I have spent most of my adult life hating silence—but didn’t know it. It was a major blind spot. I dismissed my constant desire to be with people as merely being extroverted. I attributed my talkative nature to my heightened relational instincts. These qualities appeared to help my pastoral interactions with people, so I thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until I began my own journey—through counseling—out of a personal crisis that I was confronted with this long-held deception.
My counselor observed some behavior in my life that went unnoticed by most, but became flags of concern for him. I ran from being alone. I was uncomfortable with silence. I often dominated conversations. This exposed my terrible listening skills, which the counselor was wise enough to connect to the silence issues. He pressed me in this area, and it was difficult. It led to an implosion of my soul, but it began a desperately needed process of healing.
Through this personal discovery, the Lord taught me four lessons about the value of silence.
1. Silence Exposes the Soul
If emotions are the gateway to the soul, then silence exposes the soul. I wasn’t ready to face the ugly things that got exposed. But God in his grace met me in a powerful way, and my journey has brought newfound peace to my soul. It was through silence in a quiet place, meditating on truth, and prayerfully asking for God’s help that I experienced this deeper level of his grace and presence.
If a pastor is to have a long ministry, he must learn to pursue this sort of silence. Such quiet is not some form of secular meditation, but biblical silence and solitude. Don Whitney considers it a significant spiritual discipline of the Christian life. It’s a stillness that allows us to grow more aware of our soul’s activity as the Holy Spirit lives and works in us. It’s a discipline by which we commune with Jesus, becoming more aware of his truth and presence, and more receptive to his unending grace. Puritan scholar and longtime pastor Joel Beeke articulates well the kind of meditation that fosters this experience:
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God.
2. Silence Confronts the Voices
These voices are the messages we hear about ourselves. They are voices from those across the span of our life that speak messages the enemy loves to whisper again and again in our ears. They are the interpretive messages of those presently in our life. When those voices are harsh, abusive, and lie about our value and identity in Christ, they are unpleasant, and we run from them.
These voices tormented me. Abusive voices from my past, lies from the enemy, and painful words of criticism all created these messages of failure and self-loathing. They were especially loud when I was alone. So, to escape from the voices, I ran from silence. But I needed silence to confront those voices, to counter the lies I’d long believed with gospel truth. Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously addressed these voices in the context of depression:
The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?
Silence allows us to confront the reality that when we listen to ourselves instead of talking to ourselves, we often hear harsh, soul-crushing words.
3. Silence Teaches Us to Listen
I was deeply troubled to learn that I had been a pastor for so long, and yet remained a poor listener. Sure, I listened, but it was mostly to prepare a response. I needed to learn to listen without needing to respond—just to listen and empathize.
As I embraced silence, I realized I was learning to listen. I heard sounds around me I never noticed before. I felt more receptive to God’s Word. It’s amazing what happens when you’re not preoccupied with trying to figure out what to say or do next.
4. Silence Tests Our Need for Noise
I had no idea I “needed” noise whenever my soul was tormented in silence. Silence exposes the soul and tests how much we’ve come to depend on noise to block out our pain. This is one of many reasons we all need blocks of time away from our phone, email, social media, and every electronic device that creates the constant source of noise.
Pastors don’t have to make much effort to find noise and distraction, but silence is another matter. We must fight for it. Silence challenges us to face our pain and allow the gospel to penetrate deep into our souls, where we find healing.
Embrace the Quiet
While away on a silence retreat, I found these words in a room dedicated to silence and solitude:
The role of silence was deemed to be important here, as a means of ensuring that one did not fritter away precious but demanding leisure through acedia and small talk. Communities which respect human growth probably need to make explicit provision for solitude, otherwise a potential source of enrichment is lost.
I hated silence, but I slowly came to realize I needed to make “explicit provision for solitude” for the sake of my soul.
Jesus has set us free from the power of sin, shame, and death, and has rescued us from the wrath of God we deserve. It’s all by grace. Our identity is now in Christ, and we are eternally adopted children of God. We have the Holy Spirit indwelling each of us by faith, making us more like Jesus every day. And yet, so many Christians fail to experience deeply the power of God’s grace in the gospel.
This includes pastors, and it has been me for most of my ministry.
Silence is a wonderful tool and gift from God to bring that awareness. Embrace silence as that peaceful, healing balm for your noisy, restless soul.