When the woman who was to become my wife and I were dating, we would often look at other couples around us in coffee shops and restaurants. We’d pick out the ones we’d want to be like when we grew up, and the ones we didn’t want to emulate. The ones we wanted to emulate – no matter their age – were the ones in lively conversation, laughing and sharing. The ones we didn’t want to be like were sitting in silence, apparently focussing on food rather than each other.
Nearly seventeen years of marriage later, my perspective has changed. On those all too rare nights out together ,Bev and I do have plenty we want or need to talk about. But we’ve also grown to appreciate the importance of just being together. There’s a comfort, a profound kind of silence that can settle over us when we’re together – reading, watching a film or show, enjoying a meal, sleep. I’m naturally a quiet person, and I really value the freedom not to have to fill the silence – that Bev is happy just to be with me. She knows me well enough to know that my silence doesn’t mean a lack of love or ease; quite the reverse. It indicates that I feel comfortable in her presence in a way I don’t feel with others. I can just be with her. I have other friends for whom this is also true, if not at the same depth – we can watch a game together, or look at each other and laugh without speaking, knowing what the other is thinking. Silence can be profound, pregnant with meaning and expectation. Can you imagine feeling safer than (literally) sleeping with someone every night of your life?
This speaks to me of God. It’s not unusual for people to ask why God isn’t speaking to them – especially in difficult, challenging seasons of life. I feel like I’m in one of those periods right now – many things having to be done or decided, and precious little from God that appears to help. He’s silent. Why? Why won’t He speak?
Maybe He doesn’t need to. In a sense, of course, He’s always speaking. Through the Bible, through people, through circumstances, through creation. But there are times when I could have done with a very clear ‘THIS’ from Him. That does – and can – happen, but rarely these days, it seems.
Take Esther, though. It’s the book of the Bible where God is famously unmentioned by name. It’s a time of crisis, personal and national. Ethnic cleansing of God’s people is threatened and women are used for sex by men (never tell me the Bible’s ancient and irrelevant). Where is God? We might well ask. He doesn’t speak, He doesn’t seem to act. Or does He? He’s strongly implied in the famous ‘for such a time as this’ that is uttered by one to another at a key moment; read the story and it’s hard to shake the sense that He’s the shadow cast inescapably by events, never out of sight but easy to lose track of if you’re not looking for Him. Reach the end of the book and it’s clear He’s been doing something, never far from the centre of events and actions.
Take Elijah, depressed and panicking. Hearing in the quiet rather than the earthquake.
Take Jesus, sweating drops of blood in the garden, no reply – save for an angel.
Maybe I’ve underestimated God’s silence. Maybe He’s the lover content to be with me after a while; content to listen and make me feel really listened to in the way others can’t; at peace with sharing the day with me, living life alongside me, nudging, indicating. Maybe His silence is the silence of deep comfort and a maturity I thought I lacked, an honouring of me as a person, an image-bearer of Him.
Where is He when I am in agony and desperate? With me.
Where is He when I can’t see the way ahead? With me.
Where is He when I can’t hear Him? With me.
Where is He when I stray? With me.
Why won’t He speak? Maybe because all I need is a look.
So I lay me down to sleep.