While serving as a church-planter in Belgium, I visited one family from North Africa who had become loosely connected to our growing church. I was welcomed at the door of the small townhouse and led to the living room, where I was directed towards a couch entirely covered with a beautiful hand-embroidered cloth. Before I was able to sit down, the man of the house turned on the television to an Arabic news broadcast, a language which I do not understand. I continue to hope that the background noise was an effort to make his guest feel comfortable and not to drown me out or have something to look at when he got bored with the conversation. It certainly made it more difficult to focus as we talked together. For me, it was also a picture of how the constant flow of sounds and images into our lives can make it difficult for us to concentrate on the Saviour’s voice in our lives.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain has written persuasively about the need for times of silence and solitude as essential parts of living a creative and fulfilled life. Whether introverts or extroverts, “we all need to unplug,” Susan says, echoing the biblical call to go to the wilderness, taking the time to be alone with self and with God.
I have found the spiritual discipline of silence to be one of the most life-giving activities in my personal routine. Silence does not mean inaction, though. It may simply mean leaving my iPod at home during my jog or turning off the car radio so that I can order my own thoughts and open myself to God’s thoughts. I think the best silence leads to a new desire to follow Christ in a distracted world. Bonhoeffer writes that effective prayer comes from silence, a dual movement of quiet followed by response:
“Praying means first of all to become so quiet that we perceive God’s word to us and then it means to respond to that word either in words or in deeds.”
My own times of quiet have been my greatest sources of problem-solving, creativity, understanding and spiritual revelation, allowing me to re-enter a world of talking with something to say and a world of ideas with ideas of my own. Silence is a spiritual discipline because it is a difficult thing to achieve in our modern world. In a world that easily distracts us from taking the time for quiet moments, such moments can help us to hear God’s word in new ways and prompt us to action in God’s world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Meditation and Prayer, p. 2 (Peter Frick, ed., 2010)