Seek out silence

Seek out silence

This is the last in a series of posts on the subject of information overload. You can read the previous posts here, here and here.

We live in a busy world full of information overload. Our attention as human beings is limited and we need to make the right choice about where that attention is directed. As Christians, we want to make sure our attention is turned toward Jesus Christ.

Attention needs to be a conscious decision, as the world around us will grab our attention easily if we let it. There are so many things on all sides that are designed to attract our attention and to keep it. And we have an enemy, the devil, who loves to draw our attention and focus away from Jesus. The missionary and martyr Jim Elliot put it like this:

“I think the devil has made it his business to monopolize on three elements: noise, hurry, crowds … Satan is quite aware of the power of silence.” J​im Elliot

Jim Elliot recognises silence as a powerful weapon to direct our attention toward Jesus. Silence stops the noise of the crowd and the world, and turns to Jesus to listen to him in word and prayer.

I don’t think we value silence all that much within the evangelical world. But what’s fascinating is that the world around us has begun to value it greatly. In fact, in today’s society, silence has become a luxury item, as explained in this 2015 article by Matthew Crawford in the New York Times:

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted. Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.”

Our attention is a commodity in today’s world, because it is of immense value. Silence is a way of valuing that attention and is a powerful ally in the Christian life, something that has been understood by Christians throughout the centuries.

Indeed, by drawing on the power of silence and solitude, we are following the example and pattern of Jesus:

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

Luke 4:42-43

Do you see how Jesus used silence to focus on what was important? He came to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. There were hundreds of people with genuine problems all asking for his attention. But Jesus took time alone to pay attention to what was most important. If he needed to do so, do we need it any less?

But here’s the thing: silence is uncomfortable.

I remember the first ‘quiet day’ that was compulsory for everyone at my theological college. Surely nothing could be simpler than being quiet for a day, right? Yet it was an incredibly difficult experience for me, and for others who weren’t used to silence. Someone who knew this well was the 17th century mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal. He wrote:

“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

Why is that? Because when we are silent, when we stop the noise of everything else, we are forced to consider who we are, who God is and think about eternal and important things. And that is not easy or comfortable!

Pascal’s words are echoed by modern writer David Foster Wallace:

“… dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention … This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

As we consider the information overload we encounter in our world today, we need to acknowledge an uneasy fact. We may in fact like, or even look for, too much information because we find silence so painful. But it’s precisely this discomfort that makes silence so powerful.

At which point you might rightly say to me: you don’t know what my life is like! Silence? I can’t get a moment of peace and quiet during the day. There are kids to look after, a busy office to deal with, phones ringing, emails pinging. Silence is impossible!

That’s true, it may well be. But are there moments in your day where you can do what you can to drown out the world and tune into Jesus? To stop the riot of things that ‘need’ to be done, and sit at Jesus’ feet?

We don’t need to run off and be monks to do this! The Christian writer A. W. Tozer could only find space to be with God by heading to the furnace room of his building. And I love the story of Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley. With children to look after, a house to run, she found it profoundly difficult to find a place and time to be quiet with God. So the best she could do was put her apron over her head and read the Bible and pray. The children knew that for a few short moments, while mum had her apron over her head, they didn’t disturb her. It didn’t last long, but it kept her attention on Christ.

Where is your ‘apron time’ this week? Where are the times during the day where you can consciously come to Jesus? Come to his word? Come to him in prayer? Come to sit at his feet and listen? Even in the busyness of a hectic life in a hectic world, let’s pray that God would show us times where we can throw the apron over our head and give our attention to him.