My friend Ginny’s mother lay dying, and I spent the night at the hospital with my friend so she would not have to bear the news alone when the time came. The patient groaned unintelligible words, and Ginny figured out she was asking for coffee. We spooned some into her mouth and Ginny joked that, even in death, her mom had her priorities straight.
Later, the grieving daughter and I lay faces-up in the dark on two extra beds, marking the hours by talking. She had doubts, she said. She believed, but she didn’t believe.
Her husband’s uncle chaired the deacon board at a little Southern Baptist church we attended, and years earlier he had placed his hands on many children in ways he shouldn’t. A fellow deacon had run his hands up Ginny’s leg, his action hidden by the cover of a Sunday school table, as he sat next to her—a timid child brought in on the bus ministry. Her dad had died young, and the leaders tended to prey on those without advocates.
Their hypocrisy made her wonder who told the truth. These same people spoke weekly of Jesus’ love. Had they lied about that too?
My late coauthor, an ob-gyn, had taken the senior pastorate of that church part-time when he finished seminary. Soon after that, open-heart surgery had put an end to his late-night baby-delivery runs, and he’d assumed the pastorate full-time. Continuing-education courses focused on abuse, combined with his years of medical training, had sharpened his senses for injustices committed against women. So when some of the abused realized he was “safe”—that he never minimized the evil done to women—they told their friends. And more victims, one by one, found the courage to show up in his office and tell their stories. Some had not darkened the doors of a church for years. Last I heard, they numbered twenty-four.
In that same office, Ginny had found the courage to be honest. She took her introverted self into this room with the desk and comfortable couch and kind eyes, and she pointed to the doctor-pastor’s thick Bible. “I’m not sure I believe a word of that,” she declared. She expected rebuke and threats that God would strike her dead.
But he surprised her. “That’s honest. It’s a start,” Dr. Bill said in a voice schooled to offer vocal anesthesia. “Perhaps we could read it together and we could find just one thing you believe. And we could build on that.”
Thus their spiritual friendship began. Her husband accused her of having a crush on the pastor, but her love for him ran far deeper and holier than mere infatuation.
Before long, he handed her his copy of Devotional Classics, a compilation of works by men and women through the centuries who have contemplated the spiritual life of the Christian. “Take a pen,” Dr. Bill told Ginny. “And mark every place you find these people expressing or wrestling with doubt.”
In the dim light that seemed to welcome the sharing of secrets, she looked over at me from her bed. “I ended up taking it back to him soon after that. I saw no point in underlining every page.”
I thought of a seminary professor I’d seen on Larry King Live. King had asked if he ever had doubts, and this scholar had insisted he never did. My heart had sunk. Was he telling the truth? Some of us lesser mortals often have to pray, “Help, thou, my unbelief.”
I felt a nudge, and realized I’d fallen asleep. The nurse whispered, “She’s gone.”
I looked over at the face of my friend’s mother, who was my friend too. It did not “feel” like she had been transported. One minute she was with us, the next her body lay lifeless. I had no “sense” that she was still alive in some other dimension in the presence of Jesus. The natural world seemed the only reality. Was it true? Did the dead in Christ live on?
Later, I read of a pastor who described himself as an atheist for a week. For an entire week, he went through the motions of pastoral care while doubting that a single word of what he said was true.
A fellow seminary professor, confiding in me his ongoing battle with existential doubts, shared a scene from Annie Dillard’s The Living as something that moved him. In it, a main character, Hugh Honer, and his beloved slip down to the pond at night. Using rungs nailed to an old fir tree, Hugh ascends to a platform high above the water. A thick rope swing invites him to plunge into the invisible void below. Hugh grabs it and launches out. And “as he swung through the air, trembling, he saw the blackness give way below, like a parting of clouds, to a deep patch of stars on the ground. It was the pond, he hoped, the hole in the woods reflecting the sky. He judged the instant and let go; he flung himself loose into the stars.”
A former student wrestled for years with the sense that if God was real, he had abandoned her. As she describes it, “God was silent. I could not feel His presence. And this was different—this time I had been walking with Him, yet it seemed like He moved.” She wrote, “I identified with Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations: ‘He has made me to dwell in darkness. . . . Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayers’” (Lamentations 3:6, 8).
She also found comfort in these words from Eugene Peterson: “All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves, but because we trust that God is sure of us. Neither our feelings of depression nor the facts of suffering nor the possibilities of defection are evidence that God has abandoned us.”
Review of Silence
Ginny’s pastor was, as I mentioned, my friend and coauthor before he died on his bike one July morning due to a cardiac event. He had walked my husband and me through multiple miscarriages, first as a doctor and later as a pastor. And after loss seven or eight, I felt God’s absence, his total and profound silence, for the first time in my life. Dr. Bill empathized, expressed surprise that this was the first time for me, and loaned me his copy of John of the Cross’s poem Dark Night of the Soul. In it the Spanish mystic tells of the path of purgation on the road to union with God. His description of the removal of spiritual consolations, much as I hated the experience of it, made me feel less alone.
I also found solace in the words of fiction writer Anne Rice, who was raised Roman Catholic and became an atheist before becoming “committed to Christ” as “an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God.” She said some atheists have doubts too. And for her, the question of how to account for unconditional love had proved too overwhelming to ignore.
Jesus remained absent when Lazarus died to later show himself the victor over death. And on the cross Jesus echoed David’s cry in the Father’s seeming absence: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David and Jesus both felt the absence of God.
The Lord promises never to leave us. But he does not promise we will always sense him there.
When we say it feels as if God has abandoned us, people make it worse when they say, “You must be the one who moved.” Because sometimes God is silent when we feel we most need him to speak, and it’s not necessarily because we did anything wrong. Sometimes he does not show up at the last minute to rescue us. Even Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego acknowledge he does not have to do so in order to remain the one true praiseworthy God (Daniel 3:18).
Job never received an explanation for all his trauma. All he got was a nature walk filled with more questions. He’s one of many examples demonstrating that faith requires trust when we encounter the unseen. That is why it’s called faith. We have a relationship with the Unseen, and, sometimes, we cannot see him. Indeed, sometimes all we can do is climb the trunk, grasp the rope, and fling ourselves, hoping against hope, into the stars.
Cover image by Tim Marshall.