The Power of Silence

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This devotional is excerpted from a forthcoming commentary on Habakkuk by Heath A. Thomas. Permission is given by the author.

Habakkuk and the Power of Silence (Habakkuk 2:20)

There is power in disciplining the mind and body to focussed silence. Hab. 2:20 draws us to silence and stillness before God as it commands us to rest in the Lord’s sure justice. The wicked will indeed get their just desserts and the righteous will be vindicated. This is a theme certainly touched upon in Habakkuk and in the Minor Prophets as well.[1] And in the book of Revelation, God’s justice in and through Jesus Christ remains a glorious vision that draws the church to wonder and worship (see Revelation 5). But can we slow down to the point that we see this vision break open into our own world? For this to happen, we need to foster a habit of silence.

The kind of silence intended in Hab. 2:20, as well as in this excursus, is more than the absence of words. Spiritual silence can be matched by physical silence, but not necessarily so. Contemplation upon God and his ways requires spiritual silence – rest – before the Lord, and often this comes by stilling oneself and preserving absolute quiet. Martin Laird teaches such contemplation in his Into the Silent Land. Human beings have a hard time with this, but it remains an underdeveloped spiritual resource in the life of faith. In particular, he suggests that Christians rediscover its power by focussing in prayer upon one word: “Jesus.” This kind of prayer centers the mind and body on the person of Christ without any distraction. “It is an ancient way of praying that disposes the one who prays to the open depths within by drawing to stillness the wandering mind that flits and skitters all over the place [...] The Jesus Prayer, indeed any contemplative discipline, tries to interrupt this chatter.”[2] As we embrace the silence in prayer, our world is met with Christ, or as Laird describes: “Our self-forgetful gaze on God is immersed in God’s self-emptying gaze on us, and in this mutual meeting we find rest.”[3] This is a kind of silence that stills the self before the awesome majesty of God.

Silence helps us set our own daily experiences of pain and toil into the larger economy of God’s caring redemption of the world. Of course, the contemplative life is inherently relational: as one invests oneself in Christ, the Father begins to speak to his children and they hear him in the power of the Spirit. We find, amidst the toils and anxieties of life, our place in God’s life, in God’s plan. This kind of reflection does not come easy, precisely because it demands quiet before the Lord, which is hard-won![4] Contemplation is the process of spiritual shaping where individuals and communities slow down, learn to be still and silent before the Father, and quiet the self. Communion with the Lord in this manner leads the Church into her true identity and relevant action in God’s world. Dangers appear on the horizon for the church when we abdicate the call for silence and reflection.

One such danger is the over-estimation of what we do in God’s world. Hab. 2:20 reminds us that God’s justice, not human action, remains the final word on the world. His command for silence reminds us that God has already enacted justice in Christ, and he has already “overcome the world.” Christian action simply works in accord with what he has already accomplished. In this way, the world does not depend upon us. We respond to God’s work in Christ, proclaiming and promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet Christian action in the world remains, always and ever, a “sign” in the midst of the rubble[5] of a broken world that points back to King Jesus and his coming kingdom. Our work is not the culmination of the kingdom, but the sign that the King has come and he will come again.

The neglect of silence may lead the church towards explicit or implicit cultural compromise. Silence gives space for the church to evaluate her work. The church should ask whether and how her service in God’s world is, in fact, pleasing to him or accommodating sinful culture. Busy-ness and the chaotic desire to “do something – and quick, mind you! – for God” may lead the church towards compromise. Christian morality gives over to what works in the culture. The call for Christian suffering gives way to a health-wealth-prosperity gospel. Structure and sacraments become nothing more than “things we do” in the marketplace of the church. Silence, however, provides the space to allow God to speak his fresh word into a culturally compromised church, purge her, and purify her so she might be more faithful in her follow-ship and more effective in her witness.

At its best, contemplation centers the church within God’s life so that she might live authentically as the body of Christ, rather than being conformed to the idolatrous patterns of the present world. Helpful tools (idols?) in our culture – pragmatism, expediency, prosperity, and simplicity – can become misdirected in unhealthy ways. Instead of being bent towards the kingdom of God, these tools become monsters that lurk in the shadows, overtaking our practices and leading us away from the centrality of the Christ and his gospel. The church’s first question should not be first “what works?” but rather “what is faithful to Christ and his coming Kingdom?” The very actions and practices of the Church must be considered and processed prayerfully. Stillness, contemplation, and reflection give the time and space to combat these tendencies and to see that our work matches the vision of the kingdom of God. Contemplation enables the Church to “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Ps. 46:10). Or in the words of Habakkuk: “Let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab. 2:20).

[1] Heath Thomas, “Hearing the Minor Prophets,” pp. 363-68; pp. 374-76.

[2] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 48-49.

[3] Laird, Into the Silent Land, p. 49.

[4] For helpful entrees into spiritual theology and the practice of contemplation, see Laird, Into the Silent Land; Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).

[5] See: Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (intro. Geoffrey Wainwright; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

Questions for Reflection

1. Where do you have need for silence today?

2. Where have you acted rashly, without reflection, silence, and prayer before God?

3. How can Christ lead you to silent reflection and meditation upon God’s work in your life?