What is your relationship to silence?
Silence has often been used against us. As a kid I remember telling my dad stories about my day while we drove home from school or soccer practice. Frequently, when I finished telling a story he would seem glazed over and disinterested, offering no follow-up questions or audible affirmations. He would just be staring out the window, lost in another story in his mind, probably from his day and mostly unaware I had been talking. I learned from my dad (and about God I imagine) that silence meant no one was listening.
I remember multiple family members using silence to get their way. They called it the “silent treatment”, but I later learned it’s true name, passive aggression. Silence was implemented to control and bend others to their will. Silence made me feel disconnected from myself and my family. I often felt anxious because silence told me I did something wrong, but I never knew what. When there was silence in my home, I tried filling it with small talk and people pleasing or would numb it out with mindless addiction. I learned from my home that silence meant I wasn’t doing enough. Silence meant I needed to do more and hide my true fears and sadness. I’ve certainly transferred this onto God.
I also had good experiences with silence. Nannie’s (my grandmother) house was the safest place in my childhood. I loved her home but even more I loved the two acres of fenced in land on which she and my grandfather lived. I would leave for long walks in the woods swatting milk plants with a worthy stick and throwing acorns at tree trucks. These woods taught me how to pray. The silence, familiarity and solitude created the conditions I needed to feel safe yet vulnerable enough to open up. Walking allowed my body to move and my mind rest - my soul could speak and I could just be.
So what do you do with God’s silence? When God is silent you may inquire about God's presence, his goodness, or his love, but it’s possible that you need to inquire about your relationship with silence.
Silence can be a welcoming space but it can also be painful. Author Jerry Sittser once said, “Unanswered prayers excavate our hearts.” Whether we experience unanswered prayers, silence or numbness when we try to hear from God, the truth is silence creates space for what is inside to come out. Like the rebreaking of a bone or the incision of a surgery knife, God’s silence initiates healing and often precedes growth and new life.
Like Nannie’s two acres, God’s silence is not a corrective but an invitation or an initiation. Our prayers are often made up primarily of words, but words can also hide us from what we need to feel. Silence allows us to discover our groanings, tears, play, rage, f-words and floor punches which our usual words are too shallow to convey. Silence requires the lid to come off and give a release valve to the pressure building up inside. Silence does not recognize your old ways of praying and does not allow you to recognize them either. When you no longer find use for your wordy prayers the cries of your heart will finally come out.
For most of us, silence is a mixed bag. Sometimes it feels freeing, connecting and life-giving, like walking in Nannie’s woods. Other times silence convinces us something is wrong or we need to do and be better. At the very least, we may need to do some work around silence. Who has wounded you with their silence? What are the stories? Who are the people? More importantly, what do you feel as you reconnect to this story of silence?
Finally, who has welcomed you with their silence? Were there specific locations like Nannie’s two acres where you have had positive experiences with silence? Another place for me was a chapel in the student center of Asbury Seminary. I used to go in there and pray all the time. Though I now live three thousand miles away, in recent months I’ve started imaginatively meeting Jesus in that chapel - it’s a safe and trustworthy space where I can simply be and find healing in my relationship to silence, among other things.
Give it a try. See if the silence has something to say or if you have something to say to it.