[Talking to God is] like picking up the phone and recognizing the voice of your best friend.
LOREN CUNNINGHAM, IS THAT REALLY YOU, GOD?
God, are you listening? Did you get my message? Will you ever call back? For some people these are haunting questions. We so easily pick up the phone and dial someone across the street or halfway around the world, but God cannot be reached. Are we supposed to be on talking terms with God? Is the One we worship a conversational God? Is talking to God like talking to my best friend? Or is it like talking to myself? With a preponderance of books on listening to God in recent years, many people are left thinking that either they have dialed the wrong number or the phone to the throne has been disconnected. It sometimes seems as though God oversees a colossal, cosmic answering machine out there somewhere in the heavens, and we, the gadget-challenged earthlings, have been put on hold listening to eternal elevator music.
I do not have a Type P personality—as in phone. In my home I have one functioning telephone: no cell phone, no fax, no voicemail, no answering machine. I don’t even have touch-tone, which saves me $2.43 a month on my local bill. When I make calls, my preference is a live voice—a person over a recording—except when I need to know store hours or some other general information. If I leave a message, chances are the other party calls back when I’m away or simply doesn’t return the call at all.
For some people, communicating with God is equally frustrating; it’s as difficult as touch-toning your way through a complicated corporate phone matrix. And the phones themselves are often complex, with instructions that are convoluted at best. Indeed, after purchasing a cell phone, a person is expected to master the directions before making that first call. And making the call is the easiest part. I was recently vacationing with a friend who spent hours, of what should have been leisure time, trying to retrieve messages on her cell phone. She returned home from vacation unsuccessful. So also with God. We go through life with unretrieved messages—unable to make sense out of the directions. How-to prayer manuals are plentiful. Some are vague; others are unequivocal, telling us that before we even pick up the receiver we should master the instructions or at least be in a meditative mood or have all our sins confessed.
GOD AND PRIVATE PRAYER
Is it possible, I wonder, in this overly communicative Western culture, that we are expecting too much from God? Just like our best friend with a cell phone, we expect God to pick up every time we call. And we make those calls at an ever-increasing rate. “Those cell phones we see everywhere,” writes Louis Rene Beres in a June 2005 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, “are no more or less than a desperate attempt to keep from being alone with ourselves in a vast, uncaring universe” (“Don’t Hang Up,” June 12, 2005). Indeed, it’s almost impossible to read a newspaper while waiting for a connection at O’Hare airport or to take a leisurely walk along the Grand River without hearing someone mindlessly yakking on a cell phone. Does this phenomenon parallel our own attempts to communicate with God? And is our communication frequently self-serving? Our reported words from God often sound eerily like our own. God’s opinions and priorities are ours, and we expect customer care. Just as we pick up the phone or go online to order from a garden or fashion catalog, we dial a prayer and God becomes yet another mail-order outlet.
Who is God, and how does God relate to us? This is a difficult question because the answer is typically based primarily on our own experience. Relationships with God are perceived as intimate. The me-focus permeates contemporary spirituality as each person communicates privately with God. Subjective encounters with God are to be taken at face value and not subjected to theological review. Challenging someone’s spiritual experience is considered off-limits in nice company.
Recently, I was with friends in Denver. There were four of us sitting around a dinette table having lunch. “Tell Freda about your new book,” Darlene urged me. So I introduced the topic of the silence of God. Within minutes we were on the subject of prayer, and in the course of our conversation I told about a public testimony of answered prayer that I had heard many years ago. I was then teaching at Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music, and every Monday we had “report chapel.” Students or faculty would stand up and share ministry experiences, answered prayer or prayer requests. A young man stood and shared God’s answer to his prayer to not let it rain. He had spent the weekend at Lake Michigan with a youth group, and he told how, in answer to his prayer, God gave them sunshine the entire time—not a cloud in the sky. I cringed as I listened. West Michigan had been enduring a prolonged dry spell, and we desperately needed rain. To be fair, the young man was from out of state and may not have been aware of the severe drought, but the point I was making to my friends over lunch was that we should be cautious about making such claims for answered prayer.
Freda strongly disagreed. In fact, she had an answered rain prayer on the tip of her tongue. She reported how she had taken her grandchildren to play miniature golf, and it started to rain just as they were arriving. Her young grandson announced that he was going to pray that God would stop the rain long enough for them to play eighteen holes. As Freda tells the story, the rain stopped long enough for them to complete their round, and it started up again as soon as they were finished. In her mind it was God’s way of making himself real to her grandson.
Now, I realize there is no way to counter answered prayer, but I did challenge Freda, wondering if we really should want our grandchildren or anyone else to have that image of God—one who holds back the rain for us to play golf. Is God then like a genie in a bottle, ready to do our bidding? And I asked about the little boy who arrived to play golf as they were leaving. Did God dump on him just because he didn’t say a prayer?
It was an animated discussion, and Kathy was the next one to offer a personal testimony. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Kathy was nurtured in a mentality of asking God for specific needs, particularly money, which is a common need of college students. She was going through some tight financial times, and she prayed that God would provide $1,000. Only days later in the mail she received an envelope with a letter from the IRS and a bill for $1,000. “You mean a check,” Darlene interjected. “No, I mean a bill! ” Kathy insisted. “The IRS was claiming I owed $1,000!” For Kathy, it was like “a slap in the face,” and it led to a difficult time for her spiritually.
The conversation with my friends moved away from the table on to the sofa and easy chairs, while Darlene got out her well-worn Bible, and we talked for most of two hours about God, silence and prayer. We ended as four friends with four different perspectives—much as we had started—but we affirmed, each to a varying degree, that God does indeed answer prayer, though not necessarily immediately or audibly, and that he answers most often through secondary or ordinary means.
FILLING THE VOID
The setting for this book is a spherical rock orbiting a star in a small solar system on the edge of a rather nondescript galaxy—one of a hundred billion or so in an expanding universe. The date is fifteen billion years— give or take a few billion—after the big bang.
In Repetition, Sřren Kierkegaard’s hero laments:
One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted? . . . How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? . . . And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?
The incomprehensible size and distance of the universe combined with the transcendence of God easily causes a mere human to seem utterly insignificant. Science, with every passing day, pushes the edges of the universe—and God—further and further away. Why then doesn’t God break through and say something that will startle us and assure us, scientists and all, that he is really there?
Silence, particularly when it erupts where sound is supposed to be, is troubling. This can be most uncomfortable especially if God is involved. Indeed, the silence of God can be most disquieting. And in our current age, as the distance between the human and divine seems to expand with the universe so does the temptation to fill the space with noise and chatter. This craving for sound—sound of any kind—is natural. In a contemporary evangelical worship service, the audible (whether music, hand clapping, preaching or praying) greatly outweighs the silent (silent prayer, the moment of silence, the slight pauses between worship elements). And this craving for sound, for works, for noise has its counterpart in literature. In Baroque poetry, for example, one finds “a great flood of metaphors and symbols” in a grasping attempt “to keep open the avenues of communication between man and God.” (How different was the more spiritually secure poetry of the high Renaissance in which “God is both transcendent and immanent.”) But in the end it failed. Baroque art represented the same expression of separation from God—expressions that sought to fill vacuous religiosity with the wordiness of God.
There is a similar spirituality today, perhaps aggravated by the Hubble telescope phenomenon. That piece of technology is truly one of the great marvels of this generation. But it frustrates as much as it fascinates. It captured the headlines during Earth’s close encounter with Mars—coming closer than it has in many thousands of years. And Hubble’s cameras snapped it all. But more than mapping Mars, Hubble documents deepspace distance before our very eyes. So much so that we have become anesthetized to the fact that out there,/i> are billions and billions and billions— of space, nothingness, chaos, destruction. One space story recently reported that big galaxies are gobbling smaller ones. How insignificant we are in comparison. Despite Carl Sagan’s enthusiastic sense of discovery that made it all sound reasonable, it is too much to grasp. A numbness sets in. We are forced to comprehend what is incomprehensible.
Is it possible that we are filling our own sense of silence and void with a projected wordiness of God? There are countless books and tapes and seminars on hearing God’s voice, listening to God and having two-way conversations in prayer. Are these indicative of a collective craving for special words and messages—messages transmitted randomly to people in their prayer closets or driving home from work?
Is there perhaps another perspective: one that offers a deeper comprehension and confidence in God than those that are dependent on subjective and individualized testimonials of divine intervention and communication?
EMBRACING GOD’S SILENCE
The uniqueness of this book is its celebration of God’s silence, or if not that, at least a sense of security in God’s silence. Much has been written on the silence of God, but most often with a sigh of resignation—as though the silence is something that we endure. Here I maintain that silence is better than speaking if for no other reason than the fact that silence is far less open to misinterpretation and disagreement than is the spoken word. When God is silent, no one can claim to be God’s spokesperson and interpret for God. We too must be silent, and that’s not all bad.
Most people regard God’s silence as though it were the silent treatment. It is not. It is surely no sign of passive-aggressive behavior. God’s silence is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Silence is an attribute —or an attitude —of God, and for that reason, even as I worship God, I acknowledge God’s silence. I not only acknowledge God’s silence, but I also cultivate my own spiritual journey in light of it. I take God’s silence seriously, but at the same time I am often amused and even humored by this silent One who has far more than our little solar system in his hands.
Another important aspect of this book is its focus on two genres of writing that are rarely brought together in the same context. I refer to them separately as the literature of listening and literature of lament. The former includes the mystics throughout the ages, but I focus primarily on contemporary evangelicals who speak and write about a talkative God. The latter are more likely mainline Protestants and Catholics whose lament over God’s absence and silence is sometimes related to personal sorrow. This literature, though often from a different perspective than mine, has provided substance and support for some of my tenuous conclusions.
This book affirms three primary propositions that emerge repeatedly. The first is that apparent experiences of interactive supernatural communication with God should not be perceived as a higher way or deeper spirituality. Those who do not testify to such intimate conversations with God are often made to feel as though they are lesser Christians—ones who are missing out on a higher level of spirituality that is available simply for the asking. Unlike some religions, Christianity does not promote the concept of tiers of spirituality that afford those on the highest level a unique capability to converse with God.
The second proposition is that there are negative side effects to this sort of interactive personalized spirituality. Such a spiritual perspective too easily humanizes God, whose voice often begins to sound very much like our own. It fails to recognize our own subjectivity and self-absorption. It tends to focus more on the individual than on God—or on the community. It easily lends itself to spiritual abuse (as in “I prayed about this decision”; therefore, it’s right). And it opens itself to elitism—a favored friendship with God (as is true in everyday name-dropping, when people reference their familiarity with the rich and famous).
The third proposition that repeatedly emerges is that there is a timetested, biblical “middle way” that affirms neither a garrulous God nor a distant deity. It recognizes God’s sovereignty in the universe whose distance and absence is ameliorated by the incarnate Christ, who lived and walked among us, was crucified, died and rose from the grave, leaving behind the Spirit who guides us in all truth, the very Word of God—the silent Word of God. This recognition of God’s silence should not be seen as a step backward, a move toward liberalism or worldliness. Indeed, I will argue that the talkative God of today is a second-rate version of the trinitarian God, who as Father spoke in times past, who as Son incarnate lived among us, and who as Spirit inspired and illumines the Scriptures, the silent Word of God.
I have no doubt that this volume is potentially controversial. Not so much because it challenges cherished beliefs, but far more so because it challenges cherished beliefs on matters of spirituality—such things as prayer and listening to God and God’s speaking to us. The field of spiritual formation is one of the most rapidly expanding disciplines in theological education today. But very little is written to stir discussion and debate, except for some rare books like Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality. The subject of spirituality is imbued with a sacred quality, and criticism is out of line.
The first chapters focus on the perceived voice of God in the public realm, in the church (institutional and otherwise) and in the apologetical defense of the faith. Chapter four examines what Scripture says about the silence of God as well as Scripture as the voice of God. The following three chapters focus on the will of God, learning to listen to God and private two-way prayer. Chapter eight tackles the matter of anger, lament and the hopeless sense of absence; chapter nine examines the incarnation, and the final chapter seeks to show how the Christian can find solace and security in God’s silence.
The scope of the volume is much broader than merely God-talk or God-silence. Indeed, my primary focus is on humans, not God. The book strikes a cautionary tone in the subtitle: “Don’t be too sure about hearing the voice of God; God often resides and responds in silence.” As such, the subject is wide-ranging, from matters of prayer and miracles to politics and apologetics, with biblical and theological reflections.
In researching this topic I have spent many hours on the Internet. One site particularly intrigued me. The subtitle was “Hearing the Voice of God at Wal-Mart.” I clicked on, thinking I had found a testimonial that might be the missing clue to this mystery. Alas, all I found was how to buy a book titled Hearing the Voice of God—at Wal-Mart. Websites abound on the matter of the silence of God, but even more common are websites featuring special messages from God and how to hear the voice of God. What is rarely found on websites or in books is patient acceptance of God’s silence.
As one who has never heard the voice of God as a direct form of communication, I take solace in the silence of God. I embrace the Bible as God’s special revelation, and from the Bible I draw comfort, guidance and principles for living. But for many people that is not enough. God’s message, in order to be personal, must be more than what is written on the pages of Scripture.
In affirming God’s silence I do not mean to, in any sense, dismiss God’s presence. The presence of God is more mysterious than the speaking of God. God’s presence adds nothing to Scripture that has not already been spoken, and when it is truly felt it is not something easily put into words. Nevertheless, God’s presence is most often understood in stories.
My friend and former student, Sharon Bytwerk, told such a story in a recent chapel service. Eight years ago, she and her husband were hosting a Calvin College semester-abroad program. Their two children, David in tenth grade and Kate in seventh, had come with them. One weekend they went hiking in a mountainous region in Slovakia. It was there on a foggy morning that Kate, who had gone out for a short walk, disappeared. After three hours of searching, a call came that she had fallen and had been found, still conscious, by some Czech hikers who transported her to a hospital. When Sharon and Randy arrived, they were told she was sleeping—a condition perhaps brought on by sedatives. The next morning she awakened and recognized them, but by afternoon she had slipped into a coma from which she never awoke.
By evening, when Randy was on the phone to the embassy, I found myself getting up and going to the bathroom-cleaning closet. . . . I had to battle with God. I was desperate. . . . I would wrestle with God, and just as Jacob got his blessing, I would get Kate. . . . I tantrumed like a two-year-old on that bathroom floor. Pounding my fist. . . . In the midst of that I had the experience of Kate’s voice, “Mom, can I go?” I also had the phrase, “Let God be God.” Both phrases bumping in my head. I wanted to yell NO. You don’t know! And immediately I thought of the Father giving up his Son for me. I knew. I was being called to open my fist. And I did. I went back to Kate’s room. It was the hardest and easiest thing I have ever done. Everything was the same, and everything was very different. Kate still lay in a coma. I told her, “Honey, if God says you can go, you go. And have fun. We’re going to let God call the shots. . . . But if Jesus says you can come back I would like to have you come back.” . . . That was all. And the peace that flooded me is beyond all understanding. As I sat at her bedside I began to sing, one of the songs was “Beautiful Savior.” Kate died.
Six months later, we were back in the States, one night anger welled up in me. It was—not fair. It was God’s fault Kate died, and I didn’t want him as my God anymore. I went up to our bedroom. I told him what I had decided. . . . Within seconds, I was terrified. I had lived six months without Kate, but I couldn’t live one second without God. I begged him to forgive me. I begged and repented over and over. And again I felt his arms around me. That bitter anger has not returned. Since Kate’s death, he has become so real. He is more important to me than life.
Sharon’s is a story of God’s presence. It stands alone—and yet it speaks to everyone who searches for God. This is not a heartwarming story of God telling me which detour to take so that I don’t miss my appointment. No this is a story of real presence that has no explanation apart from the profound and mysterious love of God.
This book comes from one who is on a spiritual pilgrimage, seeking to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Though I feel safe in the silence of God, I am in another sense searching for God—surely I am not one who knows and then passes along all the answers. The words of Parker Palmer are mine:
It is a mistake to imagine that writers are experts on the things they write about—at least, it is a mistake in my case! I write about things I am still wrestling with, things that are important to me but that I have not yet figured out. . . . I write to explore vexing questions and real dilemmas, to take myself into territories I have never seen before in hopes of understanding myself and the world a bit better.