By L. Alfred James
Newsflash: Two adults cannot have a very deep relationship if they never exchange words. Okay, that’s probably not really a newsflash since it’s extremely obvious. In fact, it’s so obvious that we virtually never think about it. But this obvious fact has huge implications for our understanding of God.
Words are the only medium that can adequately express the thoughts, feelings, and choices of a human being. Without words, a relationship between two people cannot be very fulfilling. Consider the short anecdote that Bob Kauflin tells about an interesting couple he once met.
I once met a husband and wife whose relationship had a unique start. He spoke English; she spoke Russian. Once they realized they were attracted to one another, they knew that looks, emotions, and gestures were an inadequate foundation for a potential marriage partner. So one of them learned to speak the other’s language. Meaningful relationships require words.1
To be sure, you can have a very rudimentary relationship with another person without words. An infant has this kind of non-linguistic connection with his/her mother. Likewise, a dog has a non-linguistic connection with his/her owner. But you cannot have a deep relationship if words are not exchanged. Grunts, groans, and gestures cannot convey the information content of a person’s thoughts, desires, choices, and feelings. Think about it: Even deaf and blind people use words. We often naively assume that words are not part of their normal communicative experience. But this is simply false. Blind people read braille (and use spoken words in audible conversations). Deaf people use sign language (and use words in written communications). In each case, words are still being used. They may not be written or spoken in the same way that most other people speak and write. But they are still words.
We Need A God Who Has Spoken
Why does this matter? Because many people think that the Bible is not all that important. It’s just sort of optional. Reading it is akin to a religious hobby. These people honestly believe they can have a meaningful relationship with God without any kind of revelation from him: It doesn’t matter if God has ever spoken. “I have warm feelings about God. Words just get in the way. Aren’t warm feelings enough for a relationship?”
No. They are not enough. Only words can convey enough information to “glue” two people into a strong relationship. Where the information content expressed between two adults is extremely low (such as with grunts, gestures, and smiles), the connection is extremely fragile. Less information means less communication. Less communication means less bonding. Less bonding means a weak relationship.
Worse, a relationship with God that is void of words is fraught with serious spiritual risks. Foremost among them is the risk of self-deception. After all, a God who never speaks is a God who never challenges you.
Don’t miss this point. We all need to be challenged. We all need someone, on occasion, to get in our face and tell us we are wrong, or that we need to change, or that we need to repent. A God who does not speak is a God who never does that. A God who does not speak is a God who never challenges us. Indeed, a silent God is surprisingly cooperative. He allows us to do whatever we like. In fact, he even allows us to re-imagine him to be whatever kind of God we like. He allows us to mold him and shape him into anything we want. He offers no protests of any kind. He registers no objections. A.W. Tozer once said that an idol that we create with our minds is just as bad as an idol that we create with our hands. But this is no problem for those who worship a silent God. He never disagrees.
Thus, a relationship with a silent God is a meaningless relationship.
A Silent God Is Not An Authentic Self
This same principle works in human relationships. When I was single, I would occasionally (very rarely) go on a date. One time I discovered, to my chagrin, that my date did not seem to have a very healthy sense of self. She did not have very clear convictions or much self-confidence. She agreed with everything I said. She laughed at every joke I told. And she seemed extremely impressed with everything about me. After about thirty minutes of this, I couldn’t take anymore. I knew something was very wrong and I was ready to politely end the date. Honestly, I know that I’m not that interesting, and I’m definitely not that funny. Her lack of disagreement with me made me lose interest in her. She failed to present herself as an independent person with thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of her own. In fact, she positively presented herself as a non-person. It actually made me feel sad for her.
I learned an important lesson from that experience. A relationship with another adult will only be deeply meaningful to us if they show themselves to be an authentic self. They need to have their own convictions, opinions, and preferences. If they never disagree with us, then we don’t find it very meaningful when they agree with us. If they do not ever think our jokes are, well, unfunny, then we won’t find it very meaningful if they find our jokes funny. If they don’t ever think our moral choices are wrong (or at least questionable), then we won’t find it very meaningful if they think that our moral choices are good and praiseworthy.
To put it very simply: a relationship with another person can only be meaningful if they clearly demonstrate that they have thoughts, feelings, desires, hatreds, aversions, loves, likes, and convictions of their own. However, none of these things can be adequately communicated without words. Grunts, groans, facial expressions, and gestures cannot carry this burden. Words are needed. Words alone will do.
What are the theological implications of this? If you honestly believe you can have a relationship with God apart from any words he has spoken, I hope you realize that it will be a very superficial relationship. It won’t be like a child with a parent. It will be more like a pet with an owner.
There are three problems we’ve seen with such a relationship. First of all, it will have very little depth. Second, you seriously run the risk of deceiving yourself and remaking God out to be whatever you want him to be. Third, you will never experience him as an authentic self, a separate person from you. At best, he will just be an appendage of yours, a sidekick, an imaginary friend.
Benefits of a Silent God
Please allow me a little room for sarcasm as I try to reinforce this point. Because there is a flipside to what I’ve said. We’ve just noted that there are major drawbacks to loving a silent God. But there are also benefits, especially if you are hopelessly lazy. A relationship with a silent God is extremely convenient. You will never have to struggle with any pangs of conscience. He will never make you feel dissatisfied with your own character. You will never feel that you need to teach any particular doctrines to others (to help them grow in their character or in their relationship with God). After all, there are no doctrines that need to be taught to anyone because doctrines (by definition) must be based on a linguistically communicated revelation. And, perhaps most convenient, you can always know that you love God as much as you love yourself. Why? Because your God is the same thing as your self. In fact, you will never again have to wonder what God looks like. All you have to do is look in the mirror.
1. Bob Kauflin, True Worshipers: Seeking What Matters to God (Wheaton, IL: CrossWay Books, 2015)