“Where shall the world be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.” — T.S. Eliot
Shortly after my son was born, we began putting him down for bed at night with a Kindle app that produces white noise. Mixes can be customized to include sounds of rain, thunder, lightning, and the ocean, but the final effect is uninterrupted hissing that can be likened to a cable wire being disconnected from one of those antiquated television sets with knobs (you know the type).
Up until our son arrived, my wife and I slept in silence. Yes, the refrigerator quietly hummed in the kitchen on the other side of the house, but the bedroom was dark and tranquil.
Ironically, the white noise in his bedroom has now become white noise for me, much like the refrigerator. It’s become so commonplace I no longer find it to be an interrupting presence as I turn off the lamp. In fact, I wonder how my sleep might be impacted when the day comes that he no longer needs it in close proximity.
Will I keep the white noise going for my sake?
That white noise app serves as (yet) another reminder we are constantly inundated with sound. Noise is inevitable and unavoidable during the day, but we even use it to facilitate shuteye now.
This tendency raises probing questions though: are we that uncomfortable with silence? Can we handle the prospect of no sound for extended periods of time? Do we fear it? Should we fear it?
I suppose the first instance of silence found in the Bible is in the first book.
“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2).
There’s an eeriness about this verse, no? An earth without form and completely void of life. A darkness as black as ink. In fact, verse 2 reminds me of “Earthrise,” the iconic 1968 photograph of the earth and parts of the moon’s surface taken in lunar orbit by William Anders on Apollo 8.
“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on earth,” said Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell of the picture.
Aside from the moon, earth, and some stars, the rest of the “Earthrise” image is pure black. There’s nothing more to see. It’s lonely. Space is indeed a dark and silent place, but in the beginning as God went to work forming the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1), stillness gave way to sound as the waters were separated, as trees emerged from the soil, and animals of all shapes and sizes filled the sea and the sky and the ground.
Yes, the earth was awash with chatter. The first humans added to the growing noise.
After laboring for six days, God rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:2-3).
What did God do on the first ever Sabbath? We can only speculate, but I wonder if he looked over the heavens and the earth he created and smiled at its splendor—in silence.
Unlike the first Sabbath, ours is a seventh day still given to noise, even if it does originate from the church organ or a compelling message from the pastor. Both are good sounds, and I personally desire to hear both on a regular basis. Still, there’s something to be said for cultivating silence, be it on a Sunday morning or a Thursday afternoon.
Psalm 46:10 summons me towards the discipline of silence.
Read it quietly with me.
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” the psalmist writes.
Be still. Calm yourself. Cease for a few moments.
“Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your high God,” writes Eugene Peterson in The Message.
Rescue yourself from the phone, from Netflix, from the endless saturation of media.
In his classic work about the practice of spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster reminds us that solitude, coupled with silence, shouldn’t be accompanied by any sense of fear: “If we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone.” Adds the prophet Isaiah, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God,” (41:10).
In summary, we should not be fearful of silence because God said he is with us, and if God is with us he loves us and “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
There’s a tendency to think silence is fully realized when all noise ceases, be it from external sources or our own tongues.
However, according to Richard Foster, listening is equally important. “Simply to refrain from talking, without a heart listening to God, is not silence,” he says. Therefore, solitude and silence go hand in hand.
So, what are some practical ways to pursue the discipline of silence?
First, set a time, and do it regularly as repetition precedes a habit. Be it before school or before bed, make an appointed time with God.
Prior to saying The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus told his listeners to “go into your room,” i.e. a prayer closet, and shut the door (Matthew 6:6). Speaking of which, check your phone at the door.
Though complete and total silence may not be possible in the evening hours, closing the closet door is a surefire way to drastically lower the likelihood of hearing lots of other noises in the house.
I mentioned leaving the phone. But you might say “I can take it with me to read the Bible or complete a devotion.”
True, but why not grab a real Bible, one made of paper? Study God’s word off the screen. Don’t speak either. Listen. Be still and know that God is God.
I’ll be the first to admit that listening for God’s voice by way of the Holy Spirit in silence is immensely difficult. My weak mind wanders, but thankfully, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:26-27). So, if we ask God—to speak to us in the silence—he will do so as he’s faithful to all his promises.
Silence is a safe place because God is always there.