The world has never been wordier than it is today, writes Grayson Pope. For centuries, Christianity has understood the power of silence. It’s time we rediscover the power of silence.
I’m never alone. Every minute of every day, I carry a device that tethers me to the world. It’s a silent loudspeaker, buzzing its notifications. With a touch, I’m in the conversation. Even in my solitude, there is no silence. Even in my silence, there is no solitude. I’m not sure I agreed to this arrangement. But I have indeed bought into it. The bill is connected to my bank account. It couldn’t be easier to be united. Now, like so many, I’m wondering how to unplug.
God didn’t create me to be alone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need solitude from time to time. The digital age creates space for everything except the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude. But my soul depends on it.
Is there an app for that?
A need for connection comes pre-installed in our soul’s software. So although something as simple as getting away doesn’t sound hard, our very nature pushes against it. We need scheduled maintenance, and it takes an override code to get inside. What’s the code? Silence and solitude.
Jesus was the most whole human ever to walk the earth. If he needed something, how can I say I don’t need the same? On multiple occasions, the scriptures show us that Jesus slipped away. He intentionally withdrew from his work. He went away from the crowds. He left his friends. He needed time to be alone with his Father.
The connection between Jesus and the Father wasn't breaking up, but mine often does. I go through dead zones, and when I look down, it’s not God’s end of the line that broke up. It’s mine. My hardware fails. The battery dies. I need a recharge.
My instinct is to head to social media for a recharge. Maybe I need a gospel pick-me-up from Twitter. Maybe I need an inspirational image-quote from Instagram. Maybe I need to catch up with friends on Facebook. Maybe. But maybe I need the maker of my soul first. I need his sustaining presence.
I need to get away with my Father.
It starts with solitude. It can happen at home, but it probably won’t. For many of us, we must be pushed out. Thankfully, we have biblical precedent. It was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness to begin his ministry (Matt. 4:1). And though I don’t necessarily desire him to take me through a time of testing, I want him to lead me to solitude regardless of the reason.
But it’s only solitude if we discount the omnipresence of God. I may be alone physically, but when the Spirit takes me away, my solitude becomes communion. The online world offers the same deal, but what I find there often leaves me hungrier than before. Shouldn’t a meal so large make me full? Why then does it leave me starving for more? The phantom presence the screen offers is no match for the personal presence of God.
And that’s where the problem arises. The digital world follows me into my alone time with God. It bursts in like an unwelcome but eager guest. And I invite it in. I pull up a chair. I ask for its thoughts. I draw out disruption. Really, I’m no different than the leaders Ezekiel witnessed in the temple's inner court—surrounded by the presence of God with my back toward the mercy seat and my face toward the east, worshiping the wrong thing (Ezek. 8:16).
Satan doesn’t need to use stones as bread substitutes. When I carry the digital world into my alone time, I carry all the ammunition he needs for every temptation. Man cannot live by bread alone. Nor can he live by pixels alone.
Solitude should lead to silence. But in the age of hot takes, silence is frowned upon. When silence is presumed as apathy, we’re quick to speak out of the shallow end of our wisdom pool. Deep, sustained thought occurs best in silent meditation, but we often don’t have time for that. Our voice must join the cacophony of the masses now. How else will we be validated? Justification by claim is the doctrine of our day.
But God’s ways are not man’s ways. God does not look upon our silence as a problem. In our hustle, we often don’t give him the space to speak deeply to our soul. We see silence as weakness. God sees silence as openness. He fills it with his voice. In the beginning, God called life from the void. He spoke over formless mass and spun the world into action (Gen. 1). Since our creation, it's not a lack of speaking that strains our connection. It's a lack of listening, which often results from constant talking. Pride always talks. But humility knows when to shut up. The elevation of ourselves, as always, comes home to roost.
Today, I’m too busy for silence. People need my voice. But it’s not my voice that upholds the universe. Jesus’ does that (Heb. 1:3). Have I stopped to listen?
Israel discovered what happens when speaking overtakes listening. It left them speechless, wandering prophet-less for four hundred years. Their incessant talking led to the cessations of God’s. Am I in danger of the same?
Thankfully, Israel heard from God again, because his steadfast love brought a new word. Out of the silence grew the heavenly hosts singing “Glory to God in the highest.” The silent night was filled with the newborn Christ.
That's just like God to break the silence with his grace. When we, like the Psalmist, quiet our souls (Ps. 131:2), God's voice grows loud. When the world feels overwhelming, we can be silent. God fights for us (Exod. 14:14). No wonder Jeremiah, in a moment of clarity, broke his lament to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord (Lam. 3:26). As the Lord fills his temple, silent awe fills his people. (Hab. 2:20). The Lamb broke the seventh seal, and heaven was silent for half an hour (Rev. 8:1). It’s a hard truth to believe in a world that never stops talking, but when we fall silent before God, God breaks our silence into worship.
The Nearness of God
God came to Moses on Mount Horeb (Exod. 3). He came to David in the wilderness (1 Sam. 23). He spoke to Elijah in a whisper (1 Kgs. 19:11-13). He took Paul to vacant Arabia (Gal. 1:17). He revealed the heavens to John on the Island of Patmos. Silence and solitude are God’s ways of speaking to his people. When he draws us away from the crowds, he draws us to himself. God speaks loudest when we get to where we can’t hear anyone else.
These men didn’t necessarily choose their silence or their solitude. God chose it for them. They had much to say to the watching world, but first they needed to be alone with God. That’s not the road I want. It’s too uncomfortable for me. But out of the silence and solitude of his people, God changed the course of history. What might he do with mine? What might he do with yours?
The world will still be turning when we come back from our solitude. But maybe we won’t turn the same. Maybe we’ll radiate like Moses. Maybe we’ll have confidence like David. Maybe we’ll trust God like Elijah. Maybe we’ll know Jesus like Paul. Maybe we’ll see heaven like John.
Life is not about being informed, but about being eternally transformed. The gospel is not a call to doing before it’s a call to being. God justifies us in Christ. It’s in silence and solitude where that is often confirmed the deepest. Our technological age puts the pressure on us to produce, but God took that pressure off at the cross. Our digital age pushes us to the question, “What shall I do to be saved?” When my action feels like the only way, I need the reminder of Gerhard O. Forde.
“We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age-old question, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ the confessional answer is shocking: ‘Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!’”
There’s not an app for that. There’s only a call. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15).
Israel was unwilling to wait when such swift horses were at hand. When cyber-speed offers so much more, are we willing to stick to the ancient roads?
David McLemore is an elder at Refuge Church in Franklin, Tennessee. He also works for a large healthcare corporation where he manages an application development department. He is married to Sarah, and they have three sons. Read more of David’s writing on his blog, Things of the Sort.