The Voice of Silence

Any time a period of spiritual silence comes into our lives, our natural tendency is to fight against it rather than enter into it. We also tend to think these moments of silence come to us because God is angry with us, rather than God loving us enough to draw us into a period of silence so that He can speak into our lives in a new way. This is why Richard Foster says, “When God lovingly draws us into a dark night of the soul, there is often a temptation to seek release from it and to blame everyone and everything for our inner dullness. The preacher is such a bore. The hymn singing is too weak. The worship service is so dull. We may begin to look around for another church or a new experience to give us ‘spiritual goose bumps.’ This is a serious mistake. Recognize the dark night for what it is. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see him clearly. Rather than chafing and fight, become still and wait.”[1]

Probably the best story in Scripture of a person of faith entering this moment of silence, or selah, is the story of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Elijah had just experienced one of the most powerful moments of God moving in his entire life. He had just faced down 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah and proven the God of Israel to be the one, true God in 1 Kings 18:16-46. Immediately following this story, Elijah unexpectedly enters his “dark night of the soul” and is hiding out of fear from Jezebel, the queen in power at the time. It’s in this moment of utter despair, this moment of selah, that God shows up to speak to Elijah.

In one of the most famous passages in all of the Bible, 1 Kings 19 tells us something very important about the way God sometimes chooses to speak to His people. In this passage Elijah is told to go outside the cave he is hiding in and listen for God’s voice. This is how the text describes God speaking to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:9-13: “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” This passage says the prophet Elijah hears God speak in a “gentle whisper” or a “still small voice.” The literal translation of this phrase is “a voice of silence.” This text is saying God spoke to Elijah when he was at the point of despair in “a voice of silence.” This means there are times when God may be speaking, even through His silence, and we need to learn to discern what He is saying in this “voice of silence.” Why does this voice come to Elijah after he hits rock bottom? Perhaps one reason is because God wants us to move beyond relying on our words so that we can begin to fathom His depths. Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Only those who have gone through days on which words were of no avail, only those who have experienced ultimate not-knowing, the voicelessness of a soul struck by wonder, total muteness, are able to enter the meaning of God, a meaning greater than the mind.”[2]

We cannot learn what God is saying in the “voice of silence” unless we learn to be silent ourselves. If you think about your daily routine and normal life, there are very few, if any, moments of silence. We live in a world that is cluttered with white noise. Therefore, we need to learn to build silence (or selah) into our lives so that we can understand what God is saying in and through the silence.[3] One way you can build this silence into your life is to find a “quiet place” to retreat for five or ten minutes a day. Don’t bring any technology, books, people, or distractions with you. Just spend a few moments sitting and listening for God in the silence. Another way to build silence into your life is to retreat once or twice a year for a day or two on your own. This can serve as a way to reorient your life and goals to God’s purpose for your life. A final way to build moments of silence into your life is to minimize your words. Whether this means you don’t speak for a few hours a day or for even an entire day, this discipline can help you realize your dependence upon words to communicate. After you realize this dependence you can begin to learn how to communicate as God does at times, which is through a “voice of silence.”

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the fact that some people come to the Church because they are running away from being alone with God. In fact, Bonhoeffer says your ability to enter silence affects the quality of the community around you. He says, “Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people. There are Christians, too, who cannot endure being alone, who have had some bad experiences with themselves, who hope they will gain some help in association with others. They are generally disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault…Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out.”[4]

The bottom line is many people are overly dependent upon noise in their lives. We use noise to distract us from those things God is stirring in our hearts. There are far too many people in our society who need some sort of noise to even be able to fall asleep. At least part of this points to the fact that we are afraid of what we will find in moments of silence. We wonder, “Will fear, sin, or a demanding call from God bubble to the surface if I pause long enough to listen?” But God will lovingly pull us into silent moments, whether we like it or not, because He desires to speak to us in his voice of silence.

[1] Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY, 1978). Pg. 103.
Heschel,  Abraham Joshua. God In Search Of Man. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, NY, 1955). Pg. 140.
Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Pg. 104-108.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. (HarperSanFrancisco: San Francisco, CA, 1954). Pg. 76-77.

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