One of my earliest memories is of holding my mother’s hand on my first day of school. I was so nervous as I entered the classroom that I wouldn’t let go. The smoothness of her palm and the warmth of her fingers reassured me as my heart pounded in my chest. When I felt scared and alone, she was my lifeline and my security.
I was reminded of that day a few years ago as I sat in a dark room, once again holding my mother’s hand. The silence was deafening as I strained to hear the muted words coming from the dehydrated mouth of a woman whose body had been ravaged by cancer. This time my mother held on to my hand, seeking reassurance from its warmth in her time of distress. The comforter had become the comforted.
Those were heartbreaking days. One moment I was praying for a miraculous recovery, the next for the end to come quickly. Sometimes I gave in to uncontrollable tears, yet sometimes I felt
completely numb. I was also haunted by God’s conspicuous absence. What I would have given during those long, languishing hours for his still, small voice of calm.
I know I’m not alone in experiencing the silence of God. I’ve spoken to many people over the years who have shared my longing: youth devastated by a broken relationship, parents trying to deal with their child’s disability, couples desperate to conceive, a wife distraught over her husband’s infidelity, a woman whose innocent son was imprisoned.
All these people, confident in their faith as mature Christians, spoke of doubts about God that piled atop the struggles they were already facing. Why is it that in the times we need God most near, he seems most distant?
A Mute God?
When we read the Old Testament, we see a God who speaks to his people. The vocal God whom the Israelites worship is contrasted with the mute gods, made of wood and stone, of the surrounding nations. Habakkuk declares that all the earth must be silent and listen to the true God (2:18–20). Yet some of us may read his taunt to the idolaters and wonder whether our God, too, is a human fabrication. Many people testify to God drawing closer to them in times of distress, as he often does. But there are also times when the opposite is true. In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis put it strikingly:
But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. . . . Why is he so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
It may console us to know that experiences of God’s silence are common. Just because we don’t sense his presence doesn’t mean he isn’t actually present. During World War II, a Jew in hiding scrawled on a cellar wall: “I believe in the sun, even when it isn’t shining. I believe in love, even when I do not feel it. I believe in God, even when he is silent.” These words have inspired many people, but how can faith survive if it is starved of the oxygen of God’s voice?
The story of another Jew, who faced a similar threat of genocide thousands of years previously, helped me as I struggled to deal with God’s apparent absence.
Esther is one of two women in the Bible to have a book named after her. Her story is strange. It’s full of sexual exploitation, personal vendettas, and a real threat of anti-Semitic ethnic cleansing. As I read it during the final weeks of my mother’s life, I noticed that nowhere in the story does anyone mention God. Not once.
No one refers to the Scriptures, and no one explicitly prays. There is no visible intervention, no class-A miracle like a flood, lightning strike, plague of frogs, or earthquake to stop the impending genocide of the Israelites—none of the good stuff that stopped such attempts earlier. While murder is plotted, mass rape is legislated, and lives are ruined, God is on mute. Yet this book made it into Scripture, and despite his silence, God’s sovereignty rings out loud and clear.
Reading Esther is like watching a film. There are plot twists, setups and setbacks, crises, dilemmas, and a perfect grand finale. There are heroes and villains, supporting actors, and extras. And every good film needs a good director—the person who shapes every scene and guides every character. The placing of each prop, the arranging of each camera angle, and the positioning of every incidental character are deliberately and strategically orchestrated from start to finish. It is the most important role, yet in (virtually) every film, the director is silent and invisible.
For most of Esther’s story, it is difficult to see how the brushstrokes could paint a beautiful picture. But in the final scene, we see God’s hand clearly as he brings things to a satisfying resolution.
Esther, an orphaned Jewish girl, is taken in and raised, apparently single-handedly, by her cousin Mordecai. She is contrasted with the egotistical Persian King Xerxes, who deposes his queen and exploits young women.
Their worlds collide when Xerxes makes Esther his new queen. This puts Esther in a dangerous position: Her life now lies in the hands of a fickle and heartless king who has not yet discovered her Jewish heritage. When Mordecai refuses to pay homage to the king’s right-hand man, Haman, a descendant of one of Israel’s long-standing enemies, Haman plots to exterminate God’s people in general and Mordecai in particular. Xerxes approves Haman’s plan and decrees the Jews’ destruction. However, it soon becomes clear who really has the power, and how God has positioned Esther to rescue his people.
At a pivotal moment in the story, Mordecai challenges Esther:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13–14)
Esther then steps forward and reveals her Jewish identity in an 11th-hour attempt to save her people. She assembles all the key characters in this ethnic-cleansing crisis for a series of banquets, outwits Haman, and petitions the king to protect her people. Remarkably, Xerxes is pleased with Esther and overturns his prior decree of genocide. Haman’s plot is foiled, and Esther’s people are saved.
While God never makes an appearance, his role in the story is hard to miss. Haman rolled dice to determine the day on which his despicable plan for genocide would take place. But his plan backfired, and he was hanged on the oversized gallows that he built for Mordecai. And the day determined by Haman’s lots for the massacre is the day Jews today commemorate their liberation, on the Feast of Purim (“lots”). The Jews recognized that God rules even when he’s silent and it seems all chaos has been unleashed. The Feast of Purim holds the tension expressed in Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”
Esther’s story helped me realize that even when God may seem absent, he’s incredibly near, orchestrating the events of our lives. Reminded of God’s ultimate control, I initially hoped for Esther’s happy ending in my life: an 11th-hour miracle to destroy those multiplying cancer cells and heal my vibrant, caring mother. In the early days—the diagnosis, oncologist appointments, chemotherapy sessions, and blood transfusions—I prayed expectantly with my children for healing. But as my mother became emaciated, tired, and distressed, our prayers shifted to “Please, Lord, take her home quickly.” The ordinariness of Esther’s pragmatic and diplomatic role reminded me that I, too, would have to make plans—for my mother’s final days, to help my children work through their loss, for my family as we faced a future without her.
I was also struck by how Esther didn’t worry about her personal happiness and safety, but rather about the future of her people. This encouraged me to keep walking through a dark season, to be concerned for others rather than myself.
Esther’s story also helped me in another way. We often understand God’s activity in our lives only in hindsight. Esther’s loss of her parents as a young child, her forced marriage, and her confined life probably made sense only much later. Perhaps Esther felt God was silent during those traumatic years. But somehow, even in those dire circumstances, God was with her, providing for her, protecting her, and building in her a trust so strong that she was willing to risk her life for others.
The Mercy of Silence
My mother, born in north India to a villager mother and an upper-class British father, had a difficult start in life. When her father was killed in World War II, her home and her protector disappeared, and she was sent to an orphanage. But God was at work.
My mother and her sisters were eventually reunited from their separate orphanages, and they lived and were educated in an Anglo-Indian community in the Himalayas. After many years of traveling and working as a nurse, my mother became a Christian. God enabled my mother to trust him despite all the difficulty she had faced. Knowing the big picture of my mother’s life helped me trust God, too, even in those harrowing last days of her life.
Just as plants deprived of water put down deeper roots, so the struggle to keep trusting God during his silence in tragic times helps us grow in faith. The same is true in our human relationships. When trust, respect, or communication erodes, our struggle to rebuild the relationship proves our commitment to and love for the other person. Feeling bothered by God’s silence might indicate how much we love and need him.
Or perhaps the silence we sense in our relationship with God during times of crisis reveals that we actually stopped listening for God a long time ago. Paradoxically, the silence of the God who speaks could be a mercy, offering us a chance to resolve anew that we will make time and space in our lives to listen to him. As Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures . . . but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Some Christians believe experiencing God’s silence results from weak faith or some egregious, unconfessed sin. But the stories of Joseph, Job, and Paul dispel that myth. It was not Joseph’s lack of faith that led to his imprisonment. Nor was it Job’s sin that led him to lose everything and almost everyone precious to him. Paul was inspired by God to retell his story of unanswered prayer: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [the thorn] away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:8–9).
Ziya Meral, a Turkish friend working in the Middle East, once wrote in this CT:
Where is God when millions of his children are being persecuted in the most brutal ways? Why does he keep silent in the middle of persecution but speak loudly in the middle of conferences with famous speakers and worship bands? I have prayed many times like Luther: “Bless us, Lord, even curse us! But don’t remain silent!”
Meral’s struggles eventually led him to consider Jesus’ own experience:
The greatest glory Jesus brought to God was not when he walked on the water or prayed for long hours, but when he cried in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and still continued to follow God’s will, even though it meant isolation, darkness, and the silence of God. Thus, we know that when everything around us fails, when we are destroyed and abandoned, our tears, blood, and dead corpses are the greatest worship songs we have ever sung.
Similarly, Pete Greig, in his book God on Mute, says, “Even Jesus experienced the silence of God and unanswered prayer, but these became the occasion for the greatest miracles of all time.”
Scripture doesn’t skirt tough issues like suffering, struggling to believe in God’s goodness in tough times, and God’s silence. Biblical authors often didn’t find resolutions to their struggles, but lived in tension, hanging on to faith amid famine, destruction, and bereavement. The psalmists’ doubt, despair, and depression; sorrowful books such as Job, Ecclesiastes,
and Lamentations; Habakkuk’s complaints; John the Baptist’s questions from prison; and Jesus’ anguished prayers in Gethsemane—while these passages don’t usually make for cheery preaching, they nonetheless offer us incredible consolation during hard times.
That’s how I see the Book of Esther. It’s not just a story of one family and one nation, but also a poetic example of the perfect justice that will come at the culmination of history when God will gloriously rescue all his people. He is the unseen director, not only in the sublime scripting of the Book of Esther, but also in the intricate details of our own lives today. One day we will see this.
As a young boy, I didn’t know how to pray. So my mother gave me words to pray. She would kneel by my bed and put her arm around me. She taught me that even reciting a simple prayer could help me connect with the almighty God.
In the agonizing days before she died, when we both were lost for words, I knelt by her bed. I struggled to pray, but as my wavering voice read Scripture to her, we heard God’s voice, even in the silence.
Krish Kandiah is president of the London School of Theology and author most recently of Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to Be Simple (Hodder & Stoughton).
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