When God is Silent
Updated: Sep 9
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?" (Psalm 22:1).
Sometimes God is silent. I can’t sense His Presence with me at all. I feel like I’m doing life on my own. But has God really stepped back and left me to myself?
Others have complained of feeling this same way too. If you love God and want to please Him, it’s a terrible feeling.
Is He absent? I’ve wondered.
When God isn’t “there,” I begin to question whether it’s because I’ve done something wrong, or if I’m maybe headed in the wrong direction by making a poor choice.
Sometimes it’s true. I’ve chosen something that isn’t fitting, or my timing is off, and nothing is working as it should. The only remedy is to confess this and either wait until the time is right or unmake that choice as much as I can.
Sometimes I’ve been doing something I know I shouldn’t, or I haven’t been doing something I know I should. As soon as I acknowledge it to God (and anyone else who’s involved) and become remorseful enough that I apologize, make things right or start a course correction, I stop feeling distant from God. The truth is, in these instances, God didn’t go away from me. I moved away from Him.
Even great people—people who have been known for their devotion to God—have undergone something like this. For example, King David, when confronted by the Lord through the prophet Nathan because of his sin with Bathsheba, prayed to God, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11).
He had seen King Saul seemingly abandoned by God because Saul had forsaken God, to go his own way instead. David had played the harp for Saul to soothe his tormented spirit. David had been the object of Saul’s irrational jealousy and wrath. David didn’t want to be like Saul in losing God’s Spirit and being harassed by demons. David was filled with contrition. Above all, he loved the Lord and didn’t want to lose the Lord’s Spirit or Presence being with him.
David also expressed this another way:
Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night [LORD]
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the Lord’s unfailing love
surrounds the one who trusts in him. (Ps. 32:1-5, 7, 10).
Being in the Lord’s Presence, surrounded by the Lord’s unfailing love is the most beautiful place in heaven or on earth to be. There is nowhere better.
That’s why the idea of being away from the Lord was so devastating to David, as it is for me, and for other believers who have come to know the Lord and who have enjoyed His Presence for any substantial amount of time.
Yet, still, what about those times when the Lord seems distant, but there is no solid conviction for misdirection, impatience, wrongdoing, or negligence? When there’s seemingly no finding God, no matter what you do?
Why does God allow anyone to feel or be forsaken?
King David, even while professing God would answer him, also prayed,
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
God my Savior (Ps. 27:8-9).
When David was filled with doubt because of ill-treatment by others or because of infirmity or old age he prayed (and sang) these prayers:
Do not cast me away when I am old;
do not forsake me when my strength is gone.
Even when I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come (Ps. 71:9, 18).
The Lord will vindicate me;
your love, Lord, endures forever—
do not abandon the works of your hands (Ps. 138:8).
Some years after I met Jesus and became a “born-again” Christian, I went through a desert time in my life—for years. I didn’t understand why God wasn’t “hanging out” with me anymore.
Finally, a friend of mine taught me a very, very important truth. I had been relying on my feelings, my physical or material senses, and my own understanding to decide whether God was with me or not. I needed to be relying on God and His word and integrity instead.
Sure enough, despite my being unable to sense or feel God’s presence with me, as I looked back on the years that I believed God had not been with me, I could see in truth (undoubtedly) He had been there and at work in my life that whole time.
Curiously, after I stopped relying on my feelings, but simply believed God, that He would never leave me nor forsake me, I was able to sense His presence with me again!
Moses reminded Joshua:
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of [those who will oppose you], for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you ... Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deut. 31:6, 8).
And the Lord affirmed it again: “No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
David, in conversation with the Lord, declared: “Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you” (Ps. 9:10).
King David also blessed and prayed for his son Solomon with these words:
“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.
Then Solomon, too, blessed and prayed over the Israelite people: “May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us” (1 Kings 8:57).
Later, Jesus Himself promised:
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-17).
Jesus taught His disciples this is how He would continue to be with each of them and with all the believers—those who, believing Him, seek to keep His commands with His help—always.
Periods of sin or insensibility on my part are not the only times God seems aloof. I believe there are times God IS silent, only because He has spoken or given an answer and I haven’t been listening very well or at all. I might be wanting, seeking, or expecting God to show Himself to me or answer in a specific way—while He may have something else in mind altogether. He may be trying to lead me in a new direction, but I’m stubbornly (un-submissively) holding on to my own way or what’s familiar. Or, I may have ignored, dismissed, or failed to keep in mind something He’s already shown or given me.
One day when my husband and I were in the middle of building a home (we were the general contractors), it was feeling like an impossible task. It truly seemed like we were alone and like we were never going to be able to complete this monstrous, overwhelming project. The thought came to me, Why would God give us more help when we’re not doing what we can? I remembered one of the first principles of faith: “Is there something you can do (that God’s already given you; that’s within your power to do)? Take that step in faith; the rest will follow.”
I started cleaning up the job site. My husband asked me what I was doing. I told him I was preparing the site so it would be ready when God moved people’s hearts to come and help us. Not long afterward, friends, who said they were moved by God to come, drove up to our house to help. When they showed up, Bruce and they were able to do the things requiring more strength than he and I could do alone.
Elisabeth Elliot, in her book, Suffering Is Never for Nothing, shares the following:
Do the next thing. I don’t know of any simpler formula for peace, for relief from stress and anxiety than that very practical, very down-to-earth word of wisdom. Do the next thing. That has gotten me through more agonies than anything else I could recommend.
Then, there’s also the chance I’ve prayed for patience, and the Lord is giving me the opportunity to learn and practice it (and it’s hard, and I’ve forgotten my prayer for patience). Or maybe I’ve been especially greedy, or jealous, or stubborn (or you name it) of late and the Lord is working in me to humble, soften, and turn me. He cares far more about a person’s character and eternal soul than He cares for anyone’s temporary, earthly comfort or convenience.
Am I hitting a wall (or the ceiling) with my prayers because I’m praying against the work God’s doing in me or someone else? or against an answer He’s giving me to previous prayers or someone else’s prayers for me?
When I’m truly letting God, with His Help through Jesus, be the Lord of my life—in answer to my prayers and heart’s desire—I have to let go of the steering wheel, the horse’s reins, the desire to control, and “let God” do what He will. I must show my trust in God through whole-hearted surrender. Like David I might pray (or sing):
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel [believers], put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore (Ps. 131:1-2).
Or as King Solomon advised, I might remember to:
Trust in the Lord with all [my] heart
and lean not on [my] own understanding;
in all [my] ways submit to him,
and he will make [my] paths straight.
Do not be wise in [my] own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to [my] body [mind and heart]
and nourishment to [my] bones [spirit and soul] (Prov. 3:5-8).
Still, there are times, it seems, when God, in a sense, steps back and, for whatever reason, leaves people to make choices “on their own” without His direct influence. By this means, He and the person being tested, witness what’s truly in that person’s heart. Think Job, King Hezikiah, ..., and Jesus.
Even Jesus, who was sinless, who did God’s will always (with perfect timing), experienced what was or seemed like God’s abandonment. And it was at His worst moment—as an innocent man, literally carrying the sins and evil of the world on His shoulders; freshly betrayed by someone in His inner circle; slandered and falsely accused by the Jewish leaders; recently beaten, scourged, and flayed within an inch of His life; sorely bruised and bloody, stripped naked, hanging in excruciating pain by nails in His hands and arms to a rough, splintery wooden cross. Where to breathe in what little air He could (while His lungs were filling with fluids), He had to push His body up on feet also nailed to the cross. It was then after hours in soul-penetrating agony, while slumping and raising Himself again and again for breath, in His darkest hour, that He “cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” (Matt. 27:46), fulfilling David’s foreshadowing words and situation in Psalm twenty-two.
In whatever way Jesus was forsaken by God, He still chose to take our sins on Himself—to forgive all who would believe and repent of (or turn from) their sins to follow God. And in our place, He descended to hell (being separated from God) and allowed death to take Him, so we wouldn’t have to suffer these things forever (unless we so choose). His heart was one with His Father’s (God’s).
Sometimes, God needs us to look in the mirror and see ourselves, for better or for worse. Is my commitment to God and His ways real? What is my choice when things aren’t going my way or like I think they should? When I am in great pain or flooded with grief, do I still trust God? Do I still believe He’s good? Or do I have a fair-weather, self-dependent kind of commitment?
For Jesus, the reflection was glorifying. For me, these glimpses are usually very humbling. However, I’m also assured by God’s Spirit, through Jesus, I still have hope. As long as a person is alive, there’s hope for him or her through Jesus.
Speaking of this hope, some of the hardest times of enduring God’s hidden or quiet workings are those intervals involving people I love. There are times God seems not to be “there” or working because someone else chooses to be distant relationally or spiritually. I cannot (nor can you) make other people’s choices for them, and God will not force anyone to love or choose Him or to do right.
Just before the Babylonian conquest of Judah and Jerusalem (the last remaining Israelite territory at the time), the Israelites refused to acknowledge sin among themselves and repent or turn back to the Lord. They would not seek His help; instead, they turned to idols, superstitions, child sacrifice, and other evils against God, each other, and themselves. Jeremiah still reflected and prayed:
Why [LORD] are you like a man taken by surprise,
like a warrior powerless to save?
You are among us, Lord,
and we bear your name;
do not forsake us! (Jer. 14:9).
Jeremiah knew the people weren’t repentant. He knew they had drawn away from God, so God wasn’t (by their choice) answering any of his prayers for them. Yet Jeremiah couldn’t help how he felt, and he expressed it. Knowing why didn’t help him feel any less grief or pain while his people were God-forsaken. (The apostle Paul expressed similar distress over the unbelieving Jews. See “Romans” 9:1-5.)
In such circumstances, when loved ones have rejected or strayed from God, all I can do is hope and pray, and wait, trusting God is working—even when I can’t see any evidence of it. Waiting on another person to have a change of mind and heart is an indefinite endeavor. There must be non-compulsory cooperation on their part, which may soon, late, or never happen. Yet, again, as long as a person is alive, since God is ever at work in answer to prayer, there is hope.
Whatever the reason, when God seems absent and I feel particularly blind to His goodness or His presence, or especially poor and needy in spirit, I try to remember words like these from the Lord to all of us, including me, through His faithful servant and prophet, Isaiah:
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them (Isa. 42:16).
The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them (Isa. 41:17).
Then, finally, words through David, a fallible human being but also a man after God’s own heart:
I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
The Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones” (Ps. 37:25, 28a).