In college and seminary I developed the habit of listening to background music as I studied for exams and wrote papers. At the time, I found it to be incredibly helpful and a useful aid to focus my concentration. However, I’ve noticed that in the past few years or so, I have accumulated the unintended consequence of removing silence and solitude from most of my daily experience and responsibilities. Even during my times of prayer and scripture reading, I often have Pandora Radio on (quietly) in my office.
I say unintended, because I never made a conscious decision to avoid or keep away from quiet. But as I evaluate my regular habits and routines, I am startled to observe that most of my day is filled with continuous screens, sounds, and other noise, which in and of themselves can be wonderful and advantageous. I suspect I'm not alone. But to avoid solitude and silence, and to struggle to be still and quiet for longer than 5 mins (go ahead and try it! Maybe after you finish reading this blog) is detrimental to our growth in grace. Silence and stillness can be awkward. Recently I met with someone in a local coffee shop, and there was no background music on. Both my friend and I noticed how the lack of ambient noise was tangible and felt. I promise I’m not about to advocate for monasticism or mysticism, but the Bible does regularly admonish and encourage believers to “Be silent and hear, O Israel!” (Deuteronomy 27:9)
Last month, I wrote here on the surprising benefits of waiting on the Lord. Someone wrote to me a fantastic question by way of response; “I get that it is good and necessary to wait on the Lord, but just exactly how do we wait..” There are many great answers, more profound than I can articulate, but something that came to my mind was Psalm 37:7: “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” (Italics mine) Notice that although those two imperatives are related to one another, they are still distinct and separate realities. Maybe one of the reasons we struggle with patience is that being patient often requires being still. Not acting. Not doing. And that’s tough for a culture and society that prizes itself on occupation and enterprise. Activity and noise is a great escape and distraction. Activity is also a great tool of avoidance. If we can so preoccupy our thoughts and attention with things unrelated to our own fear, shame, sin, or worry, or concerns then we can break free for even just a few moments and escape whatever is really going on in our soul.
How can we obey and walk with God if we don’t listen to or hear him? And how can we hear him if we are already listening (or scrolling) to someone or something else? If you want to hear his voice audibly, its been widely quoted and advocated, read your bible out loud. I love that. Right before David gives his beautiful command to be still in Psalm 37, he writes to the choirmaster and reminds us “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” (Psalm 36:7) God’s presence is a refuge. It's a presence of safety and delight for those who know Him as their Abba, Father. Psalm 36 goes on, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” (v. 9) We can’t drink deeply of that fountain of living water and light if we don’t see it. And we can’t see it if we don’t stop and look, and even listen.
Stillness is not a vacuum. Nor is solitude intended to keep us from work or action. The biblical art of meditation (meditatio) is not like eastern mysticism, which trains its adherents to merely empty your minds altogether. Stillness and solitude is a filling-up, rather than an unloading. In Book II of the Psalter, the Psalmist cries out to himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God…” (Psalm 42:5a) Distractions and diversions are great anesthetics to keep us from asking and answering our struggles and realities of life the way the Psalmist does. When we are still before the Lord, and we listen to what he has revealed about Himself and His attributes, we are challenged to place our hope not in ourselves or our circumstances, but in Him. And when we do that, we begin to experience the refiner’s fire. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
One passage that is commonly referenced to encourage believers is Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The word usually translated in our English bibles as “be still” comes from the Hebrew word “Raphah” which has more nuance and is multilayered than at first glance. More so than encouraging us to relax, "Raphah' is arresting and calling us to “Quiet! Be Still!” ; to cease speaking or acting more so than a sense of serenity and pleasant calm. Think of Jesus calming the storm on the sea of Galilee more than his call to lay down your burdens and rest (as equally true and necessary as they both are!) One of my heroes in the faith, R.C. Sproul, comments on this Psalm and helpfully calls attention to its common misappropriation:
“ In the liturgy of the church, that passage from the Psalms has frequently been applied to our practice of maintaining a calm, serene attitude and posture of patience. That in the midst of trouble, in the midst of anxiety, where we’re restless and frightened, we are to be still—that is, calm and quiet— and to reflect and meditate upon the sweetness of God. Now, all that sort of thing is a wonderful thing. And the Bible enjoins us to do that sort of thing from time to time. It’s not the point of that text. The force of the words would be better translated in this language: “Shut up,” or, “Be quiet. Hold your mouths and know that I am the Lord.” It is a call to silence, not calmness. Silence in the presence of the power of God.”
Silence and solitude is important, not just for quieting our hearts and burdens, but as Dr. Sproul indicates it’s crucial for contemplation and encouragement of the very power and presence of God! “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
Do you struggle to believe that? Do you wrestle with trusting that? Then stop, look, and listen to who God is. He absolutely will be exalted among the nations and among the earth. You will need to “turn off” or “unplug” at times to remember. May we as God's people put down our phones and pick up our bibles regularly. And as we learn to be still and quiet more and more, don’t fret what you might learn and hear. I get why in our flesh we may prefer to avoid it, and its okay if you still like to have Pandora on in the background, but don’t ever forget: “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:11)