By Pastor Glenn Pease
You can learn in silence what sound can never teach you. Howard Thurman tells of one of his University students who was a deep sea diver. He wrote of his experience of being on the bottom of the ocean. The water was clear and he was in the midst of a coral rock garden. He sat down to look around. Occasionally a fish would swim up to take a look at him, and then pass the word to his friends, for soon there were many curious fish about him.
As he sat there, the beauty of the garden became more intense. Plants had opened up revealing what looked like blossoms. He felt like he was in a beautiful flower garden. It was wonderful. He enjoyed it for a long while, but then he realized he could not stay there forever, and he started to go about his business. As soon as he moved all the flowers disappeared. They were living things, and they emerged only when there was silence and stillness. The activist sea diver who comes splashing through such a garden would never see its full beauty. He learned that there are marvelous things you will never see unless you sit in silence.
Professor Johnson from Bethel taught us this is true on land as well. Tens of thousands of people visit Como Park, but only a few ever see the Ruby Crown Kinglet. The only way to see this tiny little bird is to crawl into the hedges and sit in silence. Soon this pretty little creature will come flitting right up to you, and give you a view that the noisy people passing by will never see.
The point of Psa. 46:10 is that there are things about the Creator, as well as His creation, that can only be learned by those who have developed the discipline of silence. "Be still, and know that I am God." An unknown poet wrote:
In every life
There's a pause that is better than onward rush,
Better than hewing or mightiest doing;
'Tis the standing still at sovereign will.
There's a hush that is better than ardent speech,
Better than sighing or wilderness crying;
'Tis the being still at sovereign will.
The pause and the hush sing a double song,
In unison low and for all time long,
Of human soul, God's working plan
Goes on, nor heeds the aid of man!
Be still, and see!
Be still, and know!
The Bible has a great deal to say about the value of quietness, but it is greatly neglected in our culture because we are a sound oriented culture. We specialize in making everything that makes sound portable so that we can have the sound even at the beach, or out on the lake, or camping in the woods. We have made it possible to escape silence completely, even if we find ourselves in the most remote area. We have made it possible to banish silence from our lives almost completely.
There was a tunnel down in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where radio waves did not penetrate, and there was a 20 to 30 second break as motorists went through. A man got permission to set up a system inside the tunnel to give weather information so drivers would not have to endure the agony of that few seconds of silence. We live in a culture which is anti-silence, and the result is, even Christians have a very difficult time identifying with a Biblical values of quietness. Eccles. 9:17 says, "The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools." Because of radio and TV we tend to hear the shouters and noisy voices rather than the quiet ones.
Psa. 131:2 says, "But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me." The peace and contentment of a satisfied child is an ideal state of mind. The crying aggravated child whose hunger pain makes it a noise box of perpetual disturbance is not the ideal. Christians tend to fall into these two categories: The bawling baby always discontent, and with spiritual colic, who disturbs the family of God continually, or the contented child who feels loved and satisfied, and gives pleasure to the family by perpetual pleasantness. It takes a lot of silent feeding on the milk of the word to be such a contented child. Most Christians in our culture do not know how to enjoy the silence of being still and knowing God in this way.
Paul wrote in I Thess. 4:11, "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life." He wrote to Timothy also, and urged him to pray for kings and all in authority. Why? Because he goes on to say in I Tim. 2:2, "That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." It is obvious that the noisy and riotous lifestyle is not a Christian ideal. We cannot look at all the Bible says about the importance of silence, but we want to focus on the fact that God so often does His greatest works in silence. And anonymous poet wrote:
Silently the green leaves grow
In silence falls the soft, white snow
Silently the flowers bloom
In silence sunshine fills the room
Silently bright stars appear
In silence velvet night draws near...
And silently God enters in
To free a troubled heart from sin
For God works silently in lives
For nothing spiritual survives
Amid the din of a noisy street
Where raucous crowds with hurrying feet
And "blinded eyes" and "deafened ear"
Are never privileged to hear
The message God wants to impart
To every troubled, weary heart
For only in a QUIET PLACE
Can we behold GOD FACE TO FACE!
Now, lest we idealize silence too much, as if it was an inherent virtue, and always of value, we want to see some of the negative side before we pursue the practice. Solomon said in Eccles. 3:7, that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. If you are silent when its time to speak, it is no longer a virtue. So for the sake of balance we need to look at the negative side.
I. SILENCE CAN BE DESTRUCTIVELY WICKED.
I once knew a church leader who was a good one, and I liked him for most everything about him. There was one exception, and that was the way he used silence. His wife would call me once in a while and say he had not spoken to her for a week again. When he would get angry over something he would punish her by silence, and it worked. She would cry and beg him to talk to her, and nearly have a breakdown before he would speak again. I thought it was terribly cruel way to deal with a problem. Silence can be just as destructive to a relationship as harsh words. Pascal, the great scientist and theologian, said, "Silence is the worst form of persecution." Jews are still angry that the Pope kept silent when a few words of protest may have saved many Jews from Hitler's persecution.
Silence can convey false messages. Robert Louis Stevenson said, "The cruelest lies are often told in silence." The whole system of the Mafia is a system of silence that lies by saying nothing. Vincent Teresa in My Life In The Mafia wrote, "Silence is what protects the Office. Each man is a wall protecting the next guy higher up. Let's say you want to do business with Tameleo. You can't do business with him. You got to do business with someone down the line who does business with him or a guy between. We figured every man is a wall. When you come to me, I'm a wall and I stop. Let's say I did business with you, and after that I did business with Tameleo. You would never know it. You could turn me into the law, but the law would never nail Tameleo because I don't talk about what I did with him."
There is even the negative silence of sound without meaning. Simon and Garfunkel sold their song in vast numbers called The Sound of Silence.
And in the naked land I saw ten thousand
People, maybe more,
People talking without speaking;
People hearing without listening;
People writing songs that voices never shared.
No one dared disturb the sound of silence.
It was all meaningless racket, and noise that was saying nothing. It was sound, but it was empty, and, therefore, a form of silence, for nothing was being communicated. There has been a lot of study on noise pollution in our world today, and it is a major factor in the stress of modern life. But Americans are so conditioned to it that even when they can escape they take their noise with them. I read a teenage girls statement that describes for me an experience I once had. She said, "When my brothers are upstairs screaming and yelling, that's noise. When they're upstairs playing a game, that's sound."
Driving the young people to release time is often enjoyable, and I get pleasure in their sounds, but this past week they were wound up and were just making noise and racket. It was both tiring and disturbing. The sounds of children having fun are a blessing, but the noise of children just being noisy is a burden. I learned one thing about kids. If you want to know what they are really like, don't ask their parents, and don't ask their teachers, and don't ask their friends: Ask their bus driver. He or she sees and hears them at their best and their worst.
The weakness of this theory is that sometimes it is the parent who is also the driver. Listen to this description of a cartoon. "Mother is driving home with her four small children, the family dog, and several bags of groceries. On her face you can see a combination of tension, frustration, anger, and near hysteria, as the steering wheel begins to vibrate under her ever-tightening grip. Behind her all four small children are talking at the same time. Listen to the conversation behind her: 'Tell Billy to stop waving at the car behind us.' 'Daddy's good hat is back here, and Dolly's standing on it!' 'Which bag are the lollipops in?' 'Blow your horn and make that police car get out of the way, mom.' 'Jan just dropped the ketchup bottle in on top of the prune juice, and the bag's leaking.' 'Drive faster, we're missing a good program on TV.' 'Stop bouncing the car, I can't read the message on the cereal box.' 'It's cold back here, sitting on this frozen food.' 'Who put the fingerprints on the back window?' 'Why'd you turn the radio off?' 'Jimmy's opening the cookie bag.' 'You don't smile very much when you drive, do you, mommy?' " She was being bombarded with the sounds of silence-that is, disturbing racket that does not contribute to life, but deprives it of pleasure.
Then there is the destructive silence of not caring about injustice. Paul Rees wrote this back in the 70's. Twice recently I have seen a quotation from Pastor Martin Niemoller so memorable in its diction and, in some respects, so contemporary in its implications that I want to pass it on:
"In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists,
And I didn't speak up because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up
Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the
Trade Unionist and I didn't speak up because I wasn't
a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Catholic and
I was a Protestant so I didn't speak up. Then they came
for me....By that time there was no one to speak up for
Rees goes on, "There are times when silence, far from being "golden,"
is craven. There are times, too, when the noise we evangelicals make on the safe issues (e.g., drugs and obscenity) makes all the more conspicuous our tight-lipped muteness or own low-keyed generalizations on the gritty causes (e.g., civil rights, war, poverty, wasted) that are abrasively alive for millions of Americans.
Psa. 32 is all about the folly of silence when one tries to keep it hidden. If we confess and deal with it, and get it forgiven, then we are wise. If we keep silent about it and refuse to confess it, we do ourselves damage. So with awareness, we must nevertheless pursue the positive Biblical revelation:
II. SILENCE CAN BE DELIGHTFULLY WISE.
Eccles. 3:7 says, "There is a time to be silent and a time to speak." It is often hard to know which is the best at any particular moment, but there are some great examples of when silence was the wise choice. A service station attendant foiled a robber without saying a word. It was around three in the morning when the intruder walked into the station, pulled a revolver and said, "This is a stickup." When the man didn't reply, the thief repeated: "This is a stickup." Again the attendant remained silent. This was too much for the thief, and so he turned around and went out the door saying, "All right, then, I guess this isn't a stickup."
The ability to speak in several languages is truly an asset, but to be able to hold your tongue in one language is often priceless. Thomas Carlyle once said, "Silence is more eloquent than words." There were several occasions when Jesus refused to speak. He let His silence do the talking. In Matt. 27:12-14 we read, "When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, He gave no answer. Then Pilate asked Him, don't you know how many things they are accusing you of? But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge-to the great amazement of the governor."
To be silent in the face of such charges was a guarantee of conviction, but Jesus refused to defend Himself, for He needed no defense for one thing, and secondly, He was submitting to their crime for our salvation. Silence was actually a means to our salvation. We were saved by the Savior's silence, which sent Him to the cross. In Luke 23:9 we read of Herod trying to get all he could out of Jesus, and this was what he got: "He plied Him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer." This was the Herod who put to death John the Baptist; the one Jesus said was the greatest man of the Old Testament era. Jesus would not give him the pleasure of answering a single one of his curious questions. Jesus illustrated that there is a time for silence.
These illustrations might give the impression that silence is only a negative method of non-communication. Not so! It can also be a positive form of communication. The best thing the three friends of Job did was their first week with him. They sat on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and Job 2:13 says that no one said a word to him. Their silence was golden, and it said to him, we care and we sympathize. It was only when they opened their mouth that they became cruel and obnoxious. In silence they were being true friends.
It is good for us to remember that silent caring often means a lot more to people in grief and suffering than some flimsy cliches, or thoughtless efforts to explain things away. Joyce Landorf in her book Tough and Tender gives a good example of what professional silence meant to her.
"After our infant son David died, I was recovering from a
Caesarian section and went to our doctor's office for a
postnatal examination. I had not seen my doctor since David
died and I'll never forget our meeting. It was soon after
surgery so Dick had brought me to the doctors office in my
nightie and robe. I was very weak and the nurses helped me
up on the examining table. Then everyone left me alone to
wait for the doctor. When he came in he said absolutely
nothing. He did not give me a phony, cheery greeting.
He merely walked over to me and very tenderly put both
of his hands over mine. I looked up at him and with teary
eyes he turned his head to the window and continued to
hold my hands-but he never spoke a word. What he
communicated in those brief seconds spoke volumes to
my heart. It even brought a measure of healing, because
I knew he deeply cared about my loss; yet nothing was
said then or ever."
The point is, don't worry that you don't know what to say to people in crisis. That can be your greatest asset as a comforter. Silence can be healing. Leslie Weatherhead, one of the great preacher of England, in his book The Significance of Silence gives this testimony:
"I never realized how dreadfully irrelevant and almost
vulgar words could be in the hour of grief until an
experience befell me in a home where a little girl dearly
loved one particular doll. The doll was broken by the
carelessness of a person who turned on the little child
and said, in words that seemed to sear one's brain as
they were spoken, "I'll buy you another." A child's grief
is so real and so terrible that it seemed as bad as saying
to a mother who has lost her child, "Well, you have
other children," or to a man who has lost his dearest
friend, "well, you have other friends." No newly bought
doll, however expensive and marvelous, could make up
for that dear treasure on whom love had been so lavished
that the very paint had been kissed off its face. There it lay
in cruel pieces, and nothing on earth could replace it or make
up the sense of loss. With the sublime dignity and the
spiritual insight that made Jesus Himself put a little child
in the midst of men, this little girl looked up into her mother's
eyes and said, "Don't talk about it, please, Mummy." She
wanted only to be quiet. There was nothing that could be
said. The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and healing for
that heart is silence."
A picture is worth a thousand words because a picture conveys a powerful message in silence. Sign language is vital for communication and it is done in silence. The Quakers make a science out of silence, and by the power of silence they did things others could not do. During World War II they walked boldly into the Berlin Gestapo office of Himmler's Deputy Chief Reinhard Heydrick. They implored him to let them take persecuted Jews out of Germany. He listened, and then asked them to wait in an adjoining room for his reply. Unknown to them the room was wired, and Heydrick was listening, for he expected them to criticize his cruelty, and blast the evils he perpetrated on the Jews. But the Quakers sat silently in prayer, and did not say one negative word. Their silence impressed even this butcher, and he granted their request. Many Jews were spared by the power of silence.
Many Christians would have been so busy condemning the evils of this monster that they would have, by their mouthiness, condemned their Jewish friends to the gas chamber. Only disciplined silence could have saved them, and only rare Christians know how to be so disciplined. We live in an electronic age where silence is practically a sin. The worse thing that can happen on radio or TV is for there to be silence. It is called dead time. Any pause in sound is the equivalent of evil. Silence is the feared demon, and this spirit invades our culture. We need to go against the grain and be non-conformist to develop the positive side of silence.
Silence has the advantage of being a two way street. By silence we speak to God, and also allow Him to speak to us. Silence is both saying something, and listening to something being said. Let's consider each of these: The language of silence, and the listening of silence.
A. THE LANGUAGE OF SILENCE.
Thomas a Kempis said, "Thou, O Lord, hearest my voiceless tongue, and my silence speaketh unto Thee." The Bible urges us again and again to praise the Lord, and to sing and shout to Him in expressing our joy. This is a vital part of worship. But we forget that the opposite of a good thing is not necessarily a bad thing. A liquid is not bad because it is not a solid, and white is not bad because it is the opposite of black.
The point is, silence can also be a means by which we communicate with God. By silence we can convey respect. If the president, or any dignitary, was in our presence speaking, we would listen in silence, and not be blabbing away as if what we had to utter was more important than listening to them. Hab. 2:20 says, "The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him." Even praise has to stop at times so you have a chance to listen. Silence is saying that I love your Word Lord, and I desire to know your will. I silently wait and listen for you to speak and give guidance. As much as God loves your flow of praise, He also loves it when you stop praising and start listening. This will lead you to ever fresh reasons to renew your praising. Silence is a vital part of a total worship experience, for silence gives God a chance to love you back.
Since we are a sound oriented culture this is hard for us. We do not like silence, for to us it is like empty time. We have an urge to fill it with sound. In our culture everything that makes sound is also made portable so we can take it everywhere we go, lest we find ourselves stranded in some place of silence. Silence on our part says to God, I am open to you to speak to me. I honor your right to have access to my mind, and to give me that which you desire for me to possess. Psa. 46:10 says, "Be still and know that I am God." Devotional books use to be called the quiet time, and Christians recognized the need to be silent before God. Eveleyn Underhill wrote, "Most books on religion have thousands of words-we need only one word, God-and that surrounded not by many words but by silence." Christopher Crauch put it in poetry:
Thou so far we grope to grasp Thee,
Thou so near we cannot clasp Thee;
All-pervading Spirit flowing
Through the worlds, yet past our knowing.
Artist of the solar spaces,
And these humble human faces.
Though all mortal races claim Thee,
Though and language fail to name Thee,
Human lips are dumb before Thee,
Silence only may adore Thee.
B. THE LISTENING OF SILENCE.
God listens to us, and He appreciates it when we return the favor and listen to him. Often the answer to our prayer is received by listening. The solution to many a problem is found in having the mind of Christ, and this comes by listening to His Spirit. Friendship between two people is hard to develop if there is all talk and no listening. We miss the depth of the friendship of Christ if we do not learn to listen.
A typical worship service does give opportunity for listening. There is the choir and special music, and there is prayer and the sermon. All of these you listen to, and God can and does speak to us through them. But silence is seldom used as a means of worship. The reason is because we are not into silence as a way of listening. The result is, it is not very effective on a public level. It is a value that has to be developed in private. We need to learn to pray, "Lord, what is your will for me today in these areas of my life?" Then we need to listen to hear if God puts any ideas into our head.
"Be still and know that I am God." There is a knowing of God that can be learned only in silence. Silence plays a major role in learning of God, for we need quietness when we study and meditate on His Word. This is hard to do for us as Americans, for we are conditioned to keep our minds busy. Jamie Buckingham followed the footsteps of Moses and tells of being camped at Mt. Sinai.
I lay on my back in my sleeping bag, my hands folded beneath
my head to cushion it from the pebbly rocks, and stared upward
at the unbelievable canopy of stars overhead. The outline of Jebel
Musa-Mt. Moses-was an awesome granite shadow against the
glistening black of the sky with its billions of flashing pinpoints of
yellow and green. It was cold-and silent. I remembered something
an old monk had written, hundreds of years before, of his first
experience in the Sinai: 'It is the silence that speaks the loudest.'
That night, looking up into the magnificent display of God's
creation in the heavens, a cosmorama that yet defies description,
I, too, experience the silence of Moses and Elijah-an outer silence
that only accented the noise within. It started when I heard, for the
first time in my life, my own heart pumping blood through my veins.
Turning my head, I could hear the bones of my neck rasping together.
But it was the deeper noise that caused the ultimate distraction. The
moans of things left behind. The clatter of anxiety for things to come.
The ping of guilt. The rumble of fears. The sigh of memories. The
tearing sound of homesickness. That night, at the base of the holy
mountain, I understood why God had to keep Moses alone for 40
days and nights before Moses could hear him speak. For God speaks
in silence, and silence is hard to come by."
He went on to climb the mountain in silence, and experienced a unique sense of the presence of God in that silence. But it was hard, and some of his companion climbers just could not get into the value of silence. I don't believe most American Christians will ever learn the value of silence, but I share it with you because it is a part of God's revelation, and a potential way to spiritual growth that many have discovered.
Elizabeth O'Connor, on the staff of the famous Church Of The Savior in Washington D.C., wrote a book called Search For Silence. In it she tells how silence is promoted in their church. She recommends that you start by being silent for five minutes a day. Just withdraw from all activity of body and mind and listen to God. This silent focus will often save you time and give you direction so that your day is concentrated on His goals. I have done this and know its value, but even so, it is hard to do, and far harder to continue. May God grant us the power to heed his call to be still and know that He is God. May it be the blessing of some at least that they discover the deeper life of sanctified silence.