My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
from Psalm 42
Some nights the silence from heaven is so heavy that you feel like you’re breaking under its weight.
I’ve had nights where God’s silence was so impenetrable that I screamed into my pillow, and the next morning my voice was a croak and I had to nurse my existential sore throat with honey and hot tea and wonder if I was just, well, being dramatic.
Of course I was being dramatic. But in the silence, there is also a longing for drama, because any audible or visible suffering is better than the dragging on, meaningless silence that doesn’t care if you lie all day in bed watching TV, or if you punch the wall and your pillow, or drive mindlessly at 3AM filled with angry helplessness.
I can do all kinds of scary leaps of faith as long as I feel like God is there. I live for terrifying hell or high water moments, because those moments always carry a tremendous intimacy with God. I would always choose risky decisions with Jesus in the front of the car bellowing with glee “hold on Laura Jean this one is gonna be a WILD ONE” over the empty hopeless nights, where every day seems to take unimaginable amounts of courage just to keep breathing. And while we pour out our courage just to hang in there one more day, there is no God.
I’ll take the leap of faith into the dangerous wilderness over the trudge of faithfulness under the silence of God any day. I’m very good at following God out of Egypt. I’m terrible at desert wandering. Especially the wandering under the impassable silence of the God who we thought loved us.
The Jesuits, founded by St. Ignatius, have a practice of imaginative prayer – utilizing our imaginations to put ourselves viscerally in the Gospel texts. What did the Anna feel when she held the baby Jesus for the first time after decades of waiting in the temple? What did the man born blind think when Jesus asked him “what do you want me to do for you?” What did the street smell like when the father who was also a Roman centurion barrelled around a corner looking for the Jewish rabbi, the one who was rumored to be a healer? What color was the sky on the day that John stood under the cross watching his best friend die?
What does it feel like? What do you see?
Banging on the closed door of heaven with our tears and screams, it’s easy to imagine that God is stoically refusing to answer and ignoring us. This God is cold, firm, and harsh. This God is sitting with a rigid spine in fancy clothes, “doing this for our own good,” or possibly punishing us. Maybe He is angry. At the very least, He’s impassive. And He is certainly sitting on a throne.
But if Jesus is the closest we will ever come to seeing God, than this dispassionate God is not only untrue but an idol. This version of God is a false god, because this God doesn’t look anything like Jesus.
Jesus is not sitting rigid on a throne while our dark night screams echo in empty palace hallways.
Jesus is curled up on the other side of the door, crying and crying and crying with us.
Every time I slam my fist on the relentlessly immovable door, the vibrations go right through to our God who is sitting on the other side. And our God weeps with us.
I don’t have a “theology of silence.” (Unless you count watching the Scorsese film Silence several times a year, in which case my theology is r o b u s t). I’m wading into tricky territory. If any of these words make your experience of silence more painful, please, leave these words behind.
I do know that I don’t think that God purposefully removes Godself form our lives to “teach us a lesson.” That seems to be unbiblical and terrible theology (again, my theology around this is existential, and not systemic).
Those seasons of spiritual silence in my life, however, have created spiritual and emotional resilience that I couldn’t have learned another way. I’ve emerged with more skills to survive darkness, with richer empathy, with a more careful way of loving my neighbor. After after walking by faith and not by sight for so many nights, I have a better sense of the spiritual terrain under my feet.
There is no way to learn to love our neighbor, learn spiritual resilience, grow in the fruits of the Spirit, and have a heart for the suffering of the world unless we gather skills and work spiritual muscles that only come from repeated movement forward in the dark, on the wilderness path when we feel that the Light of God has been removed from us for good. We learn so much about how to be human, and to be human for the good of the world, in those desert wilderness places, between the highs of booking it out of plague-ridden Egypt in the dead of night, and setting down our bags in a new, safe home country.
It’s hard to know how to hold these two ideas: that learning to survive silence makes us more empathetic, more resilient, more kind; and that God does not send, or enforce, or create, that lonely silence. Who is to say how this is to be parsed. Not me, for sure.
What I do believe, though, what I would stake my life on, is that while we suffering through the dark nights of silence, God is crying with us.
When we scream “Jesus Christ where are you,” Jesus isn’t standing impassive on the other side of that impossibly thick door, refusing to comfort us, unmoved by how much it hurts. On the other side of the door, God weeps.
If you’re counting down the days until the door of heaven swings open and you feel Her with you again, let me speak over you, Beloved, that God is counting down those days, too.
Imagination is so powerful, and the church has not helped our imaginations by selling us a God that is inhuman and distant, a God who is removed from the human Jesus who cried and laughed and suffered and felt abandoned, too.
I don’t always know if believing this is enough. I don’t. But when I’m in silence, I pray the Psalms of Lament along with Jesus, who also prayed a psalm of lament on the day that He found Himself on the other side of the impenetrable door of heaven – My God! my God! why have you forsaken me?!
When we cry against the door, He remembers what it feels like. And He aches for our silence to end, too.
For everyone who is worn out from weeping,
For everyone who feels like the silence is too heavy for them to bear,
For everyone who is scared that they’ll never see Your face in the land of the living,
Be our God who knows,
Be our God who has felt this, too,
Be our God who has been abandoned,
Be our God who weeps with us.