Ten years ago, it seemed as though God had packed up, moved far away, and left me no forwarding address. I was unable to sense his promptings and overall presence as I searched for him during trying times. I felt abandoned, confused, and terribly alone.
The year actually had started out on an opposite note. In January, I'd realized a lifelong dream—the publication of my first book. The spring months were jammed with talk show interviews and a stepped-up speaking schedule. Blessings were everywhere. In the midst of it all, God gave me a vision to start a new ministry for Christians in the workplace. I was on a roll.
With great excitement, I raced through all the open doors. My quiet times were rich, God's directions were clear, and all the lights were green. As long as God kept guiding, directing, leading, and blessing, I felt I could handle all the pressure and change.
Then, a recession in the summer of 2001 slowed my small consulting business. I was worried because I now had the added expenses of launching a new ministry. I hoped that by fall, everything would be back to normal. Little did I know the events of September 11 were right around the corner.
After 9-11, "bad-to-worse" took on a whole new meaning. The economy reeled. Clients stopped paying their bills and called off future projects. Speaking engagements were canceled. The stress caused my fibromyalgia to flare and a relentless cycle of pain, fatigue, and depression followed. To top it all off, my health insurance provider filed for bankruptcy.
Daily I approached God with growing concern. "Okay, God, I'm sure you've got a plan. Show me what I'm supposed to do here. I need you now more than ever. I'm a middle-aged woman on my own. I'm physically hurting, emotionally spent. How should I deal with this?"
The silence was deafening.
My prayers became more strident: "God, this is not the time to play hide-and-seek. I'm facing some serious anxiety here. Now would be an especially good time to hear from you!"
For more than two decades, the Holy Spirit had filled my head and heart with comfort, encouragement, leadings, inklings, instructions—even in the rockiest of times. But for the next six months, God was totally mute.
What's going on when God's silence seems palpable? What on earth is he up to? The hard reality is, some things are best learned in the dark. Here's what God taught me through that tough time of his silence.
Silence is Not Absence
I come from a long line of "talkers." When I was growing up, our house was quiet only when no one was home. I recall one time chattering to God about my endless litany of needs and wants, ending with, "Are you listening, God?" As clearly as if he were sitting next to me in the flesh, I heard him say in my spirit, Yes, child, I'm listening. Would you like to listen for awhile?
I got the message. Over the years, I practiced listening more to God's voice. But nothing prepared me for his silence!
On more than one occasion, Old Testament King David felt abandoned by God. But he knew that despite his feelings, he was never out of God's sight: "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? … If I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, 'Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,' even the darkness will not be dark to you" (Psalm 139:7, 9-12).
David reassures us that we are not alone. God is relentlessly faithful. So how do we convince our frightened hearts when life crumbles around us and God becomes silent? We enter into the silence with him.
The spiritual opportunity: SOLITUDE. You have to feel totally accepted and comfortable with someone to sit with a person in silence. It can be intimidating. Silence shifts the emphasis of a relationship away from words and transactions to intimacy where no words are necessary. Are you that comfortable with God? Would you like to be?
Since I felt my many words were fruitless, I sat in my favorite chair, read a brief portion of Scripture, or listened to a worship tape to calm my heart. Then I'd simply say, "Lord, I'm here and I'm scared. Please let me feel your presence." And I would sit … in silence. Sometimes I cried. Eventually my spirit calibrated to God's and peace settled over me—enough peace to get me through another day.
When all the racket of life stops and God's presence fills every molecule of space around us, our hearts grow calm and strong. Fear seems pointless. Circumstances lose their power over us. The silence becomes an opportunity to fall in love with the person of Christ, rather than the things he says or does for us.
Silence Checks Our Trust Level
There's not much trust required if someone stands beside us coaching us every inch of the way. It's like a parent running alongside a child who's learning to ride a bicycle. We want to know the parent is there because we have no confidence we can ride the bike alone. But we'd look pretty silly if we were 40 and mom or dad were still running alongside our bike.
At some point in our journey with him, God may decide to take his hand off the bike, so to speak, to see if we remember what we've learned. It's preparation for the road ahead, which may be bumpy or difficult. It's God taking us to the next level, building our commitment and perseverance. It's also a way to reveal those things we're trusting in more than him.
For years my friend Esther prayed for a spouse, and God seemed to ignore her. "My heart's desire always has been to marry a preacher and to minister together," she says. "But when I hit 30 and there was no husband on the horizon, I kept asking God, 'Why am I not married? Is there something wrong with me?' There was no response. It hurt."
Then one day Esther had an "aha!" moment. "I realized I was trusting marriage and a husband to give my life meaning more than I was trusting God to do it. I had made marriage a litmus test of God's love for me."
The spiritual opportunity: SURRENDER. Esther surrendered her marriage agenda to God and gave him permission to do whatever he wanted with her life. Suddenly a whole world of opportunity opened for her. Today she travels the globe training pastors and children's ministry leaders.
"I'm doing exciting things now I couldn't have done if I were married. And I learned I didn't have to marry to do ministry. I haven't permanently said good-bye to marriage. God didn't tell me I'd never marry. But I had to learn God's plan for my life involved more than just marriage." Esther's breakthrough came as a result of God's silence.
Jesus understood this principle. The most significant events in his life took place in the dark when all he saw was God's back. Yet his instructions to his disciples were unwavering: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me" (John 14:1).
Every day God calls us to keep trusting—to get out of bed and spend another 24 hours washing dishes, doing laundry, loving our family, believing he has everything under control—even when he seems silent.
Silence Doesn't Mean Nothing's Happening
Ever try to watch a seed grow? The problem is, you can't. It remains hidden under the dark garden soil until the seedling's ready to break the surface and appear. Sometimes things buried in us need to surface, but they'll only do so after we sit still long enough to let them break through. Perhaps they're deep issues that have undermined our lives for years. Silence forces them to emerge.
One of the old issues that surfaced for me was a fear of financial meltdown. When I was a child, my father had more financial ups and downs than a roller-coaster ride. So my precarious circumstances triggered my preoccupation with feeling financially insecure. I was looking for quick answers to calm my fears, but God wanted me to wrestle with a much bigger issue: Who, exactly, was my provider? Was it my clients—or God? Of course God expected me to work hard and do my part. But if I was doing the best I could, what could I expect in return?
The spiritual opportunity: SCRIPTURE MEMORIZATION. God's silence and my situation drove me deeper into his Word to search for what I could expect of God in circumstances such as my own. In spiritual desperation, I had to break a sweat and dig. I selected comforting promises, recorded them on 3x5-inch cards, and taped them everywhere—on my bathroom mirror, on my dashboard, over the kitchen sink. And I prayed the promises back to God: "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread" (Psalm 37:25); and "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. … Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" (Matthew 6:25-26).
When I thought nothing was happening, God, in fact, had me in training. You pay more attention when you're lost in a wilderness. I'd only been interested in quick fixes. But God was building my character and making me more effective for the kingdom. He can do the same for you.
Silence Forces Us to Get Real with God
My friend Mikki had been married 13 years when she sensed a growing chasm between her husband and her. "It was as though someone put a glass wall between us," she says. "I could see my husband and hear him, but I couldn't feel him." Her husband denied there was a problem.
For eight years Mikki asked God to reveal what was going on and to make her the wife her husband needed. While God related to her deeply and intimately about every other thing in her life, he was totally silent about her marriage.
"It was a torturous time," Mikki says. "But it brought me to a place of brokenness before the Lord. I couldn't make God tell me what was happening to my marriage. I couldn't make him fix it. I believe he was teaching me to give up control and submit to his timing and plans."
Eventually her husband's eight-year-long affair came to light and he filed for divorce. When the truth was revealed, Mikki snapped in anger at God. "I thought if I was faithful, surely God would restore my marriage," she says. "I remember throwing my Bible on the shelf and saying, 'I'm done with you, God. Stay out of my life!' Sometimes you have to get raw and real with God. If something hard has happened, it's okay to be honest with him."
The spiritual opportunity: AUTHENTICITY AND COMMUNITY. To my friend Mikki's surprise, getting real with God brought her closer to him. Almost right away Mikki was able to confess to God she was sorry for blaming him. After all, he was the only one who had ever loved Mikki unconditionally. Christian friends then came alongside to see her through the hard part of rebuilding her life. They reminded her repeatedly of what was true and false about her and about God. But mostly they loved her, listened to her, and gave her the gift of their presence.
"I remember sitting on the floor crying at a friend's house. I said, 'I'm trusting you to trust the Lord for me for now—to have hope until I get mine back.' The verse I clung to was Psalm 119:50: 'My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.'"
When God falls silent, how long will the silence last? It takes as long as it takes—and it will seem dark and lonely the whole time. But in the same way dawn always follows night, so, too, your darkness will end.
For me, the silence ended as unexpectedly as it began. While waiting to hear from God, I noticed my prayers became less about getting answers than about connecting with God himself. I remember when I first realized I was receiving a fresh word from God—the first word I'd heard in a long time. One day as I was journaling, I felt the Holy Spirit gently ask whether scaring myself about all the "what ifs" had done any good other than to scare me. He reminded me I'll have everything I need to live the life he's called me to live. If a need isn't met, then maybe it wasn't a real need, or something I wasn't supposed to be doing in the first place.
The message was a precious sign God had been at work—shaping me even when he seemed far away. And so the two of us began again the daily conversations that would see me into the future he had planned for me.
If you let God's silence do its work, you will come out the other side knowing that you're not alone, that God longs for deeper intimacy with you, that he's worth trusting for the journey, and that you're stronger than ever.
Verla Wallace is an author, speaker, and spiritual life coach. You may contact her through her blog, Pilgrim on the Loose, at www.pilgrimontheloose.com, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.