The Awkward Silence of God
Why Pray When You Seem to be Talking to Yourself?
In every prayer, there is a touch of insanity.
You don’t believe me? Think about it for a moment: You wouldn’t ask someone who regularly converses with an invisible friend to babysit your children. Yet if that invisible friend happens to be named God and if the conversations typically end with “Amen,” you would entrust your progeny to that person without a second thought.
The apparent craziness of prayer can be summarized in a single word: silence. Many times when we pray, there’s no immediate response. The deacon mumbles a few words over the offering plates, the child prays for a pony for Christmas, the young couple screams for God to heal their baby—and nothing tangible happens, at least not right away. The offering may be used for God’s glory; a pony may show up on Christmas; the infant may survive. Yet on the surface, these answers seem to result as much from parishioners, parents, and physicians—or in some cases, sheer dumb luck—as from prayer.
So often God seems silent.
Yet over the past few years, I’ve learned something about God’s silence: When He doesn’t seem to respond to our prayers, it may not be because He’s chosen not to speak; it may be that His answer is already on the way.
The Jews of the first century were familiar with God’s silence. For 400 years after the prophecies of Malachi, God did not speak corporately to His people. During these years of silence, followers of the Torah gathered in synagogues weekly and entreated God with the same prayer: “Speedily cause the descendant of David Your servant to flourish.” Yet they received no response.
Among those waiting for the Messiah were a priest named Simeon and a prophetess named Anna. We find their stories in the opening chapters of Luke. This twosome spent decades hanging around the temple—the holiest place they knew—praying for a savior. And year after year, no savior came. I don’t pretend to know precisely how Simeon and Anna handled this apparent lack of response. Yet I can’t help but believe that—at least once or twice, perhaps in some rare moment when the crowds in the temple court subsided—they wondered whether God would ever answer.
Maybe you’ve wondered the same thing. I have. In a single year, my wife and I endured both the news that we could not have biological children and a series of failed adoptions. Three times the birth mothers changed their minds, once before the baby was born and twice afterward. During that year, I spent more hours than I care to recall screaming into the face of God—a face that seemed, at the time, as cold and silent as stone. By the end of the year, I was spiritually and emotionally exhausted. The bedroom we had so lovingly prepared for a baby remained empty. And I still had no answers.
GOD AT WORK
In times like these, we may be tempted to give up on prayer. But before we do, we should consider a truth buried in the genealogies of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Yes, the genealogies—those seemingly interminable lists of names where your New Year’s resolutions to read through the Bible typically meet an untimely demise.) These genealogies cover not only the years of Israel’s military triumphs and covenant faithfulness—times when God’s answers to prayer were obvious—but also the centuries during which worshipers persevered in their petitions for a Messiah while wondering if God would ever respond. They remind us that, even in the midst of His apparent silence, God was working. Through “Achim who begat Eliud who begat Eleazar” and all the other begats, God was forming the household and the nation where the Messiah would, for a time, find His home.
Of course, the Messiah didn’t arrive in the way His people assumed He would. Who would have believed that a girl with one foot still in puberty could have the other foot in motherhood without placing either foot in a man’s bed? And although her baby was from the house of David, He certainly didn’t enjoy royal wealth. According to Lk. 2:24, Mary and Joseph sacrificed a pair of birds when they dedicated Jesus at the temple, presumably because they couldn’t afford a lamb (see Lev. 12:8). The baby wasn’t very well equipped to wipe out Israel’s enemies either; He was too small for armor, and He couldn’t wield a sword. Yet His arrival made it apparent—at least to those who were quiet enough to notice—that God had not been silent after all. The answer had just not reached them yet.
The same is often true in our lives. So how do we learn to wait for and recognize God’s response? Let’s take another look at Simeon and Anna.
IN THE WAITING ROOM
Thousands of worshipers came to the temple the day Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to be circumcised, yet only Simeon and Anna recognized the young Messiah. Why were they able to see past the implausible packaging and identify the presence of God in this baby? Perhaps it was because they had learned to embrace the apparent silence of God, not with anger or impatience, but with expectant stillness. They anticipated God’s future response while rejoicing in their present circumstances.
It had been revealed to Simeon “that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Lk. 2:26). So he waited for…months? Years? Decades? Yet his stillness was not languid or lonely. Scripture tells us that Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” while enjoying the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 2:25).
Anna too, it seems, had long been waiting for the Messiah. She was “very old” and had been a widow for many years. She “never left the temple”—perhaps because she was anticipating God’s response to her pleas for redemption. Yet she also never stopped embracing God’s power in her current situation; she “worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Lk. 2:37).
Although God seemed unresponsive, Simeon and Anna continued to ask and watch for the Messiah. So when the long-awaited answer—the child who had been on His way since God first kissed this planet with His grace—reached the temple courts, it was the worn-out priest and the widowed prophetess who recognized Him as God’s response to their prayers.
The stillness Simeon and Anna modeled is, I believe, the birth canal of authentic prayer. For it is in the pangs of God’s apparent silence that we become aware of our deepest needs, and it is in the depths of our stillness that we find the space to recognize God’s answers when they arrive.
SEEING THE ANSWER
Eventually God’s answer arrived for us too. Four months after the third birth mother reneged, a new prospect emerged. A family in another state had adopted a girl from Romania and then abandoned her. Would we be interested in an older child? It took mounds of paperwork plus manic preparations, but six months later my wife and I stood before a judge, declaring ourselves to be the parents of a spunky little seven-year-old named Hannah.
On the drive home that evening, we watched the setting sun spin a fiery kaleidoscope across the western sky.
“God sure made a pretty sky tonight, didn’t He?” I said.
“Mm-hmm,” a sleepy voice from the backseat replied. Hannah curled up against her pink Kim Possible pillow, and there was a long silence. Suddenly, she sat up.
“Daddy, know what? God put red in the sky tonight—that’s Mommy’s favorite color. There’s blue for you. Over there is pink; that’s for me.”
“All our favorite colors are in the sky tonight, aren’t they?”
“Uh-huh. Know what else, Daddy? I think God’s happy because all the colors are finally together. How about you?” Several moments passed before a reply wedged its way past the lump in my throat.
“Yes, Hannah, I’m happy too,” I said. “I’m happy too.”
It was there—somewhere between the innocent observation of my daughter and the luminous wonder of an Oklahoma sunset—that I learned the significance of God’s silence. And the joy of God began to seep, ever so slowly, back into the parched recesses of my soul.
With this joy came a capacity I had never experienced before—the capacity for expectant stillness. I realized that Hannah hadn’t become my daughter on this day in the chambers of a county judge. No, Hannah had been my girl from the moment she was conceived in some unknown village on the other side of the world—I just didn’t know it yet. While I was, for months, screaming into what seemed like silence, God had already answered my prayers with this child.
That is, I believe now, how God often works in His children’s lives: As in the most magnificent sunsets, God whirls into our lives hues and shades that no interior decorator would dream of approving. Somehow, the colors we had planned don’t quite make it onto the Master Artist’s palette, and in the silence that seems to follow our cries for explanation and intervention, His combinations appear dubious at best.
But one day, in the stillness of our souls, we see it—a design as clear and colossal as the wildest and most wonderful of sunsets. In that moment, we realize that the circumstances we questioned and even cursed were part of an answer that God was forming long before we even knew the words to make our request. Knowing that God’s answer is on the way may not make praying into the silence seem any less crazy, but it does make it easier to wait for it with expectant stillness.