The Silent Treatment
 Series: Mute – Part 1
Various Scriptures

I was reading about this married couple who was having some problems in their relationship, and so they decided the best way to deal with these problems was to go on a daytime talk show…which is really great strategy.  And they’re on national television talking with this talk show host, who has no expertise or credentials in marriage counseling, trying to work out their issues, and this couple especially had a problem with giving each other the silent treatment.  The years of their marriage had been marked by just different seasons of not talking to each other.  Sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, even weeks…  On a few occasions, for months at a time they just didn’t talk to each other.  They would give each other the silent treatment, and neither would be humble enough to break the silence.  It would just go on and on.  As luck would have it, it was during the taping of this talk show that they were having one of these episodes.  They wouldn’t talk to each other, but they would talk to the host about one another.  And that’s how they were communicating.

And so the husband was talking about how it created all kinds of problems, as you would expect, within their marriage.  But just in life in general it created problems, because they couldn’t be partners.  They couldn’t be a team.  And so he told about how on one occasion he needed to wake up the next morning at five o’clock for an early morning business flight, but he wasn’t talking to his wife and she wasn’t talking to him.  But she’s the one who knew how to use the alarm clock, and so he left her a little note by the sink that said, “I need to be up at five o’clock in the morning.”  He left it out where he knew that she would see it.  The next morning he wakes up and he rolls over and looks at the clock.  It’s past seven!  He’s in a panic.  And then he sees this note next to the alarm clock in his wife’s handwriting and it says, “It’s five a.m.  Wake up!”  And it’s not…it’s not very effective.

In fact, I think you hear stories like that, and what do we think?  We think it’s petty!  It’s just kind of petty to give each other the silent treatment.  It’s this passive-aggressive form of punishment where we try to punish the other person in our life.  I don’t even think it’s that effective.  I think a lot of husbands…well, I don’t think they would consider the silent treatment punishment at all.  I saw one husband wearing this shirt that said, “Please, Honey, not the silent treatment.  Anything but that.”  I detected sarcasm!  It’s kind of petty.  It’s not real effective.

But do you ever sense that God is giving you the silent treatment?  You ask Him for help.  “God, would You please help us?”  “God, just tell us what to do.  We need some direction here.  Whatever You tell us to do, that’s what we’re going to do.  Just tell us what to do.  I don’t know, so You just tell us.”  (Pause)  Just silence.  It feels like your prayers just kind of bounce off the ceiling right back at you.  Do you ever feel like that?

Each year I go through a daily Bible reading plan that takes me through the Bible in chronological order.  And eventually I come to the point in that reading plan where the Old Testament comes to and end and the New Testament begins.  Now historically speaking, there was a period of four hundred years of history between the Old Testament and the New Testament where there’s nothing … nothing.  Biblically there is nothing recorded for us.  It’s called “the four hundred years of silence”—this intertestamental period—four hundred years of silence where there is no word from the Lord and there is no prophet from God with a word from God.  Just four hundred years of silence.

Each year, my journey through the Old Testament portion of my reading plan concludes with the book of Nehemiah.  Now, you find Nehemiah kind of in the middle of the Old Testament, but chronologically it’s at the end.  It brings us to around 420 BC.  Jesus won’t be born until some four hundred years later, and so you’ve got these years of silence.  And every year it gets me to thinking about what was going on during those four hundred years?  What was God up to?

Years ago they used to print a blank page in Bibles between the Old Testament and the New Testament and that blank page represented the silent years, where there is no word from the Lord.

So we’re going to talk a little bit about “What do you do during the parts of your story that are marked by a blank page?”  What do you do when it feels like God is giving you the silent treatment?  It may not be four hundred years, but most of us know what that feels like.  Now we don’t talk about it—not in here.  We don’t want to be the one that doesn’t hear from God, right?  So we like to pretend…or we like to at least give the appearance… that this isn’t an issue, that this isn’t a struggle for us.  But what I know and what you know is that there are times…there are parts of our story where God seems silent, where you’re talking to God and you suddenly realize, “I don’t think He’s listening.”

It’s like when you’re on the cell phone.  And you’re talking to maybe a good friend, and you’re going through some of the challenges that you’re experiencing.  And maybe you’re talking for three or four minutes kind of pouring out your heart, and then you realize, “I don’t know that there’s anyone on the other end of the line.”  The call was dropped.  You don’t even know when it was dropped, but at some point in the middle of your talking the call got dropped.  And you…you just feel a little bit foolish.  You feel a little bit ridiculous because for the last five minutes you’ve just been talking to yourself.

Do you ever feel like that when you pray?  You start off and it seems that God is listening, but then somewhere along the line you stop and you’re…all you hear is silence.  And maybe God doesn’t get that great of reception up there in heaven, because it sure seems like a lot of calls get dropped.

So what do you do in the silence when it feels like God is giving you the silent treatment?

John Claypool was a well-known and much-loved pastor, preacher, theologian, author, and teacher.  Among the many books he wrote was a bestseller entitled Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.  And in the book John Claypool tells about losing his 10-year-old daughter, Laura, to acute leukemia.  

When Laura was first diagnosed the family found a treatment, and the treatment caused her to go into remission.  So there was a lot of hope initially.  Life kind of went back to normal, and they thought, “Well, maybe…maybe it’s been a misdiagnosis” or “Maybe she’s been healed miraculously,” as they had been praying.  But it wasn’t to be, and on an Easter Sunday morning all of that came crashing down when his young daughter went into a severe relapse.  It caused her to be hospitalized for several weeks.  Her eyes were swollen shut.  Her body was wracked with pain.  And Claypool talks about just the draining experience of walking with her through this journey.  It was just a helpless feeling as a father.

He tells about one night where it was especially difficult.  She could get no rest and she was in a lot of pain.  So they sat in silence in the dark room and his young daughter said, “Daddy, when will the leukemia go away?”  And he said, “Honey, you know…you know that we are doing everything in our power to find an answer, to find a cure for this.  You know we’re doing everything we can.”  Silence for a little while.  She asks her dad, this pastor, “Dad, when did God say the leukemia would go away?”  He hedged a bit.  “Honey, you know that we’ve been praying and praying and praying, and we’ve been asking God’s help.”  She interrupts.  “Yeah, but what did He say?  What did He say?  When did He say it would go away?”  And John Claypool writes, “What do you say to such childlike directness when the heavens seem so utterly silent?”

How do you deal with that when you cry out to God in a moment of desperation?  You’re going through a trial, a challenge…there’s this moment of desperation…and God…God just seems silent.  What do you do during the parts of your story that seem to be marked by the blank page?

Well, here’s one thing we do.  We tend to ask this question to God, “God, why don’t You do something?”  Now when we ask that question we don’t say this nonchalantly.  This is not a ho-hum suggestion where we say, “Oh, you know, God we’ve tried all kinds of things, so I don’t know, why don’t…?  Why don’t you do something?  How about that?”  No, that’s not the spirit of this.  When we ask this question it is not so much a question but it is a demand.  “God, do something!  You are God.  You spoke the world into existence.  We are Your children.  You love us.  You care for us.  So why don’t You do something?  How about that?”

“And why don’t You do something about my unemployment situation, because our savings are gone?  I mean, they’re gone.  So now would be a really good time to show up.”  (Silent pause.)

“God, why don’t You do something about my marriage, because we have been working at this and working at this and I’m just…I am just sick and tired of fighting and I’m ready to quit.  So why don’t You do something?”  (Silent pause.)

“God, why don’t You do something about my child?”  (Silent pause.)

“Why don’t You do something about the million or so Christians being persecuted in Burma?  Because I have been praying for them and praying for them and they seem really alone over there.”  (Silent pause.)

Just silent.

It’s hard to make sense of the silence, but here’s what we’ll discover as we look at this intertestamental period: There are some truths that we can hang onto when we ask questions like, “God, why don’t You do something?  God, why don’t You say something?  God, do You even care?”

And one of the things we discover as we study the intertestamental period is that even though God seemed silent, the truth is God was still working.  He was still accomplishing His purposes.  Even though He wasn’t speaking, He was still…He was still at work.  And you see this as you study the intertestamental period.  You find that God was working.

I’ll just give you a quick glimpse at some of the history that took place during this time.  During this four hundred years of silence the Persian Empire was kind of expanding their influence and their territory.  They got a little bit too close to the Greeks, and so Philip of Macedon unites the Greeks in war against the Persians.  And so the Greeks defeat the Persians and then Philip dies and his son Alexander takes the throne.  Now you know Alexander—Alexander the Great.  We call him Alexander the Great because in twelve years he conquered the entire known world, which will get you that title.

So here’s why that’s significant.  During this time Greece…the Greeks are ruling the world, and as a result the world, for the first time really since the Tower of Babel, has a common language.  It’s said that in those days everyone spoke a little Greek.  And so there is some common language.  There are some common thoughts.  There are some ways of learning that are beginning to influence the whole world—the Socratic Method of asking questions but not really getting a lot of answers.

Now here’s the point.  All of this is preparing the way for Jesus.  God is working to prepare the world for the birth of His Son.  There’s a common language…suddenly the Good News of the Gospel is going to be able to spread much more quickly than it would’ve been able to previously.

There are some common ways of thinking and learning…asking questions.  But what’s the answer?  Well, the Answer is about ready to be born into a manger in Bethlehem.

And it was also during this time that the Old Testament Scriptures…  Around 280 BC the Old Testament Scriptures, which were written in Hebrew for the people of God, were translated into Greek.  And so suddenly the whole world had access to the Scriptures that tell about the one true God and His promise and prophesies of a Messiah that would come.

And then in 63 BC the Romans conquered the Greeks, and they took over the duties of ruling the world.  Probably the best-known Roman emperor would’ve been Julius Caesar.  And there was civil war during his reign, but he was assassinated about twenty-five years before Jesus was born.  Caesar Augustus came to the throne, and peace came to the Roman Empire for about two centuries.  This was a very unique time in history known as the Pax Romana, where there is this peace around the world.  In fact, people were able to travel much more freely.  There was even a type of highway patrol system that was established.

Now why does all this matter?  Well, again, Jesus is going to be born and the Church is going to be able to grow because of the fact that there’s peace and free travel…common language.

Now here’s the point.  It seems that at that point God was doing nothing, but in reality God was preparing for something that would change everything.  And you sit and you listen for God and it’s silent.  He’s not saying anything.  But here’s what I would say.  Listen a little more closely, because though you will not hear Him speak, you will be able to hear Him working.

 

I. IN THE SILENCE GOD IS STILL AT WORK.

Let’s put it this way.  In the silence God is still at work.

In the silence you can be sure that God is still at work.  Even if you can’t hear Him speaking, you can hear Him working.

And I want us to remember this in the silence when we have some of those moments where it seems like God is just quiet.  So I want you to say this out loud, but I want you to whisper this.  I want to hear us all whisper this together, because I think this is one of those truths that we tend to have a hard time hearing.  It’s a truth that is being whispered to us, but it’s hard to hear when we’re in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the chaos.  So on the count of three would you just whisper this?  One, two, three.  (Everyone whispering.)  In the silence God is still at work.

And next time you begin to question, next time you begin to wonder, next time heaven seems silent—would you just hear the truth of this whispered into your ear, of God saying, “I’m still at work.  I’m still at work”?  He has not left you.  He has not abandoned you.  He continues to work to accomplish His purposes and to bring about His good in His time.  And so even when God seems silent, God is still at work.

 

II. IN THE SILENCE GOD STILL KEEPS HIS PROMISES. (Isaiah 41:10; Romans 8:28)

Now there’s another truth that I think we can hang onto in the silence.  Here’s the second truth: In the silence God still keeps His promises.

God keeps His promises.  We say to God, “God, why don’t You say something?”  But the truth is, God has already said something to us and it’s as true now as when He said it and it was recorded in Scripture.  God keeps His promises.

Now here’s what’s clear as you study the intertestamental period.  Four hundred years of silence…I mean, that’s not just a generation; that’s generation after generation after generation after generation.  And it seems that God isn’t just being quiet, but God has gone AWOL.  I mean, that He has forgotten, and He has walked away.

But what’s interesting is, if you look at the history during the intertestamental period, you find that it was prophesied about quite specifically in the Book of Daniel – Daniel chapters 2, 7, 8, and 11….  Daniel records event for event what’s going to happen during this four hundred years of silence.  So what God did was God wrote about what would happen before it happened.  God told the people, “Here’s what’s going to happen.”  He prepared them for it.  There were these prophesies about it, so that they know in the midst of it…  Not only did God know what was happening, He knew what was going to happen before it actually happened.

So we go back and we are reminded of the truth that God spoke…maybe before the storm and maybe before the silence, but it’s…it’s still God speaking.

So maybe imagine it like this.  Imagine that a young husband…newly married…is in the military, and he is sent to Afghanistan to serve.  And he finds out that he’s going to be sent on a mission where he’ll have no communication, so he lets his wife know, “Hey, in a few weeks I’m going to be on this mission, and there’s going to be no Skype and no email and no phone calls, no incoming or outgoing mail.  There’s not going to be any communication.”  And she can hear in his voice how hard it’s going to be for him.  So she spends the next number of nights just staying up late, and she writes letter after letter to her husband, where she promises devotion.  She speaks words of commitment and she encourages him.  And she tries to anticipate how he’s going to feel while he’s away from her and what maybe he needs to hear during those times where there’s silence and they can’t talk.  So she tries to write all of that out and she sends this whole collection of letters to her husband.  He takes them with him, and in the silence of the mission when he longs to hear from his wife, but they can’t communicate, what does he do?  He pulls out the letters and he reads what she says to him.  It had already been written, but it’s still her speaking.

And that’s what the Word of God does for us.  In these moments of silence we know God has spoken.  God keeps His promises.  What He says was true is true.

And I’m sure the people of God encouraged each other with these words during those four hundred years of silence as they continued to have the Passover and they would remind each other how God had rescued them from Egypt.  

Or maybe they read passages like Isaiah 41:10.  God says, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”  

Or they would read Jeremiah 29:11 where God says to His people, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

And in the silence it is a time to open up the Word of God and to hear His promises and to be reminded of what He has said and to know that what was true then is true now.  He has spoken.

And so we read Romans 8:28 and we know… “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

And we read Philippians 1:6: That God began doing a good work in you.   Paul says, “I am sure He will continue it until it is finished when Jesus Christ comes again.”

Revelation 21:4 and 5: That there will be a day… and it’s coming…this is a promise…where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  He who was seated on the throne,” John writes, “said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

And we hold onto those promises in the silence.  That God has spoken, that God has said to you, “The day is coming when this will end.  The day is coming where I will make all things new.”  And so you hang on and you be faithful.

III.  IN THE SILENCE GOD IS STILL WATCHING.  (Job 23:8-12)

One other truth that we can be sure of is that in the silence God is still watching.

God is still watching.  Now, it feels, at times, like He’s not paying attention.  “God, are You seeing what I’m seeing?  I mean, do You get the news up there?”  But God knows.  God is watching.

In the Old Testament we read of one of God’s servants named Job, who was a righteous man.  He was a great man of God.  He loses everything, though.  He loses his wealth.  He loses his children.  He loses his health, his servants.  Just loses…so much loss.  And he tries to make some sense out of this.  For a long time God is silent.  He doesn’t say anything.  And Job…he’s left to ask “the questions.”  He speaks for all of us.  God, why is this happening?  God, why don’t You do something?  

But in Job chapter 23 he makes some sense out of the silence and listen to what he says.  Job writes, “I go east, but he is not there.  I go west, but I cannot find Him.  I do not see Him in the north, for He is hidden.  I look to the south, but He is concealed” (vv. 8-9, NLT).

But listen to what he writes next.  He says, “But he knows….”  He knows.  I don’t see Him.  I mean, I’m looking in front of me and behind me.  I’m looking above me and below me.  I don’t see Him.  But He knows.  He’s watching.  “He knows where I’m going” (v. 10).  

And then Job writes, “When he tests me…”  He describes it as a test.  And the Book of Job says that God removed a hedge of protection from around Job’s life.  So God’s not causing all these things, but He removes this hedge of protection and He allows these things.  And Job says, “It’s a test.”  And he says, “And I will come out as pure gold” (v. 10b).  

He says, “For I have…I have stayed on God’s paths; I have followed His ways and I have not turned aside.  I have not departed from His commands, but have treasured His words more than daily food” (vv. 11-12, NLT).

Job says, “Look, honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know where He’s at.  I’m lookin’ but I don’t see Him.  I’m crying out; I don’t hear Him.  But here’s what I can tell you.  He’s watching.  And it’s a test—not necessarily sent by God but certainly allowed by God.  And in this test,” Job says, “I’m going to come out of it because I am staying on His path and I am treasuring His Word.  More than daily food I’m depending on His truths.”  

So sometimes in the silence our faith is being tested.

I wrote this out because I want to be careful with this.  You can get into some bad theology pretty quickly here, so I wanted to put it specifically for us.  The primary purpose of God’s silence…the primary purpose may not be to test our faith.  In other words, I’m not saying every time you sense God is silent it’s because He’s testing you and it’s like, “Oh, another pop quiz?  Come on!  We just had one.”  It’s not always because God is testing your faith.  There are a lot of different reasons why it may seem that God is silent.  We’ll talk about some of that next week.  But here is what is true: Our faith is always tested in the silence.

The purpose may not be to test our faith, but your faith is tested in the silence.  That may not be the reason why God allows it, but certainly in the silence your faith is going to be tested.

So as you study this intertestamental period, one of the things you find is…well, you find some tests that have been put up on the refrigerator to inspire the people of God for generations and generations of what it looks like to be faithful when God is silent.

So there are some books of history…  They’re not biblical books but they tell about the history of the Jews during this intertestamental period.  One of them is called the Book of Maccabees, and it records just the faithfulness of some of God’s people during this period of silence.  

The Second Book of Maccabees tells about a time when the Assyrian army came into Jerusalem to persecute some of the Jewish leaders and some of the leading Jewish families, and they went to the outskirts of Jerusalem to a small village.  And they pull out a mother and her seven sons.  The father had already died.  And they go to the oldest of the seven sons and they said, “You will either reject the commands of God or you will be killed on this day.”  And they gave him a piece of pork to eat, symbolic of rejecting all the commands of God and turning His back on God.  And the older brother, oldest of the seven brothers, refused.  His hands and feet were cut off.  His tongue was cut out, and he was burned alive in front of his mother and his six brothers.

They go to the second son.  They say, “Look, you’ve seen what’s happened to your brother.  You either reject the commands of God; you eat this pork, or you will be killed as well.”  The second brother refused.  His upper torso was anchored to a catapult; his feet and lower body were anchored to the ground.  The catapult was tripped and he was literally torn in two.  And I could go on down through the list of the brothers, but I will spare you some of those graphic details.

They get down and there’s one son left.  The captain of the guard says to the mom, “You need to talk some sense into your boy.  This is the last boy that you have.”  She’s in shock, as we could only imagine, and she goes over to her youngest son and she embraces him for what would be the last time.  And here is what she says.  She says, “My son, have pity on me.  I carried you nine months in my womb and nursed you.  I have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and I have taken care of you.  I beg you, on this day, to look at the heavens and the earth and see everything in them.  And then do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers.  Accept death so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”  The ultimatum was given to the youngest boy.  He refused to reject God and he, too, was executed on that day.

In Revelation Jesus says to the churches…  He says, “Look, be faithful until death, and you will receive a crown of life.”  “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you crown of life” (2:10).  

And so here’s what I would say: Sometimes in the silence your faith is being tested.

Think of it like this. A teacher comes in and it’s the beginning of the school year, and the teacher gives her students all the information that they could need to be prepared for the test, the final exam at the end of a semester.  She answers all the questions the students have, and she gives them notes that they can study.  She gives them everything they need to do well on the test.  She talks and she answers.  But then when the test is handed out, what’s the teacher do?  The teacher sits in silence while the students take the test.

And one theologian explains the silence of God that way.  He says, “The silence of God is like a teacher who is silent during a test.”  That God has prepared you.  God knows that you’re ready for the test that you’re taking, and He is silent during the test.  So you be faithful to the very end.

You know, you listen to the history of what happened during these four hundred years.  It seems that God had forgotten His people, that He had abandoned them.  But he hadn’t.  The teacher is silent during the test.  And it may seem at times like God has forgotten, that God is silent, but the teacher is silent during the test.

So here’s my encouragement to you: Pick up your number two pencil and get to work, because in the end there is a crown of life for those who are faithful.