The sound of (blessed) silence

stuartpilbrow, Flickr

How often do we listen for God, hear the thoughts of our hearts, reflect, and pray?

Our days are hurried, and that’s problem enough. But noise is a real problem too. I’ll speak for myself here — you’ll have to weigh how much of an issue this is for you — but noise for me is nearly constant.

My car stereo plays jazz, rock, folk, classical, audio books, and podcasts, but it always plays. My iPhone often doubles as a Spotify and Pandora jukebox when I’m not talking, and my iPod spins the soundtrack of my work and leisure time. It could be Hendrix or Russian chanting, but it’s something.

Once I tried a noise fast. I thought I would find it refreshing and peaceful, something regenerative. It was difficult and at points awful and even disturbing. There’s something unsettling about being alone with your thoughts and disarmed of any sonic weapon to hold them back. I found my mind wandering, perhaps more than usual — or perhaps I became mindful of the usual for once. I found my prayers were difficult because I was anxious.

Maybe that’s what noise detox is like. Jitters. Anyway, I gave up after two days. It probably would have been refreshing and regenerative if I would have stuck it out, but the whole exercise was more than I was up for at the time.

Even if I had, there’s plenty of outside noises to face. Buzzing, banging, honking, braking, chirping, yelling. Industrial, technological, and urban noises flood our ears as the engines and machinery muddy into a low, persistent hum.

“The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague,” said bacteriologist and Nobel laureate Robert Koch in 1905.

The day is now, but we’ve mostly made peace with the noise. At what cost?

The scripture invites us to contemplate the value of silence. “[C]ommune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent,” says the psalmist. We experience God in the silence. “Be still,” in the psalmist’s words, “and know that I am God.” The scripture even links silence and salvation. Again the psalmist: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” And Jeremiah in Lamentations affirms, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

Hold those passages in mind as you read this selection from Isaiah 30. I’ve boldfaced a few key words:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
And you would not,
but you said, “No! We will speed upon horses,”
therefore you shall speed away;
and, “We will ride upon swift steeds,”
therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
A thousand shall flee at the threat of one,
at the threat of five you shall flee,
till you are left
like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,
like a signal on a hill.
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.

God’s deliverance comes when we rest in him. But we won’t rest. Instead we race until we are blown around like a flag on a mountaintop. Meanwhile, God waits. He “waits to be gracious.” The image is one of God at rest, waiting for his people to join him.

He speaks in a “still, small voice,” as it says in 1 Kings. Tellingly, the revelation of the ultimate mystery in Revelation 8 is followed by “silence in heaven.” The Apostle John wrote Revelation. Importantly, John’s disciple, Ignatius of Antioch, wrote that “He who possesses the word of Jesus is truly able to hear even His very silence.”

Do I hear that? For reasons mostly of my own making, not often enough. I wonder how many of us suffer from such a stoppage of our soul’s ears. Clearly, we’re missing something.

“Blessed are all those who wait for him.”

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  • Tom Hoffman

    I think you’re on to something, Joel. Even pop culture prophet Alanis Morissette asks in the song, “All I Really Want,”
    “Why are you so petrified of silence/Here can you handle this?”
    followed by a disturbingly long period of dead air–probably only a few seconds.
    She then resumes, “Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines/Or when you think you’re gonna die/Or did you long for the next distraction?”
    The song then ends, “All I really want is some peace . . . /All I really want is some comfort . . . /And all I really want is some justice… ”

    For someone I assume to be an unbeliever, she makes a definite connection between our fear of silence and our lack of peace and comfort. But what really, really disturbs me about the song are those brief seconds of silence. It’s surprisingly discomfiting. And convicting. Believers, of all people, should find peace in silence.

    What is sad, though, is our fear of silence, even in corporate worship. Even pauses at the appropriate time to permit worshippers time for private confession are embarrassingly short, as it just feels too awkward. So what happens? We don’t pray. We don’t confess.

    • Great example, Tom. There’s a reason the psalms are punctuated with “selah.” There’s purpose in the pause.

  • Anne

    Yes! Yet sometimes the disturbing noises of human conflict (or commerce? are soothingly masked by classical wallpaper, in a way that for an ADD adult keeps me focused on listening beyond distractions. For some of us total sensory deprivation sounds like a marvelous spiritual retreat!

  • Lee

    Good post. One of my dreams is to someday create a “quiet retreat”, where individuals can come and participate in praying the daily office, but spend the rest of their time in solitude….Imagine a world with no electronics! Yikes! I believe there is great value in the still, silent pursuit of God…

  • Lee

    Good post. One of my dreams is to someday create a “quiet retreat”, where individuals can come and participate in praying the daily office, but spend the rest of their time in solitude….Imagine a world with no electronics! Yikes! I believe there is great value in the still, silent pursuit of God…

  • John Habib

    Great post. Silence is difficult. I am always amazed at the solitary monks of old and present who choose a life of silence. I pray more and more time can be dedicated to such time with God.