Bishop Mark Hanson: Faith Amid the Silence

God comes to us through the cross

Each year in December I participate in a three-day retreat with leaders of other U.S. church bodies. We are in silence for 24 hours of that time.

I have come to appreciate this time for prayer and reflection and this year meditated on the silence of God.

The Psalmist knew God's silence: "O Lord, do not be silent! O Lord, do not be far from me" (Psalm 35:22).

And again: "O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God" (Psalm 83:1).

In Matthew's account of the Canaanite woman's encounter with Jesus, we read that she cried for mercy for her daughter, "but he (Jesus) did not answer her at all" (Matthew 15:23). In a sermon on that story, German theologian Helmut Thielicke said, "The silence of God is the greatest test of our faith. We all know this" (The Silence of God, page 62; Oil Lamp Books, 2010).

I recall one of my seminary professors saying that one of the underlying questions of the Hebrew Scriptures is: how does a community keep faith in the face of God's seeming silence?

Faith is evidence of God speaking. We read in Romans: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (10:17). Faith is evidence of God speaking - not something we must find in the face of God's seeming silence. 

In my life, as in yours, there are times when God seems silent and my faith is tested. At those times, we especially need to be where the word of God is read and proclaimed and faith is professed.

As Martin Luther's meaning to the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed says: "I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith ...."

The words to the hymn, "O God, Why Are You Silent" (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 703), echo the psalmist's cry: "O God, why are you silent? I cannot hear your voice; the proud and strong and violent all claim you and rejoice; you promised you would hold me with tenderness and care. Draw near, O Love, enfold me, and ease the pain I bear."

God speaks to us through the faith passed on from generation to generation. Theologian Joseph Sittler wrote: "We stand in the continuity of the faith, not of its demonstrable certainty. What is demanded of me is no less an act of faith than was demanded of Peter, Paul or John. To be a Christian is to sail on perilous seas. We live by faith and it's never a "finished faith" (Gravity and Grace, page 24; Augsburg Fortress, 1986; out-of-print, available used from Amazon).

Sometimes I wonder if God is silent or if I miss God speaking. Are my expectations so low or my life so turned inward that I miss God's improvisational speech? Who could have imagined that God's word would become flesh in Jesus, born of Mary? Who could fathom a God who would endure the silence of the cross? 

Thielicke wrote: "The cross was God's greatest silence. Then the power of darkness was allowed to make its final bid against the son of God. ... Even when he was silent, God suffered with us. Even when we thought He did not care, or was dead, He knew all about us and behind the dark wings, He did His work of love. We live in the power of this Golgotha night of silence. Where would we be without the cross" (The Silence of God, pages 14-15)?

It is understandable that the angel's announcement in the face of death's silence brought disbelief: "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen" (Luke 24:5).

The crucified and risen Christ is God's word of forgiveness and love spoken to and for you and the whole creation. Do you hear the good news? God is not silent! It is so good we dare not keep silent!

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's column in The Lutheran magazine, February 2011 issue. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]