Practicing Silence

A new question crossed my mind as we finished reading Mark’s gospel. What was it like to walk with Jesus in the first century? Of the many angles we could take with this (like no toothbrushes or flush toilets), I want to focus my thoughts today on what they heard.


As I sit at my keyboard in 21st Century America I can hear my keystrokes, the hum of lightbulbs, the sound of a distant leaf blower, and the squeak of my office chair as my phone announces the arrival of another text message and someone downstairs runs water in the kitchen. It strikes me that none of these sounds existed in Jesus’ day.


Sure He had the sounds of massive crowds and bleating animals, but have you ever noticed how Jesus seemed to offset the noisy times with quiet ones? Luke 5:16 tells us that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” Did you catch the frequency? He often made the time and space to get away from the noise and pray. I’ll write about Jesus’ prayer life in another article. Today, let’s talk about Jesus’ quest for silence.


Why pray in silence?


John’s gospel reveals that Jesus had a profound sense of His Father’s presence and pleasure in His life. We know God is with us too, but most of us “know” this more as a fact than as an experience. Or if we do know it as an experience, many only experience God’s presence periodically. When it comes to Jesus’ awareness of His Father’s presence, we aren’t just talking about periodic experiences. It makes me wonder, what role might silence play in helping me come to enjoy an ongoing awareness of God’s presence?


I don’t know about you, but my life has many distractions that draw my attention away from my Heavenly Father’s love. Like a needy crowd that chases us down and finds our location, our culture bombards us with so many images, choices and sounds that God’s nearness is effectively hidden. I think Jesus sought the silent places because of what silence does for our awareness of God’s presence. Silence is a powerful bulldozer that removes the barriers standing between us and our loving Creator.


There are three primary arenas in which silence can be developed: the tongue, the environment and our inner world (the mind and heart). I’d like to cover the tongue today and the others next week.


Controlling the Tongue

Our world uses many words. The commitment to go even one day without saying (or texting) a word is near impossible to keep. But we can make a commitment to say only what is necessary or helpful. The next time you are in a meeting or conversation, keep track of the words you use. How many of these were truly necessary or helpful? Try this for one day and note the number of times you had to bite your tongue to keep from adding those few extra comments or thoughts. While in the midst of it all, ask yourself why you need to use all the words you do or why you need to express an opinion in a particular way or with an edge. Sit with that thought and let the Holy Spirit reveal the motives that hide behind your words.   


Keeping tabs on our tongues helps us learn to control what is said and when it is said. It keeps us from the self-made distractions which always accompany thoughtless words. It helps us to listen and observe—to see things in people we’ve never before seen and to see God in places we’ve never before acknowledged. James 1:26 makes it clear; there is a close connection between one’s tongue and one’s religion. 


Here is a little secret: when you learn to limit your words in the basic moments of life, you strengthen your ability to cancel your words in the hardest moments of life. I have always been amazed by Jesus on the cross. Here is the High King of Creation, the True Son of the Father, being mocked and taunted by those who should be serving Him. “Come down from the cross, save yourself and we will believe in you.” How have you felt when others judged, bullied or belittled you? How did you want to respond?


Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are. I wonder if He was tempted to do what I would want to do—to shut them up with a word or an action. A simple command for a couple legions of angels could easily do the trick. Yet, our Lord did not fall to this temptation. Instead, Jesus was quiet, like a lamb to the slaughter. What gave Him the strength to curb His tongue?


Well, apart from the theological reasons and the joy set before Him, I think it was the years of practice saying only what was necessary and helpful. Just like us, there had to be times when He was tempted to say things and use words that did not advance the Father’s purpose for that moment. Every time He suppressed the sarcastic reply, the passive jab or the desire to hide behind many words, He was using silence in the easy moment to train His tongue so that it might be obedient even in the hardest moment.


I think this discipline of silence by controlling the tongue was one of Jesus’ sustaining practices, something He did on a daily basis that sustained His awareness of the Father. James 3:1-12 speaks of the tongues power; it can corrupt and destroy or it can build and bless. Those who can control their tongues are also able to keep every other part of their body and life under control (James 3:2). You know that habitual sin you can’t seem to stop doing? Maybe the solution is found in your tongue and the words you use to speak to others and to yourself.


I start with the tongue because this is where silence begins. It is also a doorway that helps us enter into our word factories, the place that is the source of all words—the heart (Luke 6:45). And it is to this inner world that we will turn next week.