What is silence? The absence of sound? Or can it also be the awareness of a presence or expectant attitude that creates no decibel for the ear to pick up, yet is felt?
Silence can feel oppressive, dark, or scary but also comfortable, peaceful, or welcomed.
Mid-day rest-times in the arid area of China where I lived and worked were times of silence I had never experienced before. Everyone seemed to take a nap after lunch. On the small university where I worked, campus basically shut down for at least an hour. Students shoveled down their simple cafeteria lunches and headed to their dorms for a snooze. Teachers rented spare dorm rooms to nap in or brought fold-up cots to sleep on in their offices. Department heads and leaders had a sofa in their offices and locked the door for privacy. .
I didn’t work every day but at times I would also take a nap at home. As I would sit or lie on the bed in my guest-room at that time I often thought, this is the quietest time of the whole day. Silence. Stillness.
No one stirring outside on their bikes or cars, no apartment noises from above or below or next to me, no garbage men collecting the rubbish, no one yelling to fix screens, no children outside in the nearby park,… silence. Even the noisy sparrows were quiet outside. Sure nighttime was quiet, but I expected it to be. But this was different. Silence in the middle of the day seemed abnormal and unproductive.
Or was it?
A forced silence that was filled with expectation of what would happen later. Moments of refreshment to gear up for the rest of the day. A pause to catch one’s breath, refocus, and recharge and then work through the day until nighttime fell.
Silence isn’t a natural part of my life. My mind spins as I think about what to do, plan, perfect, and produce. I like to be doing, thinking, planning, writing, revising– reaching for perfection that is always out of reach. Never feeling anything is completely or satisfactorily finished. And if there is silence, I like to fill it with nature sounds or music or a speaker on the internet worth listening to… or use the silence to reflect and think and plan for the rest of the day.
Yet I do believe God wants me to allow for silence. Perhaps even to seek it.
Recently I took a closer look at the well-known Bible story when the Prophet Elijah has an encounter with God. He had seen God supernaturally torch his water-drenched sacrifice on Mt. Carmel, showing the idol worshipers and the people of Israel who was the one true God. Shortly thereafter he fled the queen’s wrath, desiring to die, but was nurtured and taken care of by God’s angel under a broom tree. He then traveled for over a month to Mt. Horeb where God met him and questioned him. Elijah complained that he was alone and in response God showed his power through a strong wind, an earthquake, and then a fire.
But God wasn’t found in those. And I wonder if Elijah was expecting to see Him there.
God was in what some Bible versions say “a still, small voice” or a “sound of a gentle blowing” but the true meaning of this Hebrew word is “silence” a heavy silence. I remember one speaker explained it as a kind of “pregnant silence.” Perhaps, as one blogger mentioned, it’s the silence that is found in a desert where there is a world all around and a maybe a breeze, but still complete silence. True quietness and silence in the vastness of sand, space and sun. Nothing happening. Yet, I think, one may have the expectation that something would happen. Maybe rain would come. Maybe a visitor would appear. Maybe a sandstorm would come roaring through.
God was there… in the silence. Elijah “heard” the silence or the gentle blowing, but whatever it was, it drew Elijah out of the cave and God talked to him. Again He asked him what he was doing and Elijah responded with the answer that he alone was left who worshiped God. God was not relating to or answering Elijah perhaps in the way he wanted Him to.
In fact, God did not respond right away but rather gave Elijah a job to do. THEN he told Elijah that he was not alone, almost like an afterthought.
But before that revelation… there was SILENCE. God met him through the silence. Not in the gigantic explosions of His power and might. And not the way perhaps Elijah wanted it.
And even before God’s talk, as Elijah walked to Mt Horeb for 40 days perhaps there was silence too? What did Elijah do all that time? Walked in the desert– alone, quiet, and in silence? Deserts are barren and with little wildlife. Was Elijah in forced silence so that he would be ready to encounter God and then be ready for his next task?
To take time to be silent… even if it’s for a few minutes a day. Or even in the car or on a walk. To let the mind stop and know God is with me and to know His presence even if there is no manifestation of it. And then to wait expectantly and yet not knowing when the silence will or should end. Or maybe never end.
But knowing and believing that the eternal, sovereign God I seek and love is also the God of Silence.