People who “only speak when they have something to say” can be annoying. Most of us treat small talk like a basic food group; we squirm when total silence stretches beyond fifteen seconds. What do you do with someone who sits like a sphinx as you try to get a conversation going?

Having such a character on hand gets even worse when you’re frustrated or depressed. In that state, we want solutions, and we want them now. If answers are impossible, we expect at least a word of support. What do you do with someone who just sits there, without even a sympathetic grunt, while you vent?

And what do you do when that Someone is God and you’ve apparently been abandoned to a dark night of the soul? We cry for answers, for comfort, for even a hint that God understands and cares–and we hear nothing, feel nothing, are left with nothing except desperate struggle to hold on to what we thought we believed but now feel less sure of as each day ends with no perceptible change in our situations.

Some may expect immunity to this sort of thing after a few experiences of being fully aware of God’s presence. The Biblical record says otherwise. Consider Jacob. As a young man, he heard God’s promise: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15). As he returned from Haran, he met God “face to face” (Gen. 32:30) and received His special blessing. On his way home to Canaan, God again affirmed him directly as a man of promise (Gen. 35:9-15). Surely Jacob had as much claim as anyone to being in regular person-to-person touch with the Lord.

Then his favorite son went missing and was presumed dead. Jacob was heartbroken, absolutely shattered–and while his human family tried their best to console him, God apparently said nothing. And apparently continued to say nothing for more than twenty years. It was only after Jacob learned through purely human channels that Joseph was actually alive in Egypt, and set out to act on that knowledge, that God broke His long silence with fresh promises and reassurance (Gen. 45:25-46:4).

Why did God wait so long to let Jacob find out all was well? Why does He keep any of us waiting for years, possibly our entire lives, to see the purpose behind our pain?

Perhaps Jacob’s case involved some “learning to let go.” He was the grandson of Abraham who received the great test of laying his own son (Jacob’s father) on the sacrificial altar and being prepared to strike a fatal blow; yet maybe Jacob himself had never learned to love God above any human attachment. We do know that shortly before the events recounted in Genesis 45-46, he had balked at risking even a temporary separation from his youngest son, another favorite: “If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow” (Gen. 42:38b). When we start thinking “if I lose him/her/it I’ll die!,” we’re dangerously close to making something or someone other than God our primary purpose for living. And even if God told us directly that letting go was necessary for our greater good, we’d be unlikely to listen or obey because our emotions are so tied up in the attachment. Many a survivor of an unhappy marriage or other less-than-blessed tie has said sadly in retrospect, “I knew God didn’t want me to go through with it, but I convinced myself I just had to.”

The reason God doesn’t rush to remedy our pain, or even reveal the “why” of it, may not always relate to our idolatry or rebellion; as with Job, tragedy without explanation may also happen to those who are apparently doing everything right. But we can always be sure that it relates in some way to God’s making us everything He would have us be.

“Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains…. we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:7, 11).

Meanwhile, as Ray Stedman put it, “Never doubt in the darkness what God showed you in the light.”

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