Silence In Prayer
Silence In Prayer
By Ashley Jasso
My deepest longing in this life is to know, experientially, deep down to my toes, that I am known and loved by the Creator God. Not just the type of love that is cast down to the world at large, where I am one person in a fuzzy mass of people. No, I want the type of love that knows and calls me by name, that sees me with all my flaws and still overflows with love towards me personally. There are many times in life that I have experienced the love of God in this kind of sustaining, seeping-into-my-bones way: on the mountaintops of joy, in the deep valleys of sorrow, and in seeking the face of the Lord through contemplative prayer.
Listening to God’s Voice
The Christian life is one of response to God. That is, I never initiate relationship with Him; my communion with Christ is a response to His invitation. However, the Christian life is also not one of passivity; we must choose to respond to God if we want to experience him. Our response to God includes listening to His voice, as He is more worthy to speak than us.
As Andrew said in his post, The Discipline of Prayer, our relationship with God is rooted in prayer, and prayer is a two-way street. We speak to God, but, more importantly, we give the Spirit space to speak to us, too. And so, specifically, this post is about the role of silence in our prayer lives. God, through the Spirit, can speak to us in any circumstance or person that we encounter. While it isn’t true that God is only, or more, present in religious activities than other sorts of activities, it will be hard to recognize the voice of Jesus speaking to us unless we cultivate the pattern of listening to the Spirit in prayer.
Silence, when woven into the rhythm of our prayers, makes space for the Spirit to speak to us; it invites Him into our hearts, souls and minds. The silence of the Christian is not empty; it is expectant.
Scripture tells us that when we seek His face, He will reveal himself to us, in His time. In the words of Gordon Smith, “The final objective of prayer is not experienced in our speaking so much as in our allowing God to speak, to have the final word, but more to have the word that speaks into our lives. It is this word that empowers, liberates, sustains and guides; it is the word we long to hear.” As Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” In the Old Testament, the people of God heard his voice through the prophets. Today, however, we have the crazy privilege of hearing God through the Son, who has given us His Spirit that lives in us. The veil has been torn and now we are privileged to draw near to the throne of God as beloved children. Yet how can we hear His voice if we don’t listen? How can we listen if we aren’t silent?
A Still, Small Whisper
The idea of quieting ourselves before the Lord is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, we see Elijah crying out to the Lord for direction in 1 Kings 19. Elijah has taken up lodging in a cave and expresses the weariness of his heart at the events that have unfolded even as he has been obedient to God’s call on his life. And God responds, “Go out and stand on a mount before the Lord.” So Elijah does. “And the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper [or, some translators say, ‘the sound of sheer silence’]. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him…”
And then the Lord speaks to Elijah and instructs him. So we see that the voice of the Lord was not in the thundering storm, or the violent earthquake, or the raging fire, but in the sound of sheer silence — in the still small, voice. In this text, God is teaching Elijah how to tune his heart to the Lord’s voice, how to seek the Lord. The Lord was not shouting to him from the rooftops; he was whispering to him.
God can and does speak however he wishes, but we will not recognize His voice, even if it shouts to us, until we learn to tune our hearts to His whisper. To quote Smith again, “The problem is not that God cannot speak loudly; the issue at hand is our capacity to hear. There is too much noise in our lives… and, as often as not, the biggest problem is not so much the noise in this world as the noise in our own hearts - our own inner fears and anxieties, our own anger and quarrelsomeness and frustrations, our own misguided desires and aspirations.” The aim in quieting ourselves before the Lord is not the peace and quiet in and of itself but union with Christ — a union that overflows with everlasting peace, no matter how chaotic our external circumstances.
We Can’t Follow if We Can’t Hear
While we don’t see Jesus specifically teaching us to practice silence in the Gospels, he models stillness, solitude and silence for us in his prayer life. In John 10 Jesus teaches us that he is the Good Shepherd and we are his sheep. He says over and over that he knows his sheep, he calls his sheep by name, and his sheep follow him, for they know his voice. We cannot learn to know a voice if we never allow the time or space to hear that voice. Isn’t this what we all long for: to know His voice so well that when he speaks, we follow? To shorten the delay between hearing his call and obeying his call? To hear him speak our name in love?
A wise friend of mine often says something to the effect of, “Silence, stillness and solitude teaches us how to die to ourselves, day in and day out; to decrease so that He may increase.” Cultivating silence in our prayer lives teaches us to be patient before the Lord, to seek and desire His presence more than we desire His gifts, to know and submit to his voice, and to die to ourselves.
I am still learning contemplative practices, but here are some ways to weave contemplative practices into your Bible-reading, praying, and worshipping.
Some Christians suggest forming a personal prayer liturgy that incorporates silence, such as praying in this order: gratitude, silence, confession, silence, intercession, silence, meditation on Scripture, silence.
There is Centering Prayer, of which Merton writes, “Interior silence is not so much a negation, an absence of noise and of movement, as it is the positive rest of the mind in truth.”
There are, of course, many books on these topics, but perhaps the best way to begin is to experience resting in God in silence. You could try reading a passage of Scripture and then taking 15 or 20 minutes to be quiet before the Lord in a posture of humble receptivity to the inner witness of the Spirit. Or you could practice sitting in silence as part of your daily prayers. If you’re curious but want to read further before beginning a practice, a book that was formative for me when I was first exploring contemplative practices is The Voice of Jesus by Gordon T. Smith.
There is much more to say on this subject. Indeed, many people wiser than I have written volumes, so I’ll just end with this. In my own experience, practicing silence through contemplative prayer has helped me to know [experientially] the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and to feel God’s immense love for me. But it hasn’t happened overnight. Like all spiritual practices, contemplative prayer is not a destination to be reached, but a rhythm of life to be practiced. When I fall out of practice, it becomes harder to quiet my mind and easier to attune my heart to the distractions that flit through my mind. As, by the grace of God, I am more consistent in contemplative prayer, it becomes easier in all of life to say to my soul, “Be still, o my soul, and know that God is Lord.”
If we learn to hear the voice of Jesus in prayer, we are more likely to hear the voice of Jesus in all of life. Contemplative prayer is not a formula. It isn’t true that the more you do it the more you are guaranteed revelations from God. But, it is true that the more you seek the Lord, remembering to regularly practice silence in prayer, the more you will experience God Himself. What else could our feeble and failing human hearts want?
May 2018 be a year that Providence says, “Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him.”