This week as I sat hunched over my bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with nothing but the hum of the fridge and the low whirring of the ceiling fan as a soundtrack, I thought to myself how silence is a gift. It’s often rare and hard-won and priceless. It’s often the hardest to find when we need it the most.
As a spiritual discipline, silence is not given the due it deserves. We think automatically about prayer and Bible study, as we ought, but we neglect the simplicity of silence. We talk about discerning God’s will, desiring to hear from Him, to communicate with Him. However, we create precious few opportunities to do so because we have a hard time with the quiet. Our prayers are one-sided monologues. We spend time reading our bibles with music playing or our phones handy–distractions ready to pull our thoughts away. We don’t know how to shut up, shut off, and shut down. Silence is a discipline that we would do well to learn, especially now.
M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. in his book Invitation to a Journey, describes silence as “the inner act of letting it go.” He goes on to say that “if used regularly…God will gradually awaken us to the multiple layers of controlling, grasping “noise” in our lives: the defensive postures by which we justify our control of people and circumstance; the attack dynamics by which we extend and maintain our possession and control of others and our world; the indulgent habits by which we grasp things and others for ourselves; the manipulative practices with which we inflict our will on the world; and especially the ways in which we attempt to use God to support and justify these structures.” In other words, the spiritual discipline of silence provides a means to unclench our grip on whatever delusions of control we may have over our lives, others, and the world.
To rid ourselves of this “noise,” we must let go. We must learn to sit in the silence and let God be God, and begin to get honest with ourselves about who we are. We know the Psalmist’s words that remind us to “be still and know I am God,” and “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.” But I think we read those words and chalk them up to some ideal state of mind that no one can realistically achieve. Be still? What’s that? Who’s got time for that? I’ve got kids/family/work/school/etc. I’m dealing with the health issues of loved ones and myself. Be still? In this hectic hurricane that is my life?
Dallas Willard describes silence and solitude as the two most radical disciplines of the Christian life. Henri Nouwen wrote that “without solitude it is almost impossible to live a spiritual life.” These are radical because they are so unnatural to those of us accustomed to noise and clamor. Silences have become vacuums that need to be filled with conversation or distraction.
Jesus, of course, set the example for us as He went out to a desolate place (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42), and went up on the mountain by Himself to pray…alone (Matthew 14:23). Even He needed to get away from the hustle and bustle so that He could hear Himself think and hear the voice of His Father, just as we need to do.
We have to learn to be present in the present. We need to learn to let the next thing wait, whatever that happens to be. We have to give ourselves permission to do nothing, which is the most important something–to be present in God’s presence, without distraction or agenda. Colossians 3:2 – “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are earth.” This is a near-impossible task when we allow ourselves to be bombarded by other voices, noises, and distractions.
The purpose of silence is not just to have some peace and quiet. Peace and quiet are great and healthy, but aren’t in themselves a spiritual discipline! The goal of all spiritual disciplines can be summed up in 1 Tim. 4:7b-10 – “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end, we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Silence is a means of training for godliness as it provides an intentional conduit for “spiritual-mindedness.” It helps us get out of our own heads and into a communal space with God.
As Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes, “Silence is a time to rest in God. Lean into God, trusting that being with Him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams of living water. It can form your life, even if it doesn’t solve your life.” The bottom line: being silent in the presence of God is life-changing.
In the dead of night, Samuel heard God call his voice (1 Sam. 3:1-10). It took a few times before Samuel knew it was God. Eli, Samuel’s mentor, gave Samuel the words to say the next time he heard God call. “Here I am; Your servant is listening.”
As we shut out the noise and distractions, repeat those words. HERE I am. Nowhere else. HERE. I AM. I am present. Present and ready to listen to the voice that matters most.