This silent night was not golden, was not the beautiful, hushed version of a Christmas carol. This was a numbing, anxiety-filled silence where God seemed far away or non-existent—when you’re not sure what you believe or what will happen to the rest of your life.
Where is He?
It was like being drawn into a dark hole, with no sun, no daylight.
Have you experienced this? I have.
I’m a pastor with faith, knowledge, and experience in walking with God. I teach the Bible, one of the great joys of my life. But suddenly I faced what has been described as “the dark night of the soul.”1 I desperately needed answers to my questions:
- What is God doing in the silence?
- What am I supposed to do?
- How do I survive this?
I became depressed and withdrawn.
I clung to what was spiritually familiar and concrete—God’s Word. I could hold a Bible in my arms and embrace it, comforted by years of learning and revelation. But I also came to realize that historically, even in His Word, there is a long pause, a long silence.
Did you know that?
Four Hundred Years
Our present is rooted in the past. Everything that happens in your life today is influenced and shaped by history—your personal history, and the history of what God is doing in our lives. He weaves our stories into His story, weaving our past and future together, attending to every detail, making each life important and meaningful.
As I looked through my Bible during my “silent night,” I reflected on the 400-year gap between the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, and the first book of the New Testament, Matthew.
God’s people had grown accustomed to hearing Him speak. He was a God of words. He spoke everything into existence. He said, “Let there be light” and there was light. He spoke through the prophets and kings, angels, and ordinary people, from burning bushes to a still, small voice. He actively communicated—until this long pause.
What did a young Jewish boy or girl born in the second or third century of silence think? At some point all of the stories— the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah in the whale, the battle of Jericho, the shepherd boy who became King David—all of it must have begun to feel like mythology or fairy tales.
Where was God for 400 years? What was He doing? And what were His people supposed to be doing?
As I wrestled with fear, anxiety, and depression, and worried about what this would mean to the rest of my life, I learned some very important lessons during my “long pause.”
What is God Doing in the Silence?
The Old Testament closes with a poignant contrast to the magnificence of creation in the first book of Genesis. The prophet Malachi calls his nation to spiritual renewal, reminding the people that God said, “I have loved you.” I have loved you, but you have strayed. I have loved you, but your heart is not where it should be.
Malachi wrote, “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” Restoration is needed. God has work to do, behind the scenes, during the long pause.
Three very important world events occurred during this long period, preparing the way for the birth of Jesus.
- A common language emerged. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), son of Philip II and Queen Olympias, inherited the throne at age 20. He went on to create one of the largest empires in the ancient world. Before dying just before age 33, he said, “I have no more worlds to conquer.” But he did enforce a common language throughout his vast empire, Koine Greek.
Greek became the universal language. By the time the gospels were being written, many Jews didn’t speak Hebrew anymore. The New Testament was primarily written and/or translated into Greek.
- PAX Romana, or Roman peace, is a Latin term referring to the era from 27 BC until 180 AD. The Roman Empire was in its prime and enjoyed a long period of relative peace.
- A worldwide system of roads and transportation was built by the Romans. While Romans roads provided an efficient means of travel for military and trade purposes, it also made it much easier for the people to travel abroad—including the early missionaries like Paul, Barnabas, Luke, and numerous others.
If you‘ve attended a play, you might remember at the end of Act 1, going out into the lobby during intermission to stretch your legs and get a drink of water or a snack. When you return, the lights go up, and you see an entirely different scene from when you left. While the stage was dark, furniture, props, and lights were being moved. Costumes changed.
That’s what happened between Malachi and Matthew. While it seemed like 400 years of silence, God was working behind the scenes to rearrange the global stage, to prepare the way for the Gospel of His Son.
Our Silent Night
During my “silent night” the Lord did some rearranging in my life. I was spent, exhausted from a nonstop schedule. I had neglected my physical, mental, and spiritual health. Depression crept in while I was trying to figure out what was going on. God seemed very silent and far away.
I was in the midst a spiritual battle, but too tired to recognize it at first. If you asked me how I was, I probably said, “Pretty good. God is working. I’m OK.”
Reality was a dark, long, lonely, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I kept meditating and praying and asking God, “Why are You so silent?” I pondered the idea that David the psalmist did not write, “I walk through the valley of death.” He wrote of a shadow. I’m not dead, I thought, but I felt that way.
But what casts a shadow? Light of course. I was looking for the light. Then I read Isaiah 6:5 and cried with the prophet, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
It was like walking out of dark theater in the middle of the day and being blinded by light. The Lord was telling me it was time to adjust – not to darkness but to a greater light that He wanted to reveal.
I began to see my self honestly, and to repent fervently. My selfishness, my pride, my fears, and anxiety—all were revealed. Yes, I was undone.
Coming out of the shadow is not easy. Adjusting to the blinding light was even harder. I had to learn that God was working behind the scenes of my life. His Silence is not His absence.
I sought counsel. I took a short sabbatical, I rested, I spent time with family members. I asked for help. We are not meant to go through these things alone. God uses the people around us to love us, bathe us in prayer, and draw us back into the light. I learned to accept being who I am and to be honest and vulnerable. It was very freeing.
I’m a shepherd over a flock I love. Some say as the shepherd goes, so go the sheep. My heart aches for my brothers and sisters who find themselves walking in that shadow, crushed by depression and hopelessness.
Let me try to assure you —God is working, He loves you, and He wants you to seek and find the help you need.
A Way to Rejoice
I needed to rejoice again. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Sometimes rejoicing is done by enduring. It’s not a flippant kind of rejoicing, nor a rote “Praise the Lord.” It is an enduring, deeper rejoicing that changes one’s character and who we are inside. It’s a prayer to know, believe, and trust that God is working, even in the silence.
The holidays are approaching—a wonderful time for many, but a difficult time for others. I pray that you can take heart in knowing that if you struggle, you are not alone. Reach out, ask for prayer, seek counsel, and know that the Lord will never leave you nor forsake you. He is working— especially in the silence.
May God richly bless you and comfort you.
1. While imprisoned in a tiny prison cell for his attempts to reform the Church, sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross composed many of his now classic poems of the soul’s longing for God. Written on a scroll smuggled to him by one of his guards, his songs are the ultimate expression of the spiritual seeker’s journey from estranged despair to blissful union with the divine —they’ve been titled “The Dark Night of the Soul.” http://www.amazon.com/dp/1573229741/ref=rdr_ext_tmb