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And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
Silence is the hardest spiritual discipline for me.
It’s pretty easy to go without food. It’s pretty easy to pray, to read the Bible or to be alone (I’m wildly introverted). It’s easy to serve and to worship. But for me, the hardest by far is to sit in silence.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time alone. My parents worked huge amounts of hours. My brothers are both a good amount older than me and were pretty much out of the house by the time I was twelve. But even before that, my brothers and I fought all the time, so we often avoided each other. So for most of my teenage years, I came home from school and was completely alone until I went to bed. Alone in silence.
I hate silence. When there is nothing to distract me, my mind races at a billion miles per hour. It’s like the thoughts in my head are screaming.
Then I started discovering the spiritual disciplines. And in seminary, we had to practice each of them. So I came face to face with the spiritual discipline of silence.
Silence is almost always paired with solitude. After all, it’s difficult to have no distractions when you’re with another person. Silence and solitude go hand in hand.
And their purpose is to better experience God. This is done by eliminating the distractions that keep you from hearing him, just as Elijah found in the cave the voice of God was a tiny whisper, not the raging force. Just as God said to the Psalmist: Be still and know that I am God.
And this is what I found when I practiced silence: For ten or fifteen minutes, my thoughts raged and screamed. And then they fell silent as I faced them and let them wash past me.
And the presence of God became clearer than it had in years.
Silence and solitude, the elimination of everything that distracts you, is a phenomenal tool for growing in God. We live in a plugged-in world. In the face of constant stimulus, we’ve become numb to all but the loudest.
It’s no wonder so many people—including Christians—say that they can’t hear God. God would have to do something astoundingly loud to get their attention.
As James said: Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Have you ever had someone talk to you while you were listening to something on your headphones? You might maybe hear a slight muttering, but it’s impossible to understand. And you usually assume they’re not talking to you; that you’re just hearing someone talking nearby. They have to either say your name really loudly or touch you to get you to pay attention.
A spiritual life without silence and solitude is exactly like that. You can’t hear God if you aren’t listening to him, if you aren’t paying attention.
If you want to hear God clearly, you have to take your headphones off.
That is what silence and solitude do. You’re taking off the headphones, where life screams at you constantly. You unplug from the heavy metal album of the twenty-first century so you can pay full attention to the calm voice of the Eternal One.
(Nothing against heavy metal. I love the stuff, personally.)
Do you want to know how to tell God’s voice from others? Do you want to know what God is trying to tell you? Are you looking for God’s guidance? Do you just want to know that he’s there?
Turn off the music. Turn off the TV. Turn off the phone. Turn off the laptop. Turn off the fan. Go into your room and shut the door. Close the window and draw the curtains. Turn off the lights. Close your eyes. And open the ears of your spirit. Listen.
You have to be intentional. It’s not going to just happen. You have to set aside time to listen like this.
But don’t look at it as an interruption. The truth is, God is far more important than anything else. The truth is, everything else is the interruption.
So as you go about your ministry, your classes, your homework, your job, your relaxation and your friendships this week, schedule in time for God. Set aside twenty or thirty minutes to just listen to him, free of all other distractions.
It may take a while to get used to it. It may be extraordinarily unpleasant at first. But it is one of the most worthwhile ways to grow closer to God!