Essay

Silence

By December 23, 2016 7 Comments
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I recently finished reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence in preparation for the film adaptation by Martin Scorsese that will be released on Christmas day. It’s a haunting story of Jesuit priests in Japan during the height of 17th century persecution. Two priests are on a mission to find out what really happened to one of their mentors—rumors suggest that he apostatized, that he recanted his faith in the face of persecution. As they search they discover a harsh existence in which Christian converts face brutal torture, imprisonment, and death, all for a faith that by all accounts doesn’t look much like European Christianity. Throughout the story the main character is silent—God never speaks, never answers their prayers for the suffering to stop, never gives a sign that God is even listening.

Silence is a Catholic story. If protestants had written it there would be line after line about God’s sovereign will, about God’s plan; it would be a story filled with words, heavy handed doctrines, and absolute certainty. It’s an over generalization, I know, but protestants are not very good at silence. We feel the need to fill the space, to correct, to explain. We’re not very good at doubt either—we try to crush it wherever it appears. So protestants make movies like God is not Dead, and we wonder why our young people are leaving? Could it be the Christianity that we project is too simplistic? It doesn’t connect with the complex reality people experience—a reality full of suffering and loss.

Advent is a time of silence. In the midst of all the color, and music, and noise, God bides God’s time. God waits. In the midst of the inhumanity of Aleppo, trucks barreling into parents and children, presidents and world leaders talking about building up nuclear arsenals, God waits. Most people bear the weight of God’s silence in their own lives. Family members dying of cancer, relationships fractured beyond repair, metal illness and depression that render loved ones unrecognizable. We pray, we ask for healing, we plead for some form of divine intervention; all we want is to hear God speak. All we want is some sign to give us hope.

Pregnant silence—that’s the silence of advent. God does not speak, so we wait. In advent we hear the promise… we trust in the promise… our hope hangs on the promise. We wait for the baby to be born in the manger.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

7 Comments

  • Perceptive and touching. Thanks for this!

  • Stephen says:

    A great reminder that sometimes we simply don’t get an answer. Reminiscent of the scene from The Grey when Liam Neesen screams at God for action and instead receives silence. Thank you, Dr. Lief.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Marvelous, Jason, one of the best you’ve written yet. Thank you.

  • Loren Veldhuizen says:

    Valuable insights. Silence and patience………and hope. Well said.

  • I take your points. However, there are and have been Protestants who have valued silence and patience. I recommend to you and readers John Woolman’s Journal. And, of course, the Quaker tradition. As many of us Reformed and evangelicals can forget Anglicans and Lutherans, so we can forget the Quakers (and Radical Protestants).

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    I have just finished reading a set of papers on the the portrait of God in the book of Jonah. The attributes of God demonstrated throughout the book are recapitulated in Jonah’s angry prayer in chapter 4. He would rather die than live in a world which is governed by a God who is: merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, abouding in tenacious live, and repents of letting people get what they deserve. The attribute, slow to anger, struck a new chord for me in this advent season. Yes, we are waiting for God to appear to make all things right, but God is also waiting for us his Jonah-children to appear and take up our responsibilities to make all things right. Arise, go to Washington, D.C., that great city, and cry…..

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    Thank you. The silence of the advent story has struck me this year- those hundreds of years between Malachi and Matthew, the decades that Elizabeth and Zachariah prayed for a child but God was silent…and the silence that can be deafening in the midst of wars, battles, and injustices today. I know that I’m not very good at silence. Your words remind me of the importance to acknowledge it, and to dwell in the ‘pregnant silence.’

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