In my experience, the quieter you get, the louder things around you are. Have you ever noticed how many sounds swirl around us at any given moment? Right now I can hear the footsteps of our landlords above us, our favourite TV show playing in the living room, the couch springs squeaking, the dryer whirling, cars on the road outside, a siren whizzing past ... and honestly? It's nine o'clock at night.
Our days are filled with sound. We play music, get cell phone notifications, and are surrounded by traffic, co-workers, near constant media and whirring appliances everywhere we turn. When was the last time you were in a place where you couldn't hear the sound of a television, or the radio or a passing car?
Silence is something far removed from our day-to-day life. It is hard to find, and yet it is an incredibly important part of our walk with God. It is something our souls crave. Sometimes silence draws us into waiting on the Lord, sometimes it sends us out into what he is calling us to.
Lamentations 3:25-26 says:
“The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
Silence draws us into a faith-based waiting. It's an expectant waiting: we wait on the Lord, trusting that He will speak to us, knowing He is active in our lives. There is a beautiful thread through Scripture that calls us to wait on the Lord, to be quiet before Him. That calls us to stop. To be still, to seek Him in silence.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus take times of silence and prayer to be with His Heavenly Father (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:15-16, Luke 6:12-13, Matthew 14:13 and many more). Luke 5:16 is my favourite expression of Jesus' proclivity towards silence: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
Silence was not a one-time experience for Jesus, it was part of His regular life. And this says nothing of when he spent 40 days alone in the wilderness fasting before His temptation (shown in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13). Forty days in silence with His Father, preparing Him not only for the temptation He was about to endure, but also for the ministry God was sending Him out into.
Our culture is saturated with noise. We are constantly engaging in sound and the question becomes this: in surrounding ourselves with constant noise, what is it that we are trying to drown out? Is it our own fears, our critics or our inadequacies? It seems that in our modern Western culture, it is rare to shape for yourself a life that involves any form of regular silence.
We often find silence uncomfortable. The most common expression I hear, used to refer to silence is that moment in a group when the conversation dies down or one person says something that no one else responds to. What do we call that? Awkward silence. So we work to fill that space – to leave no space for silence, awkward or otherwise. We joke, turn on the TV or throw on music and we make absolutely sure that “awkward silence” doesn't happen.
As we do all these things to avoid silence, are we missing something? Because if silence is something that Jesus intentionally took part in, maybe it's something we all need to intentionally take part in. There is an intimacy in silence when we come before the Lord to simply be – not with an agenda or to check a box on our to-do list, but to simply wait on Him, to be in His presence.
This isn't to say that being silent is easy. I'm sure there are some people who embrace it quickly and without much resistance, but I certainly am not one of those people. It takes practice to step out of our sound filled lives and quiet ourselves before the Lord. But I believe there is a benefit to it that cannot be manufactured anywhere else. There is an intimacy and refilling that we find in that quiet, as we wait on the Lord and listen for his voice.
There are many different ways that people seek God in silence. We can set aside times in our day to simply listen for His voice, to wait on Him and ask Him to be present for us. For whatever length of time, we set aside our distractions and instead sit at the feet of Jesus, waiting for him to speak. We can participate in silent retreats. Whether facilitated and led, or simply a private time set aside, a silent retreat draws you into a longer, still temporary time of silence, whether for a few days, a few weeks or a few months. And finally there is the vow of silence – a life-long committal to seeking God in silence, to serving him in silence, to worshiping him in silence. The pursuing of silence as a spiritual discipline is the pursuing of God himself. It is the seeking of intimacy and deeper knowledge of God – who He is and what He is calling us to.
When I think of the voice of God, I often think of Moses and the burning bush. God speaking out of fire – strong and powerful. I forget that Moses was in the wilderness. In the quiet. In the silence. When God spoke to Elijah, Elijah listened for his voice in the wind. He looked for his voice in the earthquake. He searched for it in the fire. And then? A still, small voice. When all the noises and distractions around him were stripped away, God spoke. [1 Kings 19:11-12] God beckoned Elijah out to him.
God spoke. Two words, but so powerful. The good and holy, almighty God of the universe speaks. And he invites us into His presence, to put aside all the noises and distractions of our lives, and listen to his still, small voice.
When I took part in my first silent retreat at 18 or 19 years old, the idea of spending 48 hours in complete silence, 48 hours set aside solely to the listening of God's voice, was a foreign, exciting and intimidating concept. I'm sure that for some, two full days of silence seems insurmountable, and for others it seems like barely a beginning. For me, it was unlike anything I had ever done.
Through the years, silence has been a spiritual discipline for me in various forms. Sometimes, it looks like silent retreats. Times set aside to seek God, to ask for His wisdom and discernment, to ask for His intimacy and presence. Other times, it feels like stolen hours in the midst of the hustle and bustle of daily life. But I think that's okay. I think God sees us, and he meets with us when we seek him, whether in the silent retreat or the stolen hours.
There is an important piece of Jesus spending 40 days in silence, alone with His Father in the wilderness that must not be missed. This time came before Jesus began His season of ministry.
Silence wasn't a desperate attempt to gain strength after His strength had been drained. It fueled Him with strength before He even needed it. Rest did not follow work. It preceded it. Rest was not a result of work. Work was a result of rest. Jesus didn't stay in silence. Silence moved Him forward. It propelled him into the things God was calling Him to.
My clearest memory of my first silent retreat is the last half hour or so. I felt utterly at peace. I wanted to stay in silence – continue that time set apart solely for seeking the Lord and listening to His voice. Yet I knew without a doubt that God was calling me forward. Calling me, not to remain in silence, but to go forth into the things He had placed before me.
Each time I have finished a silent retreat, I have left with a feeling of wanting more. I think I understand in part what would spur a person to embrace a monastic life and take a vow of silence. But I believe that out of silence, God calls us to ministry. To serving each other and reaching out to those around us who desperately need to know the name of our Lord Jesus.
Like the Psalmist, I pray and ask God to lead me along quiet streams – through places of rest, to fill me with His Spirit and His strength, before I walk through any valleys of testing He may call me to. We seek the Lord in silence, then follow Him as He beckons us forward.
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