Carla Unseth

When God is Silent

As many of my readers probably know, I am an avid runner, and have done multiple half marathons and a few full marathons. For several years, my colleagues at Pioneer Bible have had several teams run a Ragnar, which is a 24-hour relay race. Teams of eight run a total of 120.8 miles – 15.1 miles per person. This distance is split into three loops, so each person runs three times during the race, and at least one time at night. I had been asked several times to join a team, and last year I joined for the first time. One of the reasons I had hesitated was a fear of running in the backcountry of Texas in the middle of the night. I couldn’t help but imagine a wildcat jumping from the underbrush and tearing me limb from limb! In training, I begrudgingly ran a few runs at night so I could get used to it and maybe tamp down the fear. One such run was a drizzly 40 degrees and I ran through the woods. I asked multiple people if they could run with me, but no one was available and I was running alone. My headlamp reflected off the falling drops, making the light somewhat disorienting. Where I had earlier seen bunnies hopping along, I now imagined wolves prowling behind the trees. Perhaps this is a bit dramatic, but it is funny how the night can make us afraid, even when we objectively know there is nothing to fear.

Sometimes faith can feel like a run through the woods at night. Doctrines that were understandable suddenly seem distorted and disorienting. Beliefs that were clear are suddenly confusing. God’s voice seems to be silent. Thankfully, we are not alone in this experience – it has happened to many Christians throughout the ages. In fact, a monk in the 15th century, St. John of the Cross, named this experience The Dark Night of the Soul based on a poem he wrote while experiencing his own Dark Night. Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich wrote about this as well in their book The Critical Journey. In this book, they recognize this as a stage of faith – a necessary step in spiritual growth that many Christians experience. In fact, though it may seem strange, this stage is actually an invitation from God. It is an invitation to see him in a different way than previously, perhaps with more depth or even with less certainty – breaking away from our preconceived notions of who God is and how He should act.

This stage of the spiritual journey is marked by questions rather than answers, and by the feeling that God is silent. A person may come to this stage through a life or a faith crisis, and they may feel as if things that they used to be sure of in life and faith are no longer certain. It may look to others as if they have lost faith, but often that person is discovering that God does not fit into the categories they have built for God throughout their life. God is inviting them to recognize that He is greater than our understanding. While we as humans like to set up systems to understand Him, systems which are good and helpful, God still remains beyond our definition. This stage of faith is an invitation to recognize His “otherness” and to be joyful within it.

The past few years have felt like this Dark Night for me in my faith journey. The first three stages of faith include a stage of recognition of who God is, which for me was in childhood. Then is a stage of discipleship where one learns a great deal. This for me was college, where I was steeped in theology and loved learning the systems that outline our beliefs. The third stage is a stage of service, where one extends outward to serve God. My life since college has been in this stage as I have served God faithfully. However, when we went to France in 2021, I had the frightening experience of feeling abandoned by God (which you can read about here), and I struggled over the next few years to regain a feeling of closeness with God. Then, in the past year, I came face to face with the theology of Biblical womanhood, and realized that what I had always believed about God’s plan for men and women did not seem to apply to me now, as a single woman with a calling from God to work outside the home. Pulling on this tiny theological “thread” affected more theology than I realized, and suddenly I found myself in a place of deep questioning about things I had always believed. Now, I do not want my readers to be afraid – I have not lost my faith. I still believe that the God of the Bible is the true God and I am determined to follow Him. However, through this time the most marked struggle was that God seemed silent. No matter what I did to try to draw close to God, nothing seemed to work. Learning about Stage 4 of faith and the Dark Night of the Soul has been a relief, to know that this seeming tension between wanting to follow God, yet feeling my theology changing in a period of His seeming silence, is part of the journey to knowing God more.

I am writing this because I feel there may be others who are at this place – particularly at a place where God seems silent. What do we do when God does not seem to be speaking into our lives, especially when life and faith is particularly difficult? How can we take God’s invitation to grow closer to Him when we feel like He is far away? I want to share with you what has helped me through this season so you can take it and apply it if you find yourself in the same place.

First, I worked to maintain the basics of faith. Interestingly, just before this season I had been learning a lot about worship and trying some new ways of growing closer to God. Suddenly those things seemed foolish and useless. I wanted to quit doing all the spiritual disciplines, because none of them seemed particularly effective, but instead, I went back to the very basics of faith. I read my Bible, and did a pre-determined study on YouVersion. I even did some of the Greek study that I had learned in college. It did not seem nearly as life giving as it had at other times in my faith journey, but I persevered so that I would remain grounded in God’s word. I continued to have a regular prayer time, and though I did not always feel particularly connected to God in prayer, I wanted to continue to meet with God. I also continued to go to church. Sometimes everyone else’s joy and certainty at church was irritating to me, but it was good to continue to see other believers and their enthusiasm.

Second, I clung to the promises that I knew from Scripture. There are many passages in Scripture that reassure us that God never leaves us, and many passages that reassure us of his personal love for us. Sometimes, the promises of these passages felt empty, but sometimes they broke through the feeling of spiritual dryness to speak within the difficulty. Three particular passages that spoke to me during this time were Isaiah 41:9-10, 43:1, and Psalm 139. Of course, all of these passages are familiar, but various teachings throughout this time were reminders that, even in this time of spiritual emptiness, God had not left.

Third, I continued to press into the new spiritual disciplines that I had learned before this time period. I wrestled with questions of what was appropriate to do because it helped me to “feel” connected to God, and to what extent our feelings are irrelevant. I wrestled with questions of whether certain disciplines are “wrong” or outside the realm of Christianity. I have been told that certain spiritual disciplines are too close to alternative spiritualities, and I certainly did not want to step into heresy or pursue some kind of mystical spiritual enlightenment. However, I did want to consider what disciplines were helpful to ancient Christians. One discipline that particularly struck me was the discipline of silence and solitude. In our fast-paced American lives, I realized that I had started to fill every part of my life with noise – music, TV, podcasts, etc. I was leaving little room to face my questions and let God speak into them. Spending some intentional time in silence and solitude allowed me to address issues in my own heart and leave space for God to speak to me.

Fourth, I sought a community that understood where I was on my faith journey. I did this both through a formal relationship with a spiritual director, and through spiritual friendships. A spiritual director is someone who walks alongside a person and helps them to determine the Holy Spirit’s voice and leading in their life. He or she is able to listen to the directee’s doubts and questions and guide them in the process of understanding the questions and finding God again. Spiritual friendships are, as they sound, friendships with people who have spiritual understanding and are willing to walk through the spiritual journey with another person. I had a good friend with a lot of spiritual insight, and as I told her about my journey, she was not afraid to listen to my questions and to dig into them with me. In addition, my organization, Pioneer Bible, also offered spiritual guidance through healing prayer. As a missionary, it is a bit frightening to approach one’s sending organization with spiritual struggles. However, I am glad that my organization again was not afraid to walk with me in spiritual difficulty, but offered an opportunity to connect with God, and has continued to walk with me.

In my Ragnar training, I had another night training run. I ran this one at midnight along a paved path. When I left the trailhead, there were some vagrant type characters camping out with their trailer. I ran by a different wooded area, and the same fears rose in my mind. However, this time the moon was full and bright, and as I ran I prayed, “God, why do I feel so far from you?” As I finished praying this prayer a new song started playing on my headphones – the song “You are Not Far” by Young Oceans. It felt to me like God speaking, after a long weary dry spell. He was saying, “You are not far from me. Keep seeking.” Though I do not feel I am completely through this stage, I feel as if there is hope and light as I continue seeking God.

I want to say one last word to the church in general as we see others struggling, and particularly Christian leaders. It is incredibly vulnerable to share this kind of questioning, particularly for leaders or Christian workers like myself. There is the great fear that doubts may be misperceived as loss of faith and a person’s job may be on the line. There is a litany of church leaders who have, indeed, left the church during these periods. Part of the reason for this may be that the church is ill-equipped to deal with people who are in a season of silence. The answer is not in increased teaching – often those struggling in this stage of faith already “know” the answers. The answer is not in increased service – often these people are already serving the church at capacity! The answer instead is to be a place of listening and understanding. I would like to be able to bring my questions to my church leadership and have them walk alongside me in finding the answers, even if I do not come to the same conclusions they come to. I would want them to point out if something is fundamental to the faith, but also be able to accept that, in some areas of theology, very wise people have come to different conclusions. I would want them to be able to advise me on what things we can believe differently, and what things might send me to a different church – not in anger or enmity, but out of a recognition that different people need different things to grow spiritually. I would want them to see these questions as signs of faith, not as signs of apostasy.

I hope this is encouraging for those who are in a season of silence. It is not a season of God’s absence, but rather a season of invitation – God is inviting us to grow deeper with Him in new ways. Let us encourage one another to press on!