I don’t if you feel this way, but my life is very noisy. I don’t mean busy, I mean noisy. As if there are too many voices all vying for my attention. It’s easy to let those voices take over. It’s easy to be plugged in to everything and simultaneously spiritually checked out. It’s one of the troubles of our day. We are over saturated with so much information, so much music, so many voices, but we lack the quietness to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking. We are always hearing, but never listening.
In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster has a great chapter on the discipline of solitude, and its relationship to silence. He points out rightly that silence and solitude are not just outward actions (or lack of in this case), but are really conditions of our inner self. Solitude is ultimately the inner condition of being content in Christ even while surrounded by people so that we don’t have to seek their approval (living in spiritual solitude) or use language to win arguments or control others (spiritual silence).
By practicing the disciplines of learning to be content in solitude and silence, we learn best how to listen and really truly hear.
Ecclesiastes 5:1–3 (ESV)
5 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
The need for solitude and silence have become for me a real blessing and necessity. Though I don’t talk about it much on the blog, I really enjoy paddling kayaks and canoes. There are many reasons why paddling is a great sport, but for me, one of my favorite things about it is that it is something I most often do alone.
It happens that there is a lake near my home, and it is there that I most often find myself paddling. I can spend a couple of hours out on the water, totally alone, totally in silence. During those times, I find myself praying, thinking about my life, and the direction I’m going. I always come back from these times feeling refreshed, and have a particular sense of focus on Christ. I try to do this once a week, and I’ve found that when I miss these extended times alone in prayer, I am physically more tired, and emotionally and spiritually less well.
But the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude are not just about being totally silent and physically alone, but about learning to control one’s speech and emotions when you are with others. Silence is the discipline of knowing when to speak, and when to remain silent. These sibling disciplines teach us how to rest and abide in Christ even when the world around us is chaotic and hostile. If only it were so easy.
One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust. (pp. 100-101)
Therein lies for me the description of the real problem. We like the noise of life because it keeps us from paying attention to the spiritual darkness that lies within us. The noise allows us to live with the illusion that we are really OK, and that we are in control. Oh, but we are so not OK.
Just like we are free to lose, we are also free to let others speak. We are free to say nothing. We are free to simply trust that God is in control, and we don’t need to say more than we need to say. Learning those boundaries are part of the spiritual growth process.
Noise creeps into all parts of our lives, even our worship. We create noise that doubles as entertainment, and we don’t really stop talking long enough to truly listen to what the Holy Spirit has to say. Our worship is most often about us telling God what we think, and how we feel at the fickle moment. Music must uplift me, because I can not bear to be honest with myself and God about who and what I really am. I am a sinner, but I am forgiven. I am broken, but I am not pathetic. I am unlovely, but I am loved, and all of this because of grace. What I need is not more noise, but more listening to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not need artificial sweetener in my spiritual life, what I need is truth, but I have to stop talking long enough to hear it.
I want to encourage you to be quiet and listen, and we need the spiritual disciplines of physical silence and solitude to teach us how to be spiritually silent and alone in the presence of God, even when the noise of life crowds in around us. Each of us will find a different way to find solitude, but we must find it. I’ve known people who regularly take spiritual retreats. A pastor I know goes monthly to a little hotel where he unplugs the phone and TV, prays, and studies scripture for 24 hours. Some go to retreat centers, and others take canoes out on lakes for a couple of hours every week. A friend of mine used to go into the boiler room of his dormitory every morning. Finding that place of solitude where we can learn to listen to the Word is a highly individual experience. Whatever you find works for you, then pursue it.
One more thought about solitude and silence. If you purse these disciplines long enough, it is likely you will experience the “dark night of the soul.” This is not a bad thing ultimately, but it is not fun for the Christian. In an upcoming post, I will talk a little about it.