Silence: A Lost Spiritual Discipline?
How Practicing Silence Before the Lord can Lead to Spiritual Formation
Have you ever been out in the woods, away from all the noise of the city? Maybe you were camping, or fishing, or just taking a nature walk. There is something soothing about the quiet. Most of us are so used to the noise and busyness of our world that we tune most of it out. But have you ever noticed it is harder to have a conversation with someone in a noisy environment? It’s easy to feel like no one is paying attention to you when you are in a crowd. Do you think God ever feels that way when He is trying to get our attention? The spiritual discipline of silence is a largely forgotten practice.
There was a time when men and women would seek solitude when they prayed. They would shut out the world, its noise and demands. It is much harder today to get away in the age of cell phones, and always being available.
There are many spiritual practices that lead to spiritual formation. The list of spiritual practices may include scripture reading, meditation, silence, prayer, giving, sabbath keeping, and others. I want to talk to you a little bit about the spiritual discipline of silence.
A few years ago one of my professors, Dr. Gene Maynard from Epic Bible College in Sacramento, offered a class in Spiritual Formation. One of the projects was to go to a Christian camp and spend some time in practicing the spiritual discipline of silence. He gave us some instruction, and as I remember, we were asked to spend two hours without talking and just spending time with God. We were instructed to pray “Lord, what would you have me to know today?” and then still our minds and just listen for two hours. We were invited to do a nature walk, or just sit in a comfortable chair and be still. This seemed very intimidating at first, but it was so amazing! What an experience. I felt so close to God during this two hours. I loved it and try to get out in nature and repeat the experience as often as I can.
The world is loud, and noisy. Most of the time, there is so much noise, it is hard to hear the still small voice of God. In Quaker churches today, they have times of silence as part of their worship service. They take the time to still themselves before God and listen. There is a passage in 1 Kings 19:11-13, that describes how God speaks in times of silence. Elisha had confronted the evil queen Jezebel, and she had threatened his life. He fled to the wilderness away from her. Here is where we pick up part of the story. It reads:
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The noise and busyness of the world can create a cacophony of tumult. It is hard to hear the voice of the Lord with such a constant hullabaloo going on. Dallas Willard speaking at The Center for Personal and Relational Growth, in April 2019 put it this way: “God coaxes Elijah out of his cave of depression and onto the mountaintop: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11)” (21). God uses a still small voice with Elijah. He was not in the storm or in the fire – in all the noise and chaos. He reached Elijah with a whisper. If Elisha, the great prophet had to be quiet to hear God’s whisper, then we should do the same thing.
Richard Foster talks about being quiet before the Lord in his book “Sanctuary of the Soul.” He talks about how when we enter into a time of silence and meditative prayer, that is the time when everything begins screaming for our attention. He calls it having a noisy heart. He goes on to talk about how even our time of Christian worship has become of less help in shutting out noise and distraction. He writes:
Sadly, our Christian worship services are of no help here. Today for the most part, they have become one huge production in distraction. Worship meant to draw us into the presence of God has become little more than an organized way of keeping us from the presence of God. So it is little wonder that when we are first learning meditative prayer, we need help in how to control a wandering mind. (104-105)
It’s hard to imagine worship being a distraction to us as Foster puts it. But if you have gone to a church where they have a full production in worship, with lights, fog machines, and very loud music, I can see his point. Peter Scazzero is the author of The Emotionally Healthy Church. Scazzero writes about cultivating a quiet time with the Lord. He says, “Cultivating an intentional life with our Lord requires intentionally focused time – for silence, prayer, meditation on Scripture, and reading. But we are surrounded by endless distractions and voices that call us away from sitting at the feet of Jesus. Yet it is our only hope for seeing through the illusions and pretense of our world and for providing leadership to those around us” (206).
The Quakers have long practiced silent meditation as a part of their worship. For many of us, this is strange and a bit foreign, but if you have an open mind to what God is doing, it can enrich your daily devotions. Richard Foster talks about one of his professors who gave three specific words of instruction for worship from the Quaker tradition. The three words were “center down,” “seek to be gathered into the power of God” and the third was to be careful not to run ahead, or get too far behind the guiding of the Holy Spirit. Foster went on to define some of these “words” about our worship. He wrote, “To center down in a Quaker context means to let go of all distractions and feelings; to become fully present to what is happening here, now; to silence our mind, which is askew with meandering thoughts, and our mouth, which is full of many words” (51-52).
When we quiet ourselves, we pray and then allow God to speak to us, we may get specific direction. God may well have something in particular He wants us to do. We may not hear an audible voice, but God may well speak to our spirit with a still small voice. Foster suggests we spend time during devotions meditating on God’s Word, quieting our heart and mind, and then taking action. Foster writes, “We allow God’s great silence to still our noisy heart” (63). Interestingly, Foster says our spiritual formation is not just about meditation, but God also calls believers to take action after hearing from Him. Foster writes, “In the biblical witness we have this dual nature of meditation on stillness and action” (20). So according to Foster, our prayer, meditation, and listening for the voice of God should lead us to action. Once a person hears from God, they are to take action on what He has told them.
In summary, part of the goal of silence before the Lord is to still our own minds, to shut out the noise and busyness of the world, to enable us to hear the still small voice of God. This helps partner with the Holy Spirit in spiritual formation, making us more like Christ. Being silent may be easier when taking time to do a nature walk, or just being away from the city. This is not always convenient, but we can certainly turn off our electronics during devotion time. Many spiritual disciplines rely on being still and quiet before the Lord. Tuning out the world, and all of its noise will help in focusing on the spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation. The quiet rest in the Lord will refresh us, and then following the call and direction from the Lord after being quiet will energize us.