THERE was a picture of some dead fish in the newspapers recently. It was reported that someone had cruelly taken them out of the water and left them to die. The fish died gasping for air. It is strange, isn’t it, that the fish should die for lack of air in an atmosphere full of air.
Our days are lived in a noisy world. In the age of information, we are daily bombarded with an endless flow of words clammering for our attention. The words come in our mail, email, billboards and a host of channels that demand “eye-time” and “ear-time ” from us. Because of the growing claims over our time and attention, and the increasing stress levels in our lives, we are forced to be constantly chatting – hearing and talking.
Lest we drown in our own words and chatter, we need to rediscover our need for silence. The wise man in the Bible wrote that there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). Regular periods of silence are essential for healthy and holy Christian living. But why is this so?
At some time or other, each of us has probably enjoyed the silence of a remote place (such as a mountain or a desert). Such moments of silent contemplation tend to bring us face to face with eternity and help us to think about God and the meaning and mystery of life. Having experienced the refreshing potential of silence, we begin to realise that it is in silence that we have our most profound experiences. When we see a beautiful scene, we often break into words describing our delight and the beauty of what lies before our eyes. But when it is really breathtaking, it literally takes our breath away. We are lost for words as awe floods our souls and silences our lips. The same is true when we are deeply touched by an act of love or kindness. The most breathtaking experiences are experienced in silence.
Likewise, the most painful experiences are also experienced in silence. When we are in pain, we cry aloud and scream. However, when the pain is greatest, we often experience it – in silence. The heart may crack noisily, but it always breaks silently. The greatest of our sufferings is wrapped in silence and offers an opportunity for us to discover profound meaning and life changing love. Notice how people who go through great suffering become less talkative.
This is to say that silence helps us to go through some of the deepest of human experiences. Without it, we are more likely to live superficial lives.
When Christians share about their experiences they sometimes talk about the silence of God. Our God is not a noisy God. In fact sometimes He seems to be too silent. The psalmist cried out to God, “O God, do not keep silent; be not quiet … ” (Ps. 83:1). Obviously God was too silent for the troubled psalmist who was worried about the enemies of the people of God. But was God silent because He had nothing to say? No, in fact, He was silent because He had something to say. And we can only hear what He has to say if we join Him in His silence. This may be because when He speaks, God is often heard in a gentle whisper (1 Kg. 19:12). If the noise levels around us and in us are not turned down, and if we do not stop speaking, we may miss what God is saying to us. Too many words can stifle the word from God.
Silence enables us to face God and ourselves and come to terms with reality. It also helps us to face others and creates and nurtures authentic relationships. It is odd how people often talk not because they want to communicate but because they do not want to reveal their true selves or what is deep inside. We talk often because we are nervous. Richard Foster has wisely pointed out that we talk often to defend ourselves. Speech has a defensive function. When we are silent we fear the vulnerability and the danger of being misunderstood and maligned. It takes guts to be silent.
Jesus is our great example. Though He preached and taught considerably, He also displayed moments of silence – in His regular times of prayer and other occasions. Remember the time when a crowd of guilty accusers brought a woman caught in sin? (Jn. 8:1-11). His moments of silence were deeply penetrating and prophetic. When He was unjustly accused and tried before His crucifixion, He remained silent (Is. 53:7; Mk.14:61). Jesus’ silence showed a deep trust in His heavenly Father.
Does this mean that we are to be silent all the time, as much as we can? It is clear that that is not to be so. In His trial, Christ did indeed speak up (Jn. 18:19-37), but what He spoke was powerful and meaningful because of His silent pauses. In Christ’s case, silence and speech nurtured each other. One of the followers of Christ, Mary of Bethany, displayed the characteristics of her master. When He visited her home, she sat at His feet listening in silence to what He said. Her sister Martha was too distracted by her tasks to enjoy the kind of redeeming silence and refreshing stillness that brought new and abundant life (Lk. 10:38-42). When their brother Lazarus died, Martha met Jesus with a flood of words while Mary said little but what she said was bathed in a silence that moved Christ deeply (Jn. 11:20-35).
Our spiritual lives must be nourished by moments of silence. These must not merely be the result of accidental brushes with silence but by a disciplined practice of silence. We live in a noisy world. We must make sure that our hearts, homes and churches are places where silence is appreciated, nurtured and experienced. Even in our joyful praises we must have silent pauses.
Note that the psalms (the ancient hymns of Israel) are punctuated by the term “selah”, a reminder for the people to reflect silently even in the middle of their joyful singing (e.g. Ps. 66, 67). It is no accident, therefore, that Habbakuk the prophet wrote, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Hab. 2:20). Perhaps he knew that often when the mouth shuts, the heart opens.