The Practice of Silence

Written by on July 30, 2012

As the Willow Creek Leadership Summit approaches in a week or so, I found myself thinking  about last year’s Summit.  One presenter’s thoughts about the practice of silence particularly stands out in my memory. “Mama Maggie” Gobran, a Coptic Christian from
 Cairo, Egypt, who is a 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee for her efforts in founding Steven’s Children, a ministry serving the poor in Cairo, captured the audience with her sincerity and spiritual authority. In particular,  she stressed the value of silence to being able to do what God’s wants you to do. She shared with the audience,

The silence is the secret, the first step, to finding treasure. Silence your body to listen to your thoughts. Silence your thoughts to listen to your heart beating. Silence your heart to listen to your spirit. Silence your spirit to listen to His Spirit.

I have found her words here to be confirming of my experience over the past twenty years. Whether it be the practice of a short time spent each morning or an occasional extended time of retreat within my schedule, silence prepares one to listen well to the Lord and to others. But I have never found such silence easy to enter. In fact it most often involves an awkward feeling, even a struggle. There is so much noise in the world. And to compound that reality my inner world can also be so noisy, almost violent at times. Just this morning as I got up to read and pray I encountered the usual flurry of thoughts and anxieties racing through my mind. I can be such a distractible person. It is so tempting to give up seeking quiet and silence at this point. When faced with this frustration or awkwardness, we too quickly conclude that there is nothing beyond, or on the other side, of this noise and distraction. So we give up. Yet testimony after testimony from faithful men and women over the centuries confirm that there is a sensitivity or sensibility to be discovered beyond the busyness of inner worlds. In emphasizing the importance of this discipline of silence, Chuck Swindoll asks,

Do you find yourself victimized by the noisy, busy, over-crowded world in which you spend many hours of your life? Is it leaving you spiritually insensitive, sort of a business-as-usual attitude toward the church you attend or the Bible Study you used to enjoy? How about prayer? Noise and crowds have a way of siphoning our energy and distracting our attention, making prayer an added chore rather than a comforting relief. You may even feel a low-grade depression sweep over you as the absence of stillness and silence takes its toll.[1]

Swindoll goes on to write,

Make no mistake here. If that comes anywhere near your lifestyle these days, it’s your move! If the pace and push, the noise and the crowds are getting to you, it’s time to stop the nonsense and find a place of solace to refresh your spirit. Deliberately say “no” more often. This will leave room for you to slow down, get alone, pour out your overburdened heart, and admit your desperate need for inner refreshment.[2]

Learning to cultivate silence prepares one’s heart to listen and recognize God’s Spirit. The psalmist writes, “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted on the earth” (Ps. 46:10). Without such intentional stillness and silence, we become increasingly deaf or insensitive to the living and holy reality of God in the world, in our communities and in our lives. Over 150 years ago Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “If I had one wish for the modern world it would be silence. For even if there Word of God were preached, no one would hear it–there is too much noise.” I want to encourage you this morning to consider that perhaps Kierkegaard was right about the world and its noisiness. Maybe Mama Maggie was onto something, as well, when she spoke to last’s years Leadership Summit audience of these first steps to “finding treasure”. Where are you intentionally cultivating the sort of quiet or silence that prepares you to listen well to God and others?

[1] Charles Swindoll, Intimacy with the Almighty (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), pp. 41-42.
[2] Ibid., p.45.

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