I know, I know, how can I possibly have more to say about silence in the life of the believer? Well, aside from the fact that I still have the capstone of my series on silence in literature left to write, a few things have happened this week that have indicated my study in silence might be helpful to those struggling with what to do, what to think, and what to feel during this time of anxiety, uncertainty, and isolation.
If you’ve been following my blog posts or know me personally, you know that my life hasn’t looked very normal this past year. After returning from a six week trip to Wales in November 2018, I was ready to get a short-term job and begin the visa application process in order to come work with the Welsh church. I was also concerned that I would not be able to find work that suited my interests, capacities, and needs for what I assumed would be a brief window of time before I left. To my great relief, God brought three jobs to me without me even having to look, and to my great consternation, all of those jobs ended unexpectedly after only a few weeks. Two things became very clear to me: God did not want me to have a regular job, and it was going to take a lot longer than I had hoped to get to Wales.
On New Years Day 2019, I practiced something that we all need to do occasionally – I texted a friend and asked her to preach the gospel to me. This is some of what she said:
“I know that your heart deeply cares for those around you, and that as you continue God’s ministry of reconciliation, you likewise plead with others. You are compelled to do so.
“Do not forget, however, God’s victories are confusing sometimes. We often don’t see them until much time has passed, because we’re close. Because we can’t see the whole picture. Because we have desires we’d like to see fulfilled immediately. Because our pains can run deep.
“But God’s love shines bright. Rest in his victory today, even if you don’t feel like it or you can’t see it. Take joy in the work he’s already done in your life this last year, for the ways in which he has rescued us from various situations, and take care of yourself. For he does deeply care about you. And you’re going to need rest for what’s to come.
“And lastly, continue to be honest with him about your frustrations.”
I could end this post there and just let my friend’s words comfort you. That would be completely sufficient for your encouragement.
The story did not end there for me. Wanting to hear more of God’s voice, just anything directly between him and me, I pulled up a random Bible verse generator. This is not really a wise practice. I do not do it often, and most of the time when I do do it there’s obviously nothing in it. The Bible does not function like a magic 8-ball. But this specific time, the Holy Spirit met me there.
The verse was Leviticus 20:26:
“You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.”
And reading that, the Spirit said to me, “Give me this time. Take this time to be alone with me. For all of the things you want to happen, there will be time.”
2019 was a hard year in many ways. The primary way it was hard was that I knew there was nothing I could do to make my plans and desires proceed – that was God’s job. Another way it was hard was that I was not allowed to fill that time of waiting with business or distraction – my time, my thoughts, and my decisions had to be consigned to God. Lastly, this time was difficult because there were several things God had to teach me, like how to say “no” instead of continually letting my boundaries be transgressed or how to be angry in a true and healthy way instead of editing my frustrations to protect others’ feelings. More importantly, I had been given two firm directives: “Before you leave, you must know you are beloved,” and, “You must become very gentle.”
Yes, I am aware that the former of those is a Mumford & Sons lyric. But these were the things the Spirit said to me over and over again in 2019 and still says to me now. When I doubt that people want me around, I must know I am beloved. When I am walking with a friend who I think is making unwise decisions, I must become very gentle. When I feel as though I will never break free of old sinful patterns, I must know I am beloved. When I feel like my life isn’t going anywhere, I must become very gentle.
These lessons were not just given to me out of nothing; they did not appear out of nowhere on New Years Day. God had been cultivating them in me for years, through disappointments and confusion, through empathy and anguish, through not really knowing if God was someone I could trust.
In times like these, it becomes easier to ask questions like, “Do I even believe God exists?” And if he does, “Is he good?” For me, I had no doubt that God existed, but I was angry with him for what he was doing to me. I knew there was no one else for me to turn to, but I was really not liking the only option. I found myself very much in the place of the author of Psalm 39:
“I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence.’ I was mute and silent; I held my peace to no avail, and my distress grew worse. My heart burned within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue…
“‘Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather! And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you… I am mute; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand…
“‘ Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers. Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.’”
In times like these, it is no wonder that we would be anxious, angry, confused, and probably starting to wonder how much we can trust God. Yes, he says he is good, but does his good feel good to us? If his good is making us go through pain and confusion, can we still call it good?
These were questions I have wrestled with from time to time over the past few years. A large part of God’s answer to these questions came about because I saw Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the novel Silence. It was a difficult movie for a difficult time. And this is what that book taught me:
When we suffer, I think we feel, and act, and pray like we are lost in a stormy wilderness with no discernible way out, and all we want is for God’s mighty hand to break through the clouds, reach down, and pull us out of our suffering. I think sometimes that is what he does. It’s not wrong to hope that he will do that. But that’s not where I found Jesus when I was suffering.
As I walked along the dusty path under the dark, tumultuous sky, I came to a crossroads, each branch leading off to no specific end. It would make no difference which direction I walked. But sitting by himself at the crossroads was Jesus. He had arrived there ahead of me. He was not entering into my suffering; I was entering into his. I sat down next to him and looked at his face, his eyes full of understanding for me. Nothing was said, but I was no longer alone and neither was he.
This can be a scary time for us. We don’t know what is going to happen, or how long this trouble will last, or what our world will look like when we finally come out of this. But there is an invitation in it, an invitation which I will share with you in the words of scripture I revisit time and time again:
“We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Friends, let us go to Jesus.