(Contains 150-year-old spoilers)
When I talk about the redemptive work of silence in the life of the believer I could be referring to many different scenarios. One scenario would be that a person feels God has been silent toward them or toward the world in general, especially in seasons of suffering. Another example would be a person practicing silence and solitude as a discipline to help them hear God more clearly. Yet another possibility would be a person feeling silence and alienation from everything around them, perhaps as a result of sin or brokenness. As I began examining the use of silence in Crime and Punishment, I was surprised to find out just how many different examples Dostoevsky employs and how well they can be used to represent various situations in the Christian life.
I will give a brief outline of the types of silence I see in the text, which will also provide a decent plot summary:
- Rodia’s poverty and mental illness alienate him from society and make it difficult for him to maintain good connections with his friends and family.
- Instead of trying to reach toward God and his loved ones, Rodia hides the anguish in his heart by entertaining ideas of men who are so superior to everyone else that they would have the right to kill with impunity, and he further isolates himself.
- After committing a double murder, Rodia hides his crime and buries the truth inside himself. This alienates him further and further from society, because he can no longer interact with others without feeling the increasing weight of his guilt.
- Because of her father’s poor choices, Sonia is essentially forced into prostitution in order to provide for her family, and, even though she retains her belief in God, God seemingly makes no effort to deliver her from her circumstances.
- Porfiry, the investigator in charge of the murders, suspects Rodia is the killer but does not arrest Rodia or outright accuse him. Instead, he uses a variety of psychological maneuvers to try and direct Rodia toward confession.
- When Rodia does confess, he offers no defense nor explanation for his actions, as he does not yet feel repentant or understand his motivations for the crime. He merely confessed because the guilt and the alienation from society was too much to bear any longer.
- Sonia goes to Siberia with Rodia to tend to him during his exile. She does not exhort him in any particular way, nor does she voice hope that he will repent. She patiently and consistently visits him as his spirit recovers, until he eventually accepts his wrongdoing and receives not only the relief of repentance but also the love of God.
There are probably further examples that I’ve overlooked, and yet, I could not hope to do each of the listed examples justice in a coherent blog post. What I would like to do now is to look at a few of these examples and talk about how they relate to the life of the believer.
The Choice Within Silence
When we meet Rodia and Sonia, both of them are experiencing suffering and alienation from society in which, at the beginning, neither of them had any culpability. It was not Rodia’s fault that he was poor, nor his fault that he was prone to mental illness. Sonia could not help that her father was an irresponsible man and a drunkard who would drive his family to ruin. Both of them found themselves in situations which should have merited society’s compassion, but instead garnered its contempt.
When we find ourselves in similar situations, when we experience suffering that is not a consequence of sin (or even if it is a consequence of sin), and when we feel like God is silent in the face of our suffering, we are faced with a choice: we can continue clinging to God and fight to stay near to him, or we can turn our backs and bitterly make the silence mutual.
Rodia and Sonia demonstrate these two paths. Rodia turns away from God and isolates himself from those who would reach out to help him. He grows angrier and more distressed, and because he can’t bring those feelings to God, he buries them under casuistrous arguments to justify his sinful desires. He very much personifies the progression of Romans 1, denying what is plain about God and exchanging his glory, becoming more and more futile in his thinking. Sonia, on the other hand, presses closer to God. The shame and alienation she feels because of her disgraceful father is compounded by her having to work as a prostitute in order to provide for her family, and yet, she clings to her faith. More than that, she perceives that God is understanding and compassionate toward her, even though those on the outside would immediately judge her lifestyle as sinful.
Often times, the silence which can be imposed upon us can feel like a scary place. We associate it with fears of disapproval and abandonment. But God’s silence should not be confused with his turning away from us. Silence is in fact an invitation for us to draw closer. So we must choose to not resent God’s silence. And even if we do resent it, we must choose to not hide that from God – we must bring it to him. If we choose to take up bitterness against God and refuse to bring it to him, it will be us and not him who is turning away.
The Love Within Silence
The good news is that for those who are united to God in Christ, even if our pain and resentment tempt us to turn away from God, he will never take his gaze off of us.
The Psalms voice this positively, saying, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.”
Yet Job, while still staying faithful to God, resents this attention: “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit?”
Rodia finds himself in a place very similar to Job. The people who love him won’t just let him slip away. Two people in particular, Porfiry and Sonia, play essential roles in Rodia’s path to redemption, and much of their work is done through intentional silence.
When Rodia first encounters Porfiry, he can tell that the investigator’s suspicions are aroused. He spends much of the novel trying to figure out what angle Porfiry is playing, and how he can out-maneuver Porfiry’s attempts to corral him into confessing. Porfiry sets up several “traps” for Rodia, contrived run-ins with people meant to throw him off balance and agitate his guilt. At first, this seems to be because Porfiry enjoys the chase, and it would be more satisfying to manipulate Rodia into confessing rather than prove his guilt with evidence. But as the novel progresses, Porfiry develops compassion for Rodia, and he legitimately feels that confession will ultimately be better for Rodia’s soul. He exhorts him to choose life and repentance, and once Rodia confesses, Porfiry supports him at his trial. The person whom Rodia most saw as his antagonist is transformed by silence and understanding and eventually becomes one of Rodia’s greatest advocates.
But it is Sonia whom Rodia first actually confesses his crime to, and at the time, she voices fervent compassion for him, as well as calling him to confession and repentance. She even promises to accompany him during his sure-to-come exile to Siberia. But Rodia is still unwilling to confess at that time, so Sonia waits. After Rodia’s confession and trial, Sonia does indeed accompany him to Siberia, where she cares for his needs and, for the first time, is able to make a dignified life for herself. She befriends everyone in the prison, and they all adore her, but Rodia maintains a simmering hostility toward her. Her very presence is a reminder to him of his crime and his continuing lack of repentance, even if she never brings it up herself. But Sonia is patient, and after a bout of illness, Rodia’s spirit is finally able to recognize his own sin, and he repents, finally embracing Sonia’s love, and even God’s. Rodia recognizes that he and Sonia still have much difficulty to face through the years of his exile and that he personally still has much to work through in his heart in order to be fully reconciled to God, his loved ones, and society in general, but he now is able to do so with the comfort and security of having fellowship once again.
The grace of God’s silence is that even when we turn away from him, even when we’re bitter toward him, even when we have adopted deception in our hearts and hardened ourselves to the truth, God patiently endures with us. In these circumstances, his silence is still accompanied by his presence. He is willing to hold his peace when he knows his words or actions would only harden our hearts further. He knows that it is better for us if we choose to come to him, having embraced the truth for ourselves, rather than having it forced upon us. But as his Spirit dwells in us, he is always with us, and his presence is not only a constant call to repentance and comfort, but also a constant reminder of his love and gentleness toward us.
So if we are like Rodia, and we have embittered ourselves toward God, we can trust that he will give us what we need to soften our hearts and embrace him once again, so long as we keep close to him. And if we are like Sonia, and we have trusted in God in spite of our miserable circumstances, we can trust that, in the right time, he will lead us out to a place where we can finally rest. Thus, when we feel the weight of silence surrounding us, we really have nothing to fear, because we can know that God will accomplish the purposes of his love toward us.