It’s a problem most of us have faced at one time or another. We’re trying to make a good decision and so we begin to pray for God to speak to us, to enlighten us, to give us an answer. And we get… *crickets.* There’s nothing but silence.
So how do we practice discernment when God is silent?
Let’s consider the possibilities. When it seems like God is silent, either
(A) God is actually saying nothing, or
(B) God is saying something and I can’t/ won’t hear
Let’s start with B. God is saying something, and I can’t/ won’t hear.
In this case, the problem is on my end. It’s a listening problem. So the question then becomes: are there practices or habits in my life that could keep me from hearing God?
Here are the kinds of things that keep us from hearing when God is actually speaking:
>> Attachment to habitual choices that are seriously harmful to myself or others
None of us is perfect, but there’s a big difference between trying to do good, acknowledging when we fail, apologizing to God and others, and then moving on: versus denying that we have an attachment to spiritually unhealthy ways of living. It’s hard to hear God when I let other things become my first love.
>> Drowning God out with other voices, even good ones
It’s important to seek wise guidance, but sometimes we just go around searching for advice or signs because we’re desperately afraid of our own ability to listen. It’s hard to hear God above the chatter of other voices.
>> Not giving God regular time to speak; not making a regular habit of learning how to listen
We know—without seeing—the voices of those closest to us, of those we speak with regularly. We know their accent, intonation, favourite turns of phrase. We know them. If someone relays a supposed comment, we can say, “that doesn’t sound like the person I know.” This is true for our friendship with God, too. If we aren’t in the habit of conversation, we might not recognize how God sounds when he is speaking.
In short: if God is saying something, I will be able to hear it if I am leading a listening kind of life.
But what if the situation is actually option (A) God isn’t actually saying anything?
Does God’s silence mean yes? Does it mean no? Does it mean, do whatever you want? It can be very confusing.
There’s no fail-proof answer to every situation, but my experience is that God’s silence can sometimes mean different things for our practice of discernment, depending on the type or quality of silence.
In ordinary life, there are different types of silence. There’s the silence of being alone at the top of a mountain, where noise will carry far, if you shout. There’s the silence of a heavy fog, where there might actually be sound very close to you, but it’s muted. There’s the silence you feel playing hide-and-go-seek, breaths muffled in a wardrobe while you wait to be found. There’s the silence of being completely alone in your house versus the silence of being alone in your bedroom when you know there are people downstairs.
There’s silence that comes with shock and silence that comes with reverence and awe. Silence that will make you scream in frustration and silence that comes as a mercy. Silence that is emptiness, and silence that is pregnant with the unspoken. Silence that signals the end, silence that promises more. Silence when the tears are over, silence before they’re about to begin. Silence of dissatisfaction; silence of contentment.
There are many different qualities of silence.
This happens in conversation as well: there’s the silence of someone nodding, encouraging you to go on. There’s the silence of someone stonewalling, blocking you from wanting to continue. When you ask a question and are met with silence, it can feel cruel, or it can feel expectant. Are they ignoring you, or just waiting for you to go on? Are they silent because they know you know the answer and just need to arrive at it yourself? Are they silent because they are preoccupied, or silent because they are pondering?
When we’re in silence, alone or with another, we know how it makes us feel in the moment. Sometimes, upon reflection, we realize that there was more to the silence than we felt at the time.
In ordinary life, silence is not one-dimensional: the same is true for our practice of discernment. God’s silence is rarely a one-dimensional yes, no, or ‘whatever you want’ – and yet, that’s often what we expect it to be. Sometimes we want exactitude when God offers nuance.
Sometimes God’s silence is an invitation to keep talking. Sometimes, it offers space for us to enter the stillness along with Him, to stop the frenzied “what should I do?!” questioning. Sometimes, it’s a mercy and a relief; sometimes it’s a catalyst for movement. One thing we can know definitely is that God’s silence is never cruel. That’s not “the kind of person” He is, and the more we come to know Him, the more we will feel certain of this.
When we are in the habit of discernment and God is silent, we can begin to explore what it might mean by asking ourselves what type or quality of silence we are experiencing. What human experience can we mostly closely liken it to? Is it the exhilaration of shouting across a mountain range? The gentle but firmly enforced headshake “no” of a loving parent? The comfort of unburdening ourselves to a good listener?
There’s no one-size-fits-all way of discerning what God’s silence means. But over time, by making a habitual practice of paying attention in the process of discernment, listening to God’s silence as much as His voice becomes a habit. And with that habit comes familiarity – we can sense patterns, notice situations that seem to come up often, and be alert when the quality of silence changes dramatically.
Whenever God is silent, we can know one thing for certain: it’s always an invitation to enter more deeply into the practice of discernment through relationship with Him.