When Silence Speaks

Are you like me? I work a full-time job in “corporate America,” and even my nights aren’t always my own. I’m a thinker. I spend 40 or 45 hours a week at work, and hours more mulling over the day long after I’m home. Are you like me?

We live in a fast-paced world that doesn’t slow down. We live in a world that is literally at our fingertips. Even our Bibles are on our phones, because we don’t want to take the time to look up a passage when we can simply click on it.

In this world, the disciplines of solitude and silence are ones we’re mostly silent on, and yet they’re so, so important. The Bible is pretty blunt about the need for them:

  • “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” –Luke 5:16
  • “Be still and know that I am God.” –Psalm 46:10
  • “Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him” –Lamentations 3:28

The problem is, we just can’t do it. We’re too busy trying to tell our own stories to be able to listen. We’re afraid to be alone and quiet, because we think stepping back out of the spotlight risks letting ourselves be forgotten.

But to stay in the spotlight, we have to constantly be connected and ready to defend it. We have to be ready to make that funny joke on his Facebook status or delete that passive aggressive comment on our new profile picture, and we have to be the first with the witty comeback at lunch, and we have to be the first to volunteer when the boss asks for help so we don’t look like we’re slacking. We have to be constantly connected and constantly on guard.

In a class a few years ago, we read Robert Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Foster says, “Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.” You see, loneliness is dwelling on the fact that no one is there and on the “what if no one ever will be” (even if we’re just being dramatic because we had to leave our puppy at the grandparent’s house a day early and the husband is at work, not that that’s the voice of experience or anything). Loneliness comes in the darkness of an empty apartment at night and in the busyness of a crowd where no one notices you. Loneliness is dwelling on the fact that no one is there, but solitude is dwelling on the fact that God is fully there.

When we studied solitude and silence, we had a homework assignment to be silent for a full day. That’s hard. I was a tutor then. My job was to talk. But even in my so-called silence, I found ways to be loud. I texted. I wrote. I worked harder than usual to gain people’s attention through gestures or funny faces or by flaunting my silence like a mime. And once I was released from that prison of an assignment, I talked about it for days. That’s not true silence. That’s not true solitude.

We live in a world where silence and solitude are barely possible and where we don’t want them to be possible. We live in a world where work emails come to our phones while we’re eating family dinner, and where we’re always on call for our jobs or our friends, and where even the “Do Not Disturbs” on our phones have “except if’s.” We live in a world where the outward expression of the desire to be silent and alone (like a retreat to the mountains or a drive to the beach) gets some side-eye glances and puzzled questions and “Are you sure you’re okay’s” and “Should I come with you’s”.

Silence and solitude are so much more than what we think of when we think of retreating to a forest cabin (although that type of retreat has value in literally stepping away from the world). The heart of the discipline is so much more. While the grandiose gestures are healthy and probably sometimes necessary, I think the daily application of solitude and silence is not in running from the chaos but in learning to be quiet in it.

The people I most admire are not the ones who try to shelter themselves from the world, but they’re also not the ones who are trying to draw all the world’s attention. They’re the people who don’t speak often, but speak with wisdom when they do. They’re the ones who genuinely listen and quietly seek to understand. They ask thoughtful questions. They remember things about me I barely do because they took the time to listen when I told them. And when they do speak, it’s because it’s something worth saying. And when they do speak, people listen.

But this isn’t a self-help blog on keeping friends by listening to them. Being known as a chatterbox or even self-centered with humans is bad enough, but this is about applying the disciplines that work with humans to a God who made humans in His image. So who do you want to be when it comes to God? Do you want to be the one who sat in silence while He talked and absorbed everything He said? Do you want to be the one who turned off the cell phone for long enough to get to know Him? Or would you rather be the one who got swept away in the chaos of this fleeting world and never heard Him call? (And note to self, He doesn’t call through the phone that’s super-glued to your hand.)

I hope this doesn’t seem like preaching, because I’m still learning too. The fear of silence and solitude are probably two of my biggest weaknesses and insecurities. I still jump on the chance to find a way to slip my “crazy neighbor” story into the conversation if someone says something remotely related, and you should see how many times I click the Facebook app out of habit even when I’m logged out. I still have to have music in the background even when I’m trying to “be still” and do my Bible study. (Of course, it’s the Praise and Worship playlist “so it’s fine.”)

But the bottom line is that you can live for the limelight or you can live for God. You can live in the tyranny of the urgent or you can sit down and listen to the One who holds time in His hand. You can live to make sure the world knows who you are, or you can live to make sure the world knows who He is. You can live to know yourself, and you can live to know this shallow life and all its chaos. Or you can live to truly know Him.

-Carolyn

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