Reading Silence


I became a Christian in high school, right around the time of the Columbine High School massacre. One of the stories that came out of the tragedy was of a teenage girl who was shot because she affirmed her belief in God. At fifteen, with my fledgling faith, I remember wondering if I would be able to do that in the face of such fear or if, instead, I would deny God to save my life.

Silence was written in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, and was recently made into a film by director Martin Scorsese. I have not seen the film yet, but I intend to. When I heard about its production I was excited because this is a book that has stuck with me. I will write about the movie once I’ve seen it, but first I wanted to share some of my thoughts from the book, some of which come from something I wrote back when I read the book a bit over a year ago.

Please note: I include some details and spoilers of the story in this post.

Silence is the story of a Portuguese missionary who travels to Japan in the 1600s. Although Christianity had been brought to Japan and flourished in the mid-1500s, everything changed when Toyotomi Hideyoshi became ruler of Japan. Seeing Christianity as a threat, he began expelling missionaries and persecuting believers. Those who refused to renounce God and apostatize were tortured and killed.

When Sebastian Rodrigues arrives in Japan, he is searching for Father Ferreira, a missionary reported to have apostatized, or renounce God. Along his journey, Father Rodrigues serves the Japanese Christians in secret, praying with them and listening to their confessions. Even in the face of deafening silence from God, Father Rodrigues stays faithful to his calling and continues his journey until he is finally caught by Japanese authorities.

Father Rodrigues endured a period of silence from God — those kinds of blank spaces we all often experience where God feels far away and we begin to question where he has gone in our time of need. But nothing could take away his love for Jesus, that face that sustained him throughout his life, throughout the silent nights of suffering.

At times, this book is difficult to read, raising such powerful questions about faith, suffering, and calling. What would you do if called to renounce your God for the sake of your life? What would you do if called to renounce your God for the sake of others’ lives? What is it we are called to do and what would God instruct us to do in those moments? How does that affect the way we understand Jesus’ submission to die on the cross for all of us?

In the end, Father Rodrigues does apostatize and step on the image of Christ. He does this after God finally breaks his silence and says to the Father, “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Some have interpreted this as Father Rodrigues mistakenly believing he was hearing the words of God, when in reality they are the words of the devil tempting him to betray his faith. I’m not so sure.

The thought that Jesus would indeed want us to publicly renounce our faith to stop the suffering of others doesn’t seem that far off to me. For, “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another – to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind” (Father Rodrigues’ definition of sin).

I wonder if there are limits at all to how far we can and should go to stop the suffering of others. I believe Jesus would have no limits for that, and aren’t we to imitate his example? 

In the end, what I think Father Rodrigues gave up in denouncing God was that which was most precious to him, not to God. Apostatizing was the final act of dying to self.

The themes this book brought forth for me were challenging to my normal way of thinking about God and faith, in all the best ways. I found my mind wandering outside the normal boxes we sometimes place God in and seeing him in new ways. I believe it is a book I will return to over the years and I’m hoping the film will be do it justice. I’ll let you know when I find out.

2 thoughts on “Reading Silence

  1. I would be interested in reading this book as well.

    I often wonder what I would do with my faith with the threat of death. I’d like to say that I would cling to God even if my own life was being jeopardized. I think I would. However, I am less sure when the lives of those closest to me, namely my husband and children, might be threatened. Frank has repeatedly assured me that if anything should threaten his life, that I need to take solace in him residing with Jesus.

    I struggle.

    Are we looking at suffering of others through the lens of self and our perception of justice? God’s ways are not our ways. Could their suffering bring about the salvation of hundreds, thousands? We are to be concerned about injustice. We need to be the voice of the oppressed, but do we forsake God for the preservation of life? I’m not so sure.

    I know you quoted how the missionary defined sin. I’m hesitant to look towards what we say sin is. God said that sin is anything that separates us from him. Could we do something we think is good, but in fact defies God? Are we using our measures or God’s? I wrestle with sola scriptura because I think church history is nuanced and sometimes where the Bible is silent, we must come to our own conclusions on a matter. However, I tend to think the Bible is pretty clear on the nature of sin, forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Sin separates us from God. In denying God for the sake of another’s life, are we making family and friends idols? Are we trusting that God will bring about the justice we long for?

    He did say he would come to divide families. Yes, Jesus cared for the poor and the oppressed. Yet, he even let Lazarus die. We know that he raises Lazarus, but Jesus did let him die. Martha told Jesus that if he had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Jesus wept over Lazarus. This isn’t the best example, I know. However, we can see that Christ allowed death of the innocent, death of even those closest to him, that he might reveal who he was, is, and will be—the Almighty God who restores all things, even that which is seemingly unjustifiable.

    Christ laid down his life for us. Shouldn’t we wish to do the same? I know it is particularly hard when we see others being abused. If we renounce God and the abuse stops, is this trusting God? Do we trust in his power to exalt justice and peace more than we trust our own? His ways are not our ways. We hope for the things not seen.

    It doesn’t make it any easier. Seeing others be hurt on account of our faith feels offensive, unnatural. How could God allow such injustice? However, as I mentioned before, his ways are not our ways.

    [I think how Bonhoeffer couldn’t initially reconcile murder to end the plight of Jews. He eventually comes to the conclusion that to end this brutality, Hitler must be assassinated. Bonhoeffer took part in the planning and execution of assassination plans against Hitler. I struggle with that too. We are told not to murder, but should we when throngs of innocent lives are at risk? I don’t know. These matters are difficult. I find peace that I hope in things not seen.]


    1. They are definitely all tough issues! In the case of the book, it wasn’t actually people the missionary knew or loved, like family or friends, but people were being tortured because of him. I don’t know the answers, that’s for sure, but I love that this book challenged my thinking. And I think the different ways we emphasize certain parts of scripture make it even more nuanced. To me, Jesus saying the two greatest commandments are to love God and love other people is supreme, so I would really find it difficult to let people suffer. For someone else who feels the great commission to evangelize and lead a Godly life as an example, staying true to their faith would be more important. I wonder if one of is wrong in emphasizing one part over the other.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s