In Shusaku Endo’s famous novel Silence, two Portuguese priests are sent as missionaries to Japan. The year is 1637, and the Japanese church is struggling under the weight of religious persecution. These priests want to encourage the fledgling flock, so they give their lives to a dangerous voyage and the possibility of martyrdom.
When they arrive in Japan, the Christians welcome them with open arms. And for a while things are great, until the Japanese authorities arrive in their little ocean town. What happens next is not what the priests expect. Instead of being martyred themselves, they are forced to watch the torture and murder of the peasant Christians in their care. Each time, the prisoners are told they can go free if they renounce the faith. And each time, they remain faithful to the end.
After the first martyrdom they witness, one priest writes, “What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God these men moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
In this and the following sections, one begins to understand why the title of the book is Silence. And one begins to understand why this little novel became an international best-seller— because it grapples with a timeless, universal question: What does it mean when God seems silent? Silent in the face of human suffering, silent in response to our questions, silent in the midst of our pain?
What does it mean when God seems silent?
This is a question many people have asked around the world in the last year. We’re living in the wake of a pandemic that has separated families, taken away jobs, canceled graduations, and claimed thousands of lives. Our physical and mental health has hung in the balance as we’ve asked, “How long, O Lord?” “Where are you? What are you doing? Why?” Our lack of control over our lives and the future can, at times, feel like a deafening silence.
NT Wright recently told TIME Magazine that “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.” But of course, the mystery of Good Friday is that God laments too. The Christian God is unique among all religions because He is a suffering God, who responds to the problem of evil by enduring it himself.
This is the strange comfort of the cross—that Jesus knows the vulnerability of having a body; that he knows the pain of isolation, shame, and betrayal. And most staggering of all, in his dying moments, Jesus also experiences God’s silence. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Our high priest knows what it is to cry out in anguish, to ask God, “Why?”
How did Jesus respond to God’s silence?
And so on this day of remembrance, as we reflect on the suffering of Jesus, it is also instructive to observe how He handles the suffering. How did Jesus respond to the silence of God?
He rehearsed what he knew
First, he rehearsed what he knew. The gospels record Jesus quoting the psalms during his crucifixion. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ recitation of Psalm 22, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and Luke records him quoting Psalm 31, “into your hands I commit my spirit.”
This combination led many in the early church to believe Jesus must have recited all of Ps. 22-31 while he was dying. In the most excruciating and bewildering moments of Jesus’ life, he was rehearsing the prayers and songs he’d prayed since childhood, recalling the words and stories that God’s people had handed down throughout the centuries.
This is not a bad practice for us to keep in mind. In seasons that make no sense, when we are overwhelmed by all that we don’t know, we can rehearse what we do know. We can lay hold of the prayers and stories of past generations. We can claim the promises of God even if they don’t seem to fit our current experience.
As we do this, the words we pray become prophetic just as they did for Jesus—our rehearsal of the truth becomes for us the very truth we need, and the very power to live it. God is good. He is at work. This is what we know.
He asked “why?”
But on the cross, Jesus also acknowledges what He doesn’t know. This is the second thing He models for us—Jesus is not afraid to ask the unanswerable questions. He is not afraid to cry out to God in bewilderment and despair and ask, “Why have you forsaken me?” Now, surely Jesus knew the theological answer to this question. He knew, and indeed, He chose to take the weight of our sin and darkness onto Himself. He knew His Father loved Him and that He would be raised again. This was the plan all along.
But even knowing all of this did not shelter Jesus from the existential angst of suffering. And His willingness to ask God “why” gives us permission to bring the full weight of our suffering to God. It is okay to ask the unanswerable questions if those are the ones on your mind. It is possible to believe God is good and to still ask, “Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus shows us how.
He cooperated with the cross
The third example Jesus gives us, the third way He responds to the silence of God on the cross, is with His own silence. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He opened not his mouth,” says Isaiah 53. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
In other words, Jesus cooperated with the cross. He drank the cup that had been given him to drink. He endured the humiliation, the rejection, the isolation, the death. And of course, this silent cooperation with suffering is the very basis of our salvation. By His wounds, we are healed.
How should we respond to God’s silence?
The range of Jesus’ expression on the cross shows us that all three of these are valid responses, valid ways to engage with God in our own suffering. If you’re like me, prone to ride the emotional pendulum, you might experience all three of these in one day. Or maybe this variety of expression is liberating to you. Maybe you’ve been afraid to ask God the hard questions, unable or unwilling to let yourself lament. Maybe you’re really good at lament, but you’ve forgotten to rehearse what is true and good and beautiful because you’ve been lost in the fog of anxiety. Or maybe you feel called to quietly endure a season of suffering, but you just lack the strength to do so.
Wherever you find yourself, the good news of Good Friday is that it is not up to you to have the perfect response to pain. Because Good Friday is not ultimately about whether we can live up to the moral example of Jesus. Today is not about our faithfulness; it is about our weakness.
In the passion story, we aren’t the ones on the cross, we are the ones who put Christ there. We are the faithless disciples like Peter, who longed to be close to Jesus but then denied even knowing him lest he suffer a similar fate. We are the ambivalent Jewish leaders like Nicodemus, who was too afraid to follow Jesus in life but came only afterward in his death, bringing spices and herbs for the body—a gift of love that came too late. We are the women, like Mary, so wracked with grief that she can’t see past her own pain, but whom Jesus beholds from the cross in love and finds a new home for her.
Good Friday reminds us that we do not have to be the heroes of our own stories.
Instead, we can pray in the words of Psalm 40, “As for me, I am poor and needy, yet the Lord gives thought for me.” This is the gift we receive again today, on the day of Jesus’ death. We remember that He is the hero of the story, of our story. He sees humanity in all our weakness, and He comes to suffer with us. To suffer for us. To go before us to the darkest, most desperate pit we might find ourselves in and to raise us up with Him. The cross is where we confront our failure. But it is also where we find our life.
Christ’s Cross is the Source of Our Life
The passion of Christ transfigures our own. It locates our current suffering in the context of a bigger story, in which death and destruction will not have the final say. However disoriented we feel today, we can proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
This is our compass in the wilderness. And it is our promise that even now, our pain can be productive– because Jesus can turn the most senseless suffering into a redemptive act. In Him, our very wounds can become generative, a source of life for others. We can expect this to happen because we ourselves are the beneficiaries of it.
Here is what I mean: After Jesus breathed his last, the gospel of John goes on to tell us that the soldiers pierced his side and that blood and water flowed from the wound. Blood, and water. Proof of his death from a medical standpoint, but also for us, the birth of the Church.
In the words of St. Augustine,
“When Jesus slept on the Cross, He bore a sign, yea, He fulfilled what had been signified in Adam: for when Adam was asleep, a rib was drawn from him and Eve was created; so also while the Lord slept on the Cross, His side was transfixed with a spear, and the sacraments flowed forth, whence the Church was born. For the Church, the Lord’s Bride, was created from His side, as Eve was created from the side of Adam. But as she was made from his side no otherwise than while sleeping, so the Church was created from His side no otherwise than while dying.”
Today we remember that when God seemed the most silent, He was actually speaking his most profound word. While Jesus slept, the Church was born. His death is the source of our life.
Adapted from a sermon at Village Church for Good Friday 2020.