When a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Master said, "You must learn to listen to your wife."The man took his advice to heart and returned after a month to say that he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying.Said the Master with a smile, "Now go home and listen to every word she isn't saying."
by Anthony de Mellow
We live in a society that does not value or encourage silence. When is the last time you heard someone say, "Let's share some silence?" This kind of statement is rarely heard today, even in church settings or among the most intimate of friends or family.
There are a host of reasons why most Americans avoid silence at all costs. As the story above by Anthony de Mello indicates, most of us fail to realize how important listening and silence are until conflict or malaise surfaces in a relationship. If we are attentive, we can sense "things aren't just right" and get back to the important discipline of deep listening — not only to what others say, but also to the resounding silence that exists between the words. Of course, we can easily "turn up the noise" — watching more TV, keeping the iPod going while exercising, and staying ever busier at work — doing anything to avoid being still and silent.
What is true in our relationship with others is even truer in our friendship with God. If we do not make time to respond to God's invitation to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10), then our relationship with him will drift; we'll become like two ships passing in the night.
Being silent is likely one of the most difficult spiritual exercises we can attempt, at least initially. However, those who are trained in the discipline and grace of silence will testify that not only does silence serve as a balm to wounded relationships, the practicing of silence does wonders to prevent spiritual sluggishness or apathy.
"For God alone my soul waits in silence ...." (Psalm 62:1 & Psalm 62:7)
In Psalm 62, David addresses the how's and why's of this important, but seldom practiced discipline. He actually addresses it twice, first in verse 1 and than again in verse 7. Let's take a look at these passages in reverse order.
"Wait in Silence"
One of the reasons why silence is often avoided is because we do not like to wait for anything! We value instant gratification and do everything we can to avoid or speed up waiting. We consider waiting time to actually be wasted time! How easily we can become frustrated, antsy, or downright angry if we must wait in traffic, in the grocery line, or, heaven forbid, for a church activity to finish! David at prayer, however, paints another picture. During seasons, or even moments, of waiting, we can be drawn to silence; and when drawn to silence, we just may be able hear the "still, small voice of God."
Most developed cultures of today live increasingly more compartmentalized lives. We have our business life, church life, home life, exercise life, hobby life, and so on. And while each of these dimensions can be good, the norm is to live compartmentally and busily in each of these arenas, often with very little overlap between them. The result is our soul — that central core of our being — gets frazzled, dazed, and torn as we are pulled to the point of weariness in different directions. The Holy Spirit who longs to dwell within us points us through his servant David's words to another, albeit counter-cultural way of living and integrating our lives. This is the way of silence. The Spirit calls to our spirit to enter this silence so that we might live holistic, holy, and centered lives. As we practice this important discipline, slowly and gradually, we become increasingly aware of God's presence and grace. This presence and grace then calls us to love others.
Israel's most repeated sin was idolatry. (If I am honest with myself, I recognize this is my most repeated sin as well!) It's not that the people of God, then or now, stopped worshiping Yahweh. Rather, they worshipped him AND the other gods — just to hedge their bets you might say. Before you discount this as primitive, consider how you may be tempted to do the same — following Christ, no doubt, but also depending on mutual funds, family, and military might to provide peace, security, and happiness. Again, silence is invaluable in exposing our secret sins and lack of trust. As our soul waits in silence for God alone, many distracting thoughts, images, memories, and secret desires will surface to our conscious mind. However, if we will stay with the silence, allowing the Holy Spirit within us and our own impatient spirit to raise "our stuff" into our consciousness, it will eventually pass on by, like debris flowing down a river. As our soul waits on God alone, he will provide not only peace and joy and rest, but also the ever-increasing awareness of his presence.
A few "silent" exercises:
- Five minute "sit" before (and/or after) reading Scripture. In this exercise, we are consciously stilling our soul so that we might hear the Word of God. If the silence is too distracting or "noisy," some have found it helpful to silently repeat one of the many names for God.
- Silent walk. Whether during the day or at night, by oneself or with a friend, a silent walk can be a wonderful time of centering oneself on God an his presence with us. As a suggestion, if you walk with someone else, you could agree to walk for the first 30 minutes in complete silence, followed by a time of sharing what each "heard."
- Fasting from noise - no radio, TV, movie. What would it be like to take one day off from external noise for the sake of listening to God?
- Sharing silence in community. Many have found sharing silence some what easier and enhanced with others. What if worship leaders, preachers, teachers, small group leaders, pray-ers, prefaced or ended their words with the phrase, "Let's share a few minutes of silence together with each other and God"?
- Weekend retreat to a monastery. For those who might want to explore being silent for an extended time (or just find it impossible to be still at home or church), a trip to a monastery can provide a dedicated place for silence, meditation, and prayer.
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)