Contemplative Silence or Spiritual Deafness

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voiceHe calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 

John 10:1-5

I spent years thinking I was engaging in the contemplative silence of God, as if to spend time with God was mainly about embracing His silence and learning to be silent myself. But I was mistaking my spiritual deafness for God’s silence. Many Christians, especially progressive Christians trying to embrace contemplative Christianity, are making this same mistake. God likes to talk. Jesus’s own nickname is Word of God. God is not perpetually silent. How many times does Genesis 1 say, “And God said…”? God is speaking all the time. Most of the time, we just haven’t learned how to hear Him (or haven’t taken the time to).

Silence with God is like arguments between spouses. When I hear married couples say, “We never fight!” I get worried. Never fighting is awesome if you are an older couple who has spent decades learning how to communicate. However, for younger couples “never fighting” is too often an indication that one or both spouses are avoiding things for the sake of a false peace.

I have the same feeling when I hear Christians say things like, “God’s primary language is silence.” If you have spent decades hearing His voice, learning to listen and obey, and have learned to enjoy His Presence so much that both you and God can just sit in silence with each other, wonderful! That’s beautiful. But that’s not most American Christians.

Most Christians are never addressing their spiritual deafness because they are mistaking it for God’s silence. God wants to speak, and if our spiritual ears are open, we will hear Him. His sheep know His voice and listen to His voice.

An 80-year-old couple sitting in silence at a restaurant speaks to how they know each other so well. A newlywed couple sitting in silence at a restaurant often signals a breakdown in healthy communication. Not all silence is golden.

I have found God to be most silent when He has already spoken. He is silent because He’s already told me what I need to know and now it is time for me to trust and rest and follow His lead. Too many Christians believe that God is mostly silent and only speaks occasionally. I used to believe the same thing. But I was spiritually deaf, not understanding all the ways that God speaks through the Holy Spirit. My spiritual ears were clogged with doubt, unbelief, and skepticism.

Too many Christians have managed to take a spiritual problem (the inability to hear God) and have spun it into a spiritual attribute (“I embrace the silence of God”). It reminds me of the husband who, when asked about his marriage, says it’s going great only to look over at his wife and see her eyes rolling. She knows their problems are deep and many. He’s the kind of guy who will boast about never fighting with his wife only to experience a divorce a few short years later.

If God is silent, do not assume you are a master of contemplation enjoying the quiet presence of God. Assume, instead, that you are spiritually deaf and have a long way to go in learning to hear God’s voice. Cry out for an opening of your ears. Surrender the false belief that God doesn’t speak to you. Only after we learn to hear the Holy Spirit regularly can we then learn to enjoy God’s silence in a way that is healthy.

Hearing God in a Crisis

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good…

1 Thessalonians 5:19-21

My family and I are in the midst of a tragedy. We are walking through grief and loss. My older brother has just died at 47. He was in a car accident. He left behind a wife and three kids. We feel like so much has been stolen from us. So much time and so many memories that were yet to happen were ripped away from us in an instant. My nieces and nephew lost their dad. I lost a brother. My parents lost a son. My sister-in-law lost her husband. My kids lost an uncle. The pain is real and intense.

During these kinds of seasons we need the presence of the Lord to be near to us and comfort us. We need Jesus to bring His peace that passes all understanding. And it is extremely helpful to hear from the Lord as He speaks to us about what is happening. Yet, many people report that during difficult times, they don’t hear from the Lord. It often feels like the Lord is silent.

I have some thoughts on this. I believe the Lord wants to speak into these situations in our lives. I don’t believe the Lord wants to be silent. But I believe we often experience a kind of silence for a couple reasons.

Have you ever been on a video conference call and someone started talking while they were still muted? You can see their mouth moving but you can’t hear anything. It’s not that they aren’t talking but the mute button is keeping you from hearing them. I believe we sometimes interact with God this way. God is speaking but we don’t hear him. We have a mute button on in our spirit.

The thing that opens communication with the Lord is trust. If we can trust him implicitly in good times or bad, no matter what happens, then the communication lines stay open. Lack of trust shuts down our ability to hear from the Lord. So if personal crisis causes us not to trust the Lord, then we are shutting down the very thing we need in that moment–the voice of the Lord.

Not only does mistrust shut down our ability to hear, but it will sometimes cause God to stop speaking. He stops speaking because He loves us. That may sound strange but just think about it for a second. Imagine you are grieving an incredible loss in your life. Now imagine someone you don’t trust starts talking to you. In that moment, do you want them to keep talking? No. It doesn’t matter what they are saying. It doesn’t matter if they are saying all the right things. If we don’t trust them, we don’t want them speaking to us while we are in the midst of deep grief. It would be better if they were just silent.

God knows this. If we don’t trust God, it doesn’t matter what He says to us in that moment of grief and pain. If we don’t trust Him, we will misconstrue whatever it is He wants to tell us. We will doubt it, question it, and misinterpret it. Our lack of trust toward God often means it is more loving for Him just to be present with us and not speak to us in that moment.

Yet, in the midst of grief and pain, we are willing to hear from people we trust. So if we trust the Lord no matter what, we are willing to hear from Him in the midst of our pain. God speaks and we listen. And when we hear the word of the Lord in the midst of our tragedy, it is so helpful, so comforting, and so clarifying.

This may sound strange to some, but here’s the truth: God has not been silent during this tragedy in my life. In fact, the only way to describe my interaction with God right now is that God has been downright talkative. In the midst of my grief, pain and loss, He has had so many things He’s wanted to say to me.

He has spoken to me directly through scripture, through prayer (His still small voice in my heart), through friends, and through prophetic words from others. When I didn’t know what to pray, the Lord gave me different themes and things to focus on that directed my prayers. When I was confused by what seemed to be missing pieces of the puzzle, God dropped a puzzle piece on me that brought understanding.

My wife had a prophetic dream in the middle of our crisis that brought tremendous clarity. My good friend had multiple prophetic visions that he shared with me that were hard to hear at first but brought a level of comfort and understanding. This is why the above verse of scripture says, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all.” If we can learn to receive and process prophetic words on our normal days, then they will become lifelines during a crisis.

Trust is what keeps those communication lines open. When God begins to speak, and He says something unexpected, trust is what allows us to receive His word without being confused or offended by it. Jesus is the most trustworthy person I’ve ever met. We owe Him our unconditional, implicit, unyielding trust.

We need to stop believing the lie that God is always silent during hard times. Not true. God loves to talk us through a crisis. He loves to speak. He loves to speak words that bring clarity, understanding, comfort, and peace. If God is quiet, it may be that He knows what we need in that moment is His tangible Presence and not His words. But it also might mean that our inability to trust Him has shut down communication. Let’s make sure our trust in Him keeps those lines of communication open. Even during a crisis, He is worthy of our trust.

One-Liners

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
    to search out a matter is the glory of kings.

Proverbs 25:2

One of the ways that God speaks to us is through what I’ll call “one-liners.” Jesus often did this when He quoted the Old Testament. He quoted most from the Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Exodus and, when He did, He often quoted only one line from a larger passage. Jesus’s intention was to allude to the whole passage, but He knew His listeners would only need one or two lines to get the meaning.

For instance, if I was talking to you and I said, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” you would likely know the rest. Or if I said, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come…” you would likely know the rest. This is how most of the Old Testament was for the Jewish people. They grew up on it.

Jesus still speaks to us today in this same way. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus will often drop a one-liner into our hearts and minds. Sometimes it is a part of a scripture passage. Sometimes it is a line of a worship song that makes reference to a scripture passage. Often, its meaning is not immediately understood. As the Proverb above admits, God isn’t hiding things from us but for us. He’s giving us a clue that He wants us to explore.

If someone hands you a key to a lock, do you assume that the key is the gift or that the key was meant to open up something that leads to the gift. The key is only the first part of the gift, but it was meant to lead you into more. This is how the one-liners from the Lord work, so don’t ignore them. Instead, explore them. According to the above Proverb, to search out a matter is the glory of royalty, and we are royalty in the Kingdom of God.

One of God’s favorite times to give us one-liners is just as we are waking up in the morning. Don’t miss these! Our spirits do not sleep and neither does God. He often ministers to us throughout the night as our bodies and minds are at rest. And just as we are waking up, He will often leave us with a one-liner either as a message or as an encouraging word.

I woke up this morning and the first thing that ran through my mind was “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Now, I knew that this line was in scripture somewhere, but I had not read that passage recently. It wasn’t in a song that I had been listening to. In other words, it felt like it came out of left field. I knew it was the Lord.

So my next task, if I wanted to be a good steward of His words to me, was to search out its meaning. I knew this was something people shouted to Jesus on Palm Sunday as He entered Jerusalem but that was about it. As I explored it more, I learned that it actually comes from Psalm 118. So I read the whole Psalm and, in doing so, I realized that God had more for me than just that one line. The whole Psalm was a mixture of declarations about Jesus and personal encouragement to me. It was beautiful!

But if I hadn’t paid attention to the one-liner from God, if I didn’t know that was a way the Lord loves to speak to His children, I could have ignored it and missed it. We need to be ready in quiet moments–in the shower, in the car, as we are going asleep, and especially as we are waking up–to receive one-liners from the Lord. And we need to be ready to explore the fullness of all that the one-liner was meant to say. If you are willing to pay attention, you’ll notice that God is speaking to you more than you may realize.

Checking In

When David was told, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are looting the threshing floors,” he inquired of the Lord, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?”

The Lord answered him, “Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah.

”But David’s men said to him, “Here in Judah we are afraid. How much more, then, if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!”

Once again David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him, “Go down to Keilah, for I am going to give the Philistines into your hand.” So David and his men went to Keilah, fought the Philistines and carried off their livestock. He inflicted heavy losses on the Philistines and saved the people of Keilah. 

1 Samuel 23:1-5

David was on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him. Yet, when he hears news about the Philistines looting one of the towns of Israel, he wants to help. David doesn’t want to get caught and killed, but his mind is not on self-preservation. His heart is for the people of Israel. His heart is tuned in to the heart of God.

Notice that David continually checks in with God. Scripture says that David “inquired of the Lord.” When you read the story of David you’ll noticed that he does this over and over again. He checks in with the Lord to see if he is the guy who should help in this situation. This shows that his heart and his life are surrendered to the Lord. He’s not fighting the Philistines out of bravado or trying to prove himself. He’s fighting out of a place of obedience.

When his men respond to him in fear, David checks in with the Lord again. In other words, he listens to his men. He takes their fears seriously and considers them. Then, he ultimately submits their fears to the Lord and asks if they should still go and fight. When God says, “Go,” David goes. He is fully obedient, fully surrendered, fully submitted to the Lord. His life is not his own. He knows he belongs to the Lord. And because of this, the Lord promises to go with David and give him victory.

David is modeling for us a heart-posture we should have before the Lord. Throughout our day, but especially when making decisions, we need to check in with the Lord first. Then, we need to hear from trusted friends and family. We need to listen to their concerns carefully. Finally, we need to go back to the Lord and submit their concerns to Him. We start with the Lord and we end with the Lord. He is the beginning and the end.

Even as Christians, we’ve tried to come up with ways of making decisions that don’t include asking the Lord. We try to work our systems and strategies thinking that human wisdom will be enough. But it’s not. We need God’s direction–wisdom that comes only from the Holy Spirit.

I think we avoid asking and listening to the Lord for a few reasons: 1) We haven’t cultivated a relationship where we are regularly hearing from the Lord because 2) we don’t think we can hear from the Lord. Or, 3) we haven’t been taught how to hear from the Lord, or 4) we don’t think God would speak to us even if we could hear Him.

The truth is that God wants to speak to us, and we can hear from the Lord. We do need to first learn how to hear from the Lord and begin to cultivate a relationship with Him where we hear from Him. And we don’t start with gigantic decisions. We cultivate a relationship of hearing from the Lord with smaller things first, things that don’t stir up so many of our emotions and our swirling thoughts. If we can begin to hear from the Lord on smaller, daily things, we will be better prepared when big decisions come our way. We will have learned how to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking to us. We’ll begin to learn how to discern His voice from our own internal monologue. We’ll be able to sense when it is a lie from the enemy or a statement from the Lord.

This is the kind of relationship David had with the Lord; it’s a picture–a foretaste–of what is available to us in Christ. Now that we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, this kind of dialogue with the Lord is even more possible for every believer. The question for us is whether we are willing to surrender our lives in the way that David surrendered His.

Ask the Lord

..when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. They put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the Israelites, “We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us.”

…The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them…

Joshua 9:3-6, 14-15

This story is a great example of why it is so important to hear from the Lord. The people of Gibeon knew Joshua would never make a treaty with them if he knew they were neighbors in the Promised Land. But, if Joshua thought they were from a distant country, he might make a peace treaty with them. And he did.

Their ruse worked! Joshua had to keep his word not to kill the people of Gibeon. The ruse worked because Joshua and the people of God used their physical eyes instead of their spiritual eyes to try to discern the truth about the situation. In order to have eyes to see and ears to hear, we need to check in with God and hear from Him. We need to see what He sees and hear what He hears.

As the Lord told the prophet Samuel about David:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

We need to listen for the voice of the Lord, hear the voice of the Lord, and obey the voice of the Lord. Without the ability to hear from God for ourselves, we are blinded by what our eyes see in front of us. We must develop the discipline and practice of first inquiring of the Lord. We have to posture our lives in such a way that we are in continual listening mode to the Holy Spirit.

If you don’t feel like you know how to hear from the Lord, this sermon is one place you can start. If you want a couple books to help you become better at hearing the Lord, try this one and this one.

Time With Him

What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 

Matthew 10:27

Imagine waking up, not drinking coffee, and skipping breakfast. Lunch rolls around and you have too much work to do so you skip that. Just as you get home from working late, your child is late to a sporting event. So you rush out the door skipping dinner. You finally get home and get all the kids to bed. How are you feeling right now? And what are the chances of you eating something healthy?

For most of us in this moment, we’re feeling tired, run-down, exhausted, irritable and possibly depressed. The likelihood that we will eat something good for us is very slim.

While most of us would try to limit days like this because of the physical toll it would take, many of us are doing this very thing daily when it comes to our spiritual lives. We are not getting up in the morning and spending time worshiping, praying and reading God’s word. We’re not spending time in silence hearing from the Lord. And we aren’t checking in with God throughout the day.

We get to the end of each day and wonder why our spirit is worn down. We wonder why God feels distant. We wonder why we are so tempted by sin, so tempted to feed our soul with destructive things rather than healthy things.

Spending time with the Lord is like stepping into sunlight. Our spirit has a solar panel for the glory of God. When we worship, when we pray, when we read scripture, heaven opens up over us, the glory of God shines on us, and angels ascend and descend upon us (Genesis 28:12; John 1:51; Luke 22:43). The batteries in our spirit and our soul get recharged. As we draw near to God, He draws near to us (James 4:8; Hebrews 10:22). And just like a wireless charger for our phone, our proximity to Him causes our spirit to be recharged with His Spirit.

It is in this place of proximity, this place of intimacy–this place of adoration and worship–that the Lord shares things with us. If we draw near to Him and quiet our hearts enough to listen, He will whisper things into our ears. He will tell us things. He will show us mental pictures of things. He will speak.

If we get alone with Him in the dark morning hours, we will have lots to share in the daylight hours. He will tell us things to proclaim from the rooftops.

How are you spending time alone with God?

How are you daily recharging your spirit?