Listening to the voice of Silence

By Philip S. Powell 30 Jun 2017

Photo: Kerry Brown, © Paramount - Courtesy Everett Collection

Recently I watched Martin Scorsese’s film Silence, an adaptation of Japanese writer Shusaku Endo's book ‘Silence’ (1966). I had read Endo’s book a few years back and was eagerly waiting to watch the film on big screen. Nothing prepared me for what I experienced as I watched this devastatingly powerful film.

Silence is a tale about the work of Catholic missionaries in 17th-century Japan and the suffering of ‘hidden Christians’ who faced brutal repression as the Emperor sought to wipe Japan clean of any foreign religious presence. The movie is slow-moving with beautiful imagery and deals with questions about doubt, apostasy and the absence of God in the face of unjust suffering.

Watching this film has made me think a lot about silence. What is silence? Can silence - and especially God’s silence - ever be something positive?

Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972), and it is clear from the title that God is active in the world and he speaks his words to us. Christianity is about hearing God’s voice, not wallowing in silence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer facing the terror of Nazism wrote, ‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.’ A few years later, Martin Luther King preached in a message, 'History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.’

For sure, I don’t want to condone the cowardice of silence in the face of evil. What mattered to me the most in my activist evangelical Christianity was speaking up and speaking the truth boldly. Silence was understood as a weak, negative thing. God’s silence made no sense and had to be explained away. If God is silent and prayers were unanswered, it had to be because there was some hidden sin in my life.

All this means there can be nothing good about silence, making it almost impossible for Christians to listen to the voice of silence. But what are we missing out? Is it possible that without giving silence its proper place, we become victims of the dictatorship of noise? Soon words become empty and meaningless, used to avoid or escape the mystery of silence.

Learning to practice silence is a difficult challenge. Learning to be still does not come naturally to us. Our mind is constantly dealing with the pressures and anxieties of life that stubbornly weigh on us. We turn to entertainment and distractions to cope with life and to avoid silence. And yet there is something very special about silence. It can be a gift to God and to others. When we learn to be silent we become better at really listening to what others are saying to us. When we learn to be silent in God’s presence we can receive more fully what God wants to give us.

The sixteenth century Christian mystic John of the Cross once wrote, ’Silence is God’s first language.’ I am not sure if I fully agree with this but it does point to the fact that there are times in our Christian life when we will experience God’s silence. During these times we could feel very tempted to rebel against the deafness of God; ‘Where is God and why is he silent?’ Instead of trying to fill the silence with empty words and distracting noise, we must be open and willing to receive God’s blessings to us hidden inside the silence. This is a bit different from what Schaeffer wrote. I believe, ‘God can be there for us, fully present and still remain silent’. This is not an easy lesson to learn. Sometimes we can experience God’s reality more powerfully in our lives in the midst of his silence. His deepest work of transformation in our souls might actually happen best in that dark place of silence.

Silence does mean the absence of noise and audible words, but it does not mean the absence of communication or relationship. Listening to the voice of silence can be painful and costly but also it can lead us further along the path of Christian maturity into intimacy with God.

‘Be still and know that I am God’ Psalm 46:10

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