we often don’t really know how to do that. We may have walked with God for years when something devastating happens in our lives, and we wonder where God is. We may lose the feeling of God’s presence after having felt close to Him, and wonder what happened.  Wherever we are in our journey with God, God invites us to go deeper. A spiritual director can be that spiritual companion who journeys with us during these difficult and confusing times.

God ministers to us at the point of our need as we spend time with Him and calls us to join Him in His ministry of revealing who He is to others. For me, that calling has been encouraging others through spiritual direction.  It gives me great joy to journey with others in anticipation as together we watch how God moves us forward in our spiritual journey with Him.

 

Spiritual Practice: Lament

“Truly this is my hope and my only comfort – to fly to you in any trouble, to trust steadfastly in you, to call inwardly upon you, to abide patiently your coming and your heavenly consolations.” — From The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas á Kempis

Lament is a spiritual practice of prayer for when our spiritual journey with God is at a wall. The Wall is a stage in the life of faith described in the book The Critical Journey, by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich

The Wall is often precipitated by a life or faith crisis that turns our world upside down and for the first time, our faith doesn’t seem to work. Our experience of life and our beliefs aren’t matching up. We have more questions than answers. However, sometimes this stage is entered into gradually. Being at The Wall can lead to uncertainty about God, everything we thought we knew about the life of faith, shame, fear, and an urge to give up. It can be a dark and lonely time, and God seems absent.

Historical Christian writer St. John of the Cross (1542-1592), a Catholic monk who spent his life in the service of Catholic Reform, described this experience of God’s absence as The Dark Night of the Soul.

Contemporary writer Lee Beach, in his article “A Spirituality of Exile: Responding to God’s Absence”, describes the sense of God’s absence as feeling like being in a spiritual exile.

A few Biblical individuals who experienced a deep sense of loss and absence of God’s presence are Job, Naomi, and the Israelites when in Babylonian exile.

What we see in the life of the Biblical examples mentioned, as well as from St. John of the Cross, is that these individuals responded to God in a variety of ways.

Job grieved and lamented to his friends, who provided poor counsel. Eventually he approached God with his questions.  God responded. (Book of Job)

Naomi and her family moved away from the land of Israel to care for their own needs rather than rely on God when famine struck the promised land. After some years went by, which included many severe losses, Naomi’s return to the land of Israel represents her return to God, even as she recognizes her bitterness. Eventually she sees God’s care for her and her joy is restored. (Book of Ruth)

The Israelites when in exile, cry out to God in lament, mourning their losses, asking for God’s help. At times they even blame God for turning against them and allowing them to be overcome and taken into captivity. Yet they keep calling out to God to save them, and eventually recognize their sin. 70 years later, God restores their land to them. Examples of lamentes can be found in Lamentations, Psalms 44, 74, 89, 89, 102, 106, 137.

Through his own experience, St. John of the Cross invites us to consider that God is doing something new, inviting us to go deeper and to not turn away when His presence seems gone.  God is transforming us in a way we would not step into on our own.

Most of these individuals moved towards God in a new way, bringing their questions, confusion and pain to God. While they felt abandoned by God, they didn’t give up on God. In fact, their lament shows their determination to speak with God about their situation and question God about his action or lack thereof in regards to their plight.

When at Wall, the language of lament as found in scripture offers a paradigm for engaging with God in the midst of our experience of His seeming absence. This language of lament is one of struggle, doubt, frustration with God, and wrestling with where God is in the midst of painful experiences.

There are a couple of movements in the lament prayers of the Israelites as described by Beach that can help us as we approach God in our times of spiritual exile, Dark Night of the Soul, or Wall experience:

  • An honest description of the problem.
  • A request for God to act on our behalf and remedy the problem.
  • Confession of Trust. Remembering what God has done in the past and confessing trust in God for the present.
  • Vow of Praise. Praising God in anticipation of God’s new redemption action in the future.

Theological Reflection, or meditating on who God is and what He has done, is at the heart of Lament.  When we sense God’s absence it can seem like an exilic experience. We no longer feel at home with God as our normal life experience has changed. Rather, we feel that we are “cast into a foreign land.”

If this is where you are, let this experience be an impetus for prayer. Prayer and worship is how we make sense of our life. I invite you to write your own laments as described above, and follow the example of Job, Naomi, the Israelites in exile, and St. John of the Cross, by continuing to call out to God. He is a God who is far away and also very near. Some examples to work from are Psalm 13, 86, 142, Lamentations 3.