Issue #113 September/October 1999
Experience God's presence in silence and solitude
A few years ago, I began to recognize an inner chaos in my soul that was more disconcerting than anything going on in my busy external life. No matter how much I prayed, read the Bible, and listened to good teaching, I could not calm the internal roar created by questions with no answers, performance-oriented drivenness, and emotions that I could sometimes hide but could not control. Not knowing exactly what I needed, I sought out a spiritual director, someone well versed in the ways of the soul.
As I entered into this new relationship, I remember wanting to talk about everything: the hectic nature of life with a husband and three children, the demands of professional life and graduate school, and the issues that kept me stirred up emotionally.
We did do some talking, but eventually this wise woman said to me, "Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is stillness and silence so that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear."
Initially, I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to sit still long enough for anything to settle. Not having an agenda or a prayer list or a study plan? But though I could not imagine what spending time in silence would be like, I knew intuitively that I was exactly what my spiritual advisor had said: a jar of river water all shaken up. The sediment that swirled inside the jar was the busyness, the emotions, the thoughts, the inner wrestlings that I had never been able to control.
The picture of still water and settled sediment was compelling to me. It offered the hope of peace, clarity, and deeper certainty. I decided to accept this invitation to move beyond my addiction to words and activity.
But what sounded like a lovely idea when I was sitting in my spiritual director's office was very difficult for someone who had been moving so fast for so long. For the first year I struggled to sit still for even 10 minutes. However, with the support of one who seemed sure that this was what I needed, I stuck with it. Then the most amazing thing began to happen. Even though I struggled through the actual times of silence, I began to calm down. A quiet center began to form in me, a place of stillness within which I saw my life more clearly and began to experience God's love on a deeper level.
Unplugging and Listening
My spiritual director helped me discover two classic spiritual practices that enable us to hear God and know Him more deeply. These practices are solitude and silence. In solitude we "unplug" or withdraw from the noise, busyness, and constant stimulation associated with life in our culture. In silence we make the choice to withdraw not only from the company of others but also from our addiction to noise, sounds, and words for the purpose of listening to God.
Several passages of Scripture emphasize the importance of silence in our lives. Psalm 46:10 commands us to silently contemplate the God we serve: "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." The psalmist also says that silence is an integral part of waiting on God: "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation" (Ps. 62:1, NRSV). Jeremiah admonished those in the midst of trials to sit quietly in silence.
It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him.
Jesus regularly retreated into solitude to pray (Mk. 1:35, Lk. 5:16). He listened carefully to His Father for instructions on His life and ministry: "I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me" (Jn. 8:28).
Thus, the importance of silence in our lives is clear. But silence is harder than it sounds. When we try to sit quietly, we begin to notice how dependent we are on noise—such as music, television, or conversation—to distract us from what is really going on inside. We may discover that we turn to these things to numb our pain or loneliness and that this constant static in our lives keeps us from recognizing the true state of our souls.
Dallas Willard writes, "Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God. And in the quiet, what if there turns out to be very little to ‘just us and God'?"
The prophet Elijah encountered God in a powerful way during an extended period of solitude and silence. First Kings 19 describes a time in Elijah's life when he had experienced great success in ministry. But Jezebel, the queen of Israel, was so threatened by Elijah's prophetic ministry that she wanted to kill him. Her threat sent Elijah into fear and depression, and he ran for his life. Eventually he sat down under a solitary broom tree in the wilderness and asked God to take his life (v. 4).
Several things happened as Elijah withdrew into solitude and silence. He had to face himself, he had to give up control, he experienced God's ministering presence, and ultimately he received direction about his next steps. Like Elijah, we, too, can experience these things as we engage in the practices of solitude and silence. Let's look at each step in this process.
When Elijah unplugged himself from the demands of ministry, he had to face himself—his fear, his depression, his sheer exhaustion, and his feelings of utter hopelessness. Likewise, when we first enter into silence, we may be confronted by similar anxieties.
When God began to lead me into the quiet, I had to face the unrest at the core of my being. I was forced to admit my addiction to noise, to activity, and to performance as a way of measuring my significance. As the chaos settled down, even more painful realities emerged: paroxysms of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy that I could keep outside of my awareness as long as I stayed busy enough. In the silence my deepest questions reverberated through my soul: Am I really worth anything if I'm not constantly out there proving myself? Why is it so hard for me to slow the frantic pace of my life? What am I really afraid of? These are tough questions. It is painful to stay with them instead of distracting ourselves by getting up to do laundry, mow the lawn, or go to work early. However, if we don't sit in the quiet long enough to face the issues we've been avoiding, we will never give God the opportunity to lead us into deeper peace and healing.
Giving Up Control
Our reliance on words—even in our praying—is often just another way we strive to maintain control and set the agenda. In silence we release our agendas and our need to control everything. We open ourselves to what God wants to give. Prayer without words is not so much about expressing our dependence on God, but rather experiencing it.
This was Elijah's experience in 1 K. 19:4: "I have had enough, Lord . . . Take my life." Elijah had come to the end of of himself. Though his distorted statement was self-centered and born out of despair, it shows he was willing to accept whatever God had to give him. As painful as it is to relinquish control, this is a good place to be. It creates space in which God can do what He wants to do and give what He wants to give with greater freedom. And the primary thing He wants to give is simply His loving, ministering presence.
Experiencing God's Presence
After Elijah entered into solitude, the first thing God did was minister to his physical condition. To prepare Elijah for what was to come, God sent an angel to tell him to eat, drink water, and sleep. Elijah gained strength as God cared for him, which prepared him to go deeper into solitude and silence. The Bible says he went on the strength of that food and rest for 40 days and 40 nights. Finally he was quiet enough for God to begin speaking to him, questioning him, and getting down to core issues.
First, God invited Elijah into self-awareness with the question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (v. 9). This question forced Elijah to be honest with himself and with God about his level of discouragement, loneliness, and disillusionment. Rather than remembering the victories he had experienced, all Elijah could focus on was his dire circumstances.
God did not chide him, scold him, or exhort him to pull himself together and get back at it. No, God granted an even deeper experience of His presence. After the tumult of the wind and fire and earthquake died down, Elijah began to experience God's presence in a more profound way. In silence he came to understand that he was loved and cared for just as much when he was alone, exhausted, and not performing as he was when he stood on a mountaintop calling down the fire of God.
We begin to grasp the reality of God's loving presence in moments of silence.
Like a loving parent who waits for those rare moments when a teenager comes to the end of his or her own wisdom and asks for guidance, so God loves us enough to wait for us to come openly to Him. Elijah's experience shows that God doesn't scream to get our attention. Instead, we learn that our willingness to listen in silence opens up a quiet space in which we can hear His voice, a voice that longs to speak and offer us guidance for our next step. In Elijah's case, the next steps had to do with appointing new kings and another prophet to replace him. The appointment of Elisha seemed to come as loving acknowledgment of Elijah's depleted state and the need to share his ministry.
Rarely does God choose to reveal His whole plan to us in these moments. But He often reveals the next step. This guidance doesn't usually come in audible words but rather as gentle pressure that is inescapable as we stay quiet and keep listening. We may choose to wait for a period of time—hours or even days—to see if the nudging persists. If it does, we must follow obediently.
As we grow in our willingness to follow God's leading, we will eventually look back on all those seemingly unrelated steps and see a path that only a God of unbounded love could have cleared for us. This awareness comes only when we have been still long enough for the water to become clear.
If you want to say yes to this invitation to experience God in silence, here are some simple suggestions for beginning.
1. Identify a time and physical space in which you can be alone on a regular basis. Choose a spot in your home or outdoors that helps you to settle into a quiet and receptive state of being. Experiment with what works and what doesn't until you find the time and place that works for you.
2. Begin with a modest goal, especially if silence is a new practice for you. For me, even 10 minutes was very challenging. At first, it may seem as if things are getting worse rather than better. Once we slow down, we begin to notice how loud it is inside. But as you persist in seeking God in silence, the sediment in your soul will slowly begin to settle.
3. Settle into a comfortable and yet alert position, but not one that will lend itself to falling asleep!
4. Ask for a simple prayer to express your willingness to meet God in the silence. This prayer is nothing more than a phrase that "gathers up" our desire for God and helps us to stay present with it. For example, I sit with my hands open and begin with a simple statement of openness to God such as, "Here I am." A short prayer coupled with a physical expression of our heart attitude can be a powerful way of helping us maintain an expectant, listening posture before Him. The posture of my body and this simple prayer express my willingness to release my agenda and my desire to receive whatever God wants to give. At other times, the posture of kneeling or even lying prone on the floor expresses my heart toward God.
5. Don't be discouraged by distractions; they are inevitable. When distractions come, simply let them go by, like clouds floating across the sky. Help yourself return to your original intent by repeating the prayer that you have chosen.
It's critical to resist the urge to judge your experience in silence. Remember, the purpose is not to accomplish anything. Rather, the purpose is just to be with God, to commune with Him beyond words, in a way those who are in love know so well. Even when it doesn't feel like anything is happening, something is happening. The sediment is settling, the water is clearing, and we are preparing ourselves to see in ways we have never seen before.
It took me some time to see the relationship between the practice of silence and the growing calm I felt in my soul. I began to experience a greater sense of connection with God in times of silence and also in the day-to-day experiences of my life. I also found my heart softening toward people.
But I wasn't able to see these things overnight. It took a great deal of faith and encouragement for me to keep going. My story, the story of Elijah, and the experiences of countless others are evidence that persevering in openness before God in silence increases our capacity to receive His loving presence. He is always waiting to give us more.
About the author:
Ruth Haley Barton is the associate director of spiritual formation at Willow Creek Community Church. She is the author of Equal to the Task: Men andWomen in Partnership (InterVarsity). Ruth says, "The spiritual practices of silence and solitude have been the most lifechanging and lifegiving of all my spiritual practices in recent years."
On Your Own:
1. What emotions arise in you at the thought of being silent and alone before God? (fear, nervousness, eager anticipation, etc.)