In the 17th century the Japanese government ruthlessly persecuted Christians. They imprisoned believers and used torture techniques such as hanging people upside down over pits filled with excrement. Some believers were crucified. The goal was to make Christians to recant and give up their faith.
Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (now a motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese) is set in this time period. As the title suggests, the characters in the story struggle with God’s silence in the face of their suffering. They cried out in prayer, but received no answer, no reprieve from their pain.
This is sometimes the experience of the Christian. We call out to God, but get no answer. Why not? Does God sometimes leave Christians? How could he let awful persecution, like the torture Japanese Christians endured, occur to his followers? Where is God when we suffer and experience pain, injustice, evil, and death? Psalm 22:1–5 wrestles with these questions:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
When God Is Distant
Psalm 22 begins with a cry of anguish. As David writes he feels forsaken by God. He is in trouble and God feels far, far away. David feels like he is groaning for God to rescue him, but God doesn’t respond. God is silent.
In the midst of his agony David asks: “God, where are you?” But he gets no response.
Though he questions God, David hasn’t lost his faith. His relationship with God hasn’t been broken. But he is confused because God is distant. One commentator describes David’s questions as a “cry of disorientation as God’s familiar protective presence is withdrawn and the enemy closes in.” Perhaps you have felt this way. Maybe you have cried out to God for help, relief, or strength and heard nothing back. Sometimes it seems that our prayers are unheard or ignored. While we know that God is ever-present, everywhere at all times, sometimes he removes our sense of his nearness. Sometimes, for a time, God withholds the comfort of his presence, even to believers. What are we to do if we find ourselves in this situation?
What Do You Believe?
We should do what David does. He talks to himself and reminds himself of what he believes. “Yet,” he says, “you are holy.” He reminds himself, and us, that God is righteous and he will not do wrong to us. Sometimes we need to do this. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we believe, especially when God is silent. As Christians we are not called to feel happy or close to God all the time, but we are called to believe in him.
David goes on to say that God is “enthroned on the praises of Israel.” In other words, God has been praised by his people through the years, because he has been faithful to them and always sustained them. David says, “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” By reflecting on the way that God has been faithful to rescue his people in the past, David finds encouragement to persevere in faith even when he feels like God has left him. He knows, though he may not feel it, that God’s silence does not mean God is absent. Though he cannot see how God will rescue him, David knows that he is not rejected by God.
As Christians, even when God is silent, we know that he is not rejecting us because Jesus was already rejected for us. Because of our sin and rebellion against God we don’t deserve his presence and love, we deserve his wrath and judgment. But Christ took that wrath and punishment in our place. As he hung on the cross Jesus cried out, using the words of Psalm 22 to describe what he was experiencing, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” Unlike David, who found solace in God’s faithfulness, Jesus was truly rejected by God. On the cross, Jesus experienced the fullness of the judgment of God against sin. As he turned to his Father where he once found perfect love, Jesus found instead wrath. And because Jesus bore the wrath of the Father, we will never have to, if we believe he died for us. God may discipline you as a Father disciplines a child, God may be silent at times and remove a sense of his nearness, but he will never, ever leave you or forsake you.
 Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-22, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 123.