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.

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.

Different Strategy

Now the Philistines had come and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim; so David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you deliver them into my hands?”

The Lord answered him, “Go, for I will surely deliver the Philistines into your hands.”

So David went to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated them…

Once more the Philistines came up and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim; so David inquired of the Lord, and he answered, “Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the poplar trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the poplar trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.” So David did as the Lord commanded him, and he struck down the Philistines all the way from Gibeon to Gezer.

1 Samuel 5:18-25

David had become King of Israel and the Philistines didn’t like it. So the Philistines came to the Valley of Rephaim to attack the army of Israel. David does what he had always done–inquire of the Lord. David was always checking in to see what the Lord wanted him to do.

What is so unusual and amazing about this time is that David checks in a second time. The Philistines were defeated in the first battle in the Valley of Rephaim, yet they amassed their army there a second time. They tried the attack King David and his army in the same place and in the same way.

Most of us, when faced with the same exact situation as last time, would just do what we did last time. What David did last time worked! Why not do it again? After all, the Philistines are in the same exact valley and are attacking in the same exact way. Let’s just do what we did last time and God will once again give us the victory, right?

But instead of just assuming that he knows the mind of the Lord, David decides to ask the Lord again what he should do. And to our surprise, the Lord gives a different response. God basically says, “Don’t do what you did last time. Instead, use this new battle strategy I am giving you.” So even though the situation looked identical to the last battle, God knew it would require a brand new strategy to get the victory.

This is a great model for those of us living the Christian life. While it is good to know biblical principles, if we think those principles are a substitute for interactive intimacy with the Lord, we’ll slide into the trap of living by the law. Instead, we need to continually check in with the Lord, even when current situations look identical to past situation. God can see things we can’t see.

This is why the apostle Paul encouraged the Galatians not to live by the flesh OR by the law. Both of those are ditches on either side of the road of faithfulness. He wanted them, instead, to walk in step with the Holy Spirit. Here’s how Paul said it:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:13-18

In order to walk by the Spirit and live in a way that is led by the Spirit we must be in continual communication with the Spirit. Paul’s exhortation to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) isn’t about petitioning God with our requests all day long. That’s what a toddler does to their parents. No, praying continually is about interacting with God all day long. And much of that interaction needs to be listening. It needs to be us “inquiring of the Lord” and giving Him the time and space to answer.

We need to do this even when we come upon a situation that we think we can handle on our own. We need to do this even when we encounter something we’ve encountered before. It’s easy to pridefully think we know what to do without checking in with the Lord. But His ideas are much better than ours, and what He can see is much greater that what we see. Like an iceberg in the ocean, sometimes there is way more to a situation than we can possibly know.

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.