The Silence of God

Silent Statue

Introductory Note: This is longer than I intend blog posts to be. The purpose of this article is to respond to a question from one of my Bible Education students at Grace College who asked how God speaks to us.

On opening the pages of Scripture we find angelic messengers, voices from heaven, dreams, visions and a whole lot of confidence about what God expected of His people. Many characters in the Bible seem to have had a direct line of communication to God, a kind of speed dial by which any moral dilemma may be quickly addressed. Today, however, God is silent.

His silence is particularly worrying to those of us who are trying to obey, know or understand him. Yet in spite of our desperate questions about the evil that surrounds us, in spite of our personal cries about the future and his will, in spite of sincere longing simply to hear his voice, God remains silent.

LatteSome have responded to this problem by finding messages in their alphabet soup that God left for them, images of Jesus in latte foam or dreams and visions in which God or one of his angels appears. Many of the rest of us try to listen to God and so close our eyes and empty our minds and wait for a still small voice. Sometimes it comes to us in the form of a butterfly or a flock of birds or an inner peace, sometimes it is in the form of a chill down the back of our spines. Sometimes someone else comes and speaks on God’s behalf to tell us what God wants us to know because still, God himself is silent. Or is He?

MegaphoneIt is difficult to argue against experiences. The previous paragraph of spine-tingling, butterfly flapping events, however, do not constitute the voice of God. The first thing to realise about God speaking is that when God speaks, He is communicating. If God speaks in a way that is not clear and certain, he has failed to communicate. A teacher fails to communicate if s/he gives unclear instruction and leaves students uncertain as to what is required, likewise God fails to communicate if you are left uncertain. Considering God is not given to failure, it seems probable that God is not instructing you to do something if you are left unsure that it was Him to begin with (and so I am reluctant to call butterflies and spine-chills “God’s voice”). This leads us to the obvious question: How does God communicate with us? How can we hear the voice of God?

As has been said, Scripture is filled with angels, voices, dreams and visions. It is useful to begin by disabusing us of such an expectation. It’s worth realising that the vast majority of people were not the king of Israel or priests or prophets; they were ordinary and they listened to what prophets, priests and kings told them. It was surprising for Samuel to hear God’s voice, not even Eli the high priest expected it (1 Sam. 3:1-21) and in fact we read at the start of that story that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (v1). Encounters with angels are rare enough that they are commonly associated with fear (1 Chron. 21:30, Luke 1:13, Luke 1:30, Matt. 28:5). The burning bush type experiences of God are not the norm for His communication.

The Heavens Declare

Rather, we find first that God reveals himself to all people in creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork … Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world,” David writes in the Psalms (Ps. 19:1,4). It by looking at creation that any human being can learn something about God. In Psalm 19, David speaks of how the language of creation is wordless and understood irrespective of language of culture. It is on the basis of creation that Paul says people who have never read the Bible can be held accountable for their actions, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” (Rom. 1:19-20). So we can know something about God through the world around us. Still, it is an imperfect knowledge and the world is distorted by sin. Rather than knowing about God, how do we know and hear Him?

Immanuel - God With UsThe best answer to that question is the one every Sunday School child knows: Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him,” (John 14:6-7). So speaking to Jesus is speaking to God and if we know Jesus, we know God. The writer of Hebrews explains, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1‑2). Far from being silent, God became man so that his voice may clearly be heard and still, that voice echoes down through history.

Perhaps you are dismayed then that we do not have Jesus walking around explaining things to us today. Remember this though, before Jesus came God’s people were living in captivity and oppression wondering whether God existed or had forgotten them. They had little certainty about their interpretation of the Old Testament. It was only during Jesus’ short life, that the Old Testament began to be ultimately fulfilled and only after Jesus’ death that anyone realised. That’s why in the New Testament – which was written after Jesus was raised from the dead – we read the authors’ realisation, “This happened to fulfil what was written …” (e.g. John 18:9, 19:24, 19:36) or “as it is written …” (e.g. John 6:31, 12:14).

The people who lived in Old Testament times looked forward to something they could not imagine and could only hope against hope would turn out to be true. The people who knew Jesus didn’t understand him much of the time and didn’t realise who he was until after his resurrection – some of the men trying to be the most godly tried to kill him because they could not understand who he was or what he had come to do. In New Testament times, we have the benefit of the writings of people who knew Jesus and realised how his life fit into God’s plan, we have the evidence that God fulfils his promises and we look back on an event in history in which we can place our confidence rather than looking forward in hope. Even so, with Jesus at the right hand of God since his Ascension, the question of how God speaks to us remains.

The Bible Speaks TodayJesus, after his resurrection, comes alongside a couple of men who are leaving Jerusalem having given up hope in him because they believe that he is dead. They don’t recognise him to begin with and explain what they understand about his death but his response is, “beginning with the Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them, in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” (Luke 24:27). In its essence, the Bible is about Jesus: the Old Testament looks forward to Him, the New Testament looks back on Him. At the heart of the Bible, Jesus stands as God’s Word to us. The way God speaks to us today is through his word. For this reason, Paul explains that “All Scripture … is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). In fact, the writer of Hebrews says that the Bible, “is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” (Heb. 4:12).

Sometimes we may wonder why God chose to speak to us through a book written long ago and over thousands of years that can be hard to understand. That does not change the fact that He did though and it means that if we want to hear the voice of God, the only way to do that is in the words of Scripture. As the Christian writer Francis Schaeffer famously wrote of God, “He is there, and He is not silent”.

Christmas: The Traditions of Men and Our Forgotten King

Isaiah 29:13 - Jesus ChristQuoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus distinguished between the traditions of men and the commandments of God (Mark 7:6-8). Though critical of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus was not merely an iconoclast; he was much, much more. At the beginning of his ministry we learn that his preaching demanded repentance, a turning back to God (Mark 1:15). When it came to the traditions of men Jesus was incensed by their obscuring effect; his fight was not against the Jews’ practices and cultural artefacts, but how those drew the Jewish people away from God. Thus the people honoured God with their lips, but their words were unable to conceal wandering and desperate hearts (Isaiah 29:13). In honouring the traditions of men they ignored the commands of God.

True Christmas SpiritOn the eve of Christmas, Jesus’ words from two millennia ago are pertinent and precise in describing people today, besotted with traditions but indifferent to what is behind them. Jesus rebuked his religious listeners: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition, making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:9, 13). Now, the Christian reading this might don a proud demeanour for not losing sight of the true Christmas message, after all, we have “kept ‘Christ’ in Christmas, have we not?” No. I would suggest that many of us have not. Jesus’ correction is for us, today. With tomorrow marking the momentous historical event of God’s condescension, the beginning of the Son’s humiliation, and the birth of hope we must ask ourselves how the traditions of men have obscured our own celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth.

There was a punk band that I listened to as a teen called Noise Ratchet. One of their best but most poignant songs is entitled You’ll Be Forgetting Me, with this chorus, “happy birthday to me / the forgotten king.” Tomorrow is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember the Son’s self-giving work, which began with the incarnation. Yet tomorrow is most likely already consumed by brightly adorned trees sheltering piles of presents, large family gatherings, and gluttonously sized meals – the traditions of men. To quote from the aforementioned song, “open hands outstretched / to receive their prize / but I could give you anything, yes anything / you’re everything to me.” We desire so much at Christmas time, from the merry get-togethers to stockings crammed full of expensive gifts, yet easily forget to celebrate God’s wonderful open handed movement towards us, the greatest gift.

You'll be forgetting meNoise Ratchet’s song closes with this stirring reminder, from the Forgotten King’s lips, “for you I’ll be / forgetting me,” and therein lies the hope Christmas embodies and the reason we celebrate. Jesus came for us, those who were far from God. He renounced his rights for those who failed to remember God; he practised incomparable self-forgetfulness to bring us back to God. Jesus’ prayer to the Father in Gethsemane must be remembered tomorrow, “Not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In a post from Easter I wrote this, “[Jesus] dies according to the Father’s will…to save those who are truly guilty and without hope.” When the King is led towards the cross in royally purple robes, wearing his crown of twisted thorns, sarcastically hailed by Roman soldiers (Mark 15:16-18), he forgets himself out of love for us. Remember that tomorrow. Draw near to him who first drew near to us.

The Christ Event and True Christmas Spirit

Nativity IconIn his classic work, Knowing God, Packer writes that the incarnation is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. Referring to John 1:14, he says that at the first Christmas the world beheld the most profound and unfathomable depths of Christian revelation: God took on human flesh and was born. The eternal Son, who was with the Father, through whom the world was created and by whom all life is sustained, became a man (John 1:1-4, 14).

However, what makes the Christmas event spectacular is not just this incredible mystery, but also its monumental message for our world: God condescends to make himself known, and to save. At the incarnation God comes to his creation to graciously restore our fallen world. Athanasius provides a vivid analogy of this in On the Incarnation, picturing God as a mighty king who walks out to his people, who have revolted against him despite his benevolence. Though the intricacies of incarnation might be perplexing, we ought to immerse ourselves in the good news that God himself came to save man. Echoing the German reformer, Melanchthon, sometimes we do better to adore the mysteries of deity than to investigate them, for knowing Christ and his benefits is greater than apprehending the mystery of his being. To return to John, “No one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

Stories of life and passion of Christ - FrescoWhat do we learn in this gracious and penultimate revelation of God? In the incarnation, God’s wilful lessening of himself in order to save his lost creation, we see something theologians have called the ‘humiliation of Christ.’ Too often we reduce Christ’s suffering to his betrayal, trial and cross. But at the incarnation we must hear the unmistakable note of sacrifice, which resonates throughout the life of Christ. Paul saw it that way, in Philippians 2:6-8 he says the Son humbled himself, becoming a servant he made himself nothing. Jonathan Edwards believed this infinitely great sacrifice was the only way to bridge the infinite gap between God and man. Though Christ’s sacrifice is most pronounced at Calvary, we cannot separate the Son’s humiliation in dying for us from the sacrifice he shouldered in living as one of us. In both Christ’s life and death we see the grace of our Lord, for though he was rich for our sakes he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). That is the magnificent message of the incarnation: God humiliates himself to bring us to himself, to restore his defiant creation and save us, who were lost.

True Christmas SpiritWe should reflect deeply on the meaning of the incarnation and rediscover real ‘Christmas spirit.’ I am not referring to the gaudy sentimentalism so prevalent today. This cheapened ‘Christmas spirit’ – going no further than the exchanging of gifts, selective generosity and some goodwill to all men – is shorter lived than the Christmas season itself and so very far from the model of Christ we are called to imitate: continual and selfless pursuit of others’ interests (Philippians 2:3-5). The entire life of our Lord was wilful humiliation in order that many might come to know God and be saved. He is the king who abandons his magisterial throne room in heaven to talk with disobedient subjects, offering them gracious forgiveness and a part in his glorious restoration of all things. The Christian life is the practise of continual self-emptying for the sake of others, imitating God’s willingness to be humiliated and impoverished out of a love for those who do not know his gracious forgiveness. True ‘Christmas spirit’ is inseparably tied to the Christmas message. The Christian life must take its form from the humiliation of Christ; to paraphrase Michael Gorman, ‘To be in Christ is to be a living exegesis of Christ’s narrative, a new performance of the original drama of humiliation, before exaltation, the voluntary renunciation of rights and selfish gain in order to serve and obey.’