I once visited a high end restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, where video screens were installed in individual bathroom stalls. Once you latched the door behind you, the screen booted up and began to play. It felt like the perfect motherhood cliche. Even in the bathroom I couldn’t get a sliver of silence.
We North Americans hate silence. Screens talk to us in restaurants, in airline terminals, in the grocery store checkout lane. Even in quarantine we somehow figure out how to fill our lives with the noise. It is no wonder then that we don’t like it when we perceive God as quiet. Especially when life is hard. Oftentimes in grief and in crisis, we crave words, assurances that we are not alone, that the end of suffering is near. We cry out, How long, O Lord? We demand, Why [Lord] do you hide yourself in times of trouble? And we expect an answer. We want God to speak.
Our desires are partly warranted. God is at his essence a communicator. He spoke creation into existence, sent Jesus as the Word made flesh, and wrote his message to humankind in sixty-six books. He has promised to hear us when we pray and throughout Scripture and church history has responded to the cries of his people. Dallas Willard writes in his classic Hearing God, “People are meant to live in an ongoing conversation with God, speaking and being spoken to.” But how do we live when it appears Jesus has nothing to say? Could it be that there are moments where something more than words is needed?
In that most beloved passage of scripture, Psalm 23, we never read of Jesus speaking. I find it striking that we run to these verses in times of trial and sorrow — straight into the arms of a Shepherd who doesn’t have any lines to say. Of course, we know that shepherding was not a silent job. Elsewhere in Scripture we read of Jesus the shepherd calling his sheep by name. He tells us in the gospel of John that his sheep know the sound of his voice. Verbal communication is foundational to our relationship with our shepherd.
But verbal communication isn’t the only way that Jesus communicates with his sheep. As I used to tell my public speaking students, verbal communication isn’t the only way to talk. Our bodies often speak more powerfully than our words ever could. I suspect we know this intuitively when we run to Psalm 23 in times of pain. There are some places too dark and heavy for words. There are places where another kind of communication is most needed.
And so, the psalmist describes an affectionate, protective, loving shepherd’s actions. Jesus leads us beside still waters, prepares a table for us, comforts us with his rod and staff — nonverbal gestures that tell us just as much about his care as his words do. In Psalm 23, Jesus never has a memorable line, but his actions speak volumes. He gives us what we need in our hour of struggle — his strong and quiet provision and presence.
We love words because we love the logos Himself. But if we are to attend to ourselves and others in times of tragedy and sorrow, we must learn to seek and embrace the Jesus who comes to us between the words. The Jesus who appears in times of trouble to be awfully quiet. This Jesus is no less capable when he does not speak. He is no less attentive to our needs. Psalm 23 reminds us that his care taking simply takes a different shape. He knows our every need and fulfills it even if he does not say a word. We can trust our shepherd even when we do not hear his voice.
After Rob died, I became the recipient of many words. Some very beautiful, others very painful. Many awkward, most heartfelt. But in the shock and sorrow of his tragic death, no words could quiet my spirit. Promises of heaven, verses of reassurance — all of these fell flat in the face of the horror I experienced when I learned Rob had fallen to his death. Words were woefully inadequate. They offered little comfort. But in that darkness, Jesus’ presence did.
Jesus came to me in unexpected ways in my early sorrow. He came as the friend who quietly slept on the floor outside my bedroom in case I panicked in the night. He appeared with the meal left wordlessly at my doorstep by another young widow, only 11 months out from her own husband’s death. He carried me on his shoulders as I repeated the truth, “I am held, I am held.” In my time of sorrow, Jesus ministered to me in quiet. And like a lamb nestled close by her shepherd, I learned that as long as he was near, that was good enough. I learned to rest in Jesus’ strong and quiet presence, in the space between the words.
I have so many questions I want God to answer. I long to hear Jesus’ voice. ”But words from God, no matter how well we know his voice, will not spare us the times of grief and pain, as Jesus was not spared,” writes Dallas Willard in Hearing God.
Many times, we demand words of divine reassurance but hear none. But lest we read Jesus’ silence as inattention, Psalm 23 reassures us — he is still communicating. There is not a moment where we are out of his mind or forgotten. He always gives us exactly the kind of care we need. Instead of the words we want, in silence, Jesus offers us his quiet presence and asks us to trust him. Perhaps Jesus knows more words do not always bring peace. Only his presence can do that. So he offers us his strength in silence, the arms of a shepherd surrounding us when words fail.