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 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

“Is there any word from the Lord?” (Jeremiah 38:12)


How do we cope when God is silent?


In the last of these reflections, I would like to think about arguably the most significant of all biblical episodes of God’s silence.

In their gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion, Matthew and Mark recall the words Jesus spoke from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

The theologian Tim Stafford refers to an essay of C S Lewis “God in the Dock”, in which Lewis noted that former times took great interest in imagining humankind on trial before God. Nowadays, however, the tables are turned; people imagine God on trial, called to account for the terrible things that have happened. Where was God at Auschwitz? Or in the many tragedies that have followed – not least the pandemic? Stafford writes that “There, at Calvary, Jesus seemed to anticipate such cries. He knew what it meant to be completely alone, questioning the silent God at the moment of greatest pain”. Stafford writes that, from one point of view, Jesus’s cry was a “peculiarly [twenty-first] century accusation”. Those words from the Cross seem to speak powerfully to the experience of many.

But Stafford goes on to say that we need to remember that Jesus’s words were a quotation: the first verse of Psalm 22. It is true that Christians believe that, while divine, Jesus was a unique human person. But he was, equally, a man of tradition. The gospels show him as a man steeped in scripture. He grew up in a Bible-saturated culture. His people knew the psalms well, and believed they told the truth about their lives in a very real way. At his moment of greatest temptation, then as he launched his ministry, and at his death, as well as on many other occasions, Jesus quoted scripture. While suffering, he spoke to his Father in the words of Psalm 22.

I think we can be sure that Jesus’s choice of words was not arbitrary. He didn’t pick the words of the psalm out of the air because they happen to express what he was feeling. Importantly, Jesus wouldn’t merely have known the first verse of Psalm 22 which he quoted. He would have known the entire psalm so well, and he would have had the context of the whole psalm in mind when he quoted that verse.

We might well imagine its words turning through Jesus’s mind as he stood trial, as he heard the baseless testimony and felt the blows, and as he listened to the soldiers bicker over his clothes. He must have quoted Psalm 22 not only because it expressed what he was feeling, but because it described what was happening:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer,

by night, and am not silent…

All who seek me mock me;

they hurl insults, shaking their heads:

“He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him

since he delights in him.”

A band of evil men has encircled me,

they have pierced my hands and feet.

I can count all my bones;

people stare and gloat over me.

They divide my garments among them

and cast lots for my clothing.

[verses 1-2, 7-8, 16-18]

Through this psalm, Jesus was responding to suffering by falling back on the scripture he had learned, because he understood his experience as fulfilling scripture. The anguished cry he gave out of darkness were his words, quotation or not, and he was alone, deserted by God. But he expressed his agony in words that his suffering people had prayed for centuries. So, in that sense, Jesus’s words were also an expression of solidarity with the experience of God’s people. He belonged to a community with a tradition of righteous suffering. We are heirs of that tradition.

And that surely has important implications for our 21st-century Christian community life. Our culture is decidedly individualist; we are constantly led to believe that we stand or fall by our own efforts. But Jesus’s cry in solidarity with his community tells us that the church must be different. We are not a random collection of like-minded individuals; we are the Body of Christ. When we experience on our Christian journey the despair of God’s silence, and especially when in response our own words fail us, we are entitled to rely on all the resources of prayer and support that the Body can bring. Paul encouraged the Roman Christians to weep with those who weep, as well as to rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). We love our neighbour when we allow the experience of pain or despair to become the substance of our prayer.  A lonely experience becomes a community experience.

The first half of Psalm 22 see-saws between descriptions of a mob scene and desperate, unanswered cries for help. But then, without warning the psalm shifts from this picture of darkness to praise: beyond Jesus’s shout comes the end of the psalm: victory, deliverance, the reconciliation of the world:

Revere, all you descendants of Israel!

For he has not despised or disdained

the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

but has listened to his cry for help….

Future generations will be told about the Lord.

They will proclaim his righteousness

to a people yet unborn –

for he has done it.

[Verses 23-24; 30-31]

Last week we considered the story of Job. His experience, and now Jesus’s cry of anguish are both at the heart of the larger biblical picture. Living with God’s silence, Job eventually realises he has been asking the wrong question; God’s silence resolves in Job’s new understanding of God. Jesus’s cry of anguish at God’s silence resolves with the beginning of a whole new creation, ushered in by the resurrection.

So where does all this leave us? Let’s reflect again on Jesus’s words: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry holds together in an extraordinarily powerful way the expression of both a deep, personal relationship, and the darkness of deep despair. Tim Stafford wrote “Jesus’s example gives me permission to say…that if I feel deserted by God, I may tell him so. It is all right, after all, to pray the psalms with your heart, and thus it is all right for a Christian, in prayer, to despair”.

But we need to be assured, too, that the experience of Job, and Jesus’s words from the cross, point us towards the fact that as we live with the hard questions and ambiguities of life, we can have faith that God’s silence will resolve for us, but in ways, and at a time, and from a source that will probably be unexpected.

The theologian Tom Wright wrote these words at the beginning of the pandemic, but I think they speak to us more generally:

“It is no part of the Christian calling to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian calling not to be able to explain – and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become small shrines where the presence of healing love can dwell. And out of that can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness….new hope.”

In the first of these reflections, I quoted the words of C S Lewis. After the death of his wife he described the silence of God as “the sound of a door bolted and double bolted from the inside”. In the fullness of time he looked back: “You are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. [But] I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted”.

By addressing the experience of silence in scripture and in our own lives, we may be able to open up the possibility that silence is a sign of God’s presence rather than God’s absence; that his silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into.

Perhaps the last word should be with the prophet Zephaniah:

“The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you; he will be silent in his love.” (3:17a,b)