For about 20 years Emily Robison Adams felt like she had not been getting answers from God on direct questions. So she petitioned God for an answer about whether or not the Book of Mormon was true—a question with a clear promise and one God would certainly answer. But when once again, she felt God’s silence as her answer, she became worried. Was she doing something wrong that was preventing answers from reaching her? Instead of allowing herself to become discouraged, Emily set out on a quest to better understand what was happening in these seemingly one-way conversations, and in the process, she recorded all that she was learning. This beautifully documented journey was recently published as the book, Divine Quietness. On this week’s All In podcast, Emily shared two things that were helpful to her as she embarked on this exploration.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones Pearson: This book is called Divine Quietness. And I think some people might not know what to expect based on that title but I think the idea of it is so beautiful. In the book, you write, “In my quietness, I could choose to see God as absent, silent and aloof, or I could choose to see quietness as a different way that God could relate to me. The latter choice brought more hope and meaning. Instead of talking about God going silent, I chose to speak of God going quiet. And perhaps if I did not resist the quietness, I could find God in that quiet space.” So, I wondered for you, Emily, what did you learn about why sometimes God isn’t silent, but maybe He is just quiet?
Emily Robison Adams: For me, the word silence carries connotations of absence, of aloofness, of being angry, you think of people giving others a cold shoulder—the silent treatment, just as a word with a lot of connotations that are positive and quiet. This, for me, seemed more like somebody’s present, but I’m maybe not aware of it. It’s just [that] they’re engaging in my life in a way that I’m not entirely aware of.
I read a lot at the very beginning and in the middle, and for months and months that quietness lasted. And there was a lot of stuff I read that was not helpful. That actually seemed to push me further into it and made it seem like the quietness of it was a result of me—some sin, I wasn’t tuning in, and there was something incredibly wrong with me. And I walked away from those sources just feeling like I didn’t understand because I felt like I was doing everything right. I was trying to do the right thing when I was trying to ask God genuine good questions. But I ran across two things that were really helpful.
One was The Dark Night of the Soul. And one was this concept of withdrawal in the context of normal human healthy relationships. And The Dark Night of the Soul has been around for a long time. There was a poem and then subsequently a book written by St. John of the Cross who was a Catholic priest back in the 1500s. And it’s something that’s actually pretty well known in broader Christendom, but we don’t really talk about it in our church. But essentially, the dark night of the soul occurs when you feel extreme absence—they call it a rigidity—you just feel like God is gone. And what John likes to talk about, St. John of the Cross, what he likes to talk about is that this is actually for your benefit—that sometimes we attach a lot of expectations to God, we attach a lot of quid pro quo to God. So we say, “I follow God because I get this benefit” or “I do this for God because I get this benefit” and when all of that is taken away, you finally have to examine your relationship with God and decide, “Am I doing this for a deeper, holier, better reason than just getting a benefit in return?” And, you know, there’s a lot more to St. John of the Cross. It’s a beautiful, hard book to read because it’s old. But I really liked that idea. I like the idea that maybe God was teaching me something here—that I had attached a lot of expectations to God. I thought I could control God, I was attaching a lot of benefits to my supposed righteousness and by taking all of that away, I finally had to examine all these ideas and thoughts and ways that I had lived, and they were found wanting. But when all of that was covered with warm, fuzzy feelings, like going to church and feeling awesome and reading your scriptures and feeling the Spirit and seeing your parents and feeling good, when all of the good feelings are gone, you suddenly have to figure out, what does this really mean? Why am I here? Is God really a person or being that I’m interested in? Because I’m not receiving any benefit. So I really liked that idea.
And the other idea that I really liked was from Wendy Ulrich. And she wrote a book called, Let God Love You that I wish I would have found years ago. But in it, and I believe she’s a psychologist, she talks about how withdrawal is just a really super normal stage of healthy relationships and she talks about how long-term successful marriages oftentimes go through four stages, you’ve got the honeymoon stage, then you’ve got the power struggle stage where you realize that the person you married isn’t really the person that you’re living with. And then if those power struggles come to a head, you can get to the withdrawal stage, where you begin to wonder if it’s really worth it staying in this relationship because this person is different than the person you thought you married. And she talks about the withdrawal stage as just a long, boring, awful road trip. And there’s no magical way to get out of it, you just drive through it, and you don’t have any idea how long it’s gonna take. You just drive, you just keep your wheels on the road, and you drive. And eventually, if you get through that stage, you can go to the acceptance stage.
The acceptance stage is all about recognizing the person you married as perfect as who they are and accepting them for who they are, accepting you for who they are, and moving forward in that relationship. And she takes that framework and attributes it to God, and talks about her own experiences experiencing God in a time of withdrawal. And it felt to me like maybe there was a dark night of the soul for me. But perhaps maybe I withdrew a little bit too because God was different than I thought He was supposed to be. He wasn’t meeting my expectations. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay. For me, it was never a question of whether to stay in the Church or not. For me, it was always a question of whether to stay with God or not because if God isn’t worthy of worship, church doesn’t matter. Those two things I thought were really helpful. And essentially, they both come down to putting you in a space where you can examine your assumptions, your ideas, and your philosophies that you might not have seen before but they become really apparent when suddenly they stop working.