*Article originally published on Desiring God.
I often hear about the benefits of silence in our world of sound. Many people — secular and religious — recommend taking time away from television, music, videos, news, and social media to sit in silence and just be.
This is all well and good, but it can get confusing as to why. What is the point of silence?
Three Types of Silence
Many people associate silence with hearing nothing audibly and thinking nothing. But we cannot just think nothing. Even when we are not saying or hearing anything, we will be thinking something. It’s how we work.
Since we cannot turn our minds off, we can take one of three routes. Three main sounds, if you will, can fill our times of silence.
First, we can hear our own thoughts. If we go into a room and try to be silent, we most likely will “hear” whatever is in our minds. And this may be why silence is not devotionally helpful to most people. When many of us take some time in silence, we often just end up spending more time with our own chaotic thoughts.
The word Om represents the second route. Om is the term Buddhists and Hindus recite in meditation. What does the word mean? Basically, nothing. And that’s the point. People in these religions repeat Om over and over in their meditation, in their silence, because they are purposefully trying to fill their minds with nothingness. But this “silence” isn’t beneficial to us either since God created us in his own image to think and feel.
Finally, we can use silence to serve the word of God.
Hear the Word
It sounds ironic to have silence be mainly about the word of God. But consider the following passage from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
"[There is] a view which misrepresents silence as a ceremonial gesture, as a mystical desire to get beyond the Word. This is to miss the essential relationship of silence to the Word. Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God. We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father’s room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us. . . . We keep silence solely for the sake of the Word, and therefore not in order to show disregard for the Word but rather to honor and receive it." (Life Together, 79)
The best silence is not about silence in itself. Silence serves the word. Specifically, silence serves our hearts’ ability to receive the word and ultimately enjoy the God who speaks the word.
A Calm and Quiet Soul
The prayers in the Psalms confirm this role for silence. In Psalm 62, David tells himself, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5). David’s silence is not vague nothingness. He seeks times of silence because he hopes in God.
And David connects his hope in God specifically to the word of God. At the end of the psalm, he writes, “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love” (Psalm 62:11–12). So his hope in the God who has spoken leads him to seek silence. David waits on God because there is a word to hear; he waits in silence because he desires to listen to the Speaker. His silence is word-focused.
The theme of silence and hoping in God occurs throughout the Psalms. In Psalm 131, for example, David writes, “I have calmed and quieted my soul. . . . O Israel, hope in the Lord” (Psalm 131:2–3). In Psalm 130, the psalmist intertwines waiting and hoping in the word of the Lord: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130:5). For the psalmists, silence and waiting gave hope because they focused on God and his word.
He Is Not Silent
This type of word-focused silence would benefit us immensely today. The greatest value in times of silence is not hearing our own thoughts or trying to think nothing, but letting silence prepare us for the word of God by separating us from all the noises which distract us (including our own mouths!). Silence helps us to turn away from those noises and focus on God. Then, once we hear God in his word, silence creates space to chew on and hope in that word.
Purposeful silence is a chance for us to deliberately separate ourselves from our world of sound — phones, music, TV — so that we can more clearly hear from our God through his word, and enjoy him through what we hear. Intentional silence is a chance for us to turn off the television, close our laptops, and put our phones far away from us so that we can, like the psalmist, deliberately hear from and hope in our God in his word.
Francis Schaeffer famously wrote, “God is there and he is not silent.” In our bustling lives, we can’t get enough reminders that this is wonderfully true: our God exists, and he speaks in his word. So let’s take time for silence in our loud days in order to truly hear him who has spoken.