Deliberate Silence

“I would no more send an e-condolence than an e-thank you or an e-wedding invitation. There are rituals you cannot speed up without destroying them. … My note goes into the old blue mailbox and I walk home wondering if deliberate slowness is the only way we pay attention now in a world of hyperactive technology.” So wrote Ellen Goodman in her column entitled “Slow Down and Listen Up.”

These days our high tech life makes it difficult to give undivided attention to our friends. It also challenges our relationship with God. Of all our friends, He deserves such deliberate, undivided attention. In Psalm 37:7, David says, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” And Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Before I can achieve such quality stillness, I need to be willing to forego certain activities I desire or even crave. It’s a “discipline of abstinence,” according to Dallas Willard in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Silence, he says, is one of several practices that do not come easily: solitude, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy (as praying in secret) and sacrifice.

With God, such a difficult discipline is possible. It seems that my experiencing silence is so important to Him that sometimes He Himself imposes it on me. He allows illness to come into my life or other circumstances that force me to be quiet. For many years I was unable to cope with noise and commotion. It kept me home most of the time alone—with God.

Contrary to what I expected, I found that silence in God’s presence is not emptiness, not a void. I learned that God Himself fills up silence, revealing Himself and releasing His power to me through His Holy Spirit. On a year’s furlough from work in Africa, I lived in an apartment where doors and windows shut out exterior noises. It was not long before I wondered at the restoration I was experiencing. No longer waking up to cocks crowing, radios blaring, and trucks rambling by—all part of a life I had enjoyed overseas—I realized the salutary effect of the pure absence of sound. The quiet proved a potent force for healing as well as for correcting and deepening my relationship with my Heavenly Father.

General Charles De Gaulle once said, “Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.” Silence is indeed powerful. Being still before Almighty God acknowledges His greatness and His position over me and accords Him His due respect. Just as soldiers in the armed forces stand at attention before their general, thus reinforcing discipline, the chain of command and an esprit de corps, the same holds true for members of the body of Christ as they acknowledge their Leader.

I witnessed a similar submissive act years ago on a Friday in Africa. Arriving on the outskirts of a huge open market, I heard a muezzin call Muslims to prayer from a nearby minaret. Hundreds and hundreds of men and boys—dressed in white robes, glistening under a blazing sun—had been walking toward the mosque. But at that call, every single one stopped dead in his tracks and began his prayers in utter and astonishing silence. Mesmerized, I felt the soundless seconds tick away.

It reminded me of another reverent scene—in Revelation, chapter 7, which describes the nations worshipping Christ in white robes, and of Revelation 8:1, which says, “When he [the Lamb, Christ] opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (NIV). Silence is breathtakingly dramatic at times.

“In worship, everything you do—even silence—is a language,” says apologist Ravi Zacharias. My amazing experience in the marketplace, as well as others in candle-lit, quiet worship in my own church, make such language understandable. The white silence of that morning challenged, in some ways, my own spiritual discipline.

Despite the apparent austerity of silence, a soft and comforting side exists. Like a contented infant asleep in its mother’s arms, it offers peace and rest. Michael Card says, “Silence in prayer, for Jesus, seems to have been a time for simply sharing the presence of his Father, of listening to the silence of his breathing” (Scribbling in the Sand, p. 96). Our best and deepest friendships seem to tolerate an incredible amount of wordless communication.

On the dresser in my bedroom a framed prayer from a hymn written by John Greenleaf Whittier reminds me daily that even in the midst of living and working in a high tech environment God can grant quietness and peace.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness

Till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of Thy peace.

Making deliberate choices to slow down the pace of my life, the competition, the lust of having, knowing and doing it all, makes room for God to speak to me—sometimes in beautiful, healing sounds of silence.