God’s Surprising Silence
By Frank M. Hasel
I am glad God is alive. Because He lives, He relates to us in unexpected ways.
The words of Scripture can be full of surprises. Sometimes the thoughts God reveals to us in the Bible are challenging to our understanding because there is more in God’s Word that needs to be explored—and obeyed. There is infinitely more to God’s nature than we human beings can comprehend.
But sometimes it is not the words of Scripture that pose a challenge to our faith. It is God’s silence that seems most startling. In fact, God’s silence often is more baffling to His followers than are His words. It seems that with God we encounter a certain paradox: In Scripture He is revealed as the logos, the Word.
In fact the first lines of the Bible introduce the Creator of this world as the living God who speaks. Through His almighty and life-giving word, this world is created in perfect order and harmony. Human beings came into existence through His word. God is a master of words, the creator of language and speech, and He communicates with the first human beings from eye to eye and mouth to mouth. Throughout Scripture God is depicted as a person who speaks, who communicates, and who reveals His will to human beings. Speaking is one of the distinguishing marks that He is a personal God and no mere force or impersonal power.
Yet there are times when God relates to us in silence. As strange as it might sound, even His silence is a sign of God’s personal dimension. He is free to speak, and He is free to withhold His word. His silence is an expression of His personal sovereignty and freedom. We have to admit, however, that when we wait for an answer from God and experience only silence, it is hard to endure. God’s silence can be more challenging to us than what He says. Even biblical writers knew about this painful experience.
Perhaps no one has encountered God’s surprising silence more intensely than John the Baptist. He was recognized as being “‘more than a prophet’” (Luke 7:26).1 Jesus knew him well and described him by saying that “‘among those born of women, there is no one greater than John’” (vs. 28). Jesus was very close to him; in fact, He was the cousin of John the Baptist.
Other people recognized the remarkable character of John the Baptist as well. In Mark 6:20, Herod, who did not have a reputation for piety or nobility, described John as “a righteous and holy man.”
John the Baptist had the rare ability to speak about God’s things in such a way that people from outside his peer group and from different social standings had an open ear for him. Even Herod, who dressed himself very differently from John, who lived a lavish life and was a man of power and wealth “used to enjoy listening to him” (vs. 20).
John prepared the way for the Messiah. He magnified Jesus. He was a man who followed God’s will, fulfilling God’s plan, preaching the gospel to the people. He was unflinching, courageous, and bold. He dared to address sensitive issues with clarity and tact. But even the best of the best suffer under human injustice and wickedness. John the Baptist had done nothing wrong. He was obedient to God. He was a pious man. Yet he was imprisoned.
If this injustice is troubling to us, just imagine what this unfair treatment must have meant for John. He was locked up in prison by Herod. Restrained in this uncomfortable dungeon, he was deprived of all the comforts of life. He was alone, eagerly awaiting his release. He wanted to take up his work for God again. Would he not be of much better use to God proclaiming the good news than sitting isolated in a prison cell? He wanted to be a preacher rather than a prisoner.
While he was confined to a small, rotten, depressing prison cell, doubts grew in his mind. Would Jesus forget him? Was Jesus indeed the Messiah, whom he had preached about? Would He deliver him and send help? After all, they were family.
The silence of God can be deafening. It can lead you to question God’s calling. It can lead you to question God’s goodness and mercy. For John, the dark clouds of doubts intensified with every hour, grew thicker every day, during every week he waited.
We all know the feeling of uncertainty from time to time. For John, it must have been almost overwhelming. He was longing for an answer from God. He ached for an answer. And all he heard was—silence. He was not permitted to see the results of his own labor. It was not his privilege to be with Christ and to witness His marvelous miracles of healing and divine power. He did not see the blind restored to sight or the sick healed, nor did he see the dead rise to live again. The least disciple who saw Christ’s mighty works and heard His words of comfort was more privileged than John the Baptist.
No wonder John sent his disciples to find out from Jesus whether He indeed was the Messiah. Jesus would have gladly come to John to brighten his dungeon gloom with His presence.2 Ellen White points out that Jesus did not interpose to deliver John because He knew that John would bear the test. “Though no miraculous deliverance was granted John, he was not forsaken. He had always the companionship of heavenly angels, who opened to him the prophecies concerning Christ, and the precious promises of Scripture. These were his stay, as they were to be the stay of God's people through the coming ages.”3
One day, however, John’s prison door swung open at an unusual hour. He was summoned to leave his cell. Hope must have rushed through his mind. Would this be his long- awaited release? Indeed it was. But not as he had hoped. It did not take long for John to realize that his leaving his prison cell was not a walk into freedom but a walk to his final execution. The silence of God gave way to the silence of John. His voice of proclamation would never be heard again. There was no miraculous intervention, no divine word that brought deliverance or set him free. His story does not have a happy end. The very best of men was killed by the most evil.
Yet his testimony of faith did not die. While our limited human mind cannot penetrate this dark mystery of providence, there is something that we can learn from this man of God. In John 10:41 a remarkable word is recorded about the life of John the Baptist: “‘While John performed no sign, yet everything John said about this man was true.’” Indeed, John never performed a miracle. He never healed the sick. He never calmed the storm. He never cast out demons. He never fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish. This was not part of his curriculum vitae. Yet, everything he said about Jesus was true! As a result, “many believed in Him there” (vs. 42).
May we learn from John the Baptist, that “of all the gifts that Heaven can bestow upon men, fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is the most weighty trust and the highest honor.”4 And may it be said of us that everything we say about Jesus is true.
Frank M. Hasel, Ph.D, originally from Germany, serves as an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference. His best-selling book Longing for God: A Prayer and Bible Journal, can be obtained by clicking here! This article was originally published in Perspective Digest, a publication of the Adventist Theological Society, and is being reprinted with permission.
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NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. All Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New American Standard Bible.
2. The Desire of Ages, p. 224.
4. Ibid., p. 225.