We deeply desire God’s answers to our prayers, but we often wonder when or how He will respond. What do we do when it seems God is silent?
The Old Testament ends abruptly. After generations of consistent messengers sent by God, the text leaves readers with a cliff-hanger of a vision.
Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, foretells a coming day that will burn like an oven (Malachi 4:1). The people of God are enjoined to remember the law, statutes and judgments given by God through Moses (verse 4).
Then Malachi closes with an impressive prophetic vision: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (verses 5-6).
Like other inspired prophecies, this one is direct, compelling and, frankly, a bit ominous.
But what comes next for the people of God is even more discomforting.
Silence for almost 400 years.
After Malachi’s closing words, the inspired prophets who had routinely brought God’s direct word, instruction and message of hope vanished from the scene. Weeks, months, years and generations came and went. God seemed to go dark. Quiet. Silent.
This period came to be known as the silent years, or the 400 years of silence.
The long silence likely proved frustrating and perplexing for those who held out hope and conviction about God’s promises.
That palpable stress can be felt individually in our lives too. How do we, as Christians, handle the apparent silence of God?
Told to talk
Christians are, after all, told to talk to God. Paul encouraged, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, emphasis added throughout). Christians are directed to communicate with God.
Jesus plainly instructed His disciples to take their needs, desires and concerns to the Father in prayer (John 16:23-26). On His last Passover before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus pointed His disciples toward a future when they would pray regularly to God. “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).
God openly encourages Christians to engage in direct, frequent communication with Him. It seems clear that God desires to hear from His children. For a more in-depth examination of how to pray, download our free How to Pray study guide.
Expecting a response
Jesus asserts that one who prays to God should pray expecting a response. “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22).
The psalmist’s approach should be a Christian’s approach. “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).
When praying for help, deliverance, guidance, blessing, intervention or anything else, Christians are to pray with expectant, faithful hearts—expecting God to answer.
Jesus reassures us, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23-24).
Elsewhere, Christ makes it clear that He was not granting a blank check to fill intemperate requests or selfishly motivated desires. Instead, Christ cautions that our requests should align with the will of God and should not be motivated by personal greed (Luke 22:42; James 4:3). Read our online article “What It Really Means to Pray, ‘Thy Will Be Done’” for a more in-depth explanation.
So, we do. We pray. We talk to God. We ask about events around us. We express concerns. We ask for intervention, healing, guidance, protection and about a myriad of other needs and desires. We try to align our requests with the will and purpose of God.
Sometimes God answers directly and immediately. Remarkable examples of miraculous healing and physically unexplainable blessings are encouraging. Receiving such gifts is exhilarating and often prompts gratitude and praise.
Yet, at other times, it can seem as though God meets our requests and supplications with nothing—a thundering silence that can result in exasperation, feelings of uncertainty and fear, and even despair.
Four things to do when God is silent
God’s purpose is not to provoke such reactions. So, how should Christians make sense of and react to the apparent silence of God? Here are a few productive ideas:
1. Look—and I mean really look—for God’s response.
Humans are often impressed by the dramatic. There are times when God responds with something vivid and miraculous.
Consider the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 14-15), Joshua’s prayer for the sun to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14), the spectacular events following Elijah’s request on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:30-39), and the response to Cornelius’ prayers (Acts 10:1-8). God’s responses were immediate, powerful and unmistakable. It is easy to gravitate toward those examples and expect a similar dramatic response to our prayers.
More frequently, God responds through direction in the Bible, where He has embedded spiritual principles that provide answers for real-life choices and decisions (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Finding those answers takes time, personal discipline and spiritual work. God commends “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
It’s often the case that God is responding; we just have to listen well enough to hear.
2. Grow while you wait.
When we need something, our natural inclination is to want it now. Waiting is, after all, challenging. Idly waiting can prove dangerous for Christians (Proverbs 19:15; 31:27).
In some situations, God may use an apparent delay to facilitate spiritual growth and training (Hebrews 12:3-11). God’s goal is to produce “the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (verse 11).
A Christian’s life should not be stagnant. Peter bids Christians to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Waiting for God’s response provides space to develop patience, faith, contentment, empathy and a number of other righteous traits. Times of silence can prove spiritually productive.
3. Practice persistence.
The answer to prayers and supplications may be “not now,” rather than simply “no.”
Jesus’ followers “always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Jesus used the now-famous parable of the persistent widow (verses 2-8) to illustrate this crucial attitude. God wants to hear from us. But He also wants to see a faithful resolve in our approach to prayer.
Consider the prophet Elijah. That same prophet who called down fire from heaven in one of the most dramatic displays of answered prayer (1 Kings 18:30-39) also experienced times when God seemed to meet his requests with silence. Elijah was persistent—seeking God’s intervention seven times (verses 41-43). His persistence was rewarded in God’s timing (verses 44-45).
4. Accept God’s divine wisdom and move forward with faith.
Humans are often geared to examine situations and identify the obvious solution. By this standard, it can seem that sometimes God doesn’t answer.
Maybe we search diligently through Scripture for guidance and never land on a specific principle to guide us. We work on growing spiritually. We persist, again and again and again, in prayer. Yet God remains, as far as we can discern, silent. That silence can be excruciatingly difficult.
Sometimes, Christians must simply trust in God’s divine prerogatives and move forward in faith (Isaiah 55:8-9). Paul urges, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
Those who move forward in faith, even when met with apparent silence, are commended (Hebrews 11:13-16, 39-40).
Preparation, not silence
Remember that long period following Malachi’s prophecy when it appeared God was silent?
God wasn’t distant or uninvolved. He was actually working to fulfill His plan for mankind. During this time, God was bringing about and allowing world events to develop that would facilitate the establishment of the New Testament Church.
It was during this period of silence that the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace, was established. This relative peace would provide an environment in which the Church could be planted and the gospel spread.
An organized system of roadways, trading networks and a reliable mail system were developed. These developments would allow for the circulation of apostolic letters as well as traveling teachers of the gospel.
Practicing Jews among the Diaspora were establishing synagogues across much of the Roman Empire. These enclaves would provide fertile ground for future Christian congregations.
All these things were happening while God appeared to be silent.
And, just like that, the apparent silence ended—picking up right where Malachi left off.
Zacharias, a faithful priest, received a startling visit from the angel Gabriel. “Your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son . . . He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13-17).
There are times it may appear God is inactive. In reality, He is actively bringing His children to glory (Hebrews 2:10).
Are you dealing with apparent silence in your life? Look for God’s response, grow spiritually, persist and move forward in faith.
Study more in “Does God Answer Prayers Today?” and “Finding Answers to the Questions That Matter” and related articles.